I’ve been learning by heart two poems by Yeats. I don’t intend to bore my friends by reciting them; no more than four lines appropriately inserted is acceptable in social contexts. It is a question of memory exercise and enriching my mental iplayer so that I can recite them silently when I want some superior entertainment.
The two poems from Last Poems are, WHY SHOULD NOT OLD MEN BE MAD? and MAN AND THE ECHO. In both, Yeats reflects on the lives of people he has known and those familiar with the poet’s life will get the references, though neither poem depends on that knowledge. Yeats laments in the first poem that:
Some have known a likely lad
That had a sound fly-fisher’s wrist
Turn to a drunken journalist:
A girl that knew all of Dante once
Lived to bear children to a dunce:
and more. He suggests that it is unlikely that any instance can be found of a life that fulfils its early promise. The poem ends with a variant of the first line and title, ‘Know why an old man should be mad.’
But it is in the poem MAN AND THE ECHO, full of quotable lines that have often been quoted, that make me put it in the best ever category. The poem is an echo poem, that playful form where stanzas’ endings are followed by a homonym e.g. this
from George Herbert’s HEAVEN:
O who will show me the delights on high?
Thou Echo thou art mortal all men know
But there is nothing ludic about Yeats’ poem. He employs no word games and the Echo repeats the words ending the first two stanzas exactly. Yeats has questions to answer before he can rest in peace:
Did that play of mine send out
Certain men the English shot?
Did words of mine put too great strain
On that woman’s reeling brain?
Could he have done something to save the country house Coole Park? Yeats must make his own Last Judgment before he can ‘Sink at last into the night.’ Significantly, to the question in the last stanza, ‘Shall we in that great day rejoice?’ the Echo makes no answer.
He begins to speculate on what that might mean but changes tack resulting in what I judge to be the best ending to any poem that I know. We are reminded, as has been explained at the beginning of the poem, that Yeats is ‘At the bottom of a pit / That broad noon has never lit,’ consulting a rock with oracular powers. He becomes confused and loses his theme:
Up there some hawk or owl has struck
Dropping out of sky or rock,
A stricken rabbit is crying out
And its cry distracts my thought.