Two by W.B. Yeats

November 9, 2009

Politics

‘In our time the destiny of man presents its meanings in political terms’
     – Thomas Mann

How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics?
Yet here’s a travelled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there’s a politician
That has read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war’s alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms!

~

Adam’s Curse

We sat together at one summer’s end,
That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,
And you and I, and talked of poetry.
I said, “A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.”

                                                  And thereupon
That beautiful mild woman for whose sake
There’s many a one shall find out all heartache
On finding that her voice is sweet and low
Replied, “To be born woman is to know —
Although they do not talk of it at school —
That we must labour to be beautiful.”

I said, “It’s certain there is no fine thing
Since Adam’s fall but needs much labouring.
There have been lovers who thought love should be
So much compounded of high courtesy
That they would sigh and quote with learned looks
precedents out of beautiful old books;
Yet now it seems an idle trade enough.”

We sat grown quiet at the name of love;
We saw the last embers of daylight die,
And in the trembling blue-green of the sky
A moon, worn as if it had been a shell
Washed by time’s waters as they rose and fell
About the stars and broke in days and years.

I had a thought for no one’s but your ears:
That you were beautiful, and that I strove
To love you in the old high way of love;
That it had all seemed happy, and yet we’d grown
As weary-hearted as that hollow moon.

*

The first poem provides a good example of Yeats’ tremendous accessibility, the second poem, more famous, enacts a conversation about the labor of art, that while extracting a significant cost of effort, must seem effortless. I am reminded of Szyborska, who ends her beautiful poem “Under One Small Star” with these lines: “Don’t bear me ill will, speech, that I borrow weighty words,/ then labor heavily that they may seem light.”

The speaker’s interlocutor compares such labor to that of a woman maintaining her beauty, reminding us that art’s labor extends beyond the blank page or the canvas, that “there is no fine thing/ Since Adam’s fall but needs much labouring.” Love, particularly. Yeats states in another poem, “What can I but enumerate old themes,” the greatest of which no doubt is “the old high way of love.” But Yeats had grown weary. He knew the cost, knew how love could (or perhaps had) become an “idle trade enough.”

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