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Marjorie Perloff's Talk - Encounters with the Lyric Form

Published on 
September 04, 2022


You can watch the recording here.

Or read the transcript of the talk:


   “Where had her sweetness gone?

         In the last decade of his life, Yeats, who had been writing lyric poetry all of his life, developed a sort of dramatic shorthand that seemingly deflies all the rules of verse. It has no concrete imagery, metaphor, or symbolism before the last line, and even then, the memory of the young woman treading like “Spring” is a common enough cliché.  Again, the syntax seems so loose that the poem sounds almost like a prose exclamation—a note, so to speak.  And there are breaks in thought, between lines 6-7 and between th two stanzas.  “Late style” is very different from that of Yeats’s early love poems, for example, “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” (1899).

         This poem, from the early collection The Wind Among the Reeds, presents the the poet as self-pitying lover, longing to offer his beloved the heavens themselves, a sky full of moonlight and starlight, which she could then walk upon and dominate.  But all he can really offer are his dreams, so he begs her to treat those dreams gently.  The basic theme is that of the old popular song, “I can’t give you anything  but love, baby / That’s the only thing I’ve plenty of,  baby. . . .”  The poem consists of 8 lines, using a rhyme, or rather a repetiton, scheme of ababcdcd; its iambic  incantatory and song-like tetrameters are slow and stately, leading up to the imperative “Tread softly” of the final line. 

         “Quarrel in Old Age,” is, ironically, written for the same woman Maud Gonne.  Yeats worshipped the beautiful, tall, aristocratic Maud Gonne all his life.  In his Memoirs, he tells us that he was in his early twenties when “the trouble of my life began.”  Maud was imperious and unreliable; a great revolutionary and ardent champion for Irish rights, she never really wanted Yeats and at the height of his passion for her, suddenly married Sean McBride, one of participants in the 1916 Easter Uprising, whom Yeats despised and referred to, in “Easter 1916,” as a “drunken vainglorious lout.”  When, right before a lecture in 1903, he got the news of her elopement with McBride, he said the words cut him like a knife.  But in any case McBride was executed for his role in the Upbringing and Maud Gonne was again available.  By this time Yeats had himself finally married (at age 52) to Georgie Hyde-Lees and when he and Maud met, they now had more and more arguments.

She was now further on the Left, he, as an Irish Senator in the 1920s, on the Right. But she depended on him for financial help and once occupied his house for a year or so.  According to one of his biographers, she and Yeats and been arguing about the rights of women prisoners when this poem was written.

         At first grance, “Quarrel in Old Age” seems quite casual, with its dramatic opening in medias res. ‘Where had her sweetness gone?”  the poet asks himself.   But the poem’s structure is quite tight.  There are two 8-line stanzas, comprised of two ballad stanzas each: ababcdcd with ingenious approximate rhyme: gone / invent / town / incident / of / rage / enough/ age, and then lived / certain / deceived / curtain / days / thing / eyes / spring.  The meter—3 and 4 stress lines---is offset by the syntax, draped over the rhyming lines  so as to rush them along: the second sentence, for example, extends from line 2 to line 6, followed by a curious break in continuity followed by the ironic couplet “I had forgiven enough / That had forgiven old age.”  The beloved has already lost her looks, this implies, and  now to top it off, she is making much ado about nothing.  He is really annoyed.

         But the second stanza does not follow.  It no longer deals with the quarrel as such.  Rather the poet pauses and reminds himself of his Platonic philosophy: the Soul survives and the actual word is no more than a veil for the eternal one.  So he comforts himself with the knowledge that “beyond the curtain / of distorting days” her essence remains and he once again as the Goddess, bearing her target and treading like the new Spring.  So he does forgive old age and the poem is the process whereby the poet forgives.

We don’t now to begin with where the question will lead: it is a very dramatic brilliant lyric.  Much is conveyed by the poem’s secondary sound structure—especially it’s spitting out of t’s—sweetness, What, “fanatics, invent, bitter town, fantasy or incident. “  “Fanatics” is echoed by “Fantasy” and the nasals—fanatics, invent, in, blind, town, fantasy, incident, not—carry the words along as in a bad dream.   There is not a word wasted: look how compact it is, drawing the reader right in.

         We make out or the quarrels with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrels with oneself poetry.  It is the self-tension, the quarrel, less with Maud Gonne than with himself, that makes this seemingly simple poem so great.  By the time we come to “ALL LIVES that HAS LIVED,” we accept the certitude although this isn’t certain at all.  And who,  by the way, are the Old Sages who were not deceived.?  Plato, yes, Plotinus, yes, Shelley, yes but how about that old sage named Yeats himself!  The image of Maud Gonne as Artemis or other Goddess, bearing her target seems almost silly but the sound structure—TARGETED, TROD—saves it and makes it deeply moving.

Word choice, syntax, sound are everything.  Nothing is wasted.