Friday, May 05, 2006

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #31

Next week, I am going to do something I've wanted to do for a long time, probably ten years: I'm going to hear Seamus Heaney read in person, from his new collection of poems called District and Circle, in Philadelphia. As I've mentioned in this series before, Heaney is among my literary heroes, and is certainly one of my very favorite poets... you can well imagine that this wanna-be is very excited for the event. Next week's poem will almost certainly be another one from Heaney, to celebrate the experience (which will mark the first time in this series that I've selected a work from a poet already featured once before).

For this week's poem, then, a tribute to the most recent Irish Nobel Prize-winner, in the form of a poem from Ireland's first Nobel Prize-winner: William Butler Yeats. I have no doubt that Heaney would be flattered by the association, which has been made before of course (the great American poet Robert Lowell famously called Heaney "the most important Irish poet since Yeats."). I'm actually not too familiar with Yeats' work, and what I know of it has never appealed to me personally all that much... except for this one, which I have loved from the moment I first read it.

There are some lines in one of my favorite Heaney poems, "Postscript," that contain this breathtaking description of swans on a lake:

The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightening of flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully-grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.

For some reason this description has always reminded me of the famous Yeats poem featured here below. I have no idea if the poem was in Heaney's conscious mind or not when he wrote "Postscript" -- without question, it was in his subconscious mind, a permanent resident there -- but I've always connected the two in my head. So, as a tribute to Heaney and to the venerable, age-old tradition of Irish poetry, I present this W. B. Yeats classic... 'Mysterious, beautiful.'


The Wild Swans at Coole

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty Swans.
The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.
I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All's changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.
Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.
But now they drift on the still water,
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake's edge or pool
Delight men's eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?


Mutt Ploughman said...

Duke: cool Yeats poem. I can see why you find it appealing. I thought that one line had a particularly interesting use of the word 'wing' considering the context of the poem. I know nothing about Yeats. The only poem I am familiar with is 'The Second Coming' which is darned famous. People always use the line 'slouching towards Bethlehem to be born'. I still remember being assigned to analyze that poem in AP English in high school. Somehow I have never forgotten, ever, the first two lines: 'Turning and turning in the widening gyre/The falcon cannot hear the falconer'. But considering the fact that he is an Irish Nobel laureate, I know next to nothing about him. But you better get on it: if he was that big for Heaney, he ought to be big for you, even if you said you were not a big fan of what you know of his so far.......interesting selection, but then again, I say that every time.

Duke Altum said...

Thanks for your comment Mutt. It's amazing that you remember those two lines from 'The Second Coming,' that they've stayed with you that long! Of course the other very famous lines from that poem are those that follow what you cited: 'Things fall apart; the center cannot hold/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world...' (The source for the title of Chinua Achebe's most celebrated novel, needless to say.)

Other than Yeats and Heaney, there is only one other Irish Nobel laureate... you might have heard of him... man named Beckett.

Not a bad trifecta for a tiny green island floating off the coast of a continent in the Atlantic...

Mutt Ploughman said...

Hey Duke, that would be a great trifecta, you're right, if it were correct that there were only three, but there's a fourth Nobel laureate from Ireland, George Bernard Shaw, 1926.

Educating you, Mutt

Duke Altum said...

Damn, you're right Mutt! Well, that just means that my people are even MORE of an intellectual force than I described... so why don't you suck on tha... oh wait, they're your people too.