I was sorting out books in the attic, to donate to Cancer Research Shop when I came across Mark Twain’s two classics, Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. I saved those for the grandchildren.
You can tell a lot about a person by quickly scanning their bookshelves, almost as much as you can by listing their friends, their musical or artistic tastes or their leisure pursuits.
I have to confess a deep-felt preference for rhyming over blank verse (and remain much-amused by Hewitt’s sonnet on the subject) and regret that Seamus Heaney – in his latest anthology Human Chain – continues to forsake the former in favour of the latter.
My lovely daughter Emma, for my recent birthday, presented me with an anthology of Yeats’ verse, pieces selected by that other Irish master Seamus Heaney (once a teaching colleague of mine!). [Faber & Faber ; 978 – 0 – 571 – 24732 – 9]
Already I have enjoyed hours of delight for this selection includes the greater number of my personal favourites. Also I have closely perused the introduction by the Derry man – more than once – and I shall do so again, for much light is therein shed – by the Nobel prize-winner – on his predecessor, the greatest ever Irish poet (arguably until Seamus came along).
I take exception only to one reservation, where Heaney castigates the older man for ” a certain coarsening of tone in some of his poetry of the 1930s. His own self-absolution – ‘Why should not old men be mad?’ – does not necessarily extenuate the rant and licence”.
I suppose it depends on which of the many meanings of ‘mad’ one chooses in interpretation but for my part
-being now an old man and given to frenzied railing –
in my inadequate body but reasonably preserved mind, memory, emotions and aesthetic appreciation -against impotence to make a difference, and failure to do so when I might have, and inability to communicate satisfactorily now with that great repository of human joy, beauty, innocence and wisdom, the fair young lady, I choose to side with Yeats over Heaney.
Heaney is particularly scathing about the poem I reproduce below.
How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix,
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics?
Yet here’s a travelled man that knows,
What he talks about,
And there’s a politician
That has read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war’s alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms!
How many hours have I spent, more than half a century ago, in university halls, asking myself that same rhetorical question? And frankly, on reflection, I deem those hours better spent than those when i was paying attention to the academic topic in question.
What then, you may wonder, in Yeats’ opinion is left to the ‘mad’ old man?
AN ACRE OF GRASS
Picture and book remain
An acre of green grass
For air and exercise,
Now strength of body goes;
Midnight, an old house
Where nothing stirs but a mouse.
My temptation is quiet.
Here at life’s end
Neither loose imagination,
Nor the mill of the mind
Consuming its rag and bone,
Can make the truth known.
Grant me an old man’s frenzy,
Myself must I remake
Till I am Timon and Lear
Or that William Blake
Who beat upon the wall
Till Truth obeyed his call;
A mind Michael Angelo knew
That can pierce the clouds,
Or inspired by frenzy
Shake the dead in their shrouds;
Forgotten else by mankind,
An old man’s eagle mind.
Precisely so, I agree, in tune with W B Yeats. Myself I must remake, in the sure knowledge that truth and beauty are paramount.
The above are just two of eleven dozen poems in this worthy tome – my bedside reading for some time to come.
Thank you, Emma!
I recently attended a Reading in Kilkeel Library by acclaimed local author Eoin McNamee. It was well worth the effort!
If you are very quick indeed, you might still purchase an advanced copy of Rose Brennan’s CD String of Pearls from the Festival Office, Rostrevor Square! I have my precious copy…
Michael J Murphy writes [Mountain Year, Blackstaff ’64 ] of the woman on the farm of time ago.
‘Sunshine and oranges’ … what was promised to the ‘orphan’ children who were seized and exported to the antipodes to become victims of abuse. There is an excellent film of the name just released and there follows a review: then a tribute to the Newry children who suffered this fate.
I have finally completed Bill Bryson’s At Home, another of my Christmas present books. 500 pages packed tight with fascinating detail of personal and family life through the ages, it is a ‘must-read’.