Written by the Irish poet and playwright William Butler Yeats
in 1899, the poetry collection called The Wind Among the Reeds
represents Yeats' lifelong desire to create a poetic world which mirrored his unusual outlook on life. He desired to reawaken an interest and a love for the rich legends and myths of Ireland
Yeats is best known for his desire to create a new poetic tradition in his work. He studied the great wealth of Irish Mythology which gave him an endless resource of symbolic references which would serve him throughout his career. Beyond all else, Yeats wanted to use this as a means by which to translate his own life into a series of mythical and mysterious events that mirrored that of the world of Irish mythology.
Often times, critics divide Yeats' literary efforts into three periods; the first period was characterized by his belonging to a group of fin de siecle poets in London. He spent this time in The Rhymers Club among contemporaries like Ernest Rhys and Lionel Johnson. His work then was characterized by symbolism, ornamentation, and his dabblings with various spiritual traditions as he tried to break from his Protestant upbringing.
His return to Ireland in 1896 signified the transition to his second period of writing. He had difficulties at first, but eventually after meeting a woman named Lady Gregory, they together founded the Irish Literary Theater, which would become the Abbey Theater and the Irish Academy. However, the most important influence on his life during this time was the passionate revolutionary Maud Gonne. He was in love with her for over 20 years and proposed to her many times during that period. She consistently turned him down but accepted his attentions on a limited basis as she desired use of his natural gift as an orator. So, for 20 years, Gonne used Yeats to fuel her revolutionary efforts and in turn she inspired the greatest romantic poetry of Yeats' career.
It was at the peak of this period that Yeats wrote The Wind Among the Reeds. The poems of this collection are as follows:
The Wind Among the Reeds
- The Hosting of the Sidhe
- The Everlasting Voices
- The Moods
- Aedh tells of the Rose in his Heart
- The Host of the Air
- Breasal the Fisherman
- A Cradle Song
- Into the Twilight
- The Song of Wandering Aengus
- The Song of the old Mother
- The Fiddler of Dooney
- The Heart of the Woman
- Aedh Laments the Loss of Love
- Mongan laments the Change that has come upon him and his Beloved
- Michael Robartes bids his Beloved be at Peace
- Hanrahan reproves the Curlew
- Michael Robartes remembers forgotten Beauty
- A Poet to his Beloved
- Aedh gives his Beloved certain Rhymes
- To my Heart, bidding it have no Fear
- The Cap and Bells
- The Valley of the Black Pig
- Michael Robartes asks Forgiveness because of his many Moods
- Aedh tells of a Valley full of Lovers
- Aedh tells of the perfect Beauty
- Aedh hears the Cry of the Sedge
- Aedh thinks of those who have spoken Evil of his Beloved
- The Blessed
- The Secret Rose
- Hanrahan laments because of his Wanderings
- The Travail of Passion
- The Poet pleads with his Friend for old Friends
- Hanrahan speaks to the Lovers of his Songs in coming Days
- Aedh pleads with the Elemental Powers
- Aedh wishes his Beloved were dead
- Aedh wishes for the Cloths of Heaven
- Mongan thinks of his past Greatness
I suppose that in just browsing through the titles of this collection it is easy to see where his mind was taking him throughout this period of his life. The emotional instability that his relationship with Gonne caused him is evident in many of these works. In perhaps one of the more startling titles in the list, Aedh wishes his Beloved were dead, Yeats imagines a scene perhaps not of literal death, but of a lover's stillness:
And you would murmur tender words,
Forgiving me, because you were dead:
Nor would you rise and hasten away,
Though you have the will of the wild birds,
But know your hair was bound and wound
About the stars and moon and sun ...
In this passage, the narrator is keenly perceptive of the vivacity of spirit of his lover and the heavens to which she is bound, yet somehow she remains tender and docile to him, relaxing to his will. It is an interesting perspective given the situation he faced with Gonne in reality. In fact, it is maybe this tie with reality that Gonne was that made him continue to pursue some sort reconciliation in his mind between the concrete and the abstract; this is a theme that he explores throughout this collection.
The passage from this collection that sparks my interest the most is the short poem A Poet to his Beloved, reproduced here:
I bring you with reverent hands
The books of my numberless dreams;
White woman that passion has worn
As the tide wears the dove-gray sands,
And with heart more old than the horn
That is brimmed from the pale fire of time:
White woman with numberless dreams
I bring you my passionate rhyme.
This struck me as the most idealized vision of love written about in this collection. Here, the narrator offers to his love his life's work, the stuff of his countless days of effort. He speaks of the "books of my numberless dreams," and gives these priceless objects to the "woman with numberless dreams:" a fitting gift. It is one of the shortest poems in the collection, but it is simple and direct in its message which is a slight foreshadowing of his later style.
William Butler Yeats would continue through this tumultuous period of love in his life, to enter the third period of writing in his career. He is noted for being one of the few poets in history who created the best work in his career in the later period of his life; he was to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1923. His style developed beyond his idylic, sensitive treatment of love in this collection to a more sharp, stark, objective style of voice that was more precisely observant and direct in approach.
All excerpts and collection listing for the anthology from: http://www.bartleby.com/146/index1.html