‘Memory’ is a poem of six lines by W. B. Yeats that was published in his volume The Wild Swans at Coole in 1919. It is about a woman whom he is remembering with a feeling of wonder and loss. It might seem a slight poem beside all the rich, powerful poems that Yeats wrote. But it is perfect in its way, and if we look at it closely we can see how it manages to achieve its effect. It does so mainly through nothing more than a few variations in a simple underlying rhythm.
I am not saying that Yeats thought out these variations. He is a poet precisely because the rhythm of his lines, and the variations in emphasis and speed that the rhythm gives, came to him naturally. Even if he rewrote the poem a lot from his first draft, he would still have been judging the effect of his changes by his ear. Nevertheless we can step back and see how the rhythm works, and I think this can help in an understanding of poetry.
Poetry in the English language is different in one very noticeable respect from most of the poetry written in Ancient Greece and Rome. The classical poetry written then was very rigidly structured. Every verse had to consist of a strict pattern of short and long syllables. It was difficult verse to write, because the poet had to choose words that fitted this structure, while still of course conveying meaning and emotion.
The structure was founded on what were called ‘feet’. They were like the building blocks of the poem. They consisted, for example, of one short syllable followed by one long syllable, or it could be of two short syllables followed by one long syllable. The poet built up the poem with feet like this in the prescribed order. Poetry in English has never normally followed any such rules. It does not take account of the length of the syllables in words. But it has rhythm, as in music, which is created by a sequence of unstressed and stressed sounds. A waltz, for instance, is a sequence of ‘feet’, as you might call them, of one emphatic, or stressed, sound followed by two unstressed sounds: ‘boom-di-di, boom-di-di’.
Most English poetry has a very simple underlying rhythm of one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. This is not a rhythm that anyone has prescribed for English poetry. It is just a lilting version of ordinary English speech. ‘I went to buy a book’ is a sentence that falls into that rhythm. Say it with a bit more of a lilt and you could have a line of English poetry. Add another such line and you have a tiny poem:
I went to buy a book –
So I could learn to cook.
English poetry has borrowed some terms from Greek and Latin to describe these English rhythms. We can say that ‘I went/to buy/a book’ consists of three feet, each with an unstressed and a stressed syllable in that order. And we have given that kind of foot a name borrowed from classical poetry: an ‘iambic foot’. In classical poetry it meant a foot with a short and then a long syllable, whereas for us an iambic foot, or iamb, means one with an unstressed and then a stressed syllable.
There are feet of other kinds. The reverse of an iambic foot – two syllables with the first stressed and the second unstressed – is called a ‘trochee’. ‘Very/ silly’, for instance, could be seen as two trochees. Another foot I shall mention here consists of three syllables, the first two unstressed, the third stressed. It is a tripping sort of foot – ‘di-di-dee’ – and is called an ‘anapaest’. For instance, the phrase: ‘Are you there?’
You do not need to know these words to enjoy poetry. The rhythm works on the reader without any need for analysis. But if you are interested in how the rhythm works, these traditional terms are useful in examining it. Here are the first three lines of ‘Memory’:
One had a lovely face,
And two or three had charm,
But charm and face were in vain
If you speak these lines in a natural way you notice, if you care to think about it, that the second line consists of three iambic feet. But what about the first line? That begins with a trochee, because it comes quite naturally to put a stress on ‘One’, and after that come two iambic feet. And the third line is different again. It consists of two iambic feet followed by an anapaest. It is these tiny rhythmic variations on the basic iambic rhythm that give these lines much of their magic.
Yeats does not spell out the fact that he is talking about women here, but it does not take us more than a first cursory read of the poem to assume that he must be: ‘One had a lovely face’. And that emphasis on the ‘One’, forced on us by the rhythm, not only gives the poem an arresting start, but intrigues us with the idea of this one, this singular person, this singular woman. A trochee has done its job.
There is no special effect in the second line. Here the three iambic feet just run along in an easy-going way: ‘And two or three had charm’. But this too is significant. We have met one lovely-faced woman; now we meet ‘two or three’ charming women. The speaker does not remember the precise number – this is something of a crowd. And the speaker’s relative indifference to these charmers is matched by the simple rhythm of this comparatively throwaway line.
However in the third line we find that even the woman with the lovely face was not enough for him: ‘But charm and face were in vain’. Here the word order implies that not only the charm but even the unique face had no effect on him. And once again it is the rhythm that gives the force to this declaration: ‘were in vain’. The first two short, tripping syllables force us, speaking quite naturally, to come down with vocal and emotional weight on the strong word ‘vain’. Imagine that the end of the line was ‘were dull’, or ‘were useless’, or ‘were ineffective’. The meaning in each case would be close to Yeats’s – but Yeats’s words bring the line to an emotional climax produced not only by their meaning but by the smack, you might say, that the rhythm gives them.
The dismissal of these women with the words ‘in vain’ is evidently rather sad – possibly for them, insofar as it could mean that they had hoped to attract the speaker but had failed, but also, one feels, for him. He would have liked his indifference to them to have been overcome by their loveliness or charm – but it could not be. Why? That is what the next three lines tell us:
Because the mountain grass
Cannot but keep the form
Where the mountain hare has lain.
Here Yeats begins to speak in a kind of riddle. He is giving the reason why he had no interest in the other women: ‘Because…’, he begins. But now, suddenly, he is talking about a mountain hare. Whatever has that got to do with the situation?
Evidently here you have to make an imaginative leap. The title of the poem gives one a clue. The speaker is talking about a memory – and surely the memory is of another woman, a woman who is standing in the way of his feeling anything serious for the current women.
And that is it. The mountain hare is a metaphor or emblem for a woman. Why a mountain hare? Because the mountain hares of Ireland are not only particularly beautiful animals, but wild and elusive, and inhabitants of high places. These are the qualities he has loved in this woman, and he has found a perfect emblem for her. The mountain hare, we also learn, has lain in the mountain grass. And now we see that the mountain grass must in turn be a metaphor for the speaker’s memory, from which her image cannot be erased. The metaphor is used with precision and delicacy. Hares lie in daytime in hollows in the grass, known as forms, which retain their shape after they have left. Just so, his memory has a hollow that retains her shape. Moreover, he stresses that it is mountain grass in which the form is found. He is a creature of high places, just as she is.
And in these last three lines it is the rhythm again that gives the thought its force. The basic rhythm is still iambic, and the first of these three lines is all in iambic feet. The new subject is being quietly introduced. But suddenly, in the first syllable of the second line, the iambic foot becomes a trochee, with a crash on the first syllable. ‘Cannot!’ It is a cry of passion and despair. There is no way he can forget her. And in the last line we start with an anapaest – and again the two quick, short syllables emphasise the last one, the ‘mount’ of mountain, echoing with increased vigour the ‘mountain’ in the first of these three lines. ‘We are both creatures of high places,’ it asserts.
The words that follow – the last three words of the poem – work in a different way. These create the feeling of awe and wonder that I have mentioned. The repeated ‘h’s that begin the words ‘hare’ and ‘has’ require an intake and release of breath that are like little gasps of awe at what he himself is saying. And what he is saying – and remembering – seems to be that the woman has not only lain in his memory but also in his arms.
‘Lain’ is a long syllable that the voice lingers on, and it acquires even further force from the fact that it is the only word in the poem that rhymes fully with another. And it is the last and most prominent word in the poem. The poem ends with an iambic – but this time the second syllable in it carries a weight greater than in any other iambic foot we have had before. It is the weight of a lover’s body, and the weight of an unforgettable happiness buried in a man’s heart.
There is a further interesting aspect to the poem. Yeats was for many years in love with Maud Gonne – a woman of proud and independent spirit and an extremely active radical Republican. She would not marry Yeats, but there has always been speculation about whether they became lovers. Roy Foster, the author of W. B. Yeats: A Life, believes that they almost certainly were, for a short while, in 1908-09. He bases his belief partly on some unmistakable references to her in Yeats’s poems.
Foster does not mention ‘Memory’. But it would be hard to believe that Yeats was not thinking of Maud Gonne when he wrote of the mountain hare. We know of the intensity of his feeling for her, and the metaphor seems exactly right for this spirited woman. If so, that powerful ‘lain’ with which the poem ends might be another piece of evidence for Foster’s belief.
Not that any of that really matters. The emotion in the poem can be felt, and its beauty experienced, without the reader ever having heard of Maud Gonne, or even of W. B. Yeats.