Today, our poetry Editor, Ira Maine Esq gives us wonderful commentary to accompany the poem.
‘William Butler Yeats’ a poem by Alec Derwent Hope.
To have found at last that noble, candid speech
In which all things worth saying may be said,
Which, whether the mind asks, or the heart bids, to each
Affords its daily bread:
To have been afraid neither of lust nor hate’
To have shown the dance and when the dancer ceased,
The bloody head of prophecy on a plate
Borne in at Herod’s feast.
To have loved the bitter, lucid mind of Swift,
Bred passion against the times, made wisdom strong;
To have sweetened with your pride’s instinctive gift
The brutal mouth of song;
To have shared with Blake uncompromising scorn
For art grown smug and clever, shown your age
The virgin leading home the unicorn
And loosed his sacred rage-
But more than all, when from my arms she went
That blessed my body all night, naked and near,
And all was done, and order and content
Closed the Platonic Year,
Was it not chance alone that made us look
Into the glass of the Great Memory
And know the eternal moments, in your book,
That we had grown to be?
AND now for Ira Maine’s commentary.
The Australian poet Alec Derwent Hope (1907- 2000) spent all his life in the twentieth century, was eleven years old at the end of the Great War, danced the Charleston in the Twenties, survived the Depression, the Hitler War, Joe McCarthy, Carnaby Street and even Elvis. He was around for Kennedy’s murder, and Thatcher and Reagan’s gradual, gluttonous triumphs. He was also there to witness a reprise of Shakespeare’s Macbeth as the Bush’s closed on the centres of power. And then he was dead.
The Irish poet,William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) on the other hand was a 19th century man, in his forties before the Australian poet was born. Yeats had spent his middle-class Protestant life as a young man on horses or in carriages or being shunted around the countryside in trains. In the late 19th century he was unmarried and spent his time being influenced by the Impressionists, ravished by Art Nouveau and louche in the company of Beardsley, Bosey and Oscar Wilde. He was old enough too, undoubtedly, to perhaps even view with disdain and regard as a commonplace the Dickensian world of workhouses, appalling poverty and endless exploitation.
It is perhaps then, more than surprising that a chord was struck within him when a few Irish poets, writers and artists, wholly unfit for their task, in 1916 Dublin, decided to declared war on England. To any sensible mind, this enterprise was an unmitigated disaster. Within a week, and by overwhelming force, the British Army captured every one of these creative lunatics, stood them up against the wall and shot them.
Yeats is galvanized, one might almost say revolutionized, not just by these deaths but by this sudden, extraordinary transformation of ordinary people into something extraordinary. These people are not dead because they took on some fashionable, easily assumed and easily discarded belief; they are dead because they had deliberately chosen to die. They knew that a handful of armed men in a few buildings around Dublin hadn’t a snowball’s chance in Hell against the British Army. They were also aware of the punishment for treason. The whole purpose of their tiny ‘revolution’ was the ancient, atavistic belief in the idea of a blood sacrifice; that only by giving their lives in this way might their aims be achieved.
I wonder sometimes whether the following lines ( from Yeat’s poem, ‘Easter 1916’) refer to Yeat’s view of this sacrifice, and it’s transformative effect on the world, or perhaps a secret and deeply private transformation within Yeats himself. Perhaps it was both.
‘…all’s changed, changed utterly; a terrible beauty is born…’
Before the 1914-18 War, Yeats wrote “Leda and the Swan’ a hugely romantic poem dealing with the myth concerning Zeus and his ravishing of Leda, who, as a result, will give birth to Helen of Troy. After the Easter Rebellion in Dublin, after the sacrifice, Yeats wrote ‘Easter 1916’ and later on ‘Sailing to Byzantium’. These are poems of extraordinary power and grandeur and are unquestionably the product of a mind ‘…changed utterly…’ in direction, focus and maturity by both the idea and the reality of the blood sacrifice.
Alec Derwent Hope wrote a poem entitled ‘William Butler Yeats’.
The poem is a homage, one poet to another.
The poem opens with;
‘To have found at last, that candid, noble speech
In which all things worth saying may be said…’
This is Hope complimenting Yeats on his way with words, on having finally arrived at a capacity for ‘…noble, candid speech…’
But it is not just that. It is Hope’s observation that Yeat’s way of using words, of expressing himself, is something that all poets should strive for, and may only be arrived at, ‘found at last…’ through experience and application.
The next three verses, or stanzas if you will, deal with the passing of centuries. Yeats has used the myths and legends of those centuries as a basis for his work. In the first of these three Alec Hope mentions ‘…the dance and when the dancer ceased…’
This is the famous question posed by Yeats in one of his poems; ‘…how can we tell the dancer from the dance?…’
If we watch a flamenco dancer for instance, as she whirls and claps, stampimg the floor, the woman and the dance are one. They are indistinguishable. You cannot say where the dance stops and the woman begins.
And of course, in Hope’s poem the dancer is also Salome, who asked for the head of John the Baptist, ‘…the bloody head of prophecy…’ at ‘…Herod’s feast…’
Then AD Hope says something wonderful, a few gloriously creative words which splendidly expresses how he feels about Yeats and demonstrates that Hope himself is up there with the best of them.
‘…to have loved the bitter, lucid mind of Swift….to have sweetened with your instinctive gift, the brutal mouth of song…’
Oh God, wouldn’t you give your left tit to have written that……?
Hope is talking here of Jonathon Swift, author of Gullivers Travels and Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin.
A few lines further on and we are in William Blake country, the country of ‘…dark satanic mills…’ and Blake’s horror of the exploitation of men, women and kids in the cause of the Industrial Revolution.
Blake and Swift, Alec Hope tells us, are two amongst many who had a major influence on the development of Yeats as a poet. And Yeats in his turn has had an equally profound influence on Hope himself, as we can plainly see.
And then that mysterious line; ‘…shown your age the virgin leading home the unicorn…’
Hope does not mean that Yeats is showing his age here. What is being suggested is that Yeats, by establishing the Irish National Theatre, with initially a heavy emphasis on Irish mythology, he was showing the Irish literary public (to have ‘…shown your age…’) the absolute necessity of re-establishing a distinctive Irish culture which had been forbidden by the ruling English establishment.
‘…The virgin leading the unicorn…’ is Hope’s splendid way of suggesting that Irish mythology demanded to be brought back to its traditional place and long concealed, distinctive Irish custom and habit be re-established.
I am uncertain about the last two stanzas of Hope’s poem.
In Yeat’s poem, ‘The song of the wandering Aengus’ Aengus has caught a fish, a trout, which turns magically into…
‘…it had become a glimmering girl, with apple blossoms in her hair,
who called me by my name and ran, and vanished in the brightening air…’
Aengus spends forever, perhaps eternity wandering the world in search of this magical creature. Hope, in my view, in the last eight lines of his poem, has himself become Aengus and at last has been reunited with his ‘…glimmering girl…’ who has ‘…blessed his body all night…’ but it is many thousands of years later, at the close of the Platonic Year, about 25,000 years later.
And here in the last verse. Aengus and the glimmering girl are looking back in time, from thousands of years in the future, looking back and saying that the immortal Yeats has not only made them immortal, but every poem ‘…in your book…’ will live forever.
Alec Derwent Hope, this a splendid poem, an unselfish celebration of a great man, a man you patently hold in very high esteem. I shall pay a great deal more attention to your work in the future.