Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

The Wind Among the Reeds*


 

This 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:

"And 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."

It 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:

"Because 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."

In 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.

Mr. Yeats, like Blake, has at least a saving pinch of humor, as "The Fiddler of Dooney" would testify.

"When I play on my fiddle in Dooney,
    Folk dance like a wave of the sea;
My cousin is priest in Kilvarnet,
    My brother in Moharabinee.

I passed my brother and cousin;
    They read in their books of prayer;
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 gate.

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 sea."

This, 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:"

"I have drunk ale from the country of the young,
    And weep because I know all things now;
I have been a hazel tree, and they hung
    The Pilot Star and the Crooked Plough
Among my leaves in times out of mind;
    I became a rush that horses tread;
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 cries."

That 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 thought.

In 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.


"The Wind Among the Reeds," Commercial Advertiser, May 20, 1899 [back]