Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Dark Leopards of the Moon

I've been reading a lot of poetry recently, which one of my college lit professors claimed was a symptom of clinical depression. Whatever. Personally i think it's because of that video game commercial that uses the We Happy Few speech from Henry V-- such a great pep talk.

My tastes do run toward the melancholy (William Cullen Bryant's Thanatopsis is probably my favorite poem), but i mostly like interesting language and cryptic imagery. At the moment, i'm mildly obsessed with William Butler Yeats. I think certain poets make more sense at certain times of one's life. In my college years, it was Leaves of Grass because Whitman seemed like he was always spurring you on to some journey. Yeats seems to be the poet of aging men. It might not be apparent in The Second Coming, probably his best known poem; but Sailing to Byzantium or Men Improve with the Years are poems that probably only make sense to someone who has reached a certain age. I love the second half of the third stanza of Byzantium:
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity
The phrase "fastened to a dying animal" is one of those amazing poetic tropes that could not be revised.

My introduction to Yeats (beyond The Second Coming -- everybody has heard the "What rough beast...slouches toward Bethlehem..." line) was from the Waterboys' song "The Stolen Child", which is basically Yeats' poem set to music. Much of Yeats' poetry based on Irish folk legend doesn't resonate with me like his other works, but this version is surprisingly effective because each stanza of the poem ends with the same lines, which the Waterboys sang as a chorus.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand
My favorite thing about Yeats is the degree to which he sometimes takes his symbolism, which results in lots of strangely satisfying WTF? moments when reading his poems. My favorite image is from Lines Written in Dejection:
WHEN have I last looked on
The round green eyes and the long wavering bodies
Of the dark leopards of the moon?
All the wild witches, those most noble ladies,
For all their broom-sticks and their tears,
Their angry tears, are gone.

The holy centaurs of the hills are vanished;
I have nothing but the embittered sun;
Banished heroic mother moon and vanished,
And now that I have come to fifty years
I must endure the timid sun.
Dark leopards of the moon? The hell you say? When i start my geriatric death metal band, that will be our name.

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