Sunday, November 5, 2023

Yeats and the Stars 1

The posts that will appear under the title "Yeats and the Stars" are based on a presentation that I gave at the University of Stockholm at the end of October 2023, as part of the conference of the International Yeats Society. It was held in Stockholm to celebrate the centenary of Yeats's being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923.  


In the Introduction to the Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1936), Yeats commented that “There are ‘stars’ in poem after poem of certain writers of the ’nineties as though to symbolize an aspiration towards what is inviolate and fixed” (CW5 189); and there’s certainly one writer of the nineties who mentions stars in poem after poem. 


 In Yeats’s early poetry the stars tend to be pale, uncertain almost in the evening’s falling darkness or fading in the dawn, the “moth-like stars… flickering out” of “The Song of Wandering Aengus” or the “blue star of twilight” of “The White Birds”. As in this poem, they are often accompanied by meteors that flame and fade, or represent themes such as Love, which is “an Indian star / A meteor of the burning heart”. They are associated with dewfall and water, reflected in “star-glimmering pools” (The Shadowy Waters), or “pools among rushes / That scarce could bathe a star” (“The Stolen Child). 

The stars often figure as images of height and distance: in the lyric “When you are old”, Love has “fled / And paced upon the mountains overhead / And hid his face amid a crowd of stars”, while the early poem “Ephemera” looks at the fading of love within a frame of reincarnation (a theme that was attenuated with revision)—“How far away the stars seem, and how far / Is our first kiss, and, ah, how old my heart”. There are the “indifferent stars” (Dream of Death—originally mournful") and “the distant stars” (Per Amica Silentia Lunae).


To mash up the early and the later titles, we have Mongan, the wizard king, thinking of “his Past Greatness when a Part of the Constellations of Heaven”, recalling his past lives. Like Oisin, he has travelled into Tir na n’Og, the Country of the Young, but here imagined as a land among the stars, both images of afterlife where the soul knows “all things now”. The first existence he recalls is as the world-supporting hazel tree, which Yeats’s note tells us is the Tree of Life, or of Knowledge, or the tree supporting the heavens, and “they hung / The Pilot Star and the Crooked Plough / Among my leaves in times out of mind”, thus embracing the stars of the northern pole. Yet except for this mention of the Pole Star, Polaris, Yeats never names a star and names few constellations.