Jun. 13, 2013


by Edward Field

This island whose name means water
Never had gods and temples as other Greek islands had;
It never was the home of monsters with ferocious heads,
And maybe it wasn't even there.

But a few centuries ago,
As though it had just risen from the sea,
Men saw stones and pine trees on the slopes
And with the stones made houses and with the trees made ships.

And as naturally as fish swim
The ships went sailing;
And as naturally as the sun rises
The boys grew into heroes and sailed to war.

But the heroes were foolhardy as heroes are,
So although they were brave and did amazing things
The ships were sunk at last
And the handsome heroes lay on the ocean floor.

Wars over, fame won, the island settled down,
But with the trees all gone the soil blew away to sea;
The houses began to crumble,
And the island bleached in the sun to anonymity.

The name means water, but now even the wells are drying
And no one expects the rock to grow trees again,
While the waters push gently on its shores
Waiting for the island to sink quietly back in the sea.

"Hydra" by Edward Field, from After the Fall. © The University of Pittsburgh Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of writer and teacher Mark Van Doren (books by this author), born in Hope, Illinois (1894). Though in his lifetime he was a published poet and critic, and won a Pulitzer Prize for poetry, he was perhaps best known as a professor of literature at Columbia University, where he taught many students who would go on to become important American writers.

Van Doren said of his teaching style: "My purpose was to examine the ways in which the greatest tellers had put divine things and human things together. The ultimate dimension, I suggested, was given to narrative by the presence in it of gods or their equivalent."

It's the birthday of poet and playwright William Butler Yeats (books by this author), born in Dublin, Ireland (1865). He lived during great political and social changes in his home country, but he spent much of his life obsessed not with politics but with mysticism. His aunt gave him a popular book of the era called Esoteric Buddhism (1884), about Eastern mystical philosophy, and Yeats especially loved its idea that the world of matter was an illusion. When he was 20, he and a group of friends formed the Dublin Hermetic Society, in order to conduct experiments into the nature of ghosts and psychic powers.

He got involved in the London Theosophical Society in 1887 and later joined the Order of the Golden Dawn, a group that performed a variety of ancient magic rituals. He attended séances and tarot card readings. Seeing the performances of mediums and learning about reincarnation inspired him to study Celtic myths and folklore.

In 1889, he met Maud Gonne, a beautiful actress who had become an activist and who spoke out for Irish independence. She became the love of his life, and though she refused his proposal of marriage, she believed that they were spiritually married, that they could communicate telepathically, and that they had been brother and sister in a past life. She helped him gather folklore from the peasants, and to learn about ancient Celtic culture. Yeats came to believe that if he could get in touch with the deep, mythic history of the Irish people, he could pull the country together with the power of poetry. Yeats spent years writing plays about Irish nationalism for Maud Gonne to star in. But by 1910, Maud Gonne had married someone else and Yeats had given up on trying to win her love.

He continued to consult with mediums and to experiment with automatic writing and séances for the rest of his life, but he gave up on the idea of writing poetry for the collective soul of Ireland, and wrote instead for himself. He said, "We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry." Many critics consider his greatest poems those that he wrote after he gave up on Irish Nationalism, collected in books such as The Tower (1928) and The Winding Stair (1933).

Yeats wrote, "Now that my ladder's gone / I must lie down where all the ladders start / In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart."

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