AT ALGECIRAS – A MEDITATION UPON DEATH (W B Yeats)
The heron-billed pale cattle-birds
That feed on some foul parasite
Of the Moroccan flocks and herds
Cross the narrow Straits to light
In the rich midnight of the garden trees
Till the dawn break upon those mingled seas.
Often at evening when a boy
Would I carry to a friend—
Hoping more substantial joy
Did an older mind commend—
Not such as are in Newton’s metaphor,
But actual shells of Rosses’ level shore.
Greater glory in the sun,
An evening chill in the air,
Bid imagination run
Much on the Great Questioner;
What He can question, what if questioned I
Can with a fitting confidence reply.
Memory suggests that Yeats was my first favourite poet, or at least the first to hit obsession-level with me. When I looked at my bookshelf in my parents’ house this summer on a visit home, I was surprised at just how many Yeatsian books I’d collected (though that collection was still quite a bit smaller than those for Sherlock Holmes and Arthurian legend). Certainly from something like 18 to 23 he would have held the top spot. I’m not sure what the catalyst was, but a slim old paperback of Selected Poems definitely played a role.
Yeats was Anglo-Irish, and so to a certain extent am I. My time in Dublin felt a bit like a quest for my roots, but what I ultimately discovered was that I wasn’t Irish at all. I love the Irish but don’t feel particularly at home in Ireland. When I was writing about Jonathan Swift (another Anglo-Irishman) a few years ago, I was astonished to discover how closely I identified with his love-hate relationship with Ireland. Yeats had some of that too.
Some experiences are unquestionably a chapter of their own with a definite beginning and end, and my Irish experience falls into that category. I wonder if Yeats may be a part of that closed chapter as well, because he was one of the elements which drew me to Ireland. I no longer consider him my favourite poet – though he still ranks high on my list. Reading him has more past than present significance for me these days, and I also find his self-absorption a little harder to take than I used to. All that said, well...it’s Yeats. I can’t imagine him not being a part of my life, and I have never questioned his poetic genius.
Many of my favourite Yeats poems are the obvious: ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ and ‘Byzantium’, ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’, ‘The Second Coming’, ‘Easter 1916’. Then there are the less obvious choices: ‘High Talk’, ‘The Fascination of What’s Difficult’, ‘Meru’, and also ‘At Algeciras’.
Yeats’s poems are highly personal and normally demand some knowledge of his life. When Yeats wrote ‘At Algeciras’ he had been very ill and had come close to dying. The first stanza, while describing a beautiful vision of transcendent light and herons in the Spanish gardens, also suggests the ever-present nearness of death. Only the “narrow Straits” lie between life and death. In the second stanza, Yeats remembers the seashore of his childhood. Rosses Point, near Sligo in the west of Ireland, is a very different landscape from Algeciras. However, the seashore is the same all over the world in that it inspires reflection and brings back visceral memories for those who grew up nearby. Every seashore that I’ve visited has been different, but all are familiar. All tend to inspire a sense of my own smallness, but also of freedom.
I particularly love the last stanza. Uniquely, Yeats sees God as the “Great Questioner” and asks himself “what if questioned I/Can with a fitting confidence reply.” The approach of death leads people to meditate on their lives and accomplishments, but Yeats seems to be acknowledging the role of personal responsibility as well, and the concept of answering to someone greater than himself. He had already published a collection titled Responsibilities which opens with the epigraph ”In dreams begin responsilbility”, from an “Old Play”.
It is worth mentioning that today is National Poetry Day in the UK – although, of course, every day should be Poetry Day.