Poems to Pictures by Jack B. Yeats
The alternative title is given in a footnote in The Day’s Final Balance: Poems ending ‘Time Sets All Things Right’, which is a refrain line from Handel’s oratorio, The Triumph of Time and Truth.
This set of ten poems has been published complete but split up between Passing Measures and The Day’s Final Balance. The order of the complete set is as listed below.
Jack B. Yeats, 1871-1957, Irish painter and writer, younger brother of W.B. Yeats. The paintings are of Irish scenes both urban and rural in a manner at first of Gauginesque planes, developing a thicker and thicker multi-coloured impasto which in some of his late painting can seem to overpower the subject, especially in reproduction (he believed that art books should contain no photographic reproductions of any kind.) They tend to be concerned with lost things.
It goes without saying that attention to Yeats’ paintings is in no way necessary to the reading of these poems.
Arnolfini = Jack B. Yeats: the later paintings [catalogue] Arnolfini Bristol + Whitechapel Art Gallery London + Haags Gemeentemuseum The Hague, 1991.
White = Jack B. Yeats, Drawings and Paintings, by James White. London 1971.
Prelude: Night Shift (PM)
This does not refer to Jack Yeats’ art except in the most generalised way, perhaps no more than the datedness of the accoutrements (candle etc.). But the isolated and flickering lights which open up into a scena might have some relationship to the colour techniques of his later paintings, where the colour that something, especially a landscape feature, basically is can be shot through with streaks patches and spots of other colours sometimes very different, and these might sometimes seem to refer beyond the location.
Worrying, as one does, if the third stanza is “difficult” ( I don’t think it is) it occured to me that since the “pedestrian” goes to bed in the second stanza, you’d be free to read the third as dream imagery, if it helps. If it doesn’t, don’t.
Music in the Train (DFB)
Oil, c1922. Arnolfini plate 1.
Yeats several times depicted people listening to music in an absent, mesmerised, slightly saddened or solemnised way, as if acceding to a common fate, as in “Music Night at the Old Slip Inn”. A kind of geographical trance which is also a donation of purpose from a “small country”. As it says, I was never a part of this and so never felt the need to escape from it, but like anyone else am quite capable of longing for it from the distance of English open space. This train, after all, is bound for glory. The trance of belonging can of course be reproduced outside as a negative by metaphor, the false village, but here it is extant on the ground.
Oh my Beauty! (PM)
The Yeats painting is actually called “My Beautiful, My Beautiful!”, oil, 1953. It shows a man putting his arm round the neck of a horse. Arnolfini plate 27.
The city rears to a heraldry and then falls to a market. The fall does not have to be read as a loss; this might be war and peace, for instance. The yellow meadows and brown hills were suggested mainly by the colouring of the body of the horse. I wasn’t aware of the story that the painting shows a man forced to sell a treasured horse; I thought the horse might have just won a race or something like that.
One Remains (DFB)
The Yeats painting is more commonly called “Death For Only One”. Oil, 1937. Arnolfini plate 10.
A man lying on the ground presumably dead (but not in the position I describe; he is “looking” straight up into the sky. Another standing over him, in a very dark and flat (moorland?) landscape at night – but Yeats’s “very dark” is punctuated and underlayed in thick layers of paint by slight streaks and patches of bright and deep colours: yellow, blue, bits of deep red, and a spread of night green. The probably dawning sky is a magnificent effect of black blue and white paint marks. Stare as I will I cannot see any “nationalist implications” in this picture. You can surely sometimes die in Ireland, in 1937 or at other times, without necessarily becoming a victim of anything but the human constitution.
Music Night at the Old Slip Inn (DFB)
A drawing dated 1906 from The Manchester Guardian, described rather than titled in the caption. Although I refer to it as “pub singing” the picture is a scene of utter calm, with one man singing and everyone else listening intently. The description of the singing was probably inspired, unspecifically, by the singing of John McCormack.
Men of Destiny (PM)
Oil, 1946. National Gallery of Ireland. White plate 94 (monochrome).
Men walking onto the land from a small boat in deeply coloured impasto, marine and sunset colours, and most others. “Fishermen at Rosses Point [Sligo] remembered as heroes of the national struggle and ... as those who will fashion coming events.” (White). At present the middle stanza is different from that printed:
Pure light, stinking to heaven,
Bursts through the rib-cage,
Heart-fire returns to the land
Wrapped in smoke, wrapped in flesh,
Anthem to an unknown future.
The Stolen Picture (PM)
This poem is in direct sequence from “Men of Destiny” and the two shouldn’t be separated. The painting was “In Memory”, oil, 1915, White plate 41, also known as “Bachelor’s Walk”. It is a historical painting, showing a flower-girl casting a rose into a gateway at the site where in July 1914 The Kings Own Scottish Borderers fired on a small crowd supporting the marching Volunteers, killing three people and injuring 32. The painting was kept in the small Yeats gallery at the back of the library in Sligo, until it was stolen.
On Through Silent Lands (DFB)
“On through the Silent Lands”. Oil, 1951. The Ulster Museum, Belfast. Arnolfini plate 26. White plate 129. A man walking, looking down on a big landscape of river and mountain. The man and the landscape are painted with the same palette.
The Little Watercolour at Sligo (PM)
I have only a memory of this. It was hung in the little gallery at Sligo, and it showed, as described, a small man standing in a village street at night singing, with his mouth wide open. It occurs again on page 131 of The Day’s Final Balance. The singer looked very similar, as I recall, to the one in Music Night at the Old Slip Inn, and was perhaps the same man.
That Grand Conversation was under the Rose (PM)
Oil, 1943. National Gallery of Ireland. White plate 83 (monochrome).
It is a circus scene, showing a woman in top hat and riding costume (an “haute école rider”), leaning against a horse and talking to a white-face clown who is seated before her, under canvas but with a view behind them through to dark green hills at twilight. There is a small thick impasto pink rose at the top centre of the painting as if floating in air, or attached to her riding-whip, which she holds upright. I disagree with the assumption that this scene must represent a lovers’ tryst. Yeats is said to have got the title from a ballad which told of a secret colloquy between “Mars” and “Bellona” about Napoleon’s career as a champion of freedom. According to James White he painted this picture after an Arts Club dinner at which his colleagues presented his wife with a paper rose, and himself with eulogies which convinced him that they had not the faintest understanding of his work. “He returned home determined to paint from then on for himself alone.” The rose was an iconic value for Yeats with Irish and personal associations; he painted with one attached to his easel. Sub rosa means in secret, in strictest confidence. My reading of it, and I think Yeats’s, is not of a designed and structured exclusion, but that in seclusion is where our best creative selves now manifest themselves, through no fault of our own.
There is a clear reminiscence of a poem by Frank O’Hara in the middle. Since the Collected Poems it’s been so difficult to find particular poems by O’Hara that I can’t say which one it is.
There is a stanzaic break between lines 13 and 14 not evident in Carcanet’s pagination. It is like a thought pause, taking breath before a final statement. What a pity it is that there are so few final statements in poetry these days.
This short poem cancelled a longer descriptive and ruminative effort, which now has some kind of appendix status:
THIS GRAND CONVERSATION WAS UNDER THE ROSE.
A woman in a top hat, leaning on a horse. A whiteface clown
sitting on a box holding a cup of tea. Behind them rolls the darkness,
the earth, the endless demand. There is a pause, probably short,
unplanned, in which you look into space as into a new found land,
Coastlines of need. People are surprisingly wise, given the chance,
and know when they are up against the most exacting joy, when time
is in the hand and the question of the world is asking itself openly.
Of which the intimate mode is a calm doubt, noticing distance and
Wondering what help there is, and in the sincerity of the donation
turning to the nearest unlikely neighbour, to think together through
the self’s trajectory on the void of the world, where anthems sleep
and time means well but catches its nets on the carcasses. That grand
Thing is then so clear. It shines guilt-free on a fruit tree and is carried
across the earth from city to farm and back on the power of someone’s wish,
perhaps a final wish, to be declared without distinction on the wide
map of day a definite point, from which a distance is gauged.
Tell me, she says, is this right, I’m lost in my own skills,
my fondest ties slip from my finger in time’s storm. He
looks at his leaves and scratches his painted pate. What we are
lives only in temporal distances so that what we own is the moment
And its result which time’s watchdogs cannot wrench. I really
don’t know but it strikes me the light is in the gained reach
and the rain beats on the canvas roof – time to start work again soon,
to add the numbers and worry the horses and knife the joke. My
Final transcript in the Book of Clowns says this one smiled at Fate
twice one Tuesday. And is recalled to the ends of time. At which
all things become right. Would it be enough of a wedding present
to climb on the table and shout Viva l’Amor!?