I don’t read much poetry. I find it an art form somewhat inaccessible to our modern age, discordant to our modern ear, and yet of late I have been much drawn to the work of Irish poet and Nobel Laureate William Butler Yeats who lived between 1865 and 1939.

A pillar of the Irish literary establishment, Yeats wrote traditional verse poems about Irish fairy tales, Irish legends and folklore and was much interested in such taboo topics as the occult, but who nevertheless simultaneously concerned himself with politics, serving as a senator for the Irish Free State. He’s not only one of the greatest Irish writers ever to have lived, he may indeed be one of the very greatest poets ever to walk the earth as well.

I was fascinated, in particular, by one of his poems, “Broken Dreams.”

It starts:

“There is grey in your hair.
Young men no longer suddenly catch their breath
When you are passing;
But maybe some old gaffer mutters a blessing
Because it was your prayer
Recovered him upon the bed of death.”

. . .

“Your beauty can but leave among us
Vague memories, nothing but memories.
A young man when the old men are done talking
Will say to an old man, ‘Tell me of that lady
The poet stubborn with his passion sang us
When age might well have chilled his blood.’

“Vague memories, nothing but memories,
But in the grave all, all, shall be renewed.

“The certainty that I shall see that lady
Leaning or standing or walking
In the first loveliness of womanhood,
And with the fervour of my youthful eyes,
Has set me muttering like a fool.

“You are more beautiful than any one,
And yet your body had a flaw:
Your small hands were not beautiful,
And I am afraid that you will run
And paddle to the wrist
In that mysterious, always brimming lake
Where those that have obeyed the holy law
Paddle and are perfect. Leave unchanged
The hands that I have kissed,
For old sake’s sake.

“The last stroke of midnight dies.
All day in the one chair
From dream to dream and rhyme to rhyme I have ranged
In rambling talk with an image of air:
Vague memories, nothing but memories.”

The line that repeats, the line that recurs is that memories are vague, that all we have to hold on to is nothing but mere memories. It is the work of the poet to conjure these insubstantial images and spirits and memories to live on in the minds of others as the read the poem in later years.

W. B. Yeats had a lifelong love affair with Maud Gonne who started out more political than Yeats, and in fact, later in life, married Irish republican John MacBride who was executed for his participation in the 1916 Easter Uprising. Yeats steadfastly maintained his love for Gonne, proposing to her four times before their marriages to other people, and he made her the focus of several poems, including, in fact, the beautifully constructed “Broken Dreams.”

I really liked the image that men might no longer catch their breath at the sight of you, yet something lives on, even if it is so insubstantial and vague as a memory.