Sunday, April 30, 2006

Easter 1916

by William Butler Yeats

I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

That woman's days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When, young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our winged horse;
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road.
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute by minute they live:
The stone's in the midst of all.

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven's part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse -
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

* * *

I admit that I don't really understand this. I'm posting it by Eamonn's request. I think it has something to do with the Easter Uprising, but I know so little of the history that this poem is a bit beyond me. Perhaps he could explain it to me? Hm? [Ed. He has done it (and did a really good job, too), and it can be found here.]

The one thing I have to say is that "All is changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born" is a lovely line. Not sure what it means, but it's lovely.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Hear the Voice of the Bard

by William Blake

Hear the voice of the Bard!
Who present, past, and future sees;
Whose ears have heard
The Holy Word,
That walked among the ancient trees,

Calling the lapsed soul,
And weeping in the evening dew;
That might control
The starry pole,
And fallen, fallen, light renew!

"O Earth, O Earth, return!
Arise from out the dewy grass;
Night is worn,
And the morn
Rises from the slumberous mass.

"Turn away no more;
Why wilt thou turn away?
The starry floor,
The watery shore,
Is given thee till the break of day."

* * *

Ah, an easy-to-understand non-modern poem! This is the introduction to Songs of Experience, Blake's second set of poems.

It promotes the idea of the poet as a kind of prophet, listening to the Word (there it is again!) and announcing it to the world, calling the world to conversion.

This could also, in a sense, be my theme song, since the online name I often use is "the bard." (And some other things. Mustn't give everything away.)

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Ash-Wednesday VI

by T.S. Eliot

Although I do not hope to turn again
Although I do not hope
Although I do not hope to turn

Wavering between the profit and the loss
In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying
(Bless me father) though I do not wish to wish these things
From the wide window towards the granite shore
The white sails still fly seaward, seaward flying
Unbroken wings

And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices
In the lost lilac and the lost sea voices
And the weak spirit quickens to rebel
For the bent golden-rod and the lost sea smell
Quickens to recover
The cry of quail and the whirling plover
And the blind eye creates
The empty forms between the ivory gates
And smell renews the salt savour of the sandy earth

This is the time of tension between dying and birth
The place of solitude where three dreams cross
Between blue rocks
But when the voices shaken from the yew-tree drift away
Let the other yew be shaken and reply.

Blessed sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee.

* * *

Finally, in Easter week, I finally finish this series. I'm afraid it has been a little beyond me. I haven't understood all that much of the poem. But hopefully it was enough to get some of you to read it and think about it.

The last section begins like the first, with a notable difference: it is no longer "Because I do not wish" but "Although I do not wish." No longer is he following his desire not to turn again; he moves against it now.

He is still wavering. He knows what he ought to do but he is stuck, with dreams calling him on each side. There are good dreams and bad dreams, and even beautiful distracting dreams drawing him from beautiful holy dreams. He asks pardon; although he has the wrong wishes, he does not wish to wish them. This seems paradoxical, but I at least have experienced this feeling. "Unbroken wings" provides a note of hope: he realizes he may fly, that it is possible.

He awakes, he comes to life; although he is weak he is alive enough to fight. The images of birds are lovely, although I am not certain what they signify: perhaps the speaker's hopes to fly. After the emptying he has experienced through asceticism, his senses become attuned to the sight and smell of spiritual things. (I guess -- this is wild conjecture on my part.)

This is the moment of decision, the moment where he has to decide whether to die or to be reborn. I'm not sure what the three dreams are. I talked about the yew tree earlier, with the idea that these are the prayers of the nun who has won some kind of immortality. She is "speaking the Word." The speaker hopes that he will be able to reply, to speak the Word also.

The sister we have seen already. I believe the "mother" is Mary and the "spirit" is God, particularly the Holy Ghost. The speaker realizes his chasing after other things has been a mockery, and asks to be saved from it. As before, he asks "to care and not to care . . . to sit still," that is, to care about what should be cared about and not what shouldn't, to be able to find peace in caring about the appropriate things.

"Even among these rocks" -- I admit I still don't know what the rocks are. I'm quite sure they're important. They may symbolize suffering. "Our peace in His will" -- the poem is definitely one of a person of faith now; the speaker has clearly chosen the side to come down on, even though he has trouble with it. The prayers ending this section are both quite simple, a plea to be able to remain in the faith he has found, and to find help. "Thee" is specifically singular ("you" might have meant sister, mother, and spirit, but "Thee" cannot) and capitalized; it has to refer to God.

Ash Wednesday I

Monday, April 17, 2006

Easter Wings

by George Herbert

Lord, Who createdst man in wealth and store,
        Though foolishly he lost the same,
                Decaying more and more,
                      Till he became
                          Most poor:
                          With Thee
                        O let me rise,
                As larks, harmoniously,
        And sing this day Thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.

My tender age in sorrow did begin;
        And still with sicknesses and shame
                Thou didst so punish sin,
                      That I became
                          Most thin.
                          With Thee
                      Let me combine,
                And feel this day Thy victory;
        For, if I imp my wing on Thine,
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.

* * *

This struck me as a good poem to put up for Easter -- especially as I did "The Foggy Dew" last year. (Today, Easter Monday, happens to be the 90th anniversary of the Easter Uprising.) I modernized the spelling to put it up.

George Herbert was one of the Metaphysical poets, of which John Donne is probably the most famous.

This poem is about falling and rising: appropriate, then, the wing shape, which suggests birds swooping down and then up again. Affliction advances flight, as in Hopkins' "The Windhover." It's one of those mysteries of life that seems like a paradox until you experience it. Once you have, you realize that suffering teaches you, and allows you to reach heights an easy life would never have allowed you to find.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Ash-Wednesday V

by T.S. Eliot

If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.

        O my people, what have I done unto thee.

Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence
Not on the sea or on the islands, not
On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land,
For those who walk in darkness
Both in the day time and in the night time
The right time and the right place are not here
No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny the voice

Will the veiled sister pray for
Those who walk in darkness, who chose thee and oppose thee,
Those who are torn on the horn between season and season, time and time, between
Hour and hour, word and word, power and power, those who wait
In darkness? Will the veiled sister pray
For children at the gate
Who will not go away and cannot pray:
Pray for those who chose and oppose

        O my people, what have I done unto thee.

Will the veiled sister between the slender
Yew trees pray for those who offend her
And are terrified and cannot surrender
And affirm before the world and deny between the rocks
In the last desert before the last blue rocks
The desert in the garden the garden in the desert
Of drouth, spitting from the mouth the withered apple-seed.

        O my people.

* * *

Here, near the end of the poem, it starts to come to a climax. We're not so much talking about the speaker now as about the whole world. (Perhaps that's what we've been talking about all along.) It's a perfect time to post it, too, as Lent comes to a climax. The lines from the Reproaches echo what we hear on Good Friday.

Here's the important part about the "word" I warned you about. It begins by mentioning that if no one speaks the word, the world will still remain. The rest is reminiscent of the beginning of the Gospel of John. The world is "unstilled," but whirl as it might, it still whirls with the Word as the centre. "The silent Word" is an immense paradox, but perfect.

The Word asks a just question: why, when He is the centre of all, do they reject Him? What has He done?

There is no room for the Word, not here. The world is not silent enough to hear it, even though it is the most crucial thing there is. "Those who walk in darkness" -- those in the state the speaker was at the beginning -- need to hear the Word, but they deny it.

The sister prays for these. The descriptions of those walking in darkness show the contradiction they are in. They feel the attraction of the garden, but they can't bring themselves to pray. Instead of what you would expect from frightened souls, who affirm among those of faith and deny before the world, those who walk in darkness are quite willing to attach themselves to the Faith before the eyes of others, but when it comes to the "rocks," which I think are some sort of suffering associated with the Faith, that is when they flee and deny it.

"The desert in the garden the garden in the desert" is rather deep. I think of the parallelism between Adam and Eve's temptation in the garden and Christ's temptation in the desert. Adam and Eve made a desert of a garden, and Christ made a garden of a desert. Thus the reference to the withered apple-seed, the dry dead effects of original sin.

Ash-Wednesday I

Ash-Wednesday VI

Tuesday, April 11, 2006


Today's poem is written by the good God, and taken down by two faithful scribes, my dear parents. Her name is Juliana Elizabeth, and she was born this morning at 8:37 a.m. She weighed six pounds and thirteen ounces, and she is nineteen inches long. Mom and baby are both doing well.

Juliana is born into a family of three brothers, 22, 4, and 2 years old, and one sister, me. She is going to get so immensely drowned in pink and lace I don't know what she'll do.

Those of you who drink champagne and smoke cigars, this is the one time I won't make the slightest fuss. Babies are a cause for celebration. As for me, I think I shall eat truffles.

Huzzah for baby Juliana!

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Ash-Wednesday IV

by T.S. Eliot

Who walked between the violet and the violet
Who walked between
The various ranks of varied green
Going in white and blue, in Mary's colour,
Talking of trivial things
In ignorance and knowledge of eternal dolour
Who moved among the others as they walked,
Who then made strong the fountains and made fresh the springs

Made cool the dry rock and made firm the sand
In blue of larkspur, blue of Mary's colour,
Sovegna vos

Here are the years that walk between, bearing
Away the fiddles and the flutes, restoring
One who moves in the time between sleep and waking, wearing

White light folded, sheathing about her, folded.
The new years walk, restoring
Through a bright cloud of tears, the years, restoring
With a new verse the ancient rhyme.
The time. Redeem
The unread vision in the higher dream
While jewelled unicorns draw by the gilded hearse.

The silent sister veiled in white and blue
Between the yews, behind the garden god,
Whose flute is breathless, bent her head and signed but spoke no word

But the fountain sprang up and the bird sang down
Redeem the time, redeem the dream
The token of the word unheard, unspoken

Till the wind shake a thousand whispers from the yew

And after this our exile

* * *

This poem is getting harder to explain the further I get into it. "Who," I guess, is the sister who keeps appearing at different times. Why she is "talking of trivial things," I don't know, but the rest fits well enough. She is walking in the garden, "in knowledge and in ignorance," I think because she knows that people are suffering, and (more than they do) she knows why, but she is in ignorance because she has not experienced this, not being a great sinner herself.

"Sovenga vos" is a reference to Dante's Purgatorio, Canto XXVI. Arnaut Daniel, a Provencal poet, is being purified of sins of lust. His discourse is not in Italian but in Provencal. (This is why I had so much trouble trying to find what it means. It doesn't help that it is also spelled "Sovenha vos" or "Sovenga vus.") The full line is, "Sovenha vos a temps de ma dolor!" and means, "Be mindful to assuage my suffering." The speaker is asking the sister to "be mindful" of him, and to pray that his sins are purged.

There is a notion of timelessness as the sister walks while the years "walk between." It's a little too deep for me, but I get a sense of it. The sister is restoring the goodness of the past ("the vanished power of the usual reign") by living in it herself, "restoring with a new verse the ancient rhyme." Unlike the lost souls, she is living in step with the past -- and there is no suggestions that she as at all out of date. Her mission is to redeem the time she is living in by her prayers, lest it be lost.

John says the gilded hearse means the sister dies at this point. I don't believe it myself, although I know I don't get everything in this poem. I'm hoping for Meredith to explain it to me. But at any rate, it seems to me that gilding suggests artificiality, something that has no part in the sister's life.

Yews are symbol of immortality because they are evergreen; they are planted in graveyards, and therefore they might also symbolize death. The garden god seems to be Pan, who appeared in part III; I guess he might symbolize the pleasures of the world. The sister has gotten behind the pleasures of the world into immortality. (Which, pace John, means her life is a kind of immortality, since she has rid herself of sin, which is death.) The garden god's flute is breathless anyway; it fails, since it was only fleeting pleasure. The sister is silent but she signs, both to speak to God herself and to give a sign to the world.

The garden becomes even lovelier, and the message is repeated: the time must be redeemed. The "word" (nudge, nudge, this will be important later) is unspoken and unheard. We hope that it will be spoken and heard at some point. Perhaps this is what the whispers from the yew are: the voices of those who have passed over into immortality, speaking "the word."

And after this our exile . . . it could signify death, I suppose, or at any rate the end of the speaker's journey out of sin into life. I think he hopes that he will be able to be whispering from the yew as well. He wants to speak the word too.

Ash-Wednesday I

Ash Wednesday V

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Bay Combe

by G.K. Chesterton

With leaves below and leaves above,
And groping under tree and tree,
I found the home of my true love,
Who is a wandering home for me.

Who, lost in ruined worlds aloof,
Bore the dread dove wings like a roof;
Who, past the last lost stars of space,
Carried the fire-light on her face.

Who, passing as in idle hours,
Tamed the wild weeds to garden flowers;
Stroked the strange whirlwind's whirring wings,
And made the comets homely things.

Where she went by upon her way
The dark was dearer than the day;
Where she paused in heaven or hell,
The whole world's tale had ended well.

With leaves below and leaves above,
And groping under tree and tree,
I found the home of my true love,
Who is a wandering home for me.

Where she was flung, above, beneath,
By the rude dance of life and death,
Grow she at Gotham -- die at Rome,
Between the pine trees is her home.

In some strange town, some silver morn,
She may have wandered to be born;
Stopped at some motley crowd impressed,
And called them kinsfolk for a jest.

If we again in goodness thrive,
And the dead saints become alive,
Then pedants bald and parchments brown
May claim her blood for London town.

But leaves below and leaves above,
And groping under tree and tree,
I found the home of my true love,
Who is a wandering home for me.

The great gravestone she may pass by,
And without noticing, may die;
The streets of silver Heaven may tread,
With her grey awful eyes unfed.

The city of great peace in pain
May pass, until she find again
This little house of holm and fir
God built before the stars for her.

Here in the fallen leaves is furled
Her secret centre of the world.
We sit and feel in dusk and dun
The stars swing round us like a sun.

For leaves below and leaves above,
And groping under tree and tree,
I found the home of my true love,
Who is a wandering home for me.

* * *

I liked the refrain of this poem enough to get me actually to try to understand the rest. The refrain itself has a very deep idea -- that, since home is where the heart is, Frances is his home.

The rest of the poem is an odd, paradoxical tribute to woman; one woman in particular. There is a strange mixing of huge cosmic notions and warm homey notions, put together on purpose to show that the woman brings these two sets of things together by her nature. She "makes the comets homely things."

She tames things, makes them good and beautiful. She is too big to have truly come from her home town or her family, yet she still lays claim to these things.

Even death is different for her. It doesn't do much to her. Her heaven is "a little house," again mixing the cosmic and the homely.

And she remains "a wandering home," a home that goes wherever the man goes, turning wherever he is to a home.

When we are young, the house where we grew up in is home. A little older, and "going home" means visiting one's parents. But to these souls who love, home is with the loved one. It cannot be anywhere else, and no place is strange if the loved one is there. She is a wandering home.