Tomorrow, January 28th, marks the anniversary of the death in 1939 of the great Irish poet and Nobel Laureate, William Butler Yeats.
W.B.Yeats has been a part of my life pretty much from the day I was born, with my mother quoting lines of his work. One of her favourites, when I’d be getting into a tizz-wizz over something would be:
She bid me take life easy,
as the grass grows on the weirs;
But I was young and foolish,
and now am full of tears.
(From: W.B. Yeats, Down by the Salley Gardens)
W.B. Yeats’ poetry was a fundamental part of English in school and it was there that I fell in love with The Wild Swans at Coole. I associate the poem very much with my birthday in October, just when we’d be getting settled back into the first term after the long summer holidays.
I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.
(From: W.B. Yeats, The Wild Swans at Coole)
It was when I was a student at Trinity College, Dublin that I became acutely aware of the broader context of W.B. Yeats’ life and was very taken by the fact that his brother, Jack Yeats, was such a brilliant artist. His painting, The Liffey Swim, was one which I used to go and admire endlessly in the National Gallery of Ireland.
But, most of all, I found myself wondering endlessly about W.B. Yeats’ love life and especially the whole issue of unrequited love which was something he battled with, like so, so many people. The poem The White Birds, which he wrote after the love of his life, Maud Gonne, rejected his marriage proposal is never far from my mind:
I am haunted by numberless islands, and many a Danaan shore, Where Time would surely forget us, and Sorrow come near us no more; Soon far from the rose and the lily, and fret of the flames would we be, Were we only white birds, my beloved, buoyed out on the foam of the sea!
(From: W.B Yeats, The White Birds)
It seemed only natural that I would read W.B. Yeats’ poetry to our son from when he was very young and there were precious, precious nights when we would share absolute gems while he drifted off to sleep. So many lines spring to mind as I recall those nights but none more than these:
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
(From: W.B. Yeats, The Lake Isle of Innisfree)
One of my proudest achievements in recent years has been running a Poetry Thread on Linkedin. It has been a little oasis in a crazy world and it seemed only natural that I would choose a line from W.B. Yeats to start if off:
‘Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.’
(From W.B. Yeats, Aodh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven)
And, as I’ve aged and read more and more poetry, I still think that W.B. Yeats’ poem, When You Are Old, is the best love poem ever written. The lines that I simply adore from it are these:
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;
(From W.B. Yeats, When You Are Old )
Tonight, on the eve of W.B. Yeats’ anniversary, I feel incredibly fortunate to have been soaked in his poetry throughout my life. I hope it will continue to travel with me, like an old friend, forever more.
There are all sorts of bridges that make me sigh and I want to thank David Millington-Croft from the magnificent There is No Cavalry for mentioning the Bridge of Sighs in a comment at the start of this Festival of Bridges.
I’ve spent most of the day thinking about bridges that make me sigh and also pondering on the word sigh. I’m taking it in a positive sense here ~ to mean bridges in a range of contexts that have touched my soul. Here are my top five out of possible thousands!
#1 Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco ~ a bridge that won my heart in 1983 and is still carved there, especially when I see the sun rising.
#2 Claude Monet’s painting of The Bridge at Argenteuil. I associate this very much with my late father and I was fortunate enough to see it in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC in November 2010, just eight weeks after father’s death.
3# Senator George Mitchell who played such a key role in negotiating the Peace Process in Northern Ireland. Having lived through the years of the Troubles in Northern Ireland which claimed the lives of over 3,000 people, I am eternally grateful that those terrible, terrible years are behind us.
#4 Jack B. Yeats’ painting ‘The Liffey Swim.’ This painting has huge significance for me as it hangs in The National Gallery of Ireland, a place which I visited very, very regularly throughout the 15+ years I lived in Dublin. When I was leaving Dublin I bought a copy of the painting which lives in my study here in Tramore. The bridge in the painting is Butt Bridge which I crossed regularly, especially during my junior tennis days when I was catching the train to and from Drogheda which was home then.
# ‘The Bridge Builder’ by Will Allen Drumgoole. This poem reminds me of the many, many older people who have built bridges for me over the years. I would like to think that I thanked them sufficiently for their kindness but I know full well that I didn’t.
THE BRIDGE BUILDER
An old man going a lone highway,
Came, at the evening cold and gray,
To a chasm vast and deep and wide.
Through which was flowing a sullen tide
The old man crossed in the twilight dim,
The sullen stream had no fear for him;
But he turned when safe on the other side
And built a bridge to span the tide.
“Old man,” said a fellow pilgrim near,
“You are wasting your strength with building here;
Your journey will end with the ending day,
You never again will pass this way;
You’ve crossed the chasm, deep and wide,
Why build this bridge at evening tide?”
The builder lifted his old gray head;
“Good friend, in the path I have come,” he said,
“There followed after me to-day
A youth whose feet must pass this way.
This chasm that has been as naught to me
To that fair-haired youth may a pitfall be;
He, too, must cross in the twilight dim;
Good friend, I am building this bridge for him!”
Will Allen Drumgoole
The Festival of Bridges continues until October 31 and I would love to hear about bridges that make YOU sigh. Please email me with your words, images, music at firstname.lastname@example.org.