Friday, January 14, 2011

A Compassionate Poem by W.B. Yeats

William Butler Yeats (1865 - 1933)
That William Butler Yeats (1865 – 1939) was, and possibly still is, Ireland's greatest poet can be argued clearly and easily.  We studied much of his opus at school and at college, and, indeed, he is often quoted, or at least alluded to in conversation or in the media.  That he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1923 for what the Nobel Committee described as "inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation" surprised few. He was to be the first Irish person so honoured.  That he was to write even greater poems, and indeed plays, after he received that high award surprised fewer still.

At primary school we learnt many of his wonderful early lyrics off by heart:  The Lake Isle of Inishfree, The Wild Swans at Coole and The Sally Gardens are three we committed to memory in primary school, along with The Ballad of Father Gilligan.  These poems were wonderful for young children to learn off by heart and to recite in the classroom.  Indeed we were made commit them to memory and so the wonderful sounds and cadences of these poems lived and still live in our memories and minds.  This, I believe, was a quintessential part of the great poet's gift - his flair for the natural cadences of the English language.  It often confounded me and still does indeed that Yeats was a very poor, if not an awfully bad reader of his own poems, given his grasp of the musicality of language.

Anyway, we loved the following poem by Yeats as children in primary school and we recited it often collectively and individually for our teachers.  It is The Ballad of Father Gilligan.  Quite obviously the ballad metre, the fourteener, four lines of iambic metre alternating 4/3/4/3 - hence making a count of 14 iambs in all per verse - made this task all the easier and all the more enjoyable for us.  Then the folklore-like story in this ballad is itself rivetting.  It tells a lovely compassionate story. 

Whether one believes in the Deity or not, I believe the strength of the ballad lies in the sheer compassion of the poem.  That appealed to me as a very young boy and still does now that I am middle-aged.  This is enough by way of introduction because it is the simplest of poems, written in the simplest of poetic forms - the ballad.  However, this simplicity, coupled with the wonderful story and aided by the wonderful musicality and lyricism of the words, weaves the magic only a great poet of Yeats' stature can achieve.  I'll now let the poem speak for itself.



The Ballad of Father Gilligan

The old priest Peter Gilligan
Was weary night and day;
For half his flock were in their beds,
Or under green sods lay.


Once, while he nodded on a chair,
At the moth-hour of eve,
Another poor man sent for him,
And he began to grieve.


'I have no rest, nor joy, nor peace,
For people die and die';
And after cried he, 'God forgive!
My body spake, not I!'


He knelt, and leaning on the chair
He prayed and fell asleep;
And the moth-hour went from the fields,
And stars began to peep.

They slowly into millions grew,
And leaves shook in the wind;
And God covered the world with shade,
And whispered to mankind.


Upon the time of sparrow-chirp
When the moths came once more.
The old priest Peter Gilligan
Stood upright on the floor.


'Mavrone, mavrone! the man has died
While I slept on the chair';
He roused his horse out of its sleep,
And rode with little care.


He rode now as he never rode,
By rocky lane and fen;
The sick man's wife opened the door:
'Father! you come again!'


'And is the poor man dead?' he cried.
'He died an hour ago.'
The old priest Peter Gilligan
In grief swayed to and fro.


'When you were gone, he turned and died
As merry as a bird.'
The old priest Peter Gilligan
He knelt him at that word.


'He Who hath made the night of stars
For souls who tire and bleed,
Sent one of His great angels down
To help me in my need.

'He Who is wrapped in purple robes,
With planets in His care,
Had pity on the least of things
Asleep upon a chair.'

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