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Moving on Silence: Yeats and the Refrain as Symbol1

Paul Muldoon

© Paul Muldoon, CC BY 4.0


In his study of The Poetry of W.B. Yeats, published in 1941, Louis MacNeice addresses the subject of Yeats and the refrain with admirable chutzpah (perhaps even a hint of hauteur) and a sense of the historical moment out of which Yeats arose:

It is worth considering the principle of refrain at some length because refrain in the twentieth century was in many circles for a long time under taboo. We suspected it, firstly, as an easy form of conventional decoration (we could point to Morris and Rossetti) and, secondly, as a well known prop for sentimentality (we could point to Alfred Noyes) or for any poetry where it is risky to examine the content critically (we could point to the patriotic poems of Kipling and Newbolt). Housman had used it effectively, but even his effects we found suspiciously pat. The twentieth century suspected most poetic repetition-devices on the ground that repetition saves thinking or excuses the lack of thought, that by sheer hypnotic force it can persuade the reader to buy his twopence coloured when he would certainly reject the penny plain. If we are honest, however, we must admit that all poetry involves this danger of hypnosis. (We must remember too that hypnosis can be illuminating.)2

I’d like to take MacNeice’s idea of ‘this danger of hypnosis’ and try to extend it to the fact that the hypnotized ‘has usually no remembrance of what he has said or done during the hypnotic state’.3 He is, in other words, in a state of ecstatic trance in which the concept of duration has no meaning. I want to try today to discuss what one might call the triumph over time, ecstasy in stasis, which is implicit in all writing and reading, with a particular focus on the peculiar power of the refrain to represent at once fixity and fracture, regularity and rupture, constancy and change. I’ll be suggesting that, far from being patriotic or pat, the refrain is integral to Yeats’s symbolic system, a physical manifestation of the winding stair and the perning gyre, a perfect crossing of the butterfly with the hawk. I’ll be mulling over, and musing upon, some Yeatsian symbols that spring to mind less frequently—the moorfowl, the mouse, the mayfly and the refrain itself, this last a reification of eternal intervention. While I’ll be concentrating on a small number of poems by Yeats himself, notably ‘Easter, 1916’ and ‘Long-legged Fly’, I’ll also be skipping sideways to take in Anonymous, a Browning or two, Donne, Poe, Wyatt and Wordsworth. I’ll be appealing to informants as diverse as Arthur Schopenhauer and Stephen Sondheim on the subjects of clarity and contamination, allusiveness and elusiveness. Here’s Sondheim, for example, speaking in New York in 1973 on the subject of ‘Lyrics and Lyricists’:

First, lyrics exist in time—as opposed to poetry, for example. You can read a poem at your own speed. I find most poetry very difficult, and there are a few poets I like very much. Wallace Stevens is one, but it takes me a good 20 minutes to get through a medium-length Wallace Stevens poem, and even then I don’t understand a lot of it, yet I enjoy it and can read it at my own speed. That’s the point. On the stage, the lyrics come at you and you hear them once. If there’s a reprise you hear them twice, if there are two reprises you hear them three times, but that’s all.4

This negotiation between exigency and excess is rather neatly summed up by the repetitive device used by John Donne in his three-stanza poem, ‘A Hymn to God the Father’:

When thou hast done, thou hast not done,

For, I have more.

These two lines are repeated at the end of the second stanza and then, at the end of the third stanza, are transmogrified into:

And having done that, Thou hast done,

I feare no more.5

One would be hard put to say if this represents merely a triple repetition of the kind that is at the heart of every form of art, or a refrain per se in Sondheim’s ‘two reprises’ sense, in the way it’s being used by Thomas Wyatt, say, in his majestic ‘In Eternum I was Ons Determed’. Something of the tension between being finished (Donne playing there on his own name) and unfinished (there being ‘more’ with its play on the name of Donne’s wife, Ann More), contributes to an effect of stasis which might properly be seen as one aspect of the refrain. This device of sheer repetition is sometimes known as ‘incremental repetition’, particularly when it doesn’t repeat ‘verbatim’ the ‘line, lines, or part of a line’ that is usually associated with the refrain.6 This is the kind of proto-refrain of which Yeats often avails himself. Stanzas 1 and 2 of ‘Easter, 1916’, for example, end with the lines ‘All changed, changed utterly: | A terrible beauty is born’ and ‘He, too, has been changed in his turn, | Transformed utterly: A terrible beauty is born’ while the fourth and final stanza ends:

I write it out in a verse—

MacDonagh and MacBride

And Connolly and Pearse

Now and in time to be,

Wherever green is worn,

Are changed, changed utterly:

A terrible beauty is born. (VP 394)

One cannot but be amused by the fact that a device used to suggest that nothing has changed should assert that things have ‘changed, changed utterly’. Perhaps they’ve not changed utterly? Perhaps they’ve changed slightly? The tension between form and content is an indicator of Yeats’s own predicament, the sense of frustration expressed in his famous letter to Lady Gregory of May 11 1916:

I had no idea that any public event could so deeply move me—and I am very despondent about the future. At the moment I feel that all the work of years has been overturned, all the bringing together of classes, all the freeing of Irish literature and criticism from politics.7

This letter was written on the very day Yeats began to compose ‘Easter, 1916’8 and one cannot help but think that the subject of the poem is in some sense stasis, just as stasis is the subject of the couplet—the free standing refrain, one might say—’Parnell’:

Parnell came down the road, he said to a cheering man;

‘Ireland shall get her freedom and you still break stone’. (VP 353)

The ‘break’ in ‘break stone’ is not irrelevant here, since the OED definition of the word refrain points us to its root in the Latin word refrangere, meaning ‘to break again’. Some notion of breaking is central to the idea of a refrain as ‘a phrase or verse occurring at intervals, esp. at the end of each stanza of a poem or song; a burden, chorus’. The ‘still’ in ‘still break stone’ will resonate for readers of ‘Easter, 1916’ both in the sense of ‘now as before’ and ‘motionless’:

A shadow of cloud on the stream

Changes minute by minute;

A horse-hoof slides on the brim,

And a horse plashes within it;

The long-legged moor-hens dive,

And hens to moor-cocks call;

Minute by minute they live:

The stone’s in the midst of all. (VP 393)

The ‘stone’ that’s still ‘in the midst of all’ is of course the stone rolled away by the angel of the Lord to reveal the risen Christ on Easter morning. That stone is central to Christian iconography. One might say it’s the icon of the moment that gives Christianity momentum. In the context of the Irish Easter ‘rising’, though, stone is again connected in less than ameliorative ways to notions of insensitivity and intransigence:

Too long a sacrifice

Can make a stone of the heart.

O when may it suffice? (VP 394, emphasis added)

Again, Yeats allows the form of his poem to comment on its content, since the conclusion of stanza 3 of ‘Easter, 1916’ is not the ringing of some small change on ‘All changed, changed utterly: | A terrible beauty is born’ but what is ipso facto an utter transformation in the structure of the poem, the stone itself breaking the established order:

Minute by minute they live:

The stone’s in the midst of all. (VP 393)

Perhaps one interpretation of this poem, which would be of a piece with the frustration that Yeats expresses to Lady Gregory and in keeping, too, with the fact of his withholding of the poem until it was published in The New Statesman 23 October and The Dial, November 1920,9 is that things have changed not even slightly but have changed not at all. R. F. Foster, in his biography of Yeats, asserts that ‘in 1916 it would have been read principally as a passionate endorsement of the rebels’ cause, and WBY was extremely cautious about releasing it’.10 I incline much more to the view, alluded to by Foster, that Irish readers would be much more like Maud Gonne MacBride, whom Foster describes as having ‘unerringly spotted the poem’s central ambivalence, missed by those who concentrate on the images of terrible beauty and rebirth through sacrifice’,11 and disliked the poem at least as much as she did, which was rather a lot. I write ‘poem’, but that’s not what Yeats writes, in these lines that summon and sum up Maud Gonne’s husband:

This other man I had dreamed

A drunken, vainglorious lout.

He had done most bitter wrong

To some who are near my heart,

Yet I number him in the song.

(VP 393, emphasis added)

In other words, ‘Easter, 1916’ is quite seen by Yeats as a song, a song that alludes quite specifically, in the phrase ‘wherever green is worn’ to ‘The Wearing of the Green’, the political ballad associated with the 1798 rebellion which Yeats had anthologized in 1895:

I met with Napper Tandy, and he took me by the hand,

And he said, ‘How’s poor old Ireland, and how does she stand?’

She’s the most distressful country that ever yet was seen,

They are hanging men and women there for the wearing of the green’. (BIV 236)

Again, Yeats has introduced a less than ameliorative aspect to the past participle of ‘wearing’ to ‘Easter, 1916’ since the word ‘worn’ may mean ‘impaired by wear or use, or by exposure; showing the results of use or attrition’ or, even more relevantly, ‘hackneyed by use or repetition12 like the ‘polite meaningless words’ in line 6 of ‘Easter, 1916’ followed by the ‘polite meaningless words’ in line 8. Again, there is a commentary on both content and form implicit in that word ‘worn’ which brings us back to the effect of ‘the living stream’ on the stone that’s ‘in the midst of all’, its very smoothness leading to the insensitivity and intransigence to which I referred earlier, to the stone-heart being untroubled in troubling ways:

Hearts with one purpose alone

Through summer and winter seem

Enchanted to a stone

To trouble the living stream. (VP 393)

The paradox is extraordinary. It might be said that inaction rather than action, including political action, may trouble the living stream, including the living stream of Irish history and the Irish Troubles, just as a work of art that seems inert may trouble in the sense of ‘disturb, agitate, ruffle’:13

Michael Angelo left a proof

On the Sistine Chapel roof,

Where but half-awakened Adam

Can disturb globe-trotting Madam

Till her bowels are in heat,

Proof that there’s a purpose set

Before the secret working mind:

Profane perfection of mankind.

(VP 638–39, emphasis added)

This image of Michael Angelo working on the Sistine Chapel comes from ‘Under Ben Bulben’, a poem written on September 4, 1938 which is in dialogue with ‘Easter, 1916’ in several significant ways. The stone that’s in the midst of ‘Under Ben Bulben’ is of course the marker of Yeats’s own grave:

On limestone quarried near the spot

By his command these words are cut:

Cast a cold eye

On life, on death.

Horseman, pass by! (VP 640, emphasis added)

This horseman is one of the ‘hard-riding country gentlemen’ who appears earlier in ‘Under Ben Bulben’, but it’s the hoof of his horse, surely, that ‘slides on the brim’ of the stream in ‘Easter, 1916’, his horse that ‘plashes within it’. That ‘plashes’ will send many readers back to the most famous use of the word in English literature:

The hare is running races in her mirth;

And with her feet she from the plashy earth

Raises a mist; that, glittering in the sun,

Runs with her all the way, wherever she doth run.

Wordsworth’s description of the hare comes from ‘Resolution and Independence’ his great hymn of praise to the old leech-gatherer whom he meets ‘beside a pool bare to the eye of heaven’ and who lies ‘As a huge stone is sometimes seen to lie | Couched on the bald top of an eminence’ and who roams ‘from moor to moor’. The ‘moor’ in Wordsworth’s poem seeps into ‘Easter, 1916’:

The long-legged moor-hens dive,

And hens to moor-cocks call.

As Daniel Albright hints, in a note on this poem in his great edition of Yeats: The Poems, among those that might recognize this call—perhaps even respond to it—are the moorfowl in ‘The Indian upon God’:14

I passed along the water’s edge below the humid trees,

My spirit rocked in evening light, the rushes round my knees,

My spirit rocked in sleep and sighs; and saw the moorfowl pace

All dripping on a grassy slope, and saw them cease to chase

Each other round in circles, and heard the eldest speak:

Who holds the world between His bill and made us strong or weak

Is an undying moorfowl, and He lives beyond the sky.

The rains are from His dripping wing, the moonbeams from His eye.

(VP 76 emphasis added in third quoted line)

‘The Indian Upon God’ was written in 1886, exactly 30 years before ‘Easter, 1916’, yet the two poems are cut from the same, part-Connemara, part-embroidered, cloth. The structure of ‘The Indian Upon God’ not only relies on the formal device of incremental repetition, a sequence of italicized utterances from, in turn, a moorfowl, a lotus, a roebuck and a peacock, but its very subject matter is repetition, the burden of each utterance being the tendency of the speaker to perceive its godhead as a replica of itself, in the case of the peacock ‘He is a monstrous peacock’, a version, one might say, of ‘a terrible beauty’. The lines

My spirit rocked in sleep and sighs; and saw the moorfowl pace

All dripping on a grassy slope, and saw them cease to chase

Each other round in circles…

are just as much under the spell of Wordsworth as that section of ‘Easter, 1916’, the hare ‘running races in her mirth’ from ‘Resolution and Independence’ replayed in the moorfowl that ‘cease to chase | each other round in circles’.


Now, I’m going to take my cue from the moorfowl and chase around in circles for a little while, in hopes of returning to the subject of replication and replay. For the moment, I’ll try to get to get under the surface of that most surface-engaged of Yeats’s poems, ‘Long-legged Fly’. Written between November 1937 and April 1938, just a year before Yeats’s death, Long-legged Fly’ is a poem of contemplation, partly self-contemplation, as this self-alluding final stanza makes clear:

That girls at puberty may find

The first Adam in their thought,

Shut the door of the Pope’s chapel,

Keep those children out.

There on that scaffolding reclines

Michael Angelo.

With no more sound than the mice make

His hand moves to and fro.

Like a long-legged fly upon the stream

His mind moves upon silence. (VP 617–18)

This stanza of ‘Long-legged Fly’, collected as the ninth poem in Last Poems and Two Plays,15 has an antiphonal relationship to the first poem in that book, ‘Under Ben Bulben’, if only in the figure of Michael Angelo causing a shudder in the loins despite, as I remarked on earlier, the inertness of the paint. It’s as if art, in the making as in the taking, combines mechanical movement (‘his hand moves to and fro’) with tranquillity (Michael Angelo being the embodiment of the cliché ‘as quiet as a mouse’). Those mice in ‘Long-legged Fly’ are town cousins of the country mice who have walk on parts in two poems written fifty years earlier and collected, along with ‘The Indian Upon God’, in Crossways (1889). The poems are ‘The Falling of the Leaves’ and ‘The Stolen Child’:

Autumn is over the long leaves that love us,

And over the mice in the barley sheaves;

Yellow the leaves of the rowan above us,

And yellow the wet wild-strawberry leaves.

(VP 79, emphasis added)

How stealthily, by his repetition of the word ‘leaves’ three times in four lines, does Yeats introduce his subject, the subject of leaving:

The hour of the waning of love has beset us,

And weary and worn are our sad souls now;

Let us part, ere the season of passion forget us,

With a kiss and a tear on thy drooping brow. (VP 79)

That ‘mice’ are associated in Yeats’s mind with the end of a season, with some sense of the waning of a cycle (‘Hickory, Dickory, Dock’), with what is ‘weary and worn’ in the secondary sense of ‘wherever green is worn, is substantiated by their appearance in ‘The Stolen Child’:

Away with us he’s going,

The solemn-eyed:

He’ll hear no more the lowing

Of the calves on the warm hillside

Or the kettle on the hob

Sing peace into his breast,

Or see the brown mice bob

Round and round the oatmeal-chest.

(VP 88, emphasis added)

That phrase ‘the brown mice bob’ has always struck me as being such a strange touch that I can only think that Yeats is unconsciously connecting a story about a stolen child and a rodent to that most famous of poems about stolen children and rodents, ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’.16 The rats have already scurried into the poem:

Where dips the rocky highland

Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,

There lies a leafy island

Where flapping herons wake

The drowsy water-rats,

There we’ve our faery vats

Full of berries

And of reddest stolen cherries. (VP 87)

If I were, like Yeats, a whodunit-loving sleuth, going into Sleuth Wood, as Slish Wood (as it is locally known) is here named, I might well discern a near version of Robert Browning’s name appearing there in ‘brown mice bob’. As the OED reminds us, the word ‘bob’ more often denotes ‘to move up and down like a buoyant body in water, or an elastic body on land; hence, to dance; to move to and fro with a similar motion, esp. said of hanging things rebounding from objects lightly struck by them’.17 That ‘to and fro’ motion is precisely that of Michael Angelo’s hand, and it might well describe a ‘long-legged fly’ moving ‘up and down like a buoyant body in water’. Now, what type of fly moves on water? A clue may lie in a poem that falls right between ‘The Falling of the Leaves’ and ‘The Stolen Child’ in Crossways, yet another poem about a Browningesque parting:

‘Your eyes that once were never weary of mine

Are bowed in sorrow under pendulous lids,

Because our love is waning’. (VP 79)

This is one of the two lovers who take the stage to say their say in ‘Ephemera’, a poem Yeats wrote in 1884, the ephemera of the title referring to ‘an insect that (in its imago or winged form) lives only for a day. In mod[ern] Entomology the name of a genus of pseudo-neuropterous insects belonging to the group Ephemeridae (Day-flies, May-flies.)’18 Indeed, Robert Browning had written in his 1875 poem, Aristophanes’ Apology, with an unconscious pun on the first word:

‘May I, the ephemeral, ne’er scrutinize

Who made the heaven and earth and all things there!’19

The fact that ‘Easter, 1916’ begins with the line ‘I have met them at close of day’ might be seen to establish immediately the theme of the poem as the tension between the ephemeral and the eternal, the evanescent and the everlasting, and to point immediately to the identity of the long-legged fly. The legs of the male mayfly are indeed particularly long so as to facilitate finding and grasping females for brief, mid-flight couplings on their day of days. ‘I am still of opinion’, wrote Yeats, in oft-quoted mode, ‘that only two topics can be of the least interest to a serious & studious mind—sex & the dead’.20 The mayfly is the perfect emblem for that double major of sex and the dead, its positioning of itself on the surface of the water the perfect emblem for self-reflection. The ‘studious mood’ in which Yeats poses himself is one of meditation, one of a Browningesque scrutiny, that he shares with the main characters of ‘Long-legged Fly’, including Julius Caesar:

That civilization may not sink,

Its great battle lost,

Quiet the dog, tether the pony

To a distant post.

Our master Caesar is in the tent

Where the maps are spread,

His eyes fixed upon nothing,

A hand under his head.

Like a long-legged fly upon the stream

His mind moves upon silence. (VP 617)

‘Long-legged Fly’ was written between November 1937 and April 1938, a period in which the map of Europe was being redrawn with a particular vengeance. Though Kaiser Wilhelm II had been forced out of Germany after World War I, Adolph Hitler was continuing to strengthen his position as a Caesar in the making. In this he was comforted by the ideas of the redoubtable Arthur Schopenhauer:

The highest civilization and culture, apart from the ancient Hindus and Egyptians, are found exclusively among the white races.21

It turns out that when, at a secret conference on 5 November 1937, Hitler had revealed his plan for extending the Lebensraum, or ‘living space’, for the Aryan nation, he pointed to Ireland’s fight for independence from Britain as an indicator that Britain could no longer expect to rule its Empire. On 13 March 1938, Hitler annexed Austria, giving the master race a little more room for their great hatred. This November-March period of European political expansionism coincides precisely with the writing of ‘Long-legged fly’, giving a chilling aspect to the words ‘our’ and ‘master’ in ‘Our master Caesar’. The use of the word ‘our’ also raises the question of who speaks ‘Long-legged Fly’, or at least this section of it. Harold Bloom, in his Yeats, asserts:

I hear only one speaker in Yeats’s poem, the poet himself, who intercedes magically as a keeper of solitude for Caesar, Helen, Michael Angelo.22

I think Harold Bloom is perhaps overly influenced by the received view, not immediately evident from the poem itself, that Helen of Troy is not so much Helen of Troy as Maud Gonne:

She thinks, part woman, three parts a child,

That nobody looks; her feet

Practise a tinker shuffle

Picked up on the street.

Like a long-legged fly upon the stream

Her mind moves upon silence. (VP 617)

This is a stroke of brilliance on the part of Yeats, since the propinquity of the dancer’s ‘feet’ to the ‘long-legged fly’ has us envision Helen as a mayfly on the surface of the stream. The ‘tinker’ is just one letter shy of a ‘thinker’ and indeed the word ‘thinks’ is introduced to prepare for, and perpetuate, that slippage. The dance in which Helen is engaged may be construed as the technical term for the swarming of male mayflies to attract a mate, the ‘dance’ of the ephemera, a far cry from the dance of Michael Robartes and the Dancer. Yeats is engaged in a rather complex little shuffle himself, perhaps under the influence of Laurel and Hardy’s Way Out West, a film released in this same year of 1937 and featuring, of all things, a soft-shoe shuffle. One might, with Bloom, wish the speaker who exhorts us to ‘Move most gently if move you must | In this lonely place’ to be a version of Yeats himself. The repetition of ‘move’ in ‘Move most gently if move you must’ in the body of the verse, reminiscent as it is of the repetition of ‘leaves’ in ‘The Falling of the Leaves’, should weaken the impact of the refrain, or burden, of ‘Like a long-legged fly upon a stream | Her mind moves upon silence’. Instead, the impact is even greater. Part of Yeats’s genius here is to make the burden have to do with an image of a burden being borne, the form of the poem yet again commenting on its subject matter in a mimetic way. In ‘Three Songs to the One Burden’, the poem which immediately follows ‘Under Ben Bulben’ in Last Poems, the first of three speakers, or singers, introduces himself as a ‘tinker’, and goes on to propose a theory of eugenics, a topic with which Yeats himself was much taken:

The Roaring Tinker if you like,

But Mannion is my name,

And I beat up the common sort

And think it is no shame.

The common breeds the common,

A lout begets a lout,

So when I take on half a score

I knock their heads about.

From mountain to mountain ride the fierce horsemen. (VP 605)

Though Yeats’s hope that this particular burden be multipurpose, perhaps even ‘one-size-fits-all’, is unfounded, giving substance to MacNeice’s complaint that some refrains ‘save thinking or excuse the lack of thought’, the poem is not without its revelations, at least one of which Yeats may not have taken into account.23 That is that the name ‘Mannion’ is one letter different from the name of one of Yeats’s later lovers, Ethel Mannin, herself a firm believer in eugenics, in the desirability of rooting out ‘base-born products of base beds’ (VP 639). As Daniel Albright points out, it’s in a letter to Ethel Mannin, written in 1936, that Yeats identifies himself as ‘a forerunner of that horde that will some day come down the mountains’. He is himself one of these ‘fierce horsemen’, himself another contender for having ‘trouble [d] the living stream’ in ‘Easter, 1916’. Here, the sense of ‘trouble’ is the sense beloved of eugenicists and other advocates of the pure drop, that’s to say ‘to mar’ or ‘to stir up (water) so as to make it thick or muddy; to make (wine) thick by stirring up the lees; to make turbid, dim, or cloudy’,24 as in ‘the blood-dimmed tide’ from ‘The Second Coming’, written in January 1919 and the seventh poem after ‘Easter, 1916’ in Michael Robartes and the Dancer. The ‘lout’ who ‘begets louts’ has already sent us back to the ‘drunken vainglorious lout in ‘Easter, 1916’.

‘On a Political Prisoner’, the third poem after ‘Easter, 1916’ in Michael Robartes and the Dancer, was also written in January 1919.

When long ago I saw her ride

Under Ben Bulben to the meet,

The beauty of her country-side

With all youth’s lonely wildness stirred25

Plate 32. Constance Gore-Booth’s drawing of W. B. Yeats, Image, © Sligo County Library, Ireland and courtesy of the County Librarian, Dónal Tinney.

At this moment, Constance Markiewicz is indivisible from a sexualized Irish landscape (if I may speak of the ‘side’ as a flank, and ‘country’ matters as just those) in which she is the embodiment of the living stream troubled by a stone. The ‘stirred’ suggests agitation both the sense of ‘to excite or provoke passion’ and ‘to rise in revolt or insurrection’. Yeats wrote to Lady Gregory on 29 January:

‘I wrote a good poem on Madam Markeivitch at Lucan to escape the necessity of writing one on Maud Gonne who is now sane & amicable again & I think anxious to make up’.26

It now seems that the only ‘stirring’ of which Markiewicz (as a proxy for Gonne) is capable, either in herself or others, is to ‘practice a tinker shuffle | picked up on the street’. Like those other long-legged flies, Caesar and Michael Angelo, Gonne/Markiewicz seems to have had her day.


As I myself shuffle and slouch towards some conclusion, I want to consider for a moment that strange description of Maud Gonne as ‘part woman, three parts a child’. The conventional phrase, as it were, would be something like ‘one part woman, three parts child’. Such infelicitous phrasing as ‘part woman, three parts a child’ is more often than not an indicator of a little disturbance below the surface of the living stream of the poem. In this case it’s an unconscious allusion to the ballad tradition, the tradition which (like the ‘tinker shuffle’), is ‘picked up on the street’. This is the tradition so categorically codified by James Francis Child in the original 10 volume edition of The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882–98) that the words ‘Child’ and ‘ballad’ are virtually indistinguishable. We’ve already seen the word child ‘stolen’ in the title of a poem in which ‘peace’ is sung ‘into the breast’ of ‘The Stolen Child’. The poem was written in 1886, two years after the publication of Volume 2 of The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, the first ballad which, No. 54, has to do with another stolen child.27

When Joseph was an old man, an old man was he,

He married Virgin Mary, the queen of Galilee.

He married Virgin Mary, the queen of Galilee.

Joseph and Mary walked through an orchard green,

There were berries and cherries as thick as might be seen.

There were berries and cherries as thick as might be seen.28

These ‘berries and cherries’ find their way into ‘The Stolen Child’ with its faery vats, ‘full of berries’ and of reddest stolen cherries’, the word ‘stolen’ related both to ‘cherries’ as it was to the ‘child’ because of the connection between ‘a baby, with no crying’ and the ‘cherry that has no stone’, the ballad of that title that’s also known as Child #46.29 The attraction of the ballad tradition to Yeats is manifold. That riddling quality in ‘The Cherry That Has No Stone’ connects to the worlds of magic and religion. Its antiphonal aspect connects further to the world of public prayer just as the mantra is a feature of private prayer or meditation. The relationship been chanting and enchantment is firmly established in ‘Easter, 1916’ in ‘the hearts with one purpose alone’ that are ‘enchanted to a stone’. This is a version of the hypnotic trance, to which the refrain may be a contributing device, in which the three main characters in ‘Long-legged Fly’ find themselves caught up, the ‘sheer hypnotic force’ which MacNeice diagnosed as an intrinsic danger of the refrain.30 It is the hypnosis associated with repetitive action—including the labour of the stonebreakers in ‘Parnell’ (VP 590)—which may be one of the sources of dance. It is also the hypnosis associated with such work song forms as the villanelle and the blues, which is barely a breath away from the ballad:

And Mary spoke to Joseph, so meek and so mild,

‘Joseph, gather me some cherries, for I am with child.

Joseph, gather me some cherries, for I am with child’.

And Joseph flew in anger, in anger flew he,

‘Let the father of the baby gather cherries for thee.

Let the father of the baby gather cherries for thee’.

Yet again, the ‘to and fro’ of the ballad tradition takes Yeats in the direction of a more conventional drama, with speaker handing off to speaker:

Then up spoke the baby Jesus from in Mary’s womb,

‘Bend down the tallest tree that my mother might have some.

Bend down the tallest tree that my mother might have some’.

And bent down the tallest branch, till it touched Mary’s hand.

Cried she, ‘Oh look thou Joseph, I have cherries by command’.

Cried she, ‘Oh look thou Joseph, I have cherries by command’.

The exchange of direct speech by Jesus, Mary, and Joseph is a feature of the ballad which is carried over to many of Yeats’s poems including, as it happens, ‘Ephemera’ and ‘The Indian Upon God’, with the moorhen whose god is a replica of itself. In addition to being at the root of drama, it gave rise, yet again, to verse forms associated with dance. I’m thinking of the rondeau, for example, which is ‘derived from dance-rounds (rondes or rondels) with singing accompaniment: the refrain was sung by the chorus—the general body of dancers—and the variable section by the leader’.31

Now, I promised earlier to get back to the idea of replication and replay, to what goes by rote, and that time has come around. Again, I want to suggest that the refrain is itself a symbol in Yeats. Let me return for a moment to the ‘bob’ of the mice in ‘The Stolen Child’. One sense of the word ‘bob’ I’ve not raised until now is the sense given in the OED as ‘the refrain or burden of a song’, a sense related perhaps to its connotations with dance. Coincidentally, Yeats’s use of the refrain connects almost literally with a strand of symbolism I mentioned earlier. The ‘bob’ of the refrain is related, at least in sound, to the ‘bobbin’, a corruption of the Gaelic word babán,32 a tuft, a tassel’, meaning a spool or reel ‘used to receive thread or yarn’. It is, in other words, one of ‘the still expanding and ascending gyres’ we might remember from Mrs Bob Browning’s Aurora Leigh, her long poem of 1857, the gyres we’ve long since known to be central to Yeats’s work. The wider context of that phrase in Elizabeth Barrett Browning is well worth remembering:

I answered, smiling gently. ‘Let it be.

You scarcely found the poet of Vaucluse

As drowsy as the shepherds. What is art

But life upon the larger scale, the higher,

When, graduating up in a spiral line

Of still expanding and ascending gyres,

It pushes toward the intense significance

Of all things, hungry for the Infinite?

Art’s life,—and where we live, we suffer and toil’.33

The wider context, therefore, is a discussion of the meaning of art, a discussion which is obviously very much akin to that in ‘Long-legged Fly’, less obviously akin to ‘Easter, 1916’. The kinship may have to do with the figure of ‘the poet of Vaucluse’, i.e. Francesco Petrarch (1304–74), who’s rather glancingly mentioned there in Aurora Leigh. Petrarch is known for the play on his own name in, for example, Sonnet 51, where he associates himself with petra, or ‘stone’, a self-identification that was taken up by that stonebreaker of stonebreakers, Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564), in his own sonnets. For Yeats may think of Michael Angelo as much sonneteer as stonebreaker, though he does of course tend to position him under the ‘Sistine roof’, as he describes it in ‘Michael Robartes and the Dancer’, the first poem in the 1921 volume of that same name in which ‘Easter, 1916’ follows four poems later:

While Michael Angelo’s Sistine roof,

His ‘Morning’ and his ‘Night’ disclose

How sinew that has been pulled tight,

Or it may be loosened in repose,

Can rule by supernatural right

Yet be but sinew. (VP 386)

The centrality of what is ‘loosened in repose’ is carried over from Aurora Leigh through ‘Michael Robartes and the Dancer’ to ‘Easter, 1916’ and the system of the ‘stone’ that has it in it ‘to trouble the living stream’. That art might have as its end toil, with its deep sense of ‘to stir up, make a stir or agitation’ (OED) rather than tranquillity, of rupture rather than ‘repose’, stands in direct contradiction to Walter Pater’s view, restated by Yeats in ‘To a Wealthy Man who promised a Second Subscription to the Dublin Municipal Gallery if it were proved the People wanted Pictures’, where he writes of Michelozzo’s San Marco Library, ‘Whence turbulent Italy should draw | Delight in Art whose end is peace’ (VP 288). What Michael Angelo’s mind is moving on in ‘Long-legged Fly’ is not merely a post-Schopenhauerean ‘silence’ by Buddhism out of Pessimism, nor even a post-Schopenhauerean ‘silence’ by Boredom out of Brevity of Life, but the paradoxical nature of the intersection of the eternal with the ephemeral that is the refrain itself. The eternal is made flesh in the refrain just as Helen or Christ are made flesh. The refrain itself is the point at which the crooked road of intuition intersects with the straight road of logic, symbolized for Yeats by the butterfly and the hawk (VP 338, 827). The refrain is itself the point at which the fluttering ‘to and fro’ of the butterfly intersects with the ‘fixed’ path of the hawk, the butterfly’s ‘limbs that had run wild’ intersects with the hawk’s heart ‘with one purpose alone’. We can easily appreciate that sense of the word gyre as meaning ‘a vortex’ if we visualize what happens when ‘the stone’s in the midst of all’ and the living stream is ‘troubled’. There is a mini-gyre in the ‘vortex’ sense, as given by the OED, just as there’s a mini-gyre (in a slightly different, if related, sense) when the minds of Caesar, Helen and Michael Angelo ‘move upon silence’ (VP 617). Caesar’s eyes are ‘fixed’ alright, but ‘fixed upon nothing’ because he is in a gyre in the very specific sense of ‘a trance’, presumably one brought on by whirling. This is a usage which, though obsolete and, as the OED tells us, probably based on ‘a mistake’, is very much of a piece with the description of the hypnotic state MacNeice divined as being a danger to the refrainer. In a poem like ‘Long-legged Fly’, the refrain is itself conducive to this hypnotic state, and may not be entirely distinguishable from it, even when it functions in much the way so famously outlined by Edgar Allan Poe in his essay on ‘The Philosophy of Composition’:

As commonly used, the refrain, or burden, not only is limited to lyric verse, but depends for its impression upon the force of monotone—both in sound and thought. The pleasure is deduced solely from the sense of identity—of repetition. I resolved to diversify, and heighten the effect, adhering in general to the monotone of sound, while I continually varied that of thought: that is to say, I determined to produce continuously novel effects, by the variation of the application of the refrain—the refrain itself remaining for the most part unvaried.34

It’s as if Poe’s refrain in ‘The Raven’—the tolling ‘Nevermore’—were an ironic commentary on Wyatt’s ‘In Eternum’:

In eternum I was ons determed

For to have lovid and my minde affirmed,

That with my herte it shuld be confermed

In eternum.35

The two tags ‘in eternum’ (evermore) and ‘Nevermore’ may themselves be read as one-size-fits-all refrains, since every refrain manages to fall between the two, between some sense of the endlessly ongoing stream that runs under and behind the poem and the fact that it surfaces only at intervals and, like its own long-legged fly, only ephemerally. A particular variation of that word springs to mind just now, like a cog caught in mid-cogitation. I’m thinking of the word ‘Ephemeris’, a term with which Yeats was almost certainly familiar, and one relevant to his system of gyres, referring as it does to ‘a table showing the predicted (rarely the observed) positions of a heavenly body for every day during a given period’ (OED). Yet again, it’s the shuffling from the predictable to the unforeseen and back again to the predictable that, as MacNeice describes it, gives the Yeatsian refrain its particular power:

A refrain again, when it means anything, tends to be simpler in meaning than the rest of the poem; it gives the reader or hearer relief. Yeats’s use of it, therefore, is often in two respects unusual. First the music of his refrain is often less obvious or smooth than that of the verses themselves, being sometimes flat, sometimes halting, sometimes strongly counterpointed.

Secondly, his refrains tend to have either an intellectual meaning which is subtle and concentrated, or a symbolist or nonsense meaning which hits the reader below the belt.36

What’s striking about the refrain in ‘Long-legged Fly’, and perhaps even the refrain in ‘Easter, 1916’, is that they have a nonce quality, as if to suggest that the speech that comes after long silence might be confused and confusing. It was, of course, this rivulet of the oddly dissociative quality of a nursery rhyme that MacNeice so brilliantly diverted from Yeats into his own stream. In this way, ‘There’s not a pilot on the perch | Knows I have lived so long’, from ‘Three Songs To the One Burden’ (VP 607), takes off and lands in a cage in the form of ‘Budgie’, a poem in MacNeice’s final book, The Burning Perch.37 The mechanical birds of ‘Byzantium’, like the ‘birds made to sing, and be silent alternately by flowing water’ by the great inventor Hero of Alexandria,38 transcend their moment and, through poetic influence and poetic allusion, achieve in reality a synthesis of constancy and change that Yeats achieves rhetorically at the end of ‘Ephemera’:

‘Ah, do not mourn’, he said,

‘That we are tired, for other loves await us;

Hate on and love through unrepining hours.

Before us lies eternity; our souls

Are love, and a continual farewell’. (VP 80–81)

This continual farewell is represented, yet again, by the refrain itself which, in the midst of all that momentum and surfeit must, for a moment, suffice.

1 Delivered on 16 January 2007.

2 Louis MacNeice, The Poetry of W.B Yeats (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1941), 164. Hereafter ‘MacNeice’.

3 OED.

4 George Martin (ed.), Making Music (London: Muller, 1983), 74.

5 Text from John Hayward (ed.), John Donne, The Complete Poems and Selected Prose (London: Nonesuch, 1929), 321–22, of which Yeats had a copy (YL 530). See also John Carey (ed.), John Donne: The Major Works (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 333.

6 Alex Preminger and T. V. F. Brogan (eds.), The New Princeton Encyclopaedia of Poetry and Poetics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 1018.

7 CL InteLex 2950 [11 May, 1916], L 612–13.

8 ‘I am trying to write a poem on the men executed; ‘‘terrible beauty has been born again’’’ (ibid.).

9 As distinct from private circulation in—and stemming from—Clement Shorter’s pamphlet Easter, 1916 (Wade 117), which Tom Paulin rather oddly calls ‘a sort of underground pamphlet’: see Tom Paulin (ed.), The Faber Book of Political Verse (London: Faber & Faber, 1986), 20. WBY subsequently tested the water, as it were, by printing the first stanza in The Irish Commonwealth (March 1919): see above n. 8, and Roy Foster’s essay above, ‘Philosophy and Passion’: W. B. Yeats, Ireland and Europe’, n. 9.

10 Life 2, 64.

11 Ibid., 63.

12 OED.

13 Ibid.

14 See Daniel Albright (ed.), W. B. Yeats: The Poems (London: J. M. Dent, 1990), 418.

15 Dublin: Cuala, 1939, 19–20.

16 Yeats probably first encountered this fairy story from the Brothers Grimm in Robert Browning’s poem, ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’, with which ‘The Stolen Child’ has certain formal affinities. He retained two volumes of his father’s set of Browning’s Poetical Works (YL 296–97), but this poem is found in Vol. 1: Lyrics, Romances, Men, and Women, 234–46.

17 OED.

18 Ibid.

19 The Poetical Works of Robert Browning (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1889), XIII, 90.

20 CL InteLex 5034, to Olivia Shakespear, 2 October [1927]; L 730.

21 Arthur Schopenhauer, Parerga and Paralipomena: Short Philosophical Essays, tr. E. F. J. Payne (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974), Vol. 2, Section 92, 158.

22 Harold Bloom, Yeats (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), 450.

23 MacNeice, 164–65.

24 OED.

25 VP 397. Yeats stayed with the Gore-Booth sisters from 20 November 1894 for a few days, during which Constance Gore-Booth drew him (dated 11 ’94). See Plate 32.

26 CL InteLex 3562. For a recent claim that the poem is about Gonne, see Anne Margaret Daniel, ‘Moura is in Holloway: A famous “prophylactic love poem” by W. B. Yeats’, TLS, 29 January, 2016, 14–15. For a definitive refutation, see Roy Foster, ‘W. B. Yeats and Maud Gonne’, TLS 12 February 2016, 6.

27 Francis James Child (ed.), The English and Scottish Popular Ballad (Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co.; London: H. Stevens, Son & Stiles, [1882–98]), II, 2.

28 In this and the two succeeding quotations, I use not Child’s ballad versions, but ‘The Cherry-Tree Carol’, the refrained version known from sung carols with musical settings, in which the lines of each quatrain double up into dimeters, with the second line repeated as a refrain, added for sung versions. The earliest published version of this carol (which he may have encountered as a Christmas carol in his Protestant childhood), is that of Cecil Sharp (1909), who took the carol-tune down from in Gloucestershire on 13 January and 6 April 1909, using dimeters with a repeated second line, as well as the ballad in quatrains which he evidently checked in the Oxford Book of Carols. The carol was also available from numerous nineteenth-century sources, several before Child. Certainly Yeats knew the ballad in unrefrained quatrains from the Irish and English versions taken down by Douglas Hyde in and published in The Religious Songs of Connacht (1906), 1, 279–85, and the unrefrained quatrains in Jack Yeats’s illustrated Cuala Broadside of 1909. The version I quote is that found in modern renditions by Joan Baez or Peter, Paul and Mary, found in a number of American folk versions.

29 I.e., ‘Captain Wedderburn’s Courtship’, Child, 1, 414ff.

30 MacNeice, 164.

31 The New Princeton Encyclopaedia of Poetry and Poetics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 1097.

32 Patrick S. Dineen, An Irish-English Dictionary (Dublin: Irish Texts Society, 1927), 66.

33 Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh, With an Introductory Note by E. Wingate Rinder (London: Walter Scott, [n.d.]), Bk IV, ll. 1149–54, p. 151; Aurora Leigh (London: The Women’s Press, 1978), Bk iv, l. 1154, p. 192.

34 Edgar Allan Poe, Poems and Essays, edited with a new memoir, by John H. Ingram (Leipzig: Bernhard Tauchnitz, 1884), 276. On Yeats’s reading of early Poe see Myth 2005, 308, 371, 396, 416, 418.

35 See Sir Thomas Wyatt, Collected Poems, ed. Kenneth Muir (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1949), 54.

36 MacNeice, 167.

37 Louis MacNeice, The Burning Perch (London: Faber & Faber, 1963), 37

38 See The Pneumatics of Hero of Alexandria, tr. for (by J. G. Leonard) and ed. Bennet Woodcroft (London: Charles Whittingham, 1851), Section 15, 31–32.