There’s two things that attracted me to T. E. Hulme, the lesser-known Modernist poet and theoretician that I’ve featured a few times this summer. The first is the sense in his poetry and critical writings of the limits of humankind. The other is his poetry's surprising modesty and restraint, something embodied in the very brevity of his poetic expression as well as his images linking the mundane and the cosmic.
This was a man who wanted to overthrow hundreds of years of poetic tradition, and a person whose stubbornness kept him in trouble with authority figures throughout his youth, and yet Hulme expresses himself in these spare lines, as if the first lesson he’s teaching himself is to know his own limits. This seems to be Hulme’s problem with romanticism as he saw and opposed it: humankind is not limitless, though our imagination says otherwise.
Today’s piece, William Butler Yeats’ “The Heart of the Woman” moves in opposition to that outlook, but not in opposition to that expression.
Here in North America, many in the southern region are spending this week either cleaning up from a massive hurricane or clenching their jaws in anticipation of an even larger one due to strike this weekend. Peaceful, Rousseauean nature this ain’t. Hobbes is is a weatherman.
Yeats’ poem is as measured and modest as one of Hulme’s, though it is rhymed and metrical. When one is a good as Yeats is at that, one hardly notices the form. 12 lines, not even a sonnet in length. Like Hulme, this is no great ode of endless argument. On the face of it, it’s a love song, a basic trope of Romanticism, the reason we talk about human attraction and pairing as “romantic.” Its images are centered on a couple embracing.
But look closely in those dozen lines. The woman who’s singing it, has left religion (“prayer and rest”) and family, and has followed a lover’s invitation into what is introduced as “gloom”. Merely the dark of night?
No, in the lovely line darkness is found inside the “Shadowy blossom” of her hair which will hide the lovers from the “bitter storm.” Now we are fully in the Romantic world, where our own darkness may be willful, wishful, blissful, ignorance of the “hiding hair and dewy (blurry) eyes.”
Are there any more Romantic and romantic three lines as Yeats’ final three here? If there are, I can’t recall any at the moment. That the murmurs of human breath can seem to equal a hurricane's—is that glorious or folly or both?
In the spirit of defying human limits, this is the first time you’re going to hear me sing a Parlando Project piece acapella. And though Yeats’ poem doesn’t rule out the same romantic faith on the part of the “he” in this poem, I’m somewhat troubled by the idea that romantic devotion is presented here as female, from the poem's title onward, so I’ll undercut it by singing this.