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.'

Another Lowell Poem - Still Time for Some Little Compassion for Self

Robert Lowell 1917-1977
After reading and meditating upon last evening's poem from the hand of the great twentieth century American poet Robert Lowell, I am still preoccupied with the sound of his words; haunted by his cadences; startled by his post-modern starkness - like that of an American version of the Irish Samuel Beckett - longing to read more of his words aloud and let them rid me of any possible complacency.  Yes we were born to to die, to live with mortality firmly embedden in our seed - our existential lot.  This evening, I should like to place here another stark poem from our author's bleak but potent pen.  This time I wish to peruse and meditate upon "Home After Three Months Away."  Once again, as I have never tired of mentioning whenever I discuss a poem, my comments after this poem will be merely by way of illumination and resonances evoked rather than by meanings offered or given - the latter being the very anathema of a good interpretation of poetry.

Home After Three Months Away.

Gone now the baby's nurse,

a lioness who ruled the roost
and made the Mother cry.
She used to tie
gobbets of porkrind to bowknots of gauze—
three months they hung like soggy toast
on our eight foot magnolia tree,
and helped the English sparrows
weather a Boston winter.

Three months, three months!
Is Richard now himself again?
Dimpled with exaltation,
my daughter holds her levee in the tub.
Our noses rub,
each of us pats a stringy lock of hair—
they tell me nothing's gone.
Though I am forty-one,
not forty now, the time I put away
was child's play. After thirteen weeks
my child still dabs her cheeks
to start me shaving. When
we dress her in her sky-blue corduroy,
she changes to a boy,
and floats my shaving brush
and washcloth in the flush...
Dearest I cannot loiter here
in lather like a polar bear.

Recuperating, I neither spin nor toil.
Three stories down below,
a choreman tends our coffin length of soil,
and seven horizontal tulips blow.
Just twelve months ago,
these flowers were pedigreed
imported Dutchmen, now no one need
distinguish them from weed.
Bushed by the late spring snow,
they cannot meet
another year's snowballing enervation.

I keep no rank nor station.
Cured, I am frizzled, stale and small.

I have already mentioned that Robert Lowell suffered from manic depression or bipolar disorder.  His three month's absence from his wife and daughter was necessitated by his having to be hospitalized for that mental illness in McLean Hospital in Belmont, Boston, Lowell is looking for his new identity, examining those things which are familiar is his surroundings for clues.   One commentary I saw somewhere on the net attributed wrongly his absence to a vacation.  That goes to show that while coming to a poem totally raw, without some background on the poet, and letting the words speak only for themselves - obviously correct in theory - can leave a lot of essential background disregarded to the detriment of the impact of the poem.  Another commentary talks about the fact that he was psychoanalysed in a strict Freudian sense without referring to any form of invasive treatment either by drugs or by electric shock therapy.  I know that the great writer Ernest Hemingway was subjected to the latter which practically obliterated his personality.  Call me naive, but psychoanalysis never obliterated one's self-identity.  If anything, rendering unconscious motivations conscious is very healthy indeed.  I feel that the poet is referring to the chemical intervention of drugs.  Once again, I hasten to add that I do not know what exact treatment Robert Lowell underwent at McLean Hospital, but as one who spent some 7 weeks in a psychiatric hospital myself for unipolar depression some 12 or more years ago, I feel instinctively that this is what the poet has in mind.
Obviously the little girl child had a nurse while the father was away.  However, for one reason or another this baby minder is now gone.  Lowell is trying to pick up the pieces of his life after his thirteen week absence.  He is also attempting to re-establish some identity as a father, family-man and poet once again.  Magnolia trees are very common in Boston.  The magnolia is a deciduous large shrub or small tree, growing up to 20 feet tall. The flowers are usually white, although some varieties are pink. 
Then, I love the following two lines which form an exclamation followed by a question, both of which interrupt the opening musings of the poet:  "Three months, three months!// Is Richard now himself again?"  How time flies, and especially if one were in a psychiatric hospital - such an experience might be lost to a haze of forgetfulness brought on by the powerful drugs used therein.  Then the question itself has overtones of Shakespeare's Richard III apparently where a similar collocation of words occurs.  I often wonder am I myself?  What is the self anyway - what is my real identity?  Are there not in fact many selves of which we can take our pick?  I will return to this question in later posts as it is dealt with in some detail in Professor Paul Gilbert's Compassionate Mind which I have recently been discussing.

An older Robert Lowell
His gentle fragile little daughter "holds her levee in the tub."  This to me strikes many chords and evokes many powerful resonances.  In her baby tub the little girl has a levee or defence, say in sponges, cloths or even a a plastic duck - take your pick.  Her tub is placed there by her parents anyway and she is cared for and protected.  I get the sense here that the poet himself feels anything but protected.  He has had no levee against the frighful tide of manic depression which obviously swept him away to be hospitalized.  Hence this line is powerful to me as a sufferer from unipolar depression who was once hospitalized.
Then we have the anonymous and omniscient "they" who are obviously the experts and they tell him that "nothing's gone,"  that his identity has not been irretrievably damaged.  Again, one feels that the poet is not at all too convinced by the assurances of these so-called experts.  The time he put away - a most peculiar turn of phrase, almost an underlying suggestion that he was put away - was "child's play."  Again, we get the distinct impression that the poet is being ironic here, because his time away was obviously anything but.
Then we have that wonderful Biblical allusion from the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew's Gospel where the Good Shepherd tells his flock not to worry at all because they should be like the lilies of the field and the birds in the air - an internal reference to the English sparrows of the opening lines.  These lilies and sparrows they indeed do not toil or spin.  And so these New Testament allusions illumine the line "Recuperating, I neither spin nor toil."  And so, recuperating he is not toiling or spinning.  He has no option, but to take it easy.
Then the lines: "Three stories down below,// a choreman tends our coffin length of soil,// and seven horizontal tulips blow" I find haunting as they deal with the sheer existential nature of life - we are fated to die, where even the soil that should bring tulips forth is "coffin length" and 7 is a very Biblical number as we all know, and this adds a more Scriptural depth to the whole.
Finally the word "enervation" which means to weaken or to destroy the vitality of any living organism is a very strong word indeed and is an obvious and inevitable word for a mental health patient to use.  Without a doubt our poor poet is enervated after his ordeal.  He can neither spin nor toil indeed.  We feel that he is "bushed" himself by the weather of the mind, by a mental snow hard driven in his mind to render him enervated.
The final lines hardly need commentary as they describe so well this enervated, bushed and weakened man: I keep no rank nor station:// Cured, I am frizzled, stale and small.  Here I am reminded of a picture I saw once of Ernest Hemingway shortly after he had been released from psychiatric hospital having undergone the horrific electric shock treatment then more widely used than today.  The last line brings that vacant expression on the writer's face to my mind.  Hemingway would end his own life by gunshot shortly afterwards.  We simply cannot believe that Lowelll is cured.  Irony again, if not a hint of sarcasy?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A Poetic Interlude - A Little Bit of Compassion for Self Needed


For some reason dolphins are swimming about in the oceans of my mind.  They have many compassionate links for humankind, I believe.  Like all youngsters of the late 1960s and early 1970s I became besotted by the American TV Series named Flipper from Ivan Tors Films in association with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Television, which were made from1964 until April 15, 1967.  Flipper, a Bottlenose Dolphin, was the companion animal of Porter Ricks, Chief Warden at fictional Coral Key Park and Marine Preserve in southern Florida, and his two young sons Sandy and Bud.  The show was so popular in America and elsewhere that it was often dubbed the "Aquatic Lassie."  

Being a sufferer from endogenous or unipolar depression I have in more recent years marvelled at the studies done on how swimming with dolphins can alleviate mild to moderate depression - see this link here - Dolphins and Health.  In 1996 I went on a two week holiday to Crete where we were fortunate enough to visit the ancient palace ruins at Knossos. I remember seeing one wall in this wonderful palace which had a depiction of a dolphin, a fact that shows that this wonderful acquatic animal had a special place in the ancient Minoan Civilization.

Dolphins also appear in a number of Greek myths, invariably as helpers of humankind, and saved many human beings from drowning. Many ancient official seals and coins show a man or boy riding a dolphin.
In one myth it is said that the god Dionysus - the god of the grape harvest, winemaking and wine, of ritual madness, ecstasy, excess and passion was once captured by Etruscan pirates who mistook him for a wealthy prince they might ransom. After the ship set sail Dionysus invoked his divine powers and caused vines to smother the ship where the mast and sails had been. He then turned the oars into serpents, so terrifying the sailors that they jumped overboard, but he then took pity on them and transformed them into dolphins so that they would spend their lives providing help for those in need.

Moreover, dolphins were the messengers of Poseidon, Greek god of the sea, and sometimes they did errands for him as well.  These beautiful acquatic creatures were also sacred to both the gods Aphrodite and Apollo.

With all this in mind as background I should like to offer here a poetric interlude to my readers in the form of Robert Lowell's (1917-1977) famous poem, called simply "Dolphin."


by Robert Lowell
My Dolphin, you only guide me by surprise,
a captive as Racine, the man of craft,
drawn through his maze of iron composition
by the incomparable wandering voice of Phèdre.
When I was troubled in mind, you made for my body
caught in its hangman's-knot of sinking lines,
the glassy bowing and scraping of my will. . . .
I have sat and listened to too many
words of the collaborating muse,
and plotted perhaps too freely with my life,
not avoiding injury to others,
not avoiding injury to myself--
to ask compassion . . . this book, half fiction,
an eelnet made by man for the eel fighting

my eyes have seen what my hand did.

The above poem appeared in a book of poetry by the same name some few years before the author's death - The Dolphin (1973)  Also, it may be of some interest to note that Lowell suffered from manic depression and was hospitalized many times throughout his adult life for this mental illness.  Although his manic depression was often a great burden (for himself and his family), the subject of that mental illness led to some of his most important poetry, particularly as it manifest itself in his book Life Studies. (1959)

Adrienne Rich called "The Dolphin" book  “one of the most vindictive and mean-spirited acts in the history of poetry.”  The cause of her ascerbic criticism was the apparent fact that Lowell had used direct quotes from his ex-wife Elizabeth Hardwick's private letters to him in some of the poems.
I suppose the dolphin in the above poem represents for Lowell a lot of what my opening background on dolphins indicates and connotes.  This "compassionate" acquatic animal, man's marine friend on a par with his terrestrial canine frined, represents whatever the poet's inner source of inspiration was or is.  The poet's body and mind, or as I am fond of writing in these pages, the poet's Body-Mind or even Mind-Body is literally knotted in pain - mental and bodily pain.  As a sufferer from manic depression he would be all too familiar with such suffering - tortuous and troubled.  And indeed, Lowell's poems are the results of a tortured and troubled mind and soul.  However, that is no major fault.  In fact, it strengthens the poems and allows them to resonate with the troubled core of our human condition - we who wear the badge of our mortality in our very bodies, prone as they are to suffering and pain.

I feel, strangely, that even though the poet feels that somehow he has betrayed, or at least not been loyal enough to his own inner guide, or deeper wisdom or poetic inspiration to ask for compassion, that paradoxically the poem is an exercise in such compassion.  Paradoxically, although he tells his dolphin friend or his dolphin guide that he cannot ask for compassion, his strained and tortured feelings mirrored in the strained and tortured words are, when written and when read, compassionate insofar as they acknowledge the woundedness, the brokenness, the fragmentation of the human condition.  We feel that such a work, once written and read by other compassionate souls will vicariously, by some deeper wisdom, heal similarly paining souls.  This is our hope in our brokenness as mortal beings.  We await the healing caress of the dolphin