Here we are, in a library, this treasury of human thoughts and imaginings, mappings, descriptions, blunders, desires. Every book, every article, map or film in this library came from the minds of other human beings, from all over the globe and many different points in time. It is more than we will ever learn ourselves. We can reach into these books and find the lives of others and discover how little human beings have changed since the time of Homer, yet also how various we are, how colorful in our skin tones and genders and languages and cultures. What a privilege it is to join you in this library and talk about a few things I love, as I love the freedom of imagination, as I love books and sometimes even the people who made them.
What unites most of the books in this library is a very human activity, storytelling—and look at all the ways in which one can tell a story, from a poem to a mathematical theorem to a narrative of rocks and snow to a map. Story comes from everywhere. And all of these things feed the imagination, the very quality that makes us human and helps us find connections in life. We are here to grow our capacity to tell stories. This capacity, which you can tend like a gardener, is what I call imagination, and without it our lives would be much diminished, even impossible.
Imagination is sometimes associated with untruth, but imagination is true, at least as true as memory—as Thomas Hobbes reminds us in Leviathan or Tim O’Brien dramatizes in “How to Tell a True War Story.” Any time we try to tell a story, we learn again the reality, the inevitability, of the imaginal, to use a word coined by the philosopher and Islamist Henri Corbin, who wanted to honor this human quality without descending into triviality. He was thinking partly about story and connection, stories that make connections. So am I.
Once, some twenty years ago in Greece, I had an encounter that could have happened in Homer.
I was strolling through a village, Kastania, high in the Taygetos Mountains of the southern Peloponnese. It was spring, the village fountains overflowing with snowmelt, the water gushing down the streets and paths, so walking on stones felt like wading in a stream. The world was flowing. Greek mountain villages are wealthy in water, their cisterns keeping it cool even in the hottest summer months, and to see so much of it flowing freely, profligately away somehow lightened the spirit. The village was alive with water.
I was looking for a church whose frescoes were reported to be very fine, and only when I stood on the hillside across the village from it could I make out the little bell tower above the tiled rooftops. High up in the mountains the rocks form a kind of theatre. You can hear the voices of villagers chattering from house to house, the goat bells climbing the mountainside, the monosyllabic shouts of the goatherds prodding their flocks.
Crossing the village, suddenly I lost sight of the church’s bell tower. My angle of vision had changed, and I could no longer see so clearly. I paced in a lane below where I thought it should stand, looking up at the houses, trying to remember where the bell tower had risen. An old man came toward me up the lane. His silver hair and mustache were neatly trimmed, and he wore clean western clothes, perhaps having come from some business in one of the villages down by the sea. I greeted him in the customary way, and he returned my greeting. Then he asked, “Pou pas?”
It was a common question to ask of a stranger. Where are you going? He asked it as much with a turn of one wrist as with his words.
I explained what I was looking for, the old church with the frescoes.
“Einai píso,” he said. “It’s behind.” He pointed to a wall with a gate. “Éla.” Come.
His name was Nikos. He was in his seventies, but nimble as one of his goats. I followed him through that latched gate into another world.
These were Nikos’s goat pens, situated between his house and the village lane. They were crudely built, with spaces between the boards admitting sunlight on the straw where a dozen suckling kids bleated and scampered about. We walked bent over under the rusty metal roof, our eyes adjusting to the dark, then emerged into sunlight in a yard of packed dirt and grass tufts under a plane tree.
I felt as if I had walked through a tunnel back in time. There stood Nikos’s wife, Fotiní, dressed in her workaday rags and headscarf. She had been feeding the chickens from a bowl of scraps in her red hands. Nikos introduced us. He directed me to take a seat on a stump in the yard while Fotiní went to get food for the stranger.
“Are you married?” Nikos asked me.
“Yes,” I said.
“Do you have children?”
“I have a daughter.” Stepdaughter. It was complicated, but I kept my story simple.
Nikos sat near me on a block of wood. He touched my arm. “Well,” he said, “did you steal your wife or did she steal you?”
“She stole my heart,” I said.
Fotiní had been making mizíthra, the mild white cheese, and she emerged from the house with a bowl of warm, yogurty stuff and some bread rusks, an elemental meal for the stranger, who in Greek culture is also a guest.
“I stole her,” Nikos said of his wife.
“From her father?”
“Yes!” He cackled, slapping his knee, while Fotiní stood by, blushing, looking pleased with his story.
They had relatives in America, Chicago, but had never been. We sat under fresh goatskins hung to dry from a branch of the plane tree. Nikos opened a spigot under the tree and filled three glasses with the freshest water I have ever tasted. This was how they greeted me, with conversation and food. They could be Baucis and Philemon, I thought—the story from the Roman poet, Ovid, of the pious couple who care for two strangers, not knowing the strangers are gods in disguise. Or this could be a scene in Homer, this simple act of kindness and curiosity, Odysseus welcomed by the Phaeacians. This is the culture of philoxenía so common in the eastern Mediterranean. One treats the stranger well, enlarging one’s own spirit in doing so.
We sat in the yard for perhaps an hour, talking of our lives. Nikos was the oldest of twelve brothers. Of his own four children, only one remained in the village, now tending the goats on the mountainside for the summer months. They would join the son, camping in the high country, when the suckling goats were stronger, sleeping under the stars with their flock. “The young are leaving us,” Nikos said. Once there were two thousand people in the village, now only one hundred fifty. But, said Fotiní, they had ten grandchildren, which was a good thing.
“Tell your wife she must give you a son,” Nikos said.
I let it pass. It was not my place, I felt at the time, to disagree or explain my complicated life. And it was no time to argue about overpopulation, global warming, or any of the other concerns that weigh upon us now. This was a gentle meeting of very different people in a spirit of kindness and curiosity. In the same spirit, I invite you not to worry whether or not the story is true. It’s a memory, which means it is partly or wholly composed of imagination—images. Nikos opened the church for me, let me gaze on the frescoes, faded and moldy with time, darkened by candle smoke. I was curious about them as art, curious about the masterful iconography of devils and monsters, the local stories from another time. But there was also a gulf between this old agrarian and me, as if we inhabited different planets and were only catching glimpses of each other. We could only go so far in our connection. If I were to imagine Nikos as a character in a novel, or if he or Fotiní were inclined to imagine me, we might go much further, but not as ourselves—we would be imaginal beings, translated, given new coherence that we may not possess in a literal biography. The character Nikos and the man Nikos would never be the same thing. Living in story always means that we are living in more than one way.
Many horrible things have been done in the name of religion in villages like Kastania, and many beautiful things as well, such as the kindness shown to a stranger. The village was said to have supported the fascists in the Greek Civil War that erupted after the Nazi occupation. Maybe so. Was Nikos a fascist? Was his father a fascist? As his guest, I was not about to ask, and for the time being it did not matter. I had evidence of his old-fashioned belief in patriarchy, but really knew nothing about his politics. Yet despite our differences we had met, we had enjoyed each other’s company for a little while. I had tasted water, fried bread and new cheese from the milk of this kindly couple’s goats. Their spirit of civility relates to what I mean by imagination, a realm in which we can see another without feeling that the other has to be changed right here, right now, into a more perfect person. It’s a willingness to hear another person’s story without having to correct it or elevate oneself above it in moral superiority.
This is something like the way we meet a character in a novel. We know the character is invented, yet we entertain the reality of that person almost as we would a figure in real life. We judge, but we also suspend judgment in our effort to understand, to see the life of another. I don’t read books in order to validate myself, but to expand the boundaries of my experience. And I write for the same reason, whether from my own or from other points of view. I want more life, and I want to hold it more beautifully up to the light before it vanishes. To see the humanity of a man like Nikos, a woman like Fotiní, without knowing a thing about their politics or how rigidly old fashioned they may or may not be is to make unexpected connections, to learn about compassion as well as judgment, to widen one’s circle of life. The moment lives, both in and out of time, as a story.
The poet Seamus Heaney, quoting Coventry Patmore, once wrote, “The end of art is peace.” I thought of the line in Kastania on that peaceful spring day in the mountains of melting snow. Stories teach us that we are all caught in the same tragedy, we all die searching for meaning, hearing secret harmonies or hoping to hear them. That is why philoxenía, the kindness to strangers, matters so much, and why the free imagination keeps us from being quite the monsters we might otherwise be.
Mention of an Irish poet like Heaney calls to mind another story of hospitality. This happened to me many years ago in Belfast, Northern Ireland. It was 1975, the height of the Troubles. I was a twenty-year-old hitchhiker, living on money I had made unloading fishing boats in Alaska. My mother country was Scotland, my mother tongue English, and my travels on foot through the isles were a magic immersion in language, a confirmation of vocation and love.
Someone gave me the name of an American living in Belfast and said if I went to the city the American could put me up for the night. So I took the train from Dublin and gave the American’s address to a cabbie in Belfast and was taken through the streets to a hillside neighborhood. The cab departed and I walked up the steps of a row house across from a park. The neighborhood, I later learned, was Protestant, with tidy brick houses and trim little yards in the spring sunlight. After some time ringing the bell of the American’s house and getting no answer, I crossed to the park, where children played and a few old pensioners sat on benches. Watching the old men in their silences and their stories, perhaps I remembered lines by my favorite Irish poet, William Butler Yeats:
Though lads are making pikes again
For some conspiracy,
And crazy rascals rage their fill
At human tyranny;
My contemplations are of Time
That has transfigured me.
Yeats was in his twenties when he imagined that wild old man, and I was in my teens when I first read him. I was the sort of boy who always connected life and art, mixing them up, feeling the way art lives in time and out of it, just like the human mind and imagination.
That day in Belfast I learned a few more things. I learned a British Army stockade hunkered just up the street between that Protestant neighborhood and the Catholic area higher on the hillside. The stockade was prickly with barbed wire and automatic rifles, and every now and then it released a squad on patrol, guns pointing fore and aft as they walked the streets. I had naively wandered into a war zone. No one could tell me where the American had gone. He apparently worked for a church organization trying to get Protestant and Catholic kids to meet each other and overcome their ancient, tribal animosities. I could feel, talking to children in the park and to some of the old pensioners in their dark suits, a certain good will edged with a certain tension, a wariness about this American boy standing lost among them, a knapsack on his back.
I spent the whole day in that park, except when I excused myself to wander uphill and look at the Catholic houses, which were smaller, dimmer, more shuttered and silent. They were an unspoken bitterness. I remember one small corner shop with very few goods on the shelves, how nervous I felt when the soldiers emerged from their prickly stockade and I returned to the serene enclosure of the park. A small boy and girl wanted me to play with them, and we ran about a green hillside, the two of them chattering like birds. A great house flying a flag could be seen in the distance, and the little girl called it “God’s Castle.” They lived in their own empire of imagination, even in that troubled space. Later that afternoon I met the father of these two children. He was home from work and collecting them for tea, a thin young man with a kindly face, like all the others very curious to meet this young American hitchhiker. It was he who told me while his children tugged at his hands for attention that the other American, the one I had come to Belfast to meet, was away on the continent at one of his church camps, and would not be back for days.
Now the old pensioners and the park keeper in his blue uniform and cap decided they must help me out. One of them gave me sandwiches he had brought for his day in the park, buttered white bread and ham. They would be closing the gate at nightfall. They were worried for my safety.
The white-haired keeper had an office, a sort of garden shed with a concrete floor, a stove, table and chair, and he said I could sleep there for the night. He would lock me in for my own safety—night was a dangerous time—and another keeper would spring me loose in the morning. Meanwhile, there was a little fire in the stove and a tea kettle, and I had the sandwiches. I had a foam pad and sleeping bag in my knapsack, a few changes of clothes and some books. I was also rather stupidly lugging a portable typewriter in a case, having decided I was a writer.
I spent that night alone, locked in the park keeper’s hut, with a cup of tea and sandwiches for my evening meal. There was a kerosene lamp I could stand on the floor by my sleeping bag, so I propped my head on my knapsack pillow and read. The book I was reading, a penguin paperback, was Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, about the civil war in Spain, and I was gripped by it.
There is nothing like immersion in a novel, particularly when you are young. On ships in Alaska I had read Moby Dick and War and Peace. On the road in Britain, Ireland and the continent I would read Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, assorted books by Hemingway, Oscar Wilde, Chekhov, and then one glorious week in Spain I would finish Anna Karenina. I’m not sure it matters so much which books I was reading. What matters is the degree to which I was able to grow my imaginative capacities, to feel deeply the importance of language and story and the connection of these things to the world in which I walked.
That night in Belfast, I would later learn, there was a murder, an execution really. But I knew nothing of it and read on, a bit nervous in the park keeper’s hut but eventually able to sleep on the concrete floor. Due to the kindness of some old men who knew nothing about me, I was safe.
In the morning a key turned in the lock, the door swung open and a new keeper appeared with an apple for my breakfast. The old men were gathering for a morning in the park. One had news of the killing in the night. I decided I had better leave, thanked all the people who had cared for me and shouldered my pack. Downhill from the park I found a cab being shared by four others—cabs often took more than one fare, a practical adjustment in an occupied city. We were heading down to the city’s heart when a British Army roadblock pulled us over to inspect our luggage for bombs. The young soldier who examined my passport kept his automatic rifle pointed at my hiking boots. I did not understand the words he barked at me, but the cabbie took my arm and guided me back inside the car and we were off.
“Yer an American?” the cabbie asked.
I told him I was and gave him the name of the other American I had wanted to meet.
“I know him,” the cabbie said as he drove. “I’ll take you to another fella knows him.” Thus began another strange day in Belfast, and as I write I find myself scrambling to remember details—the cab driver’s face, which I would have seen only in glimpses given my shyness and my case of nerves, the faces of the other passengers in the car, the number of soldiers at the roadblock, the names of streets as we entered the city center. I was lost, completely in the hands of others, and damned lucky those others had no malevolent designs. Neighborhoods went by in the window, some with deserted streets, some thronged with traffic. Passengers were unloaded until I was the last remaining. Finally we stopped in a near-empty street of small, cheerless row houses. “Here’s your man.”
I hefted my knapsack and typewriter, stood behind the cabbie as he rapped on the door of a narrow house.
The door teetered off its hinges and fell inward against the entry wall.
We peered inside a bare parlor where a man lay on the floor in a sleeping bag. He was just sitting up, rubbing his eyes at the light.
“The fuck happened to yer door?”
The man on the floor was young, rumpled, hungover. He squinted at us and explained that paratroopers had butted down the door in a house-to-house search and he hadn’t bothered to fix the hinges. “They’ll just knock it down again.”
The cabbie introduced me as an American looking for an American and I might need looking after. Before I knew it he was gone and I was helping the hungover young man place the door back on its hinges.
The terrible thing is that after forty-five years I have forgotten his name. I remember the smell of beer and cigarettes in his little parlor, but not why he was sleeping on the floor instead of a room upstairs. I remember he had to pull on his trousers and button his shirt, and how he immediately set about trying to make me feel at home. Let’s call him Sean. I would guess Sean was older than me by a few years. He was scrawny, with short dark hair. I knew nothing about the neighborhood where I had been dropped, nothing about its religious or economic make-up, only that Sean worked for the same church organization as my missing American. He earned about twenty pounds a week, enough to keep him fed and smoking.
Sean explained to me how the churches invited children from both tribes, Protestant and Catholic, to camps on the continent where they could meet and play and get to know each other. My American was there now and would be gone a few more days.
This is what I want to tell you about Sean, with whom that day I watched hours of an incomprehensible cricket match on a snowy black and white TV. I went with him on his cigarette run to a shop across the street, and on our return I shared a meal with him. He was very poor, but didn’t seem to care. In back of his little parlor was a kitchen with an old cast iron stove and a gas ring for cooking. The stove no longer worked, so it had become his larder. When he opened the door I saw his food supply: a bowl of eggs, a loaf of bread and a fold of butcher’s paper containing a few strips of bacon.
Sean cooked us a meal on the gas ring: eggs and bread with slabs of butter. And he gave me the bacon. I tried to share it with him, but he insisted. We ate our meal in silence before the snowy cricket match, a kind of benediction at the altar of the game.
A man who had nothing gave me all he had. I felt ashamed of my uselessness, my inability to understand even the game on the TV or the accents of the commentators.
There were other adventures in Belfast, some more menacing, but I tell this part of it now because of the way I was treated by strangers, the way I was watched and worried over, taken in, taken care of, fed. This care for the stranger enacted in real life seems to me related to stories, our care for the strangers in books. We have to give them something, our time and patience and curiosity, in order to receive their gifts of connection, drama and insight. We have to make ourselves at home in stories, which means being at home in uncertainty, suspense, awkwardness, strangeness. Stories remind us that we are not always right and we can’t know everything about other human beings. We can’t change their natures, yet we must determine how we feel about them all the same. Stories are life.
Human beings imagine horrors as much as beauties and connections. We always have and we always will. It is our nature. It is, you might say, the only home we have, this turmoil we call a life. This is why I am impatient with critics who tell writers what they cannot do, how they must curtail imagination, stay in their lane, conform to the dictates of others, whether on social media or in the magazines. Telling artists what they can’t do is a waste of breath. Some artist will eventually break your rule and prove you wrong. We can quibble all we want about specific works of art or literature. What we cannot do is tell them a priori they shouldn’t exist, or tell artists and writers they shouldn’t try.
Strictures against “cultural appropriation” are a case in point. We shouldn’t generalize and condemn something that all the arts have always done before we look at the specific example at hand, much as you would encounter another person, and see what sort of thing or person you’ve got. Imagining another person is not actually stealing anyone’s experience, but creating a new and imaginal one. The audacity of James Baldwin, whose narrator in Giovanni’s Room is a gay white male, or Virginia Woolf, who gives us the mad Septimus Smith as well as a straitened Mrs. Dalloway, or Emily Dickinson, who imagines hearing at the moment of death not a choir of angels but a stumbling fly, or Aeschylus, who dared to imagine the Persian point of view, or Audre Lorde, who appropriated Yoruba religion for her image of motherhood in her poem “From the House of Yemanjá,” or James Joyce, who imagined the mind of a very particular woman, a woman who only exists in the pages of Ulysses and nowhere else on earth—these things appear to be an affront to some contemporary readers. I think those readers are looking for justice in the wrong place, forgetting that imaginal experience is an enlargement, an addition to our store of images, and really doesn’t diminish anyone. The novelist Zadie Smith recently published a defense of fiction against puritanical readings (The New York Review of Books October 24, 2019). I recommend it to you.
“The end of art is peace.” But what trouble and turmoil it can give us along the way.
To be a reader is to invite that turmoil and uncertainty even as you search for beauty and connection. The greatest Irish poet, Yeats, is great in part because of the sheer range of human feelings his work expresses, the audacity of his foolishness as well as his wisdom, the muscularity and memorability of his technique. I love Yeats as an example even when I strongly disagree with him, and I think being able to reside with an artist in such complicated terms, the sort of love-hate one might experience in one’s own family or any community, is a good thing, closer to real life than some purity of consensus might be. His willingness to express ugly emotions, wild ideas, the full reach of his imagination, is a kind of daring almost unheard of in any artist today. Yeats wasn’t worried about Twitter or Facebook telling him he couldn’t try, and he wouldn’t have given a damn anyway. He wasn’t an unfettered artist, but he chose his own fetters, and that’s the only way a real artist can behave.
We can find Yeats being foolish in some statements about women, for example, and then his dynamic effort to really see and honor women very different from himself in “No Second Troy” and “Adam’s Curse.” We can see him denouncing Irish mediocrity and fecklessness in “September 1913”: “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone. / It’s with O’Leary in the grave.” Then within a few years he admits his mistake, wrestling with the politics he had thought so destructive in what is arguably the greatest political poem ever written, “Easter 1916.”
Political poetry often suffers from an oversimplification of experience. This is a great political poem because it remains uncertain of its truth, or even of the realm in which a political statement can be true. It wrestles with its being, its physics and metaphysics, as much as what it is saying.
It’s hard to say where the Irish troubles began—with the Normans, the Vikings, the Elizabethans, Cromwell or William of Orange. They came to a head in the nineteenth century on three fronts. There was the legal political process trying for Home Rule and property rights, led by the charismatic Charles Stuart Parnell. There were the various terrorist brotherhoods that would eventually form organizations like the IRA. And there was the cultural movement to re-animate an Irish identity, led by figures such as Yeats, Lady Gregory and John Millington Synge. The Home Rule movement was defeated not by the British Empire as you might expect, but by Irish conservatives, puritanical Catholics who brought down Parnell because he was an adulterer. The martyrdom of Parnell is a major element in the fiction of Joyce and the poetry of Yeats. The fecklessness and ineptitude of Irish nationalists, all talk and no gravy, seemed impervious to change.
But it did change, and that is the point of Yeats’s poem. It changed horribly. Home Rule passed in the British Parliament but was set aside at the outbreak of World War I. Irish republicans chose violence as a means to liberation, some of them landing guns from Germany, which was eager to open a second front against the British. Ireland is a small country. Yeats knew many of the men and women organizing for a fight. One of them, Major John MacBride, married the woman Yeats had loved since his twenties, Maud Gonne, who was herself a powerful rabble-rouser willing to suffer for the cause.
Units of the republican army attacked in Dublin during Easter week, 1916. They expected their rebellion to catch fire in the rest of the country, but it did not. Augustine Birrell, Chief Secretary for Ireland, a literary man whose friends included J. M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan, reluctantly approved a strong military response. A week of furious battle ended with a siege in the General Post Office on Sackville Street. The city was gutted by artillery, and the last rebels finally surrendered. Friends of Yeats, including Constance Gore-Booth, were imprisoned, while the sixteen leaders of the rebellion, John MacBride among them, were executed by firing squad in the yard of Kilmainham Gaol. It was the start of something. It would lead to the Black and Tans War, the Treaty and Civil War, the Irish Free State and a divided island, and eventually the Republic and the border with Ulster, frustrating England’s Brexiters to this day.
The men and women who staged the rebellion were far from ordinary, but the fervor and fanaticism necessary to commit violence of that sort had hardened their purpose. Yeats begins the poem with his own incredulity:
I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered a while and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
Now in his fifties, Yeats has perfected a supple technique capable of moving from a bland complacency to extraordinary heights. Here we have his own self-mocking mockery of others—their clownish motley, his jokes at the club. And we arrive at the essence of lyric, the oxymoron in which two words embody irreducible stresses and oppositions, “A terrible beauty”—now the most famous oxymoron in English. In the second stanza he talks of these friends and acquaintances in particular, including Constance Gore-Booth, Padraig Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh and John MacBride:
That woman’s days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When, young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our wingèd horse;
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
A terrible beauty is born.
This is the point at which Yeats sees the rebels as individuals, not as symbols or objects of contempt or casual humor. He has not yet named James Connolly, the labor leader who was so badly wounded in battle that he had to be strapped to a chair in order to be executed by the firing squad.
The verse so far is simply articulate, mixing four and three-beat lines, full rhymes with slant surprises like “comedy” and “utterly.” A stanza break for Yeats is an opportunity for a change of direction, and he now takes the most surprising turn in the poem. From a tight focus on the particular rebels, he steps back, seeing the whole scene from a distance, as if all human endeavor were no different than the movement of water and the hungers of animals in the wild. The living does not stop with the deaths of particular people. Notice how his focus changes, his attention and alertness becoming almost cinematic:
Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road,
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute by minute they live:
The stone’s in the midst of it all.
What is change and what is the unchanging? What is fanaticism? What is the hate that would make people kill each other for some notion of justice? Who is a terrorist and who is a hero in such a context? Yeats, who would later write, “Homer is my example and his unchristened heart,” understood a Greek vision of human tragedy, and also understood that violence, like the sex drive, will not simply be wished away, any more than hurricanes and bushfires can be wished away. To seek civility in such a context might be the most powerful thing of all, because it acknowledges the immensity of nature, even of that realm of experience touched by religion.
He asks us to hold this complexity and contradiction in one moment, one oxymoron. What is the beauty, what is the terror of this political and more-than-political moment? And what is the poet to do in the face of such stunning action? Notice how he catches himself in the act of symbolizing, he stops his line of thinking and refuses to let it all be turned into an abstraction:
Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven’s part, our part
To murmur name upon name
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
The green is Ireland, of course, but also a nature that seems certain to outlive all human memory.
Yeats has looked at particular people taking an action with which he disagreed, and he has changed his mind about them. He has created a poem that maps the action of his mind, suggesting even a world-mind, a flowing and changing nature of which we are only a part. You can find what the critic Hazard Adams called “the book of Yeats’s poems” here in this library along with maps where I once tried to locate that Belfast park in which I spent the night, maps where you can also find Kastania high in the Greek mountains. In the map room there is even a globe naming all the metaphorical seas of the moon. You can find magazines and journals where new-minted poems appear, novels, memoirs, histories. Yeats’s voice is one in a million, one in more than a million to trouble the living stream. What you must cherish if you come here is the difficult thing, the effort to tell stories and to listen to them, and I thank you for bearing with my own stories today.
Also by David Mason (see all)
- To the Other Planets - September 21, 2022
- In the Caged Garden - September 21, 2022
- At Home in the Imaginal - February 21, 2021