Poetry Friday: William Butler Yeats

Christmas approaches.  Like most other holidays, it will be the subject of some personal reflections here on the blog, but that’s a few days off.  For this, the penultimate Advent Poetry Friday, it seemed to me there were many wonderful poems to explore—if you’ve never seriously explored the world of Christmas-related poetry, trust me, there’s a lot more out here than “Ma in her kerchief and I in my cap”.  There’s a lovely Galway Kinnell poem about death and life that I almost chose, but then I stumbled into this Yeats poem in an anthology I own (a poem written only a year after my current novel), and I had to share it.  The title is “The Mother of God”:

The threefold terror of love; a fallen flare
Through the hollow of an ear;
Wings beating about the room;
The terror of all terrors that I bore
The Heavens in my womb.

Had I not found content among the shows
Every common woman knows,
Chimney corner, garden walk,
Or rocky cistern where we tread the clothes
And gather all the talk?

What is this flesh I purchased with my pains,
This fallen star my milk sustains,
This love that makes my heart’s blood stop
Or strikes a sudden chill into my bones
And bids my hair stand up?

Yeats is a powerful poet—probably most powerful when he deals with the real world, the world of muck and mire. He himself acknowledges this, charting the origins of his poetry to what he calls “the rag-and-bone shop of the heart”. (An aside: poets, who of us would not give up a limb to have coined that phrase?)  And what he touches in this poem is the physicality of what it might be like to experience what Mary does in the stories told in Matthew and Luke.  I am fascinated (and sometimes unsettled) by this sensory detail—the feeling of the Spirit fluttering at the eardrum as it arrives, the nostalgia for the tread of foot on wet cloth, the chill in her bones as she gives life to something not exactly human (yet hers).

Yeats spins his phrases again—I am as envious of “the three-fold terror of love” as I was of his heart imagery—and yet part of the poem’s beauty for me is that it feels somehow unstudied.  As though this woman is simply saying what happened to her—the fear, the wonder, the dreamlike quality that now pervades all her emotions.  She uses plain words to articulate something no one on Earth could really understand.

That’s the feeling I like best, and the one I want to begin to examine, as I reflect on the coming holiday.  Most of our public holidays—the ones I’ve written on before—begin with the mundane.  A country is founded.  A war is ended.  A people express their gratitude.  This holiday, however it may be celebrated in many homes across the nation, begins somewhere else.  It begins with the image of that solitary woman in a room.  The sound of wings unseen.  The idea that the ordinary may be raised up, that the mundane sometimes contains the miraculous.  It’s an idea that pushed Yeats to write this strange and ambiguous poem, and I hope it inspires something in you this coming week.

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2 comments on “Poetry Friday: William Butler Yeats

  1. Thomas Davis says:

    I cannot even begin to express how much I enjoyed this small essay and seeing Yeats’ poem on this night. Thank you.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Thank you so much, Thomas, for letting me know! I try to choose things that move me, and to share a little of what I think poetry can and does do. Many weeks I don’t know if I was successful—this Friday, it means a lot to me to know I did find success for you. I hope you’ll be back now and then!

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