Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Glimpses of Eternity in William Butler Yeats

One of my favorite classes while working toward my English major at Wake Forest was Ed Wilson’s course on Blake, Yeats, and Thomas. Dr Wilson, a pillar of tradition at WFU, is perhaps the last of the great romantics – as he read the poetry, you could hear the relish in his voice. He diligently worked to impress upon us the richness of the language and the depth of vision held by these great poets. They were bardic visionaries, who longed to impart an otherworldly vision – a glimpse of eternity.

Time and again I am drawn back to the poets – not for their theological profundity. No, these men were outside the bounds of orthodox Christianity. I am drawn back because they so deeply feel the longing of the human heart.

Yeats, for today’s example, again and again captures the longing for eternity. One of his early poems, “Fergus and the Druid” announces this theme – Fergus was the ancient Irish king who gave up his throne so that he might become a visionary druid. This poem is a dialogue in which Fergus explains his world weariness: “A king is but a foolish labourer/Who wastes his blood to be another’s dream.” In this we hear echoes of Ecclesiastes “I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. I devoted myself to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven. What a heavy burden God has laid on men! I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” (1:12-14).

The druid responds to Fergus “Take, if you must, this little bag of dreams/Unloose the cord, and they will wrap you round.” Then Fergus takes the bag of dreams and has his mystical experience of oneness with the universe: “I see my life go drifting like a river/ From change to change: I have been many things --/ A gree drop in the surge, a gleam of light/Upon a sword, a fir-tree on a hill/An old slave grinding at a heavey quern/ A king sitting on a chair of gold/ And all these things were wonderful and great/” But like the teacher in Ecclesiastes, Fergus finds that all the wisdom does not avail – it only brings sorrow. “But now I have grown nothing, knowing all./ Ah! Druid, Druid, how great webs of sorrow/Lay hidden in the small slate-coloured thing.”

The longing for peace and escape to an eternal rest is evident in “The Lake Isle of Innnisfree” After describing the hideaway he will build on the isle, Yeats writes “And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow/ Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings; / There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,/ And evening full of the linnet’s wings.” The longing for peace dropping all about is the inner longing for eternal rest. Interestingly, though, it is not the picture of the Christian eternal rest – the City of God where the whole family is gathered together (Revelation 22). The Christian rest is a gathering is for a wedding party – the wedding of Christ and the church together (Revelation 19:1-10). No, Yeats’ vision is a solitary vision – rest from the ills of the world. Not celebration with all the redeemed saints.

He closes the poem with how he senses this longing for the peace of the lake isle everywhere: “….for always night and day/ I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;/ While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,/ I hear it in the deep heart’s core.” And herein we hear echoes once again of Ecclesiastes: “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” (3:11).

The great poets remind us of the longing for the heavenly realms. They remind us that deep within, we know that we’re not home. Much of our art, culture, and craft are but shadowy attempts at communicating the home for which we long – the best communicate this longing with a clarity and force that cannot be ignored. Sadly, in communicating the longing, they often miss out on the Christ who graciously fulfills the longing by preparing the home just for us (John 14).

Soli Deo Gloria