I Am of Ireland

Paul Henry, "Storm in Connemara"

Paul Henry, “Storm in Connemara”

St. Patrick’s Day 

We may grow old but the myth of Ireland keeps us young. So William Butler Yeats contends in “I Am of Ireland” and “Those Dancing Days Are Done,” two good poems for St. Patrick’s Day.

The first poem is inspired by a 14th century poem by an anonymous author:

I am of Ireland
And of the holy land of Ireland
Good sir I pray of ye
For saintly charity
Come dance with me
In Ireland.

In Yeats’ version, there are two aging speakers, both of whom have seen better days. “Time runs on,” the woman acknowledges, and she asks the man to dance with her “out of charity.” If she were still young and beautiful, presumably she wouldn’t have to ask.

The man, meanwhile, is alone now, and although he may be stately, his clothes are outdated (“outlandish”) and “the night grows rough.” How can he dance if he is nothing more than “a tattered coat upon a stick” (“Sailing to Byzantium”) or “a comfortable old scarecrow” (“Among School Children”)?

When the woman continues to insist, he details all his infirmities, which suggest sexual impotence. The fiddlers are all thumbs, the fiddle string is accursed, and the drums, kettledrums, trumpets and trombone are all burst.

Yet still Ireland, the Holy Land of Ireland, calls the two of them on, hearkening at least as far back to the 14th century, as it counters the ravages of time: “Come out of charity/And dance with me in Ireland.’

I Am of Ireland

“I am of Ireland,
And the Holy Land of Ireland,
And time runs on,'”cried she.
“Come out of charity,
Come dance with me in Ireland.”

One man, one man alone
In that outlandish gear,
One solitary man
Of all that rambled there
Had turned his stately head.
“That is a long way off,
And time runs on,” he said,
“And the night grows rough.”

“I am of Ireland,
And the Holy Land of Ireland,
And time runs on,” cried she.
“Come out of charity
And dance with me in Ireland.”

“The fiddlers are all thumbs,
Or the fiddle-string accursed,
The drums and the kettledrums
And the trumpets all are burst,
And the trombone,” cried he,
“The trumpet and trombone,”
And cocked a malicious eye,
“But time runs on, runs on.”

“I am of Ireland,
And the Holy Land of Ireland,
And time runs on,’ cried she.
“Come out of charity
And dance with me in Ireland.”

“Those Dancing Days Are Gone,” functions as a sequel (it comes next in the collection) as the man appears to have harkened to the Holy Land of Ireland. No matter that he and she are old, no matter that they are wrapped in foul rags or lean upon sticks, no matter that their former loves and their children are dead. If the Irish can put pretense away and sing and sing until they drop, it’s because their rich tradition encourages them to draw upon the golden pulsating energies of the sun and the shadowy mysteries of the moon.

Those Dancing Days Are Gone 

Come, let me sing into your ear;
Those dancing days are gone,
All that silk and satin gear;
Crouch upon a stone,
Wrapping that foul body up
In as foul a rag:
I carry the sun in a golden cup.
The moon in a silver bag.

Curse as you may I sing it through;
What matter if the knave
That the most could pleasure you,
The children that he gave,
Are somewhere sleeping like a top
Under a marble flag?
I carry the sun in a golden cup.
The moon in a silver bag.

I thought it out this very day.
Noon upon the clock,
A man may put pretense away
Who leans upon a stick,
May sing, and sing until he drop,
Whether to maid or hag:
I carry the sun in a golden cup,
The moon in a silver bag.

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  • This comment is only slightly relevant – I was just zipping through the archives here and noticed no mention of Ezra Pound. So here’s one – he was Yeats’s secretary for a while. They must have made a fascinating pair.

  • Robin Bates

    It’s funny you mention Ezra Pound, John, as I was just reading The Paris Wife, about Hemingway’s first wife, and there are extensive descriptions of their relations with the Pounds. Pound has always eluded me although there are certain poems of his that I love, such as “River Merchant’s Wife” and “Apparition of Faces in the Metro.” But I really should grapple with “The Cantos.” Maybe this is the spur I need.


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