It can take days to read a novel and a lifetime to understand it. In fact, I’m sure it can take a lifetime to read a novel – I’ve been stuck on page two hundred and fifty-seven of Ulysses for about eighteen months, and the knowledge that there exists a book called Finnegans Wake sometimes makes me curl up in a corner to have a quiet cry.
But reading a poem can take seconds, and you may still be puzzling over it on your death-bed. Then again, there are some poems that have an instantaneous and truly devastating effect on you: as if you’d cannily jumped over a puddle only to alight gracefully on a land mine.
And the undisputed master of puddle-and-land-mine poetry is William Butler Yeats.
Have a look at this, for instance – it’s called ‘A Stick of Incense’, and this is the whole poem:
Whence did all that fury come?
From Empty tomb or Virgin womb?
Saint Joseph thought the world would melt
But liked the way his finger smelt.
Such a mild opening line, isn’t it? You can see the puddle – then you spend two lines leaping over it like a gazelle, and then…
And you can spend forever trying to understand it. Is this simply Yeats stunting in the stratosphere of mysticism, or is there a hint of materialistic atheism in there somewhere? Is Yeats sceptical about the Virgin Birth and the Immaculate Conception or is he simply wondering whether the resurrection is the more spectacular twist in the story of Christ?
You tell me. I’m buggered if I know. But I can’t forget a word of it, and I confidently predict that I won’t be any closer to knowing the inner secrets of it on the day I die.
Sometimes the jump over the puddle takes longer, but the pressure sensitive ordinance on the other side is never less than fully operational when Yeats was the man who primed and buried it. Clive James said you can’t quote anything other than a complete poem without quoting out of context – I think he’s right, so have a butcher’s at ‘The Second Coming’:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
How does he do that? We rise with the falcon over Ireland’s tragedy, turning on the updrafts of Catholicism… before the last two lines obliterate us as we touch down.
When Yeats isn’t busy laying traps that will blow you into smithereens, he makes you ache with the exquisite horror of being alive. Have a look at ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, and if you don’t have a serious attack of goose-bumps, please go and read some other blog:
That is no country for old men. The young
In on another’s arms, birds in the trees
– Those dying generations – at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
An therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.
O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
When I read Yeats he’s the only poet I can imagine being worth reading; it’s only when I’m not reading him that I have the room to doubt it. If you don’t have his Collected Poems somewhere on your bookshelf, your bookshelf isn’t up to much.