Sunday, January 17, 2016

Sunday's poem in musical mode: WB Yeats The Two Trees

"Evil comes to all us men of imagination wearing as its mask all the virtues.'
William Butler Yeats (1865 - 1939)
The Two Trees
WB Yeats

Beloved, gaze in thine own heart,
The holy tree is growing there;
From joy the holy branches start,
And all the trembling flowers they bear.
The changing colours of its fruit
Have dowered the stars with merry light;
The surety of its hidden root
Has planted quiet in the night;
The shaking of its leafy head
Has given the waves their melody,
And made my lips and music wed,
Murmuring a wizard song for thee.
There, through bewildered branches go
Winged Loves borne on in gentle strife,
Tossing and tossing to and fro
The flaming circle of our days,
The flaming circle of our life.
When looking on their shaken hair
And dreaming how they dance and dart,
Thine eyes grow full of tender care:
Beloved, gaze in thine own heart.

 Gaze no more in the bitter glass
The demons, with their subtle guile.
Lift up before us when they pass,
Or only gaze a little while;
For there a fatal image grows
With broken boughs, and blackened leaves,
And roots half hidden under the snows

Driven by a storm that ever grieves.
For all things turn to barrenness
In the dim glass the demons hold,
The glass of outer weariness,
Made when God slept in times of old.
There, through the broken branches, go
The ravens of unresting thought;
Flying, crying, to and fro,
Cruel claw and hungry throat,
Or else they stand and sniff the wind,
And shake their ragged wings; alas!
Thy tender eyes grow all unkind:
Gaze no more in the bitter glass.


W.B. Yeats is considered among the finest poets of the 20th century.

Yeats apparently wrote the poem The Two Trees as a form of love poem  for Maude Gonne, the woman he long-loved and agonized over.  You can read more here.

At another level, Yeats poem exemplifies the respect and reverence that different cultures have for trees and their symbolic, life-giving and mystical qualities.              

Another view of the poem is that Yeats was inviting the reader (the "Beloved") to choose between two paths, as represented by the Two Trees. Yeats seems to contrasts the path of inner spirituality and compassion with that of cynicism and evil, which some claim represents the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

This view seems to be reflected in a musical version of the poem created by Canadian singer songwriter Loreena McKennitt, who put Yeats's poem to music in a song that appears on her 1996 album  The Mask and the Mirror.  (McKennitt changed and added some words).

McKennitt's music is profoundly beautiful and compliments Yeats powerful sacred imagery.

McKennitt has put other Yeats poems to music, most notably The Stolen Child, as well as poems by Alfred Tennyson, William Blake, William Shakespeare, Alfred Noyes (Noyes's poem the Highwaymen,  features in an earlier blog piece), St John of the Cross and Archibald Lampman.

Loreena McKennitt's album version of Yeats poems is below.

A live version of the song is here

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