Am I too late for Saint Patrick’s Day? Not according to my clock. It’s almost 9PM New York City time so I’m right in there! Would have posted earlier today but I was busy taking Mom to the doctor’s. I’m sure the patron saint of Ireland would understand :-)
I will seize any occasion to post poetry by William Butler Yeats – a longtime favorite of mine – and this day of celebrating all things Irish will do just fine. The maestro of symbolism and verse had me hooked since the first time I read the sea voyage of “Sailing to Byzantium” and its “no country for old men”, “tattered coat upon a stick”, “singing-masters of my soul”, monuments, mosaics, and “Grecian goldsmiths”. The Dublin-born Yeats is also responsible for what is probably my favorite short lyrical poem ever, “Cloths of Heaven”. I memorized it many years ago and it continues to move me … “tread softly”.
The inspiration behind that poem was Maud Gonne, Yeats’ muse and love of his life – a love that was unrequited. He proposed marriage four times .. and was rejected four times. Though she was born in England in 1866, Maud became an active revolutionary and fervent supporter of the Irish Nationalist movement, having been spurred on by the Land War and the attending civil unrest. She was also an actress and organizer of feminist causes. Of the tumultuous political climate in which she lived Maud wrote, “it is the English who are forcing war on us”.
Photo of Maud Gonne:
The intuitive Yeats sensed right away that Maud was a force to be reckoned with, and described the moment he first met her as the day “the troubling of my life began”. Gonne, a convert to Catholicism, and Yeats, a Protestant, shared an intensely strong emotional bond and had a common fascination with the occult. But Maud simply could not conceive of marrying the moody poet. Instead, she married fellow Irish Nationalist John MacBride. Yeats was crushed. The union, however, was unhappy and acrimonious. Maud and John had one son, Sean MacBride born 1904, who became a prominent figure in the IRA and later a founding member of Amnesty International.
For decades, Yeats carried a torch for Maud and agonized over her involvements with other men. His continued pain over her having escaped him is manifest in his poetry. But Maud had his number and expressed this alternate view about their relationship:
“You make beautiful poetry out of what you call your unhappiness and are happy in that. Marriage would be such a dull affair. Poets should never marry. The world should thank me for not marrying you.”
Maud telling it like it is! Damn girl. She certainly has point. Here’s an example of that beautiful, lovelorn-inspired poetry Yeats composed from of his heartache over Maud. We may not like to admit it, but loss, regret, and grief really do inspire poignant and powerful artistic expressions.
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.
Charcoal drawing of W.B. Yeats by John Singer Sargent, 1908: