Friday, February 19, 2016

W. B. Yeats: The Lover Tells Of The Rose In His Heart

Willie Yeats in 1898, lithograph by Will Rothenstein

[Image source: National Portrait Gallery]


All things uncomely and broken, all things worn out and old,
The cry of a child by the roadway, the creak of a lumbering cart,
The heavy steps of the ploughman, splashing the wintry mould,
Are wronging your image that blossoms a rose in the deeps of my heart.

The wrong of unshapely things is a wrong too great to be told;
I hunger to build them anew and sit on a green knoll apart,
With the earth and the sky and the water, re-made, like a casket of gold
For my dreams of your image that blossoms a rose in the deeps of my heart.

                                                (from The Wind Among the Reeds, 1899)

All the lines are enriched alexandrines (that is to say with extra unstressed syllables), but the first three are a specific music because of the strong medial breaks visually indicated by commas. They more or less split, amoeba-like, into restless trimeters.

This will be the most spirited part of the poem for many readers, with many detonations. In particular, setting “The cry of the child” directly after the word “old” is a wonderfully intelligent piece of concision – it tells us everything about how we are to hear this cry (in stark contrast to what it might connote): hopeless, hungry, and trapped in the cold years. But after all, the first three lines are only an introduction; we don’t know where this is going yet.

The fourth line has a quite different music. It flows from end to end, maximizing the enrichment (six accents but eighteen syllables). But though the auditory image of a rippling, unimpeded stream is certainly present, there can be no doubt that the climax of the line is “a rose”, which emerges with quiet definition at the point where, because of the preceding lines, we have learnt to expect a pause. I suppose it does not need spelling out that “a rose” blossoms in mid-line as in “the deeps of my heart”. [It is odd how this last phrase marries “the creak of a lumbering cart”, denying the opposition between them. This offers a subsidiary hint at re-integrating the lover into his surroundings and accepting the “wronging” as a natural event] 

The rose in European poetry since the troubadours is a symbol that has drifted a long way from its floral source. I suppose you assume, as I do, that this rose is red, but this idea leads not towards horticulture but towards an idealized image incorporating other complex enclosures; hearts, vaginas and heavens. It’s an image that blends the desired with the desire, so you may say that here the rose means what the lover is experiencing, which is created at least as much by himself as by the person he is addressing. It is what he is dreaming about; but it is also his dream.  

We are now clear about the relation between the opening lines and the rose of the title; they “wrong” it. Do they wrong the lover or his beloved? Is he really a victim, a nurturer, or both at the same time, or in fact neither? What is certain is that the rose is now associated with weakness, and if we feel that it might be less self-regarding to address the weakness of the child’s ignorant wailing and the ploughman’s grinding poverty, rather than feeling annoyed by them, we may not have much sympathy with the lover’s torments.

This reflection keeps coming back as we pick our way though the second stanza, which repeats the rhyme-sounds of the first stanza but without its force.  A wrong “too great to be told” feels like an inadequate expression, and the potential energy of “build” – qualified as it already is by being only a hunger to build – is further undermined by “sit” and “apart”.

But these indications of feebleness do lead to a subtly surprising outcome. When the last line comes round again, it now appears against a different background, and gains a certain paradoxical strength. If the rose seemed a bit pallid at the end of Stanza 1, it seems to glow at the end of Stanza 2. You might express the effect in these words: Nonetheless, it still blossoms. Perhaps all the more perfectly in adversity.  

As it might be: someone who feels their belief (opinion, philosophy, religion, love) slighted and collapsing continues to assert: Nevertheless, there is something in it .... there are many things we don’t understand .... somewhere, there is a happy land ... so that it is on the verge of ceasing to be a belief and remains only as a dream; then the persistence of the dream and the fact of the past belief provide a sort of testimony (at least in one’s own mind) that underwrites the long-desired Maybe. Yeats would later write of “the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart”, but in those very words would cling on to the sentimental romanticism of earlier days. Maybe it had after all hidden the key to transforming the world, though he had not found it.           



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