While last week was very busy with teaching, readings, and judging contests (two), I managed to tuck in my satchel a tiny volume of poems by Yeats I picked up somewhere. It was published in Glasgow, so I don't know whether I got it in the UK or stumbled on it in a used bookstore stateside. I have a number of these tiny little books; I throw in my sack for times like these. Light in weight, they pack a wallop. Imagine my surprise in discovering, between "Leda and the Swan" and "Coole Park," the following:
The Nineteenth Century And AfterThough the great song return no more
There's keen delight in what we have:
The rattle of pebbles on the shore
Under the receding wave.
Three MovementsShakespearean fish swam the sea, far away from land;
Romantic fish swam in nets coming to the hand;
Where are all those fish that lie gasping on the strand?
Both of these poems were composed in 1933 and follow each other immediately in this little anthology. There seemed to be much more to them and, though frankly the imagery is rich enough for a fine, small meal all its own, I poked about and discovered a couple of things.
Originally, both poems appeared in the 1933 volume The Winding Stair and Other Poems, separated in their presentation by one other poem, "Statistics."
Statistics‘Those Platonists are a curse,’ he said,
‘God’s fire upon the wane,
A diagram hung there instead,
More women born than men.’
Now here is a hard little nut that needs some cracking; we'll see about that later.
In further investigation, I learned that the primary image (and this overt, secondary allusion) in "The Nineteenth Century and After," which Yeats riffs off in "Three Movements," comes from the classic we've all encountered time and again, the era-encapsulating "Dover Beach" by Matthew Arnold:
Dover BeachThe sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
So, era-encapsulating, are we? The waters are, literally and figuratively, quite deep here and I'm no scholar, just an innocent reader with a little volume of Yeats in his bag. A fourth short poem to add to the mix, "Spilt Milk," also appeared in the Winding Stair collection:
Spilt MilkWe that have done and thought,
That have thought and done,
Must ramble, and thin out
Like milk spilt on a stone.
Now, in my amateur rambling about, I've confused things even further by presenting these poems out of order, as I had discovered them myself, thereby creating a fine muddle, indeed. The original order in The Winding Stair was "Spilt Milk," "The Nineteenth Century and After," "Statistics," and "Three Movements."
And so, to get it completely bass-ackwards, here is the poem that proceeds them all, entitled "Symbols:"
SymbolsA storm-beaten old watch-tower,
A blind hermit rings the hour.
All-destroying sword-blade still
Carried by the wandering fool.
Gold-sewn silk on the sword-blade,
Beauty and fool together laid.
Evidently something of a key to the whole sequence, I'll not touch any of it with the longest available bargeman's pole. We have found ourselves, in fact, washed up in the land of modernist symbolism and I've discovered I can't swim very well and neither am I possessed of a grating roar or even the poet's belittling rattle.
It seems I should be more careful about which teeny book of poems I slip into my bag for a few minutes respite. Suffice it to say there is much allusiveness (and elusiveness) here, political (Whiggery, anyone?), lyrical, symbolic, and historical. I'm sure there is more to this all that I've forgotten or plain don't know. Where is the Derrida encyclopedia when I need it?
Oh, that's right, I don't own one. Or, in fact, that there is one at all.
So, it would seem, I've chased myself back, tail nipped off a bit at the nether reaches, to the land of the plain and apparent. Wait, now: really, there is nothing apparent about haiku.
in the beach breeze
my travels forgotten...
translated by David G. Lanoue
PS That hard little nut? I chipped a tooth.