Yeats, “Two Trees,” and a Piano

In the Joseph Priestly Memorial Chapel. Stained Glass depiction of the Joseph Priestly's grandson of the same name.
In the Joseph Priestly Memorial Chapel. Stained Glass depiction of the Joseph Priestly’s grandson.

In my last post when I talked a bit about live music and local performances I mentioned that on Sunday Brian would be playing piano at the Joseph Priestly Memorial Chapel for their First Sunday program of music and the spoken word. I have some more video editing to do and if the volume is good enough I’ll later post some poetry by our friend Raymond Cummings who read several of his works yesterday as the guest poet.

Next month I’ll have the honor of being the guest poet for National Poetry Month’s service, and I find myself already gathering together material. Perhaps some poems of spring! Lord knows our winter-weary residents of Penn’s Woods are ready.

One of the three pieces Brian played yesterday was a song by Loreena McKennitt, based on the poem “The Two Trees” by William Butler Yeats. My old mentor George Phister, god rest his cranky old soul, was a metrical magician who practically worshiped Yeats, the Irish poet who lives on through his poems now seventy-five years past his death. When I asked George who his favorite modern poet was he instantly and gruffly replied, “Yeats!” When I pressed that Yeats was not exactly modern, he said, “I’m doing the best that I can.”

While George was not exactly a religiously observant man, he was none the less spiritual in his own way, a worship of love and human kindness belied his sometimes stern exterior. I am curious what George would have said about the spiritual ideas of his old poetic patron saint had I only asked him. There is Cabbala (as Yeats spelled it) as well as Celtic mysticism in his poetry, widening gyres, winding stairs, and the Tree of Life. I’ll have to do some more studying myself before writing more on the topic.

An interesting essay regarding this symbolism in the poems of Yeats can be found on a blog called The Hermetic Garden. If you find this intriguing and what to read more, I encourage you to check it out, as it’s a well documented and interesting read.

“The Two Trees” was apparently one of many poems written for Maud Gonne, the woman he long-loved and agonized over. You’ll find more about their story in this article from The New York Times about this exhibition which you can meander through virtually from the National Library of Ireland.

In 1994 singer, song-writer and lover of all things Celtic, Loreena McKennitt set the poem to music for her album The Mask and the Mirror. The video below is the love-of-my-life at the piano playing his arrangement of the song. The words are printed below, and I encourage you to read aloud them while you listen.

THE TWO TREES

by William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

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 the Loves a circle go,
The flaming circle of our days,
Gyring, spiring to and fro
In those great ignorant leafy ways;
Remembering all that shaken hair
And how the wingèd sandals 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
That the stormy night receives,
Roots half hidden under snows,
Broken boughs and blackened leaves.
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.

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4 Replies to “Yeats, “Two Trees,” and a Piano”

  1. What a wonderful post! And such talent in your life mate’s amazing and haunting arrangement and playing. Perfect to go with these incredible words by Yeats. I’ll be back here for another re-read and re-listen for sure. Thanks for sharing David! And cheers on being the guest poet for the National Poetry Month’s service. Hooray! Blessings, Gina.

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