My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup
On the marble table-top.
While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.
William Butler Yeats
An Irish Airman forsees his death by W.B. Yeats is one of the poems that has stayed with me from schooldays. I was entranced by the rhythm of the words, and the pure joy of repeating the lines of verse which over the years have taken on different layers of meaning.
When I read it first, I imagined it was about a soldier who was drawn to the thrill of flying more than regular life.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds
A few years later, it struck me that the poem evoked the sentiments of an Irishman forced to fight for another country and his attachment to his land and his people even as he takes a detached view of his own life. Still later, I was reminded of this poem when I read about the hundreds and thousands of Indian soldiers recruited by Gandhi to fight for the British in the first and second world wars. It is interesting to think that while history which has been regarded as a collection of facts, takes on different meanings and evokes varied responses based on the points of view of the writer and the reader, poetry remains universal and speaks of a shared human experience.
Most of what I have read of Yeats’ poetry has had the same effect, simple words strung together to make beautiful verse that add fresh layers of meaning and insight on each reading. Conformance to verse form and structure does not restrict his poems, rather it enhances the overall effect that it has on the reader, besides adding to the pleasure of the rhythm as the words flow in carefully orchestrated waves from the page or the screen to the mind and touch the heart.
A writer who is to me rather dearer than Yeats recently quoted the American poet Richard Wilbur, that ‘limitation is liberating as it makes for power’, for ‘the strength of the genie comes of his being confined in a bottle’. So too, the strength of Yeats’ verse which do not belie his hard labor at rhythm, cadence, form and style, comes across as powerful and natural as a clear stream of water that flows from the source of divine inspiration.
Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul,
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
W.B. Yeats, Among School Children