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A Prayer for my Father; Why Read Yeats

A majority of what I’ve learned in life is from my Father. He has always been a role model for me throughout my academic career. I grew up going to the local public library with him, and it is from him where I get my love of English and literature. While my Father has always encouraged my love of literature, he has never understood my fascination with poetry, and although I will be writing this paper for a student of our age who is interested in poetry I can’t help but also have my Father in mind.

I believe that out of all the poets we have read this semester the one who made the biggest impression on me was William Butler Yeats. I believe that he has a lot to offer those who have spent a good amount of time studying poetry, and those who have spent no time in poetry. The best reason to read Yeats is because he memorializes and romanticizes a fondness of home through his works about Ireland, he works through pressing issues, internal and external, through dialogues in his poetry which explore both sides of an argument, and he artfully engages with political matters through his writing as well. All of these reasons are insightful to the modern day reader. My Father has always said that poetry was a luxury, to have time to contemplate the meaning of a work was something he didn’t have, but Yeats is ready for anyone at any time.

The meaning of home has been a theme throughout my life, and is a theme for many college students across the country. Home can be many things, it can be a physical house with family and loved ones, it can be a location on a map where memories were made, or home can even be a single person. For William Butler Yeats, home is Ireland and its beauty is captured and memorialized through his poetry about it. One of the best poems to exemplify Yeats’s fondness of home is the tranquil and peaceful tone that is his poem, The Lake Isle of Innisfree. Yeats lived in London with his family and while walking through Fleet Street he is noted in his autobiography to have heard the tinkle of water from a fountain in a shop window and was wrenched with homesickness for Ireland. This is what inspired one of his most famous works. The first phrase in the poem, “I will arise and go now”, are repeated in the beginning of the first and last stanza. The word ‘arise’ begins the poem with a positive connotation which is important to note because the other words in the poem might give it a sense of being a somber and quaint poem, with phrases such as ‘small cabin’, ‘live alone’, and ‘pavements gray’. It is the use of these two tones together that create the sweet sadness of homesickness. In the first two stanzas this poem is describing Yeats’s home, he is romanticizing the hum of bees and the peace he feels when he is at home, “And I shall have some peace there” stated in line 5, but in the last stanza he is brought back to his London reality.

“I will arise and go now, for always night and day

I hear the lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;

While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavement gray,

I hear it in the deep heart’s core.”

 

While some might think it is a sad reality check, Yeats is happy that he has such a fond home that he can always carry with him in his heart. This idea is so central to college students because college can be a difficult time being away from home. Even after 3 years of college and living away from my Reston home I still can feel homesick on a gloomy, rainy day. When you feel this way though, you should read The Lake Isle of Innisfree because even when away from home the warmth of home is a feeling you can always remember, and when away from home you can always know you have a place to go to, even if it is just “in the deep heart’s core”.

With the same idea of home, while looking through Yeats’s poetry specifically about Ireland or of his home of the tower the poem To Be Carved on a Stone at Thoor Ballylee could be over looked, but I believe it is one of the most romantic memorialization of his home. It is only one stanza, and no more than 6 lines long but the title itself carries the purpose for the poem, “to be carved on a stone at Thoor Ballylee”. Yeats restored the old Norman tower (thoor) to be his home, and this poem is an explanation of specific pieces of information that represent his home.

“I, the poet William Yeats,

With old mill boards and sea-green slates,

And smithy work from the Gort forge,

Restored this tower for my wife George;

And may these characters remain

When all is ruin once again.”

 

This poem holds a key concept for Yeats’s idea of home, which is stated in the last two lines. While in this specific poem he is referencing that the characters of this work be forever engrained on his home even after time passes and ‘all is ruin once again’, it also can be applied to his other works about Ireland, and other works about his feelings and thoughts that will remain of importance no matter what the world weathers in the future and after his time. This is of a similar concept to the words of a parent or professor, or the impression of home on a college student that will remain even when things seem to be in ruin, during finals for example, the characters and impressions of home and comfort will always remain.

Lastly, Yeats uses A Prayer for my Daughter to convey ideas of home in relation to a person. Yeats’s is mostly noted to be a dark poet who often doesn’t have a lot of positive outlooks but this is one of the poems that pushes back on that idea. In this poem he values the idea of his daughter having a stable home, in which a college student can read this a be reminded of the stability that home brings and the love of a parent which can also be considered home. The two points in this poem that relate to this idea the most are in the sixth stanza where Yeats wishes that his daughter is a tree, “Oh, may she live like some green laurel/ Rooted in one dear perpetual place”. The simile used to describe his daughter as a tree and the use of the word perpetual gives the idea that in a home there is a hope for stability and permanence. Just the same in the last stanza he brings up the idea of home again, “And may her bride-groom bring her to a house/ Where all’s accustomed, ceremonious;” This is a valid wish for any parent and student to feel. This poem means a great deal to me because my Father means home to me, and I’m sure family members mean home for other students as well, which they can find in this Yeats poem.

Similarly, students of today are continuously faced with issues of identity, of morality, and of the future. Yeats also faced these issues and often times used his poetry to look at both sides of an issue and work through his thoughts and ideas. Intellectual students consider everyday issues that impact them and the world such as if acting on feelings is the right path to choose, what is right and wrong in the world and what ultimately makes a good person? Yeats contemplates these questions as well through different poems such as, In Memory of Major Robert Gregory, and Vacillation.

In In Memory of Major Robert Gregory Yeats contemplates death and what makes an ideal man. The loss of someone is something that many students have faced, myself personally. In January of this year, my friend Paul Kim passed away. Paul was someone who I went to school with since middle school and we both transferred to UVA in the Fall of 2015. I had never lost someone close to me and when I read the first stanzas of In Memory of Major Robert Gregory I think of him. “Now that we’re almost settled in our house/ I’ll name the friends that cannot sup with us” are the opening lines of the poem. Paul and I were almost settled into our home of UVA and Charlottesville together, but now he can no longer sup with myself or our friends. When I spoke on Paul’s behalf at the UVA student memorial in Old Cabell I heard other students memorialize their friends and classmates in their own written speeches just as Yeats does in this poem. We contemplate the people we have lost just as Yeats does through his stanzas and eventually contemplate what makes an impact of a good person just as Yeats does about Major Robert Gregory. The repetition of the lines, “Soldier, Scholar, Horseman, he,” focuses on what Yeats attributes to be memorable traits of his dear friend but those words can also be applied to mean other things for a student who has lost someone today. A soldier can be someone who was loyal and brave, a scholar is very applicable to a student who has lost someone who may have mentored them or as in my case someone I’ve gone to school and taken classes with for over 5 years, horseman might not seem relevant but it could mean someone who had an affection for animals or someone who was in touch with nature.

Also later in stanza 11 of In Memory of Major Robert Gregory, line 81 states;

“Some burn damp fagots, others may consume
The entire combustible world in one small room

As though dried straw, and if we turn about

The bare chimney is gone black out

Because the work had finished in that flare.

…What made us dream that he could comb gray hair?”

 

Here Yeats is contemplating death, and the idea that once someone’s purpose is fulfilled they are taken from the earth. Someone who was so bright that as though dried straw burned so bright and quickly that it is silly to think they would be around long enough to grow old like the rest of us. People who have lost loved ones may similarly think about why someone was taken from the living.

A similar dialogue of contemplation about life is voiced in Vacillation. It is most apparent in stanza 7 some of the distinct ideas that Yeats is discussing,

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?”

 

Yeats is considering a lot of things here in this stanza such as the importance of God and salvation, and contemplation of reality. Many students today have these exact same thoughts. Those who leave religious homes for the first time might be tempted to branch out and discover what life means without having that constant religious support, or if there really is a God and what does that mean for life if there isn’t? Should someone seek reality? What is life without sin? Yeats explores both sides of this issue through the poem but especially through the dialogue format show in this stanza.

Politics is also a matter that Yeats’s was very involved in and cared about. Politics is at the frontline of the college student’s world today. With disagreements between Conservatives and Liberals, a lack of communication and a lack of involvement America today can be thought of to be in political turmoil. As someone who struggled with his ideas of government and politics Yeats’s work can be a perfect place for students to work through the political differences occurring now. Seen previously Yeats obviously can work through two sides of an issue, which is something important that students of today could use especially in politics. The poem which depicts this idea best is Easter 1916.

The poem depicts the horrendous political event of the Easter Rising of 1916 where Irish nationalist revolted against the British government and proclaimed an Irish Republic. Yeats knew many of those who were killed personally, but through this poem he is able to see the people who would be typically depicted as monsters as real humans who he passed by on an everyday basis. “I have met them at close of day/… I have passed with a nod of the head” he described his encounters with the political radicals, humanizing them and understand them on a moral level. In the third stanza Yeats uses an extended metaphor to compare the political extremists to a stone in a river,

“Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem

Enchanted to a stone

To trouble the living stream.”

 

He uses this metaphor with hearts with one purpose alone to commend these people for so strongly believe in a cause they are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice of their life for it.

It is this idea that resonates today and can be used by students of today to understand the politics on the other side of the isle. If you voted for Trump or if you voted for Hilary at the end of the day that vote is a person with feelings and a heart whose beliefs might differ from yours, but you are should be able to understand them from a human level.

In conclusion I believe there are many reasons to read Yeats, but the best are because his poetry show the many sides of his life and his humanity which is something that everyone shares. A college student can learn a lot from literature, and a lot from Yeats. William Butler Yeats offers a romantic memorialization of home, the ability to work through thoughts and issues from both sides of a dialogue, and an emphasis to engage with political matters artfully. As I read Yeats I am reminded of my Father, an intelligent and strong literary role model who I look to for advice and guidance, just as someone can look to Yeats’s poetry for as well.

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