Memory – W. B. Yeats
One had a lovely face,
And two or three had charm,
But charm and face were in vain
Because the mountain grass
Cannot but keep the form
Where the mountain hare has lain.
I’ve spent the past week reading through the Collected Poems of Yeats. He’s been a go-to guy since high school; each reading reveals him to be a darker writer than his more famous poems allow.
In the above, not one but three of the women of his life are summed up in a six line poem. And not even summed up, but rather quickly evoked, and just as quickly dissolved into an image. The reader is left looking at an impression of life, which is what the speaker is left with as well.
Without going into the details, I’ll say Yeats was a lonely boy, wronged and wronging in love in his respective way. Being sensitive and bookish has its consequences, good and bad.
On the one hand, Yeats is a technical master. But then there’s the hares, who, in truth, merit the greatest sympathy.
In the poem below, Yeats presents a speaker who would learn to change loves “while dancing,” but finds he can only imagine what that might be like. That it can only happen, even hypothetically, in a mythological realm is the first clue to Yeats’ bluff: for all the dancing and laughing, the speaker remains rather pathetic – both in terms of pathos and general sadness, and pathetic like the kid standing against the wall during a dance.
That the means through which the speaker spies this other realm is the bone of a hare – a collar-bone no less, the bone between the throat (where, in us, the voice lives) and the heart – the bone of a simple if fretful creature, means that something simple in him has died as well.
The Collar-Bone of a Hare – W. B. Yeats
Would I could cast a sail on the water
Where many a king has gone
And many a king’s daughter,
And alight at the comely trees and the lawn,
The playing upon pipes and the dancing,
And learn that the best thing is
To change my loves while dancing
And pay but a kiss for a kiss.
I would find by the edge of that water
The collar-bone of a hare
Worn thin by the lapping of water,
And pierce it through with a gimlet, and stare
At the old bitter world where they marry in churches,
And laugh over the untroubled water
At all who marry in churches,
Through the thin white bone of a hare.
p.s. Please check out the latest issue of Right Hand Pointing – a celebration of 10 years of bringing (Right)eous poetry to the people, starring such riff raff as fellow poets Laura M. Kaminski and Marc Vincenz (and yours truly) – here.
Special thanks to editor & fine poet Dale Wisely!