Featured Poem: The Lover Tells of the Rose in His Heart by WB Yeats

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The Lover Tells of the Rose in His Heart by William Butler Yeats (1892)

All things uncomely and broken, all things worn out and old,
The cry of a child by the roadway, the creak of a lumbering cart,
The heavy steps of the ploughman, splashing the wintry mould,
Are wronging your image that blossoms a rose in the deeps of my heart.
The wrong of unshapely things, is a wrong too great to be told;
I hunger to build them anew, and sit on a green knoll apart,
With the earth and the sky and the water, re-made like a casket of gold
For my dreams of your image that blossoms a rose in the deeps of my heart.

Notes and Analysis:

Back in freshman year in college, about a decade ago, the class was asked to pick a poem from our poetry book and to present our analysis of said work. I picked The Lover Tells of the Rose in His Heart by William Butler Yeats. Having had little exposure to W.B. Yeats’s works and little access to the World Wide Web, I ended up with a rather rudimentary and straightforward assessment of what I would later discover to be a historically rich piece.

Armed with handwritten notes, acetate film, and a projector, I proceeded to tell the class my limited understanding of the work. I spoke of how the simplicity of the every day becomes an affront to a man in love. The lover speaks of wanting to rebuild the world to suit the perfection of his loved one. The “wrongness” of the commonplace when set beside the luxurious line “re-made like a casket of gold,” implies the wealth of emotion the speaker feels for the addressed. How the mundane quality of everyday things pales in comparison to the depth of his emotions and the beauty of “the rose in the deeps of his heart.”  And while there may be some merit to this surface-level analysis, there are certain themes I feel I’ve missed. Consider this an attempt to correct my earlier report.

W.B. Yeats was born in 1865 in Dublin, Ireland. When he was a child, his family moved to London to help further his father’s career as an artist. Much of his youth and early adulthood was then spent in the capital city of England. In fact, Yeats purportedly wrote The Lover Tells of the Rose in His Heart during his stay in Bedford Park in 1892. Despite the long years spent abroad, Yeats seems to have remained profoundly devoted to his homeland. Closer examination of the abovementioned poem even discloses allusions to life in Ireland—“the cry of a child by the roadway, the creak of a lumbering cart/the heavy steps of the ploughman, splashing the wintry mould/Are wronging your image that blossoms a rose in the deeps of my heart.”

Could the “you” being portrayed here be something other than a person? Could it, in fact, be the land itself? He speaks of a “hunger to build them anew,” these “unshapely things.” Consider “you” to be Ireland, and the poem takes on a whole new meaning. This makes it altogether possible that the poem isn’t so much about romantic love as it is about nationalistic ideals—the desire to connect with and improve a country that is much beloved though distant. That’s one idea that can be explored.

The other, is that the piece is, in fact, really just a wonderfully written love poem dedicated to Yeats’s long-term love; the English-born feminist, actress, and Irish revolutionary, Maud Gonne. Maud figured heavily in Yeats’s writings throughout the span of his infatuation. She is said to have inspired works like “No Second Troy,” “This, This Rude Knocking,” and “A Man Young and Old.” The poet was so enamored with the Irish revolutionary that he proposed marriage to her, no less than five times (in 1891, 1899, 1900, 1901, and once again in 1916). Though by the time of the last proposal, the romance had reportedly long since fizzled out. It must have been an amicable break because that same year, the 52-year-old Yeats also proposed marriage to Maud’s 22-year-old daughter, Iseult. She also turned him down. When seen in this context, the straightforward analysis of yore works.

And here’s a personal observation from my 28-year-old self: how terribly prophetic that Yeats would use “re-made like a casket of gold” in a poem dedicated to Maud—how a grand gesture could in fact signal the end of a grand, long-standing romance, as one reads too much into the word “casket.” But that’s overreaching and over-reading, as a lover of words is wont to do.

The last idea, which is my favorite, is that like all great works from master wordsmiths, The Lover Tells of the Rose in His Heart is actually a complex combination of these ideas, and more. It’s a love poem written for both a ‘dream lover’ and the ‘dream of a better nation.’ I could also say that it’s an example of how great poetry works—with its ever-shifting meanings borne of the reader’s active imaginings.

The Sylvia Plath Connection: At this point, it’s no great secret that I am a big fan of Sylvia Plath’s works. It was Sylvia Plath’s “Mirror” which awoke my desire to write for a living. Being also a fan of W.B. Yeats’s writings, imagine my surprise when I found out that the two shared something other than great talent. At the time of Sylvia Plath’s death, she was living in a flat where William Butler Yeats once lived. She had taken it as a sign of greater things.

And that concludes today’s lengthy ramblings.

Featured Poem: The Rival by Sylvia Plath

the rival by sylvia plath

The Rival by Sylvia Plath

If the moon smiled, she would resemble you.

You leave the same impression

Of something beautiful, but annihilating.

Both of you are great light borrowers.

Her O-mouth grieves at the world; yours is unaffected,

 

And your first gift is making stone out of everything.

I wake to a mausoleum; you are here,

Ticking your fingers on the marble table, looking for cigarettes,

Spiteful as a woman, but not so nervous,

And dying to say something unanswerable.

 

The moon, too, abuses her subjects,

But in the daytime, she is ridiculous.

Your dissatisfactions, on the other hand,

Arrive through the mailslot with loving regularity,

White and blank, expansive as carbon monoxide.

 

No day is safe from news of you,

Walking about in Africa maybe, but thinking of me.

Note: The Rival is one of the most well-known poems featured in Sylvia Plath’s highly acclaimed posthumous work, Ariel. It was also one of the first poems I’ve read from Plath that really struck a chord with me. While Plath is known for the maelstrom of emotions her work produces, this one in particular encapsulated the universal idea of slow simmering resentment—the kind that’s forged over years of tempering and tolerance. The masterful comparison between the “addressed” and the moon speaks of a waxing and waning of emotions that suggests a long-term attempt to put up with the “addressed.” It also implies the ever-present nature of the subject, for “No day is safe from news of you,| Walking about in Africa maybe, but thinking of me.” These words have led to the popular speculation that the poem is about Plath’s mother, Aurelia.

This theory is further strengthened by the lines: “Your dissatisfactions, on the other hand,| Arrive through the mailslot with loving regularity.” In 1975, about 12 years after Plath’s death, Aurelia Schober Plath agreed to publish the abundance of letters Sylvia had written to her from 1950 to 1963. The collection, Letters Home, had not only given its readers insight into the mind of Sylvia Plath, it also gave them a glimpse of the complex relationship between mother and daughter—something that’s also clearly visible in the poem.

For while the initial wave of meaning that one experiences upon reading The Rival highlights resentment, the lack of action when it comes to severing ties with the subject also speaks volumes about the writer’s frame of mind regarding the “addressed.” Is the passivity in the piece caused by “resignation,” acceptance of “what is,” or does it underscore the dependency that comes with unconditional love? Whatever it implies, what makes The Rival such an enduring piece of literature is how it showcases Plath’s ability to capture the complexity of human emotions and relations.

Free Verse: I Have Rebuilt A Mind.

 

I have rebuilt a mind.

I built it overnight.

I have torn off its foundation by hand,

One concrete slab at a time.

(To reveal the fertile soil of the unlearned mind.)

I have worked away at its pillars:

Outdated notions, antiquated philosophies

I have granted it new memories.

Knee-deep in rubble,

I have rediscovered its purity.

In the course of this renovation,

I have sunk lofty ceilings, ripped apart awnings;

I have stripped the walls bare

Of all thoughts and feelings. Until naked,

The house folds neat in a pile by my feet.

And when all that’s left is but empty land,

I plant in it the seed of faith

And introduce a weed called doubt.

I watch the two grow and intertwine,

To produce the purest, brightest mind.

By: Kristel Marie Pujanes (7/30/2012)

Image: A Cottage in a Cornfield. John Constable (1817)

Featured Poem: Mad Girl’s Love Song – Sylvia Plath

I don’t think this poem and its poetess need much introduction. Perhaps just a few words on why I love this piece. Though vastly different from Sylvia Plath’s latter works like Daddy, Fever 103, and Ariel, I think this piece is just as valuable as her most well-known poems. This early villanelle is one of her most structured works. To me, set Mad Girl’s Love Song beside any of her last poems and you can definitely see Plath’s progression as a poet.

That and I do love Sylvia Plath and villanelles.

 

Mad Girl’s Love Song

By Sylvia Plath (1951)

“I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead;

I lift my lids and all is born again.

(I think I made you up inside my head.)

The stars go waltzing out in blue and red,

And arbitrary darkness gallops in:

I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed

And sung me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane.

(I think I made you up inside my head.)

God topples from the sky, hell’s fires fade:

Exit seraphim and Satan’s men:

I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I fancied you’d return the way you said,

But I grow old and I forget your name.

(I think I made you up inside my head.)

I should have loved a thunderbird instead;

At least when spring comes they roar back again.

I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

(I think I made you up inside my head.)”

 

 

Image: Ophelia by John Everett Millais (1851/1852)

Featured Poem#3: l(a – E.E. Cummings

 

e.e. cummings has written a number of amazing poems, but to me, l(a is still his masterpiece. It’s a visual treat that captures the essence of loneliness. The construction of the poem—the l’s that resemble 1’s, caging the phrase ‘a leaf falls’ inside parentheses, dividing the word loneliness to emphasize its ‘one’-l-iness—is, suffice to say, genius. Aside from carefully deconstructing words to demonstrate the strength of their construction, e.e. cummings also uses a familiar image to convey the heartache aloneness brings.

The gentle, slow descent of a fallen leaf is an image often associated with sadness. I don’t know if this has anything to do with O. Henry’s The Last Leaf, but this poem does carry the same bittersweet quality one would find in reading the famous short story. The arrangement of the letters in this poem also mimics the slow turning a leaf does as it spirals down to earth.

l(a

by: e.e. cummings; 1958

l(a

le

af

fa

ll

s)

one

l

Iness

Image: zaifastafa.blogspot.com

Featured Poem#2: Monet Refuses the Operation – Lisel Mueller

Here’s another high school favorite of mine. This incandescent piece by Lisel Mueller is a brilliant reimagining of Claude Monet’s decision to have his cataracts removed. Except, this time, the painter refuses to go through with the operation. Mueller explains the painter’s decision by the describing the world as it must have appeared to him—fluid and ethereal. Through combining superb writing with vivid imagery, the poetess creates a breathtaking picture of a world unhindered by borders.

Now, imagery has always been the weak point of my poetry. That is why, whenever I read works as ‘stunning’ as Monet Refuses the Operation, I feel incredibly humbled—and a touch hopeful that one day, I too can create something as glorious.

Monet Refuses the Operation by Lisel Mueller

Doctor, you say there are no halos

around the streetlights in Paris

and what I see is an aberration

caused by old age, an affliction.

I tell you it has taken me all my life

to arrive at visions of gas lamps as angels,

to soften and blur and finally banish

the edges you regret I don’t see,

to learn that the line I called the horizon

does not exist and sky and water,

so long apart are the same state of being.

Fifty-four years before I could see

Rouen cathedral is built

of parallel shafts of sun,

and now you want to restore

my youthful errors: fixed

notions of top and bottom,

the illusion of three-dimensional space,

wisteria separate

from the bridge it covers.

What can I say to convince you

the House of Parliament dissolve

night after night to become

the fluid dream of the Thames?

I will not return to a universe

of objects that don’t know each other,

as if islands were not the lost children

of one great continent. The world

is flux, and light becomes what it touches,

becomes water, lilies on water,

above and below water,

becomes lilac and mauve and yellow

and white and cerulean lamps,

small fists passing sunlight

so quickly to one another

that it would take long, streaming hair

inside my brush to catch it.

To paint the speed of light!

Our weighted shapes, these verticals,

burn to mix with air

and changes our bones, skin, clothes

to gases. Doctor,

if only you could see

how heaven pulls the earth into its arms

and how infinitely the heart expands

to claim this world, blue vapor without end.

 

Image: Claude Monet’s Water Lily Pond (1897, 1899) from Canvaz.com

Featured Poem#1: Mirror – Sylvia Plath

Every writer (successful, aspiring, failed, or whatnot) has an interesting anecdote on that “something” that got him/her started on writing. My “something” was Sylvia Plath’s “Mirror”. I don’t remember much of the details. I know it was in high school at my Creative Writing class under my then-favorite teacher. I remember him handing out copies of this poem and later, reading the poem out loud to a quiet audience.

Don’t get me wrong. There was no lightning bolt. No lightbulb. No sirens. No Eurekas! No exclamation points. There was just this stillness. This incredible stillness. It was dread, resignation, elation, calm, peace, understanding, and truth (a glimpse of the absolute truth?) all rolled into one. It was a lingering ache that stayed for days.

I knew. I didn’t want to be a writer, I needed to be one. I realized that it didn’t matter what I did in the mean time, I would always go back to writing. To borrow from Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being: “Muss es sein? Ja, es muss sein!”

Reading this poem ten years later, it still makes me feel the same way.

Mirror – Sylvia Plath

I am silver an exact. I have no preconceptions.

Whatever I see I swallow immediately

Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.

I am not cruel, only truthful,

The eye of a little god, four-cornered.

Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.

It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long

I think it is a part of my heart. But it flickers.

Faces and darkness separate us over and over.

Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,

Searching my reaches for what she really is.

Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.

I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.

She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.

I am important to her. She comes and goes.

Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.

In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman

Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.