Sunday, 18 November 2012

Yeats's 'Stream and Sun at Glendalough' and MacNeice's Autumn Journal: Optimistic Sunlight

Glendalough photo by Sean MacEntee. Used under Creative Commons license


Through intricate motions ran
Stream and gliding sun
And all my heart seemed gay:
Some stupid thing that I had done
Made my attention stray.

Repentance keeps my heart impure;
But what am I that dare
Fancy that I can
Better conduct myself or have more
Sense than a common man?

What motion of the sun or stream
Or eyelid shot the gleam
That pierced my body through?
What made me live like these that seem
Self-born, born anew?

Glendalough is one of Ireland's most famous sites, a glacial valley in the Wicklow Mountains south of Dublin, featuring beautiful lakes and the remains of an early medieval monastic settlement. I went there on my first visit to Ireland fifteen years ago, but didn't return in the three years I actually lived in Ireland, although I did visit the Wicklow Mountains again a couple of times and once swam in an almost equally beautiful mountain lake.

When I visited Glendalough with my parents, brother and cousins, it was a misty day and while this added a good deal to the Irish atmosphere, it wasn't very reminiscent of the "stream and sun" of this Yeats poem. My memories of it are fairly vague, but I remember mist and characteristic round towers, and our cousin driving rather fast along the narrow country roads.

This is a deceptively simple-looking poem which isn't simply about a quiet moment in nature. Unsurprisingly for Yeats, he is asking himself questions about the relationship between his inner self and the outer world, and about the conflict between self-development and self-forgiveness. Yeats was also very preoccupied by the relationship between creator and created thing, and "self-born" seems to raise some spiritual question which hangs in the air unanswered.

I admit, though, that I don't love this poem for the details - more for the overall impression that it leaves. It is a poem that often goes through my head, at least certain lines, like a strain of music and leaves something beautiful and optimistic behind. The poem itself is "the gleam/That pierced my body through".

I have been reading Louis MacNeice's Autumn Journal, which only gets better and better the more time I spend with it. Its pre-World War II setting seems remarkably familiar in 2012. The final lines reminded me of 'Stream and Sun at Glendalough'. They seem to come from the same impulse of optimism breaking through doubts, difficulties and questions.

To-night we sleep
On the banks of Rubicon - the die is cast;
There will be time to audit
The accounts later, there will be sunlight later
And the equation will come out at last.

(from Autumn Journal, Louis MacNeice)

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