From the Hazel Bough of Yeats: Birneys Masterpiece
by David Latham
Have you ever written a masterpiece? I first heard this question asked when I attended a poetry reading during my first year at university fifteen years ago. The two readers that evening were Earle Birney and Ralph Gustafson, and after they had finished their readings, the student beside me asked Gustafson the question I thought was so naive. When Gustafson snapped back, Yes, the one about the apple1, I laughed aloud to show him that I recognized the sarcasm behind his quick reply. When he turned to me in surprise, I realized that he had been serious.
A few years later, I was watching Earle Birney being interviewed on television.2 Towards the end of the programme, the interviewer leaned forward and earnestly asked if Birney had ever written a masterpiece, something he considered a perfect poem. Having learned my lesson, I too leaned forward, ready to take the question and the answer seriously. Birney first gave the conventionally modest denial, that perfection is not something that can be achieved, but something to strive towards. Then he added that his favourite poem, the closest hes come to composing a masterpiece, is a short lyric entitled From the Hazel Bough:
As Birney read the poem aloud, I wondered why he considered this one as his masterpiece. When we read the soaring Dylan Thomas-like lines of his most popular poem (David and I that summer cut trails . . .) and then read From the Hazel Bough to the rhythm of what Birney claims is its inspirationthe railway song Casey Jonesthis poem can read like six silly stanzas of rhyme without reason.
Birneys choice of From the Hazel Bough was no momentary decision. When John Robert Colombo in 1969 asked sixty poets to choose from their own poetry one favourite poem with a paragraph to explain that preference, Earle Birney chose From the Hazel Bough with the following explanation: This one is short and easy to read and write/it managed its own mysteries including an open rhythm which so far has prompted 5 wildly different pieces of music/i keep feeling its still just casey jones 3 Three years later, in his critical study of the Writing and Reading of Poetry, Birney reconfirmed this choice:
In a cassette recording of a reading of his poetry, Birney concludes with From the Hazel Bough, introducing the poem with the following words:
The only critic who looks closely at From the Hazel Bough is Peter Aichinger. He calls it a cryptic love poem (p. 43) whose obscurity and ambiguity may be a deliberate attempt to conceal Birneys real attitude toward the relationships between men and women (p. 73). The poem
What Birney has said about Mappemounde, a poem written during that same period of convalescence when he wrote From the Hazel Bough in 1945, applies to both poems and aptly summarizes Aichingers analysis: the poem is an ironic comment, in the style of Hardy, upon the transitory nature of love and faithfulness7.
Neither Birney nor his critics mention the poem that From the Hazel Bough is most comparable with: W.B. Yeats The Song of Wandering Aengus:
Yeats tells the haunting story of an old man who recalls how long ago he was compelled by a fire in his head to go out to cut a wand for fishing. He catches a silver trout which is then transformed into a vision of a glimmering girl. His quest will be to find this girl who called his name before vanishing.
In Yeats poem we find not only the source of Birneys imageryhis hazel bough in Yeats hazel wood and hazel wand, his trout in Yeats silver trout, his river in Yeats streambut we find the same dialectical structure. Yeats contrasts the past with the present, the inner with the outer, the ethereal with the earthly, the imaginative with the natural. A break in the middle of each stanza (signalled by a semi-colon or colon) underlines the shift from the earthly and physical to the mysterious and magical, from the concrete world of the particular to the abstract world of the universal. Birney similarly contrasts then with now, youth with age, love with memory. Yeats silver apples of the moon and golden apples of the sun may have their corresponding imagery in the lunar tides that arouse the sun-rising breasts in Birneys poem. (Birneys treatment of the transformation theme is more immediate, as the lady and the landscape metaphorically merge.) But obscure allusions account for neither the meaning nor the importance of the poem. What Birneys poem owes most to Yeats is its genre. And it is in this generic context that the silver and golden apples of the moon and sun are most relevant to Birneys poem.
The Song of Wandering Aengus belongs to the Gaelic genre known as the aisling.8 The word means a vision or a dream; and the vision the poet sees is the spirit of Ireland as a beautiful woman. The aisling then is a folksong in which a female figure serves as a metaphor for the singers homeland, or what in this context we might more aptly call the motherland.
Yeats explains that The Song of Wandering Aengus was suggested to me by a Green folksong; but the folk belief of Greece is very like that of Ireland, and I certainly thought, when I wrote it, of Ireland, and of the spirits that are in Ireland9. Yeats interest in reviving Irish culture through Celtic mythology began with quixotic ambitions to create a Celtic counterpart to the Greek Arcadia and Biblical Eden. In this poem, the fisherman, the silver trout, and the hazel bough are translated into Aengus, Ireland, and the Tree of Knowledge. Once hes envisioned the ideal, he is no longer content with reality; thus, metaphorically fallen from paradise, Aengus becomes a lost wanderer. Baudelaire contends that any lyric poet, by his very nature, inevitably brings about a return toward the lost Eden10. Exiled from the garden, Yeats and Aengus seek return not to the godly father but to the motherland of home.
In an essay published in 1904, Yeats suggests the need to establish a relationship between personal and cultural tradition:
Turning from this ideal principle to examine its practice in the poem, we see now that the silver and golden apples of the moon and the sun represent the marriage of the bride and bridegroom of poetic inspiration: the common impulse engaged in the communal folk tradition is wedded to the kingly soul engaged in the individual introspective mind. Yeats describes the result of this marriage, in a letter to Dora Sigerson (1899) in which he defines his favourite kind of poetry:
All this generic background is unnecessary for answering most questions about Birneys poem: What do the trout signify? The ladys legs. What does the hazel bough signify? The ladys eyes, whose charm enchants the boys. Where is the lady now? If no man sees where her legs are laid out, then she may be dead, or at least unloved and forgotten.
But, if we ask ourselves who the lady is, we get a different answer than when we consider the genre of the poem, if indeed, like Yeatss poem, Birneys From the Hazel Bough is an aisling. The poem first appeared in Birneys 1948 volume of poems entitled The Strait of Anian. The title refers to the alleged Northwest passage which would enable sailors to bypass cold Canada in order to reach the more worthwhile destination of India. Birney quotes as his epigraph to the volume a 1594 account of Sir Francis Drakes first voyage to the Indies:
The collection begins with a poem entitled Atlantic Door and concludes with one entitled Pacific Door. In between, it moves through poems dealing with the Maritimes, Quebec, Montreal, to Toronto in the centre, and then out to the prairies and the Rockies. The two Toronto poems are The Ebb Begins from Dream, which refers to such regions of the city as Rosedale, Forest Hill, and the Danforth; and From the Hazel Bough, which vaguely refers to Hazelton Avenue in the Yorkville neighbourhood. Birney identifies the neighbourhood when he introduces From the Hazel Bough in his recorded reading: My daily work took me through Yorkville and Cumberlandslum streets before the hippies14.
Some of the companion poems in this journey across the country speak of Canada as a girl or as a high school adolescent. In Transcontinental the land is a great green girl grown sick/with mansick with the likes of us? Her toes are soaked in seaports, her ankles rashed with stubble, her lakeblue eyes scummed by tugboats:
Thus when we ask who is this lady described so in terms of the landscape, we should answer that she is a personification of Canada. As Yeats was mythologizing Ireland, Birney is mythologizing Canada. But why is the encounter so brief? The answer to that question is suggested in the title of the collection, The Stait of Anian, the ironic reference to the colonial mentality which leaves us thinking of ourselves not as natives proud of our homeland, but as immigrants passing through. When the desired gaiety and pride is discovered in the local, it sets us dreaming metaphors of the exotic (11. 15-16). The subtitle of another companion poemCan. Lit.is a distortion of the maple leaf forever: them able to leave her ever16. Birneys revisions of the later editions of From the Hazel Boughhis changing the He to I and they to we (I met a lady)shifts our attention to the overshadowed other subject of the poem: not the lady, but the persona; not Canada, but the Canadian. From the Hazel Bough presents the Canadian as a tourist in a land to which he first felt little commitment. Now at last he is beginning to recognize with regret his lack of roots in his own land.
In an essay entitled Unhiding the Hidden, Robert Kroetsch quotes Martin Heidegger: Roman thought takes over the Greek words without a corresponding, equally authentic experience of what they say . . . . The rootlessness of Western thought begins with this translation. Kroetsch then quotes the narrator of Margaret Atwoods Surfacing as epitomizing this very Canadian predicament: Now were on my home ground, foreign territory17. As Yeats turned a Greek folk song into a Celtic myth with a fairyland setting, Birney turns Yeats Celtic song into a Canadian myth with the treelined, sidewalked neighbourhood of Hazelton Avenue bounded by the Atlantic tides and Pacific salmon.
What makes From the Hazel Bough exceptional is its ability to capture the spirit of the country while transcending its patriotic intention to do so. That is to say, the aisling does not limit the universality of the poem; From the Hazel Bough may be enriched by the patriotic subtext of Birneys exploration of Canada, but, like Yeats poem, is in no way dependent on it. Not a closed work (however much the last line returns us to the title), it may still be described best as an elegiac lyric about the transitory nature of life, love, and loyalty. And yet, if we were to transpose the two poems, we would discover immediately that Yeats fairyland no more suits Canada than Birneys transcontinental neighbourhood suits Ireland. A demonstration of his famous conclusion to Can. Lit.its only by our lack of ghosts/ were hauntedFrom the Hazel Bough is for Canadians as haunting an aisling as any ever written.
Earle Birney (High Barnet Cassettes).[back]