In our last post, we quoted from what is probably Yeats’ most quoted poem, ‘The Second Coming’, and we touched on the significance of the image of the falcon in the first line. In fact, ‘The Second Coming’ is one of the most quoted poems of the 20th Century. Some readers may remember its appearance in ‘The Sopranos’. Anthony Junior, during an adolescent breakdown, hears the poem at the community college where he is taking lessons. He becomes preoccupied with the poem and its message, and wants to talk about its significance with anyone who will listen, including his more intelligent older sister, Meadow. Meadow rolls her eyes and corrects his pronunciation. The episode struck a chord with me (or rather, it made me cringe) because I had in my time been a troubled and slightly pretentious youth given to morbidity, and I had pronounced Yeats name like Anthony Junior did – ‘Yeets’, when it’s really ‘Yates’.
So, since everybody and their troubled little brother knows ‘The Second Coming’, let’s look at a lesser known Yeats poems.
He Reproves the Curlew
O Curlew, cry no more in the air,
Or only to the water in the West;
Because your crying brings to my mind
passion-dimmed eyes and long heavy hair
That was shaken out over my breast:
There is enough evil in the crying of wind.
Hang on, some of you are saying, we know your game. You think I’m always including poems about birds because I like to jabber on about birds. Well, maybe; but doesn’t a bit of background knowledge about birds help us understand the poem? What about that stuff about kites last post? See. You just have to trust me that when I go off on an ornithological tangent, it will in some way enrich your appreciation of the poem.
Right, so here’s a picture of a curlew I spotted during a trip to Belfast Lough a couple of years ago:
A rocky estuary is a good place to see the curlew: they spend the winter on the coasts. I see one quite often at Tynemouth when the tide is out and it comes to search for food on the Black Middens with turnstones and oystercatchers. I’ve seen one nesting by a stream in shrub land just off the river Aln where it meets the sea at Alnmouth – it was here I first heard the distinctive rising lament that makes it the subject of Yeats’ poem. They’re also found, especially in winter in hill and moor country – one swooped over my car once as I drove towards the Pennines near Lanchester, and hikers may recognize them as the bird on the logo of the Northumberland National Park. I’ve usually seen individuals rather than flocks, but I did see a flock last year – from a metro in fact – searching over the vast mudflats near Incheon in South Korea, a bleak and beautiful sight.
So now we’re familiar with the curlew, who is this ‘he’ in the poem? Does it matter? I suppose not – we can just as well appreciate the poem if the persona is anonymous, just a man who hears a curlew and is reminded unwillingly of his lost love. But the notes in my Penguin edition, tell me that the persona was originally meant to be Yeats’ ‘Red Hanrahan’, his reimagining of the 18th Century peasant poet, Owen Roe O’ Sullivan (that is, Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin ) of County Kerry. Hanrahan – Ó Súilleabháin – would rather the curlew were quiet to leave him in the present, and not bring back the memories of a lost love, described in a quite sensuous image. We can imagine the poem to be set in an misty pastoral past in which men identified readily with the sights and sounds of the natural world, and the ‘evil in the wind’ is the fateful evil that ever abounds; or, as Yeats invites, we can locate it in a particular past, that of Ireland after the Jacobean wars when the plight of the Catholic Irish – particularly the Gaelic speakers displaced by Scots and English planters – was quite desperate. Either way, the poem deals with universal themes – lost love, regret and the impossible wish to forget them. The poem suggests that there is no escape from one’s human woes in the embrace of nature, that man will always find echoes of that which sorrows him wherever he turns his eyes and ears. This is an idea that Yeats had covered in more complex imagery in the poem ‘The Sorrow of Love’.