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Wednesday, December 07, 2016

A Side Trip to Poetry

The other day, my Kindle failed to connect to the internet, and I was unable to download some recent books that I was eager to read.  In response, I turned to one of my Norton anthologies of contemporary poetry published nearly 50 years ago--so--hardly contemporary by today's standards.  I found this one at a library sale decades ago when another edition was published.

I read through Hardy and enjoyed reading the poems I've read many times and tackling a few that in the past I'd only skimmed through.  Hardy has never been a favorite, but he does have some wonderful lines that would make excellent book titles.  In spite of Hardy's rather bleak outlook, he occasionally reveals a wryly humorous  vein, and rereading The Ruined Maid gives me the same pleasure as the first time.

On through Robert Bridges--mostly skimmed.  I did try once again to appreciate Bridges, but failed.  His work doesn't engage me.  

Through Houseman, who though preoccupied with lost youth and wistful looks at times gone by, also has such memorable lines.  I do like many of his poems, and I always smile a little at the first lines of  'Terence This Is Stupid Stuff -- 

‘TERENCE, this is stupid stuff:
You eat your victuals fast enough;
There can’t be much amiss, ’tis clear,
To see the rate you drink your beer.
But oh, good Lord, the verse you make,        5
It gives a chap the belly-ache.

And then to Yeats.  I love Yeats' poetry, at least the ones I understand.  This anthology includes 89 of his poems, and I reread some of my favorites and worked at some of the ones that leave me bewildered.  Since this is my own copy, I added more underlining and marginalia to those I've added previously in many readings.  When I taught, I read all of my poetry books frequently, both for my own pleasure and for insights into teaching--so my anthologies are all marked up with thoughts, underlining, questions, and comparisons. With Yeats, my thoughts are both appreciative of poems and lines that I find amazing--and puzzled over those lines and poems that continue to baffle and perplex.

When I got about half way through the 89 poems, I decided I wanted to know more about the period before and after the Easter Rising, partly to know more about some of the people involved.  In Easter, 1916, Yeats mentions, among others, John MacBride, Maude Gonne's abusive husband from whom she was separated.   Below is an excerpt from the second verse:
This other man I had dreamed 
A drunken, vainglorious lout. 
He had done most bitter wrong 
To some who are near my heart,   
Yet I number him in the song; 
He, too, has resigned his part 
In the casual comedy; 
He, too, has been changed in his turn,   
Transformed utterly: 
A terrible beauty is born. 

and the final lines:
I write it out in a verse— 
MacDonagh and MacBride   
And Connolly and Pearse 
Now and in time to be, 
Wherever green is worn, 
Are changed, changed utterly:   
A terrible beauty is born.  
I don't think Yeats entirely forgives MacBride, but he acknowledges his commitment to the Irish cause in which Yeats himself believes.

Yeats' love of Maude Gonne resulted in her presence in many of his most loved poems.

Anyway, on my library trip Monday, I checked out The Apprentice Mage, without realizing that this is the first (huge) volume of a two volume set, which unfortunately ends in 1914 just when my interest picks up.  Yes, now I see the I in the title, but at the time with my arms full of books....

I'm giving it a try, and while not impressed with the writing, I have found some great bits embedded in the tedious detail. 

A section in the introduction says that one has to look at so many aspects of Yeats' life to gain insight into the man and his work; Foster calls it a "palimpsest of Irishness" that Yeats continued to develop, question, and change throughout his life. Not just for Yeats, but for all of us, our development is overwritten again and again by experience, even if the original is still there in large or small portions.  For Yeats, because of the times in which he lived and his own creative genius, the layers are more interesting and more important.

And yet...the author almost loses purpose in the extraneous detail.  The book is over 500 pages with another 200 pages of end-notes (to which I've already had to refer several times); the print is very small, and the line spacing very narrow (another element that makes for less pleasant reading), and it doesn't even cover the period I'm most curious about.  I may have to skim this one and look for another biography with a cleaner, more efficient style.

I've only been through about 1/2 the poems (so I have many favorites left--including The Second Coming, which once again seems prophetic), but I want more historical context, especially about the Home Rule crisis and the effects of WWI on Yeats' poetry.  (Not that I'm not interested in his love affairs, his fascination with spiritualism, automatic writing, and Honor Bright--I do love me some gossip.)  


  1. I should read more poetry. I don't know why I don't. I like it...but I always reach for a novel instead. Great post! :)

    1. Although I used to read a lot of poetry, I have lost the habit. I tend to reach for a novel, too. But I've put this Norton Anthology by my reading hopes that I'll get back into reading a little at a time. :)

  2. Can never go wrong with poetry! I remember those Norton anthologies from college days. Do they still publish them? Something to look into for later. Anyway, I haven't read much Yeats and should definitely fix that!

    1. Actually, although I do have a Norton anthology on my side table, the one I started reading is Chief Modern Poets of Britain and America (DeWitt/Sanders), and I guess the library discarded it when it went to two volumes. Yeats has a lot of poems that are easily accessible, but I need a critical analysis of many of them--like the Crazy Jane and the Bishop poems!

  3. I remember those Norton anthologies. :-) I might have one or two on my shelf at home still. I never took to Yeats, although I like some of his work.

    1. I love a number of his poems, but some I need help with. I've always found his life fascinating, but realize that I do need a good biography, and the one I checked out from the library is too dense with detail...and its only the first volume!

  4. Sometimes a Kindle failure is a good thing! Love the Houseman you shared, made me laugh! And that Yeats book, 200 pages of endnotes! Crazy.

    1. I'm afraid that will go back to the library--and I won't be looking for the second volume. :)