Seeing Things and then “Seeing Things”


“Fish” by jpbohannon, 2017

One of Seamus Heaney’s later collections of poetry was entitled Seeing Things, and indeed the Irish poet was a master of detailed observation.  His career was built on seeing and noticing things.

Seeing Things

Andrew Barker, in his on-line lecture on Heaney’s early poem “Digging,”  comments on the phrase “seeing things,” saying that we usually mean one of two things when we say it.

The first is what he is emphasizing in Heaney’s poems, the art of closely observing detail: in the case of “Digging,” the sound of a spade sliding through gravel, the squelch of the turf being sliced from the bog, the coolness of potatoes fresh from the ground.

But, Barker points out, there is also another meaning of someone “seeing things”– where it does not refer to someone with keenness of perception, but to someone who sees things that are not there. “He’s seeing things” quite often means that someone is seeing things that are not visible to others, someone who is delusional or fantasizing.

And then Barker names the poet William Butler Yeats as one who sees things that are not there.

I’ve let that percolate in my mind for a while.  And then I thought of Yeats’ poem, “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” perhaps my favorite poem of all and one that I can recite at will.

The poem goes like this:

The Song of Wandering Aengus

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread.
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.
When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name.
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.
Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

Apart from the subtle rhymes (“wand” and “wood” or “moon” and “sun”) or the beautiful images of “moth like stars” and “a glimmering girl/with apple blossom in her hair,” the poem is notable because Yeats is seeing things that are not necessarily visible.

(Do I need to mention that a silver trout transforms into a human female as the speaker turns to “blow the fire a-flame.”)

And yet there is a larger truth sitting on that cottage floor and running out the door. A larger truth that has the speaker spending his lifetime chasing that vision–and believing that he will catch it.

I used the word “vision” purposefully,  for it is in that unseen vision that Yeats reveals a truth, a truth about passion, aspiration, dreams and goals. It is the dream of what one wants and the dedication of following that dream, of chasing that dream “till time and times are done.”  For it is in chasing the dream–not in catching it– that a full life resides.

Yeats saw that truth…and saw it in a way not visible to most. (Never mind, that Yeats actually spent much of his life chasing after his “glimmering girl,” Maude Gonne.  That’s beside the point!)

Certainly, we are all not going to fully realize our dreams; we will not all achieve what we set out to do. And often times not attaining what we thought we wanted may be the best thing to happens to us.  But the chase must continue –and it defines our lives.  If we are not looking forward–through “hollow lands and hilly lands”–if we have given up on that “glimmering girl,” then we are merely alive.

As I have said, this is one of my favorite poems–and it has often been put to music. If you search YouTube for “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” you will find scores of versions done by everyone from Christy Moore or The Waterboys to Dave Van Ronk and Judy Collins. Donovan did a version, as did Don MacLean on banjo.

Anyway, below is my favorite version, by Christy Moore.  Give it a listen…


“Before the World was Made”

“The Yale philosopher Shelly Kagan … manages to raise some interesting and subtle concerns about …notions relating to the question of what’s really bad about death, including this one: Why do we regard no longer existing (post-mortem nonexistence) as worse than not having existed before our births (prenatal nonexistence)? And are we wrong to do so?” 

“The Opinionator,” New York Times, May 16, 2012.

I love this question.  I have thought of it before, and it gives me comfort. For it makes perfect sense to me.  I wonder if Mr. Kagan is aware of the Yeats’ poem, “Before the World was Made.”  I would imagine he is. I know I thought of it right away when I read the article.

    Before the World was Made

If I make the lashes dark
And the eyes more bright
And the lips more scarlet,
Or ask if all be right
From mirror after mirror,
No vanity’s displayed:
I’m looking for the face I had
Before the world was made.

What if I look upon a man
As though on my beloved,
And my blood be cold the while
And my heart unmoved?
Why should he think me cruel
Or that he is betrayed?
I’d have him love the thing that was
Before the world was made.

For here, Yeats too is looking at what Kagan calls “prenatal nonexistence”–though Yeats prefers to think of it as “prenatal existence.”

Now Yeats is working in a spiritual cosmology quite different from that which the Yale philosopher is dealing with.  Yeats was always susceptible to spirituality and spiritualism…mysticism and the occult.  (Adrienne Rich famously called him a “table-rattling fascist.” Click here for Evan Boland’s essays on literary antagonisms.) Nevertheless, he was very much interested in concepts of a soul. He believed–through a complicated mythology of his own making, explicated in his book The Vision–in an individual, social, and civilization-wide reincarnation or continuance of the soul.  And so through this series of Yeatsian cycles we have it: a “pre-natal” AND “post-mortem” existence, as the philosopher says.

Maude Gonne

And yet, there is also something else going on in the poem that is not as deep, not as cosmic, not as “philosophical.” This is not a cosmic dance taking place in front of the mirror.  It is that old familiar dance of seduction and romance.  For who is the speaker sitting in front of her vanity? Has Yeats returned to musings on his old beloved Maude Gonne? Is he thinking of her daughter–to whom he once proposed having been rejected for the umpteenth time by Gonne? The poem was published in 1933 when Yeats was 68 years old.  The following year Yeats had the Steinach operation performed–a procedure of inserting animal glands into the body in order to increase testosterone production. Good old Yeats–he was now 68–was not giving up on this existence…and at this time was carrying on several romantic affairs with much younger women.

The poem itself appeared in the collection, The Winding Stair, and was one of twelve poems included in a section called “A Woman Young and Old.”  If the speaker is a woman where does she fit in that continuum?  Is this a young woman relatively new at the game?  Or a more experienced woman, who could look on any man “as though on my beloved”?

And what is it she would have him love?  What existed “before the world was made”?  For the philosopher Kagan, the answer is nothing.  For Yeats it is something large, something essential.

As an aside, I knew that Van Morrison had recorded a song version of the poem.  I also knew that Mike Scott and the Waterboys had just put out an album, An Appointment with Mr. Yeats, on which the poem appeard. But I just learned that Carla Bruni–the former first lady of France–had also recorded the song.  I don’t know why, but I find that amusing.  Anyway,  here’s Van the Man’s performance of Yeats’ “Before the World Was Made.”