Monday, April 1, 2019

Our National Poetry Month Series for 2019 Kicks off With Yeats on Aging

The official 2019 National Poetry Month poster.

It’s National Poetry Month Again!  If you have been visiting here for a while, you know what that means—it’s our ninth annual round-up of daily doses of verse!  If you are new, here’s the scoop.  Every day all month I will feature poets and their poems.  I aim to be as broad and inclusive as possible to style, subject, period, gender, race, and neglected voices. 

I don’t want just a parade of the usual dead white men, but a lot of them did write some damn fine poetry, so they have their place here too.  As always, selections follow my own tastes and whims.  Yours may be different.  But I am open toeager for—suggestions, especially for contemporary writers.  I do not subscribe to dozens of little magazines or prowl the internet for poetry posts.  I often only stumble on new and unknown poets and I am sure I miss some great stuff.  Please feel free to turn me on to some—or be bold and submit your own.  I don’t and can’t promise to use everything.

In the last couple of years there have been common themes to many of the poems.  In 2017 it was refugees and last year poems of resistance.  I am not sure there will be a theme this year.  Perhaps on will emerge as we go along.
An old poet turns 70.
But since the proprietor of this little pop stand turned 70 last month earning his place among Old White Men poets if not yet a dead one, we will start with two musings on aging by William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), the driving force behind the Irish Literary Revival and  one of the foremost figures of 20th Century literature.

Aging was a theme for Yeats even as a relatively young man and continued through his long body of work.  Our first selection, in fact, was written in 1892 when he was just 27 years old and just beginning to carve out his reputation.  The muse for this poem was almost surely Yeats’ great unrequited love, Maude Gonne the Irish actress and revolutionary equally famous for her intense nationalist politics and breath taking beauty.  Yeats courted her for years and although she seemed to return his affections, turned down his many marriage proposals.  
William Butler Yeats' muse and unrequited love actress Maud Gonne in 1889, the year she met the poet.
She married soldier John MacBride in 1903.  The marriage was short lived and tempestuous but resulted in the birth of a son Sean MacBride who went on to the Irish Republican Army in the 1930s and then became an internationally celebrated champion of the rights of dissidents, founder Amnesty International and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1974.

As for Yeats, after John MacBride was executed for his part in leading the Easter Rebellion, he and Maude finally consummated their relationship but she again spurned his marriage proposal.  Instead he turned to her daughter by French journalist and politician Lucien Millevoye, 21 year old Iseult Gonne to whom he had been a virtual father figure.  Horrified, the girl turned him down.  Shortly after he married 25 year old Georgie Hyde-Lees. The marriage lasted until Yeats’ death and produced two children as was reportedly happy despite the poet’s indiscretions with other women.

But all of that was in the future when Yeats wrote this in 1892.

When You are Old

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,

And nodding by the fire, take down this book,

And slowly read, and dream of the soft look

Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,

And loved your beauty with love false or true,

But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,

And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,

Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled

And paced upon the mountains overhead

And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

—William Butler Yeats

W.B. Yeats painted by his father John Butler Yeats in 1901--a young man pondering aging

If Yeats considered the aging of his beloved in When You Are Old, he contemplated his own mortality in this one.

A Prayer for Old Age

God guard me from those thoughts men think

In the mind alone;

He that sings a lasting song

Thinks in a marrow-bone;

From all that makes a wise old man

That can be praised of all;

O what am I that I should not seem

For the song's sake a fool?

I pray—for word is out

And prayer comes round again—

That I may seem, though I die old,

A foolish, passionate man

—William Butler Yeats

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