Essays and Reviews
by Terry Whalen
The Wind Among the Reeds*
is the name that Mr. W.B. Yeats has chosen for his new
volume of poems. As symbolistic a title as Leaves
of Grass or The Seven Seas, it hints at Mr.Yeats's
elusive and haunting genius. Of all the men of his day
who are given to poetry, he is the most unworldly, the
most possessed. You would say that he derived from the
spiritual ancestry of Blake, the father of modern symbolism,
almost without the least influence of the Tennysonian
or Browningesque strains. Steeped in the Celtic tradition,
and born to the Celtic feeling, he has had the strength
of genius to cleave to his own particular bent, undiverted
by any tendency about him. And this remarkable individuality
has found a voice for itself in a strikingly characteristic
style. No one equals him in lending richness and glamour
to the simplest diction. "The Ballad of Father
Gilligan" (from the Poems, 1895)
is an example of the excellence I mean. Every phrase
is homely, yet every line has distinction, so that one
gets style in which there is an incomparably winning
sweetness of note. In the close of that beautiful poem:
is the poor man dead?" he cried.
"He died an hour ago."
The old priest, Peter Gilligan,
In grief swayed to and fro.
"When you were gone he turned and died,
As merry as a bird."
The old priest, Peter Gilligan,
He knelt him at that word.
"He who hath made the night of stars
For souls who tire and bleed,
Sent one of His great angels down
To help me in my need.
He who is wrapped in purple robes.
With planets in his care,
Had pity of the least of things
Asleep upon a chair."
is given to a few writers to be thus "familiar,
but by no means vulgar." And again, in the opening
of that little masterpiece, The Land of Heart's Desire,
the most perfect idyllic drama in modern English, the
same magic use of common words recurs:
I bade her go and feed the calves,
She took the old book down out of the thatch,
And has been doubled over it all day.
We would be deafened by her groans and moans
Had she to work as some do, Father Hart.
Get up at dawn like me, and mend and scour;
Or ride abroad in the boisterous night like you,
The pyx and blessed bread under your arm."
blank verse like this we are very far away from Milton
or Shakespeare, from Tennyson and Mr. Swinburne; yet
it certainly has a distinction, a style, all its own.
As a master of simplicity Mr. Yeats has no rival. In
taking an every-day speech and making it a competent
vehicle of poetic expression, he has succeeded where
Wordsworth so often failed; partly, perhaps, because
his Irish blood could not but save him from those grotesque
banalities, those painful flatnesses of speech, into
which Wordsworth was betrayed by his lack of humor;
and partly, indeed, through his Celtic instinct, the
intuitive avoidance of those platitudinous vapidities
to which the English mind is subject. It is their stubborn
genius for platitude and cant that has made the English
the slow, safe world-conquerors they are; and it is
the Celtic abhorrence of these things that has given
them their poetry.
Yeats, like Blake, has at least a saving pinch of humor,
as "The Fiddler of Dooney" would testify.
I play on my fiddle in Dooney,
Folk dance like a wave of the
My cousin is priest in Kilvarnet,
My brother in Moharabinee.
I passed my brother and cousin;
They read in their books of
I read in my book of songs
I bought at the Sligo Fair.
When we come, at the end of time,
To Peter sitting in state,
He will smile at the three old spirits,
But call me first through the
For the good are always the merry,
Save by and evil chance,
And the merry love the fiddle,
And the merry love to dance.
And when the folk there spy me,
They will come up to me
With 'Here is the fiddler of Dooney!'
And dance like a wave of the
however, is not the usual note in The Wind Among
the Reeds. For that, one might cite the last poem
of the book, "Mangan Thinks of His Past Greatness:"
have drunk ale from the country of the young,
And weep because I know all
I have been a hazel tree, and they hung
The Pilot Star and the Crooked
Among my leaves in times out of mind;
I became a rush that horses
I became a man, a hater of the wind,
Knowing one, out of all things,
alone, that his head
Would not lie on the breast or his lips on the hair
Of the woman that he loves,
until he dies;
Although the rushes and the fowl of the air
Cry of his love with their pitiful
is the note of The Wind Among the Reeds, and
a strange, wild tune it is. Perhaps the first thing
one remarks in it is the extreme freedom of form. Whitman
himself was not more unrestricted in handling metres.
Yet the particular treatment, the waywardness of the
melody, is only in keeping with the vagueness of the
art, as in religion, freedom is the companion of truth.
And certainly one is forcibly reminded, in reading Mr.
Yeats, that "there are nine-and-sixty ways of constructing
tribal lays." Could anything be farther from The
Barrack Room Ballads than these wilding lyrics?
And is it not really a good augury for English letters
when they have still the vitality to produce things
as diverse, yet each so essential and sincere? I should
fancy so. In the present volume (it might be objected),
Yeats, the son of Blake, has grown more mystical and
orphic than ever; has given leave to his good genius
to wander far afield in to the sighing marshes of symbolism;
but I must still profess a sure faith in that genius;
and I cannot doubt that so beautiful and single-minded
artist will find the clearest, aptest form at last for
expressing his own ideals. And for one, I should be
willing to follow him humbly through whatever difficulties
and seeming impassabilities the wandering marsh-fire
of his fancy might lead.
Wind Among the Reeds," Commercial Advertiser,
May 20, 1899 [back]