Friday, March 16, 2007

W. B. Yeats; St. Patrick’s Day Poetry Friday

Spring and St. Patrick’s Day always bring my mind and heart back to those heady days of college English courses when I spent so many torpid hours in the college library with my head bent over the Norton Anthology of English Literature. We had it only in print, of course. The onion skin pages of those heavy volumes are so thin and crisp they always made me feel as if I were handling holy scriptures. I don’t know what it is about the spring that recalls those days; the torturous anticipation of days alternating freezing rain and then finally warm breezes calling me outside, the very first delicate buds slipping open on the spice bushes, or the faintest tinge of green on the willows along the road…

Something in the early air reawakens memories of the man who stole my heart freshman year. He is a poet and philosopher who disappeared into a mental illness he never recovered from, leaving me forever single. In those golden days of joy we used to study together and sneak up the dark bell tower to kiss after the library locked its doors. He taught me to read poetry and to be a poet. It wasn’t the English literature professors that tutored me in rhyme and meter; it was his joyful laugh and the light in his eyes when he tipped back his head.

I still have the syllabus from freshman survey of English literature tucked in volume two of my Norton, on the bottom shelf of one of my living room bookshelves. The paper is yellowed and creased and marked all over; we read Yeats on March 27, 1980, just a few days after my true love’s 22nd birthday. I wrote in the margins with stars and arrows, underlining the words that rocked my soul:

“Man can embody truth but he cannot know it.”

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

And these, my favorite two of all his beloved poems:

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a-glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear the water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.

And of course this one hit me in the gut when I was just a teenager in love, and still hits me now that I am old and lost from my one shining boy-o:

When You are Old

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim Soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

He did love the pilgrim soul in me, and showed it to me, and fled. This one’s for you, Perseus.

Yeats links:
Wikipedia biography
Yeats Society Slingo
more poems


tanita✿davis said...

I'm glad to meet someone else who kept all of their old Nortons. This was simply beautiful, thank you so much for sharing it.

Michele said...

Snap ! I went for "The Lake Isle" too !

Saints and Spinners said...

Thank you for this post.

I recently found used hardcover editions of my Norton anthologies of English. The paperback ones are somewhere in a box on the East Coast. I always felt awful marking those texts-- it was what one did in college, but it felt disrespectful to mark those thin pages with heavy ballpoint ink.

Liz Dwyer said...

Oh that was lovely. What better true love than Yeats, I cannot picture.

"When You Are Old" sends chills down my spine still and makes me glad I still retain some of my romantic notions about life.