Friday, 19 March 2010
The consolation of another’s words
I have been silent, on this blog, for a while, because swarming events have, for once, left a man who likes to be a man of words bereft of them.
This week I spent some hours holding the bruised and purple hand of a 95-year-old lady in a hospital bed. She told me she was close to death. That probably is true, but how close, I do not know. After all, we can’t (or shouldn’t?) control the gates of time, although she opened them for me.
Anyway, at some point as an evening gathered grey around the place, between gasps for breath she murmured from memory this poem, by William Butler Yeats.
On the train back to London I spent an hour or so memorising it myself, which seemed both an act of devotion, and a duty, and a foolishness.
Make of its alchemy and symbols what you may – and I am now trying with some intensity to muddle through them – but I think you will agree that the cut in time and space between the second and third verses is one of the most dramatic and poignant ever accomplished by a poet.
The Song of Wandering Aengus
I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.
When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.
Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.
Footnote, March 23. My mother died at five minutes past two this morning. The news came just after eight, as I was setting off for an appointment. Coincidentally - or perhaps not - I had already pushed into my overcoat pocket an edition of Yeats (published in 1962, when she was 48). As I walked I opened the book at random, and these lines caught my eye, from a poem called "Under Saturn":
... Although my wits have gone
On a fantastic ride, my horse's flanks are spurred
By childish memories...
Footnote 2, June 12, 2010. Last week’s visit to Eire had unique resonance, given the events this blog describes. I write elsewhere about the trip to Coole, where Lady Gregory lived and nourished the genius of Yeats – but on the path to the Lake there we passed a board on which were printed some lines the poet wrote in celebration of (and perhaps sketched while within) Coole’s “seven woods”...
“...Dim Pairc-na-tarav, where enchanted eyes
Have seen immortal, mild, proud shadows walk
Dim Inchy wood, that hides badger and fox
And marten-cat, and borders that old wood
Wise Biddy Early called the wicked wood:
Seven odours, seven murmurs, seven woods.
I had not eyes like those enchanted eyes,
Yet dreamed that beings happier than men
Moved round me in the shadows...”
Foolishly, I didn’t note down the first line. Back in England, I riffled vainly back and forth through my old copy of the Collected Poems until, at last, I decided to email the Park, explaining that just I couldn’t find the verses. Charmingly, within a few hours, the supervisor, Hilda Mac Lochlainn had replied:
Dear Mr Wintle
I am glad you enjoyed your visit to Coole. The poem you mention is a prefatory poem to "The Shadowy Waters" 1906. First line is "I walked among the seven woods of Coole:" I hope you have more luck this time.
Just after midnight last night, waiting for my son to come home, I was reading about The Shadowy Waters in a book called The Identity of Yeats, by Richard Ellman, when I came across this extract from Yeats’ diary:
“Apple blossoms are symbols of dawn and of air and of the earth and of resurrection in my system...”
So I have decided to replace the photograph of apple blossom at the top of this piece with a portrait of my mother as she was when young.