Tuesday, January 27, 2009
Do not because this day I have grown saturnine
Imagine that some lost love, unassailable
Being a portion of my youth, can make me pine
And so forget the comfort that no words can tell
Your coming brought; though I acknowledge that I have gone
On a fantastic ride...
Had I but html skills enough... that sounds like the twenty-first-century poem-opening Yeats never got to write, doesn’t it, but had I (etc.), then I’d love to take an Olsonian pliers to the Yeats poem ‘Under Saturn’ and explode it all over the page, the better to illustrate the remarkable interplay of its opening between the line, as unit, and the clause, or unit of sense. Consider line two, ‘Imagine that some lost love, unassailable’, and the (slightly ungrammatical, granted) pathos it communicates, read on its own. But of course we must ‘not’ imagine; and even so, we have another interim reading, before continuing the sentence, in the thought of that provisional strong imperative: ‘Do not imagine that lost love!’ Consider too how a listener might supply a mental comma after ‘Being’ in line three, turning this memory of lost love into an ‘unassailable /Being, a portion of my youth’. And look at ‘the comfort that no words can tell’ and how it rubs up against ‘the comfort that no words can tell /Your coming brought’, and in particular the delay on ‘brought’. ‘No words can tell /Your coming’, never mind your parting, we might feel, momentarily, but no (wait for it), it is the comfort ‘Your coming [pause] brought’. And on it goes: ‘though I acknowledge that I have gone’. So you’ve gone too? ‘Gone /On a fantastic ride’. And how are we to scan the second-last line?
You heard that labouring man who had served my people. He said
Upon the open road, near to the Sligo quay—
No, no, not said, but cried it out—“You have come again
And surely after twenty years it was time to come.”
I am thinking of a child's vow sworn in vain
Never to leave that valley his fathers called their home.
Do the six stresses go on ‘I’, ‘think’, ‘child’s’, ‘vow’, ‘sworn’ and ‘vain’, hurrying through the anapest of ‘of a child’s’ only to stop almost dead on the two catalectic feet (on this reading) of ‘vow’ and ‘scorn’? Or how do you read it? Note that the valley is not home, it is the place ‘his fathers called their home’, and how the vow is credited not to the speaker but an externalized version of himself, ‘a child’. The unspoken subtext is the speaker’s anxiety that there is no home to return to, any more, only the off-balance, absent centre Yeats has so skilfully imitated in his constant shifting of his lines’ centre of semantic gravity, both proleptically and retrospectively. It is a marvellous performance.