Saturday, February 26, 2011

Yeats and the sea-horse

I was looking for a Yeats concordance online to see if he had done much with sea-horses (of which more below), but found Peter Ure's old review of a Yeats concordance [Rev. Eng. Stud. XVI, 221 (1965)] :
The golden smithies of the Emperor, Yeats might disapprovingly have noted, could not have contrived anything remotely resembling this volume, from which we can learn that he used Emperor twice, smithy five, and golden sixty-four times. Yeats has been chosen as the second poet (the first was Arnold) to submit his vocabulary to the IBM 704 Electronic Data Processing Machine at Cornell. An impressive compilation is the result: a total of 10,666 words (the text used being the Variorum edition), recorded with an accuracy utterly out of reach of the nonelectronic scholar. One can ramble about in it discovering all sorts of facts, such as the numbers of 'savage or noxious animals', as Mr. Parrish puts it, of birds of prey, of 'circus animals', of goats and monkeys (four of the former, only one of the latter). Perhaps the first temptation that it offers to its user is of a rather simple-minded kind: there are no demons in Yeats's verse after 1892 (14 of the 16 are in The Wanderings of Oisin), nor does dim occur after 1913; moon is nearly twice as frequent as sun, and king as queen; dream and its derivatives occupies three pages; there are six and a half pages of old and only two of young; shame occurs five times and glory twenty-eight; Coole and die have twice as many entries as, respectively, Sligo and live; England has two entries, Greece five, and Ireland thirty-nine; Oxford and Cambridge do not occur at all, but Liverpool gains a toe-hold.

How far we've come -- I ended up running Ctrl-F on the Project Gutenberg text (one has always to remember that this is case-sensitive) and finding out that sea-horses only occur in the poem that I was originally thinking of, "High Talk":

PROCESSIONS that lack high stilts have nothing that catches the eye.
What if my great-granddad had a pair that were twenty foot high,
And mine were but fifteen foot, no modern stalks upon higher,
Some rogue of the world stole them to patch up a fence or a fire.

Because piebald ponies, led bears, caged lions, make but poor shows,
Because children demand Daddy-long-legs upon his timber toes,
Because women in the upper storeys demand a face at the pane,
That patching old heels they may shriek, I take to chisel and plane.

Malachi Stilt-Jack am I, whatever I learned has run wild,
From collar to collar, from stilt to stilt, from father to child.

All metaphor, Malachi, stilts and all.  A barnacle goose
Far up in the stretches of night; night splits and the dawn breaks loose;
I, through the terrible novelty of light, stalk on, stalk on;
Those great sea-horses bare their teeth and laugh at the dawn. 

This is a very late poem that was written at about the same time as the "Circus animals' desertion," which also mentions "stilted boys." The narrator here is one of the deserting circus animals I suppose. The poem has stuck with me because of the sestet (it is a sonnet of sorts); the stilts bit is fine but the sea-horse image really comes out of nowhere as far as I can tell -- presumably the point is that sea-horses, qua photosensitive force of nature, can go back out of the light unlike Malachi; that life in the modern era is hard and mostly inglorious work, and that this is so partly because of the "broken hierarchies" (of which more in a later post) that connected life with art with death; there must also an underworld aspect to all of this (the primary sea-creatures in Yeats being dolphins, but of course Neptune was both a sea-god and a horse-god), which was what I was trying to get at from the concordance. But in the event the sea-horses seem to be a one-off and probably have to be taken on their own terms.

No comments: