Reference > Anthologies > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library > Verse

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
From ‘Deirdre’
By William Butler Yeats (1865–1939)
          [With a proud imperiousness Yeats defies conventional rhyming and yet strikes music in every line. So completely has he identified his soul with Ireland that it may be said he conjures up in the background of our minds, while in the act of reading, the very landscape of his beloved Eire. He has given a soul to inanimate things. In his fervid imagination past and present seem actually to mingle. It is all a land of mist and shadows, of tears and bitter sorrow, of passionate regret and high immortal hopes, and it is all real-fairyland.
  In the appendix to his collected plays entitled ‘The Work of the National Theatre Society at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin,’ Yeats goes very fully into the use and value of the modern drama. When a wealthy patron gave the Celtic Revivalists an opportunity to carry out their plans, Yeats set himself “to create a theatre of speech, of romance, of extravagance; to find once again singers, minstrels, and players who love words more than anything else under heaven, for without fine words there is no literature.”
  In strict accordance with this ideal, scenery is relegated to a subordinate place. Nothing more is necessary than “a pattern with recurring boughs and leaves of gold for a wood, a great green curtain with a red stencil upon it to carry the eye upward for a palace,” and so on. All that is really essential to a true dramatic situation is “one table and two chairs, two people and a passion.” Neither elaborate staging nor glorification of the “star” is in place, for the attention of the audience ought to be fixed upon the thought-content of the drama and the beautiful words in which that thought is clothed. The player, in other words, is subordinate to the dramatist.
  When we come to deal with Yeats as a dramatist we are at once reminded of him as a poet. A poet he never ceases to be. There is nothing of the high, almost boisterous hilarity of Lady Gregory, nor of the sardonic, mordant, sometimes cruel cynicism of John Synge. When he ventures on the sea of humor as in ‘The Pot of Broth’ there is a touch of the satirical and absurd. It is a little comedy which revolves about credulity and vanity in the hands of low cunning. Molière might have thrown it off in a vagrant mood. Humor, however, is not Yeats’s forte.
  Chiefly, as in his poems, it is the past of Ireland as chronicled in the doings of the Red Branch Knights of Ulster or the legends of Finn as set forth in the Leinster-Munster cycle that fascinates him. In the almost dramatically perfect tragedy of Deirdre he follows the outline of the ancient tale as it is set forth in ‘The Tragical Death of the Sons of Usnech or the Life and Death of Deirdre,’ one of the “three sorrows of story-telling.” Deirdre and Naisi are engaged in playing chess.]

DEIRDRE—I cannot go on playing like that woman
That had but the cold blood of the sea in her veins.
  Naisi—It is your move. Take up your man again.
  Deirdre—Do you remember that first night in the woods?
We lay all night on leaves, and looking up,        5
When the first gray of the dawn awoke the birds
Saw leaves above us. You thought that I still slept,
And bending down to kiss me on the eyes
Found they were open. Bend and kiss me now,
For it may be the last before our death.        10
And when that’s over we’ll be different,
Imperishable things—a cloud or a fire,—
And I know nothing but this body, nothing
But that old vehement, bewildering kiss.
[After Conchobar has slain Naisi he asks Deirdre,]

But why are you so calm?
I thought that you would curse me and cry out,
And fall upon the ground and tear your hair.
Deirdre  [laughing]
You know too much of women to think so,
Though if I were less worthy of desire
I would pretend as much. But, being myself        20
It is enough that you are master here.
Although we are so delicately made,
There’s something brutal in us, and we are won
By those who can shed blood. It is some woman
Who taught you how to woo.        25

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