Monday, October 2, 2017

It's the drama of the scene that excited Yeats

‘Cuchulain Comforted’, written a matter of weeks before Yeats died in January of 1939, is his only use of Dantescan terza rima: it began life as a folktale-ish prose narrative of the kind collected by Lady Gregory. The draft, dictated by Yeats to his wife on 7 January, opens:

“A shade recently arrived went through a valley in the Country of the Dead; he had six mortal wounds, but he had been a tall, strong, handsome man. Other shades looked at him from the trees. Sometimes they went near to him and then went away quickly. At last he sat down, he seemed very tired.”

A week later this became:

A man that had six mortal wounds, a man
Violent and famous, strode among the dead;
Eyes stared out of the branches and were gone.

Then certain Shrouds that muttered head to head
Came and were gone. He leant upon a tree
As though to meditate on wounds and blood.

While the language of the prose sketch verges on the simple, even primitive, that of the poem is laconic and theatrical. Cuchulain is no longer a conventional good-looking hero, ‘tall, strong, handsome’, but a Yeatsian one, ‘Violent and famous’; conventional ‘shades’ become unsettling ‘Shrounds’, as if the dead were so many winding sheets, their weirdness making them fit choric witnesses, as they confer ‘head to head’, of the mortally wounded hero’s singularity. It is the drama of the scene that excites Yeats, and although the poem is about Cuchulain’s loss of agency and individuality, in these opening stanzas he is still enacting his purposefulness, striding among the muttering dead; when he rests it is not because he is ‘very tired’, but ‘to meditate on wounds and blood’.

The narratives dramatized in Yeats’s oeuvre nearly all involve some decisive act of transformation that is in many ways analogous to the process of transforming prose into poetry.

– Mark Ford