Inspired by Yeats: contemporary poets weigh in

William Butler Yeats, age 38_December 1903_portrait by Alice Broughton

William Butler Yeats, age 38_December 1903_portrait by Alice Broughton

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)
Hound Voice
Because we love bare hills and stunted trees
And were the last to choose the settled ground,
Its boredom of the desk or of the spade, because
So many years companioned by a hound,
Our voices carry; and though slumber-bound,
Some few half wake and half renew their choice,
Give tongue, proclaim their hidden name: ‘Hound Voice.’
The women that I picked spoke sweet and low
And yet gave tongue. ‘Hound Voices’ were they all.
We picked each other from afar and knew
What hour of terror comes to test the soul,
And in that terror’s name obeyed the call,
And understood, what none have understood,
Those images that waken in the blood.
Some day we shall get up before the dawn
And find our ancient hounds before the door,
And wide awake know that the hunt is on;
Stumbling upon the blood-dark track once more,
Then stumbling to the kill beside the shore;
Then cleaning out and bandaging of wounds,
And chants of victory amid the encircling hounds.
. . .
Margaret Atwood (born 1939)
Because We Love Bare Hills and Stunted Trees
Because we love bare hills and stunted trees
we head north when we can,
past taiga, tundra, rocky shoreline, ice.
Where does it come from, this sparse taste
of ours? How long
did we roam this hardscape, learning by heart
all that we used to know:
turn skin fur side in,
partner with wolves, eat fat, hate waste,
carve spirit, respect the snow,
build and guard flame?
Everything once had a soul,
even this clam, this pebble.
Each had a secret name.
Everything listened.
Everything was real,
but didn’t always love you.
You needed to take care.
We long to go back there,
or so we like to feel
when it’s not too cold.
We long to pay that much attention.
But we’ve lost the knack;
also there’s other music.
All we hear in the wind’s plainsong
is the wind.
. . .

William Butler Yeats
Between extremities
Man runs his course;
A brand, or flaming breath.
Comes to destroy
All those antinomies
Of day and night;
The body calls it death,
The heart remorse.
But if these be right
What is joy?


A tree there is that from its topmost bough
Is half all glittering flame and half all green
Abounding foliage moistened with the dew;
And half is half and yet is all the scene;
And half and half consume what they renew,
And he that Attis’ image hangs between
That staring fury and the blind lush leaf
May know not what he knows, but knows not grief.


Get all the gold and silver that you can,
Satisfy ambition, animate
The trivial days and ram them with the sun,
And yet upon these maxims meditate:
All women dote upon an idle man
Although their children need a rich estate;
No man has ever lived that had enough
Of children’s gratitude or woman’s love.
No longer in Lethean foliage caught
Begin the preparation for your death
And from the fortieth winter by that thought
Test every work of intellect or faith,
And everything that your own hands have wrought
And call those works extravagance of breath
That are not suited for such men as come
proud, open-eyed and laughing to the tomb.


My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup
On the marble table-top.
While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.


Although the summer Sunlight gild
Cloudy leafage of the sky,
Or wintry moonlight sink the field
In storm-scattered intricacy,
I cannot look thereon,
Responsibility so weighs me down.
Things said or done long years ago,
Or things I did not do or say
But thought that I might say or do,
Weigh me down, and not a day
But something is recalled,
My conscience or my vanity appalled.


A rivery field spread out below,
An odour of the new-mown hay
In his nostrils, the great lord of Chou
Cried, casting off the mountain snow,
‘Let all things pass away.’
Wheels by milk-white asses drawn
Where Babylon or Nineveh
Rose; some conquer drew rein
And cried to battle-weary men,
‘Let all things pass away.’
From man’s blood-sodden heart are sprung
Those branches of the night and day
Where the gaudy moon is hung.
What’s the meaning of all song?
‘Let all things pass away.’


The Soul. Seek out reality, leave things that seem.
The Heart. What, be a singer born and lack a theme?
The Soul. Isaiah’s coal, what more can man desire?
The Heart. Struck dumb in the simplicity of fire!
The Soul. Look on that fire, salvation walks within.
The Heart. What theme had Homer but original sin?


Must we part, Von Hugel, though much alike, for we
Accept the miracles of the saints and honour sanctity?
The body of Saint Teresa lies undecayed in tomb,
Bathed in miraculous oil, sweet odours from it come,
Healing from its lettered slab. Those self-same hands perchance
Eternalised the body of a modern saint that once
Had scooped out pharaoh’s mummy. I – though heart might find relief
Did I become a Christian man and choose for my belief
What seems most welcome in the tomb – play a pre-destined part.
Homer is my example and his unchristened heart.
The lion and the honeycomb, what has Scripture said?
So get you gone, Von Hugel, though with blessings on your head.
. . .

Harry Clifton (born 1952)
Chez Jeanette

My fiftieth year had come and gone.
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop…
– W.B. Yeats
And so do I, past fifty now,
In the gilt and mirror-glass
Of Chez Jeanette’s immigrant bar.
Wine, cassis, an overflow
Spilt on the table – marble
Like Yeats’ but more of a mess.
Behind the bottles on the shelf
A real, a transcendental self
Is hiding. Great Master,
Tell me, as you sat with your cup,
And grace came down like interruption,
Did these flakes of ceiling plaster
Also drown in your dregs?
The fallen angels, broken spirits
Told like tea-leaves, disinherited,
Sold into Egypt? Child-wives, pregnant,
Hide the future, keep it dark.
Splinter-groups of young Turks
Stand at the counter, arguing.
And the saucers of small change
Accumulate. The minutes, the hours,
If grace or visitation
Ever enter . . . A prostitute,
Bottom of the range,
Her hangdog client, middle-aged,
Go next door, to the short-time hotel.
In the hour that God alone sees,
We are all anonymities,
No-one finds us, we cannot be paged
In Dante’s Heaven, Swedenborg’s Hell
Or the visions of William Yeats.
And whether the hour is early or late
Or out of time, I do not know.
But for now, it comes down to this –
The marble top, the wine, cassis,
And the finite afterglow.

. . .
William Butler Yeats
The Folly of Being Comforted
One that is ever kind said yesterday:
“Your well-belovéd’s hair has threads of grey,
And little shadows come about her eyes;
Time can but make it easier to be wise
Though now it seems impossible, and so
All that you need is patience.”
Heart cries, “No,
I have not a crumb of comfort, not a grain.
Time can but make her beauty over again:
Because of that great nobleness of hers
The fire that stirs about her, when she stirs,
Burns but more clearly. O she had not these ways
When all the wild Summer was in her gaze.”
Heart! O heart! if she’d but turn her head,
You’d know the folly of being comforted.

. . .

Rita Ann Higgins (born 1955)
The Bottom Lash
One that is ever kind said yesterday:
My dearest dear,
your temples are starting to resemble
the contents of our ash bucket
on a wet day.
What’s with your eyelashes?
They grow more sparse by the tic tock.
Are you biting them off
or having them bitten off,
like the lovers do during intimacy
in the Trobriand islands?
You have no bottom lashes at all.
Personally, I wouldn’t be seen out
without my bottom lash.
A bare bottom lash is tantamount
to social annihilation.
A word to the wise, my dearest dear,
the next time you lamp the hedger
you might ask him to clip clop
your inner and outer nostril hairs.
It’s not a good look for a woman.
By the by, doteling,
I’ve noticed the veins on your neck
are bulging like billio
when a male of the species
walks into the room.
Is that a natural phenomenon
or is it a practised technique?
Up or down you’ll get no accolades for it,
nor for the black pillows
under your balding eyes.
Apart from that, my dearest dear,
your beauty is second to none.
. . .

The above poems by Atwood, Clifton and Higgins, first appeared in The Irish Times (September 2015).

For other poems by W.B. Yeats (including translations into Spanish) click on the link:

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