Poet's Pick April 18
William Butler Yeats:
"The Fisherman"

Selected by R. T. Smith
National Poetry Month 2013

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R. T. Smith's Poetry Month Pick, April 18, 2013

"The Fisherman"
by William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

Although I can see him still,
The freckled man who goes
To a grey place on a hill
In grey Connemara clothes
At dawn to cast his flies,
It’s long since I began
To call up to the eyes
This wise and simple man.
All day I’ve looked in the face
What I had hoped t’would be
To write for my own race
And the reality;
The living men that I hate,
The dead man that I loved,
The craven man in his seat,
The insolent unreproved,
And no knave brought to book
Who has won a drunken cheer,
The witty man and his joke
Aimed at the commonest ear,
The clever man who cries
The catch-cries of the clown,
The beating down of the wise
And great Art beaten down.

Maybe a twelvemonth since
Suddenly I began,
In scorn of this audience,
Imagining a man,
And his sun-freckled face,
And grey Connemara cloth,
Climbing up to a place
Where stone is dark under froth,
And the turn-down of his wrist
When the flies drop in the stream;
A man who does not exist,
A man who is but a dream;
And cried, ‘Before I am old
I shall have written him one
Poem maybe as cold
And passionate as the dawn.’

 

* R. T. Smith Comments:
“The Fisherman,” first published in Poetry in 1916, then included in The Wild Swans at Coole (1919), reveals Yeats at a pivotal point in his craft and career, on the threshold of his great period of symbolic, erudite, mythic verse.  Within the confines of forty trimeter lines rhyming as abab quatrains and written in two stanzas which virtually tumble forward with enjambment, Yeats reimagines an Irish countryman on the rough coastal hills fly fishing at dawn, but his account gives way to expressions of regret and anger over what he had hoped would prove his audience, his scrimmaging countrymen, who have disappointed him, showing themselves to be “craven” and  “knaves,” as they value broad clownishness at the expense of wisdom and “great Art.”  He has learned the hard lesson that no man is a prophet in his own land.

Although the poem opens with the vivid memory of a rough-hewn “wise and simple man” who represents the vitality of Ireland at its best, it quickly turns to criticism of philistines – the “drunken” and “insolent.”  By the end of the stanza, the catalogue of deficiencies the narrator finds in his countrymen feels almost conclusive, as if Art has been completely eclipsed.

The second stanza, however, begins by distancing the narrator from his disappointment and strikes out anew “in scorn of this audience.”  Whether the revenant he can “see . . . still” in the poem’s opening line is remembered or imagined, by stanza two, the figure has become the latter, almost conjured out of folklore as the genius loci of the place, and he comes more clearly this time, still in “grey Connemara cloth” and “sun-freckled” but now “climbing” to a ceremonial place, “Where stone is dark under froth,” to practice his patient and ancient art.  The image is as hauntingly beautiful as it is deft, and the narrator is decisive in his identification of the fisherman as “a dream” who “does not exist,”  But this discovery does not signal a disappointment and achieves an amplified gravitas, as the image of the wise angler becomes both model – with his discipline, his precise work – and the poet’s ideal (vigilant and appreciative) audience.  The poem concludes with one of Yeats’s wonderful paradoxes, a commitment to “one/ Poem maybe as cold/ And passionate as the dawn.”  The poise and restraint of this prescription in which emotion and dispassionate craft display a balanced dynamic suggest that he may have achieved in “The Fisherman” the kind of distance and intimacy he is yearns for, but the narrator’s “maybe” qualifies this success and confers an aspirational note on the ending.  It’s a high standard – a poem of light, passion and wintry clarity – and a useful admonition to any poet to renew the commitment to craft and genuine feeling.


About R. T. Smith:
Rod Smith is Writer-in-Residence at Washington and Lee University, where he edits Shenandoah (shenandoahliterary.org).  His dozen collections include two winners of the Library of Virginia Poetry Book Award, and his poems have been reprinted in the Pushcart Prize Anthology, Best American Poetry and a variety of anthologies.  The Red Wolf: A Dream of Flannery O’Connor (Louisiana Literature Press) was published in January, and in 2014 Texas Review Press will bring out his selected poems.  Smith’s current project is Summoning Shades, a sequence of poems about nineteenth century Americans.


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