Pardon, old fathers, if you still remain
Somewhere in ear-shot for the story’s end,
Old Dublin merchant “free of the ten and four”
Or trading out of Galway into Spain;
Old country scholar, Robert Emmet’s friend,
A hundred-year-old memory to the poor;
Merchant and scholar who have left me blood
That has not passed through any huckster’s loin,
Soldiers that gave, whatever die was cast:
A Butler or an Armstrong that withstood
Beside the brackish waters of the Boyne
James and his Irish when the Dutchman crossed;
Old merchant skipper that leaped overboard
After a ragged hat in Biscay Bay;
You most of all, silent and fierce old man,
Because the daily spectacle that stirred
My fancy, and set my boyish lips to say,
“Only the wasteful virtues earn the sun”;
Pardon that for a barren passion’s sake,
Although I have come close on forty-nine,
I have no child, I have nothing but a book,
Nothing but that to prove your blood and mine.
text via Public Domain Poetry
This is an obscure poem. I can name dozens of Yeats poems that are more famous than this one. There’s the obligatory fourth-grade poem, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” with its “nine bean poles, all in a row.” There’s “Among School Children,” “Easter 1916,” “No Second Troy,” “Sailing to Byzantium.” Even “The Tower” is better known than this one.
I had to look it up by first line, because I could not remember the title. I love this poem. Love it so much I went back to my physical copy of Yeats and read what I wrote in the margins as an undergraduate in the 90s, which was not much, really. But enough for me to explicate it, if you are still interested and willing to tolerate my madness.
This is the first in a collection of 31 poems in which Yeats announces that he is no longer a Celtic Romantic and has decided to be a Modern poet. It was published in 1914 in a small way (400 copies) and went big, thanks to Macmillan, two years later.
The collection itself is personal, political, and transcendent all at the same time. Four poems later we get “September 1913” with its
Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,
It’s with O’Leary in the grave.
That’s really the climax of the whole collection, but the denouement, long as it is, is good. Yeats traverses a host of incidents and includes a lot of important Irish people in these poems. His earlier work is about reviving Irish culture as it once was; from here on out, his work is about depicting Ireland in his own here-and-now. And of course, impressing his own personality and experience onto the historical narrative of Western civilization. Now, as to the poem itself:
- This collection does not qualify as an epic, but Yeats plays with the epic in these poems in interesting ways. I read this poem, first of all, as a deconstruction of the invocation of the muse, even though deconstruction hadn’t been “invented” yet.
- I’ve thought more than once that this whole collection is telling us something about just how treacherous epics can be to those of us who don’t have names and just get to carry the spears.
- He’s not speaking to some divine agency who has the power to affect his art. He is justifying himself, before he goes one step further, to his ancestors. People who really know Yeats (and I do not – I am a bit of a dilettante) can place every person he’s addressing here on his family tree, all the way back to the Battle of the Boyne.
- I’ve always thought the “Old merchant skipper that leaped overboard/After a ragged hat in Biscay Bay” was in the same state of mind as Robert Gregory telling us why he took to the sky.
- “Free of the ten-and-four” refers to a tax break. Not sure what units of money are involved here. I am just not up on the considerable lore of the British Empire. But to be free of it was a privilege.
- In the last few lines, what he is saying is that he’s securing a legacy which goes all the way back to 1690. Even though he hasn’t procreated to continue the family line, he’s written this book of poems. And that is just as good, is what he is saying.
I know I went a little overboard with this one, but I hope you enjoyed the ride 🙂 I’ll be diving into some Shelley and Blake, and possibly a smidgin of Whitman, soon.