HOW TO READ A POEM:

W. B. YEATS’S “AFTER LONG SILENCE”

Marjorie Perloff


After Long Silence

Speech after long silence; it is right,
All other lovers being estranged or dead,
Unfriendly lamplight hid under its shade,
The curtains drawn upon unfriendly night,
That we descant and yet again descant
Upon the supreme theme of Art and Song:
Bodily decrepitude is wisdom; young
We loved each other and were ignorant. [1]

Yeats’s eight-line poem was originally the seventeenth of a sequence of twenty-five short lyrics called Words for Music Perhaps (1932), but most readers encounter in The Winding Stair section (1933) of his Collected Poems. As a great modern love poem, “After Long Silence” has been much anthologized, but its strength is not so easily understood. Thematically, to begin with, it is hardly distinctive. The first-person speaker, not differentiated from the poet himself, an elderly man addressing a nameless woman who was once his lover, puts forward a familiar paradox. In their youth, when the two were in love, passion was all; they did not need to analyze or account for their feelings. Now in old age, the situation is reversed: once the question of sexual attraction is no longer involved, the two former lovers can recall their past with equanimity and can talk about the meaning of love. The erotic frenzy of youth gives way to the calm of friendship, the vital pulse of life to its transformation as poetry.

In establishing this characteristically Yeatsian antithesis, “After Long Silence” is not without its clichés or common wisdom. “Lamplight” is “unfriendly” to those who are old; the dark night outside the window is equally “unfriendly,” emblematic as it is of the death soon to come. Love is the timeless and Supreme theme of Art and Song.” Old age (“Bodily decrepitude”) spells “wisdom,” whereas the young are inevitably “ignorant.” The poem’s language, moreover, is largely abstract—of its twelve nouns– “Speech,” “silence,” “lovers,” “lamplight,” “shade,” “curtains,” “night,” “theme,” “art,” “Song,” “decrepitude,” “wisdom”—the most concrete are “lamplight” and “curtains,” and even these are hardly memorable for their specificity. The same holds true for the adjectives: “long,” “right,” “estranged,” “dead,” “unfriendly” (twice), “supreme,” “young,” “ignorant.” As for the verbs, Yeats alternates noun phrases like “Speech after long silence” with the copula (“it is right”) and with present or past participles (“being estranged or dead”) to produce a tone of passivity. Not until the final line does he give us a transitive verb and then in the past tense– “We loved each other”—only to follow it with another copula, “and were ignorant.”

Yeats’s little lyric does not, in fact, contain a single vivid image: it violates all three of his friend Ezra Pound’s Imagist principles: (1) direct treatment of the thing, whether subject or object (2) use no word that does not contribute to the presentation, and (3) compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in the sequence of metronome. Lines 4 and 5 of this eight-line iambic pentameter double quatrain, rhyming abbacddc , for example, exhibit no variation or substitution of feet. And further: Yeats, here as elsewhere, wholly avoids free verse. Indeed, his short poems cannot match Pound’s for rhythmic experimentation, Eliot’s for striking imagery, Williams’s for verbal accuracy, Stevens’s for originality of speculation. Yet they are more memorable than those of his contemporaries, largely because of their incomparable deployment of sound and syntax. No other Anglophone poet, I submit, could do with a variety of traditional stanzas what Yeats did. Consider the opening line:

/             /     /     || /      /
Speech after long silence;   it  is right[2]

The line has nine syllables rather than the expected ten, there being a stop and decisive break after the word “silence,” so as to emphasize the fact of that silence itself, and there are really only four primary stresses, not five. Compare this opening to Yeats’s original. The manuscripts, edited by David Clark for Cornell University Press, reveal that the germ of the poem was as follows:

Subject
Your hair is white
My hair is white
Come let us talk of love
What other [theme?] do we know
When we were young
We were in love with one another
And therefore ignorant

The basic theme is in place, and after some trial and error, Yeats produced the first stanza:

Once more I have kissed your hand and it is right.–
All other lovers being estranged or dead
The heavy curtains drawn—the candle light
Waging a doubtful battle with the shade [3]

The first sketch is straightforward statement, the first verse version puts the second line in place but gives us a fairly pedestrian, indeed slightly coy opening:

	 /   /           /          /        /    /
	Once more I have kissed your hand and it is right

The line is drawn out by the secondary stress on “Once” and an eleventh syllable; the straightforward syntax, embedding the stock image of kissing the hand, like the flickering candle light of lines 3-4, does not do much to draw the reader into the poem.

After some more trial and error, Yeats produced the brilliant terse opening, in which sound is meaning: the poet’s “speech” practically bursts out with the original strong stress, the emphatic stress on “long” and on the first syllable of “silence.” After the first four words, the poem pauses: the caesura is followed by the equally terse and mysterious “it is right.” “It” refers to “speech” but also to the larger situation: it is the particular relationship of the former lovers in old age that “is right.” The opening is all the more dramatic because of its surprise: the reader, after all, doesn’t know whose “Speech after long silence” is referred to or why “it is right.” Not until the second line is an explanation forthcoming: “All other lovers being estranged or dead.” Note that again the falling rhythm violates the iambic norm, which is not fully established until line 4, creating the colloquial note we associate with “speech.”

The repetition of “unfriendly” in lines 3-4 is curious: the adjective is not unusual, but first it is the light that is unfriendly; then its opposite, the darkness (“night”), the implication being that there is no escape from the imminence of death. Then, too, “shade” rhymes with “dead” in the abba rhyme scheme—an appropriate rhyme indeed, the dead being themselves shades. “Dead”/ “shade”: the sound finds a near rhyme in line 5 in “descant.” A descant is a form of medieval music in which one singer sings a fixed melody and others accompany that melody with improvisations; the word is rarely used as a verb. The poet pictures himself and his beloved, not talking about their old love, not even singing about it, but descanting on it—producing countless variations on what is, the poet knows, an all too familiar story, with its foolishly rhyming “Supreme theme.” And further: change one vowel of “descant” and you have descent—a reminder that death is close by.

The last two lines of “After Long Silence” are climactic and brilliant. Again, sound enacts meaning:

/ /      /  /   /      /      || /   >
Bodily    decrepitude is wisdom;   young

     /   /    /               /
We loved each other and were ignorant

Here the first line is itself “decrepit,” what with the jogging, ugly rhythm of its first half, its sudden break after “wisdom,” and then the enjambment of “young,” which belongs syntactically to the next line: “Young, we loved each other.” Positioned as it is, “young” is given a very prominent position and stands as a contrast to “bodily decrepitude” at the other end of the line. The word is made even more prominent by the approximate rhyme, “Song” / “young.” And the final line stands in sharp contrast to its predecessor; if line 7 is, so to speak, over stressed, with primary and secondary stresses clustering together and a strong caesura, line 8 has only three primary stresses and no breaks; it flows along quietly as if to say the question is now resolved. And the last word, “ignorant” is a dactyl, trailing off into silence. The rhyme “descánt”/ “ígnorant” contributes to this sense of diminution. From silence to silence: the eight-line poem has come full circle.

“Art,” Hugh Kenner said, “lifts the saying out of the zone of things said.” [4] This is a pithy rendition of the related Russian Formalist doctrine, that poeticity is the orientation toward the neighboring word, the defamiliarization or “making strange” that deforms language and calls attention to it. In reading poetry, we focus, not on the what, but on the how. But this is not to say that a given poem’s form is to be understood in a vacuum. A definitive reading of “After Long Silence” would certainly be informed by biography and literary history as well. It helps to know that the poem was written for Olivia Shakespear, with whom Yeats had a brief (his first) love affair in the mid 1890s. Olivia was an unhappily married woman, a society hostess and herself a successful novelist; her daughter Dorothy was to marry Ezra Pound in 1914,, and Olivia was also related to Georgie Hyde-Lees who was to become Yeats’s wife in 1917 when he was fifty-two. Throughout the 1890s—indeed, throughout his life—Yeats was obsessed with the beautiful revolutionary, Maud Gonne, whom, for a variety of reasons, he could not have. Olivia, seeing how unhappy and frustrated the then thirty-year old poet was, pursued him. Once the sexual relationship (evidently always less than passionate on Yeats’s part) subsided and the poet had become husband and father, he and Olivia could become “just good friends”; indeed, in the last decade of his life, Yeats wrote letter after letter to “My dear Olivia,” and she became one of his main confidantes. Hence “speech after long silence,” the ability, once having been lovers, to become, in their later years, very special friends. Read in the sequence of Words for Music Perhaps–Yeats’s “Crazy Jane” and “old Tom” sequence, written in protest of old age–this little lyric represents a moment of calm. The very next poem is called “Mad as the Mist and Snow.”

“After Long Silence” thus holds an important place in Yeats’s canon of love poems. Compare it to such early Yeats poems as the mournful, slow and stately “He tells of the Perfect Beauty”—

O cloud-pale eyelids, dream-dimmed eyes,
The poets labouring all their days
To build a perfect beauty in rhyme
Are overthrown by a woman’s gaze–

and the difference is striking. Yeats’s never abandoned traditional rhyming stanzas, but he created a counterpoint between colloquial diction and rhythm on the one hand and a base meter on the other. And the irony of “After Long Silence” (would the woman, one wonders, agree that her condition is one of “bodily decrepitude”?) relates it to poems by Yeats’s Irish forebears—Jonathan Swift, for example, rather than such contemporaries as Eliot or Pound. Indeed, one can relate the Yeats of “After Long Silence” to Samuel Beckett, who knew his elder’s poetry by heart and adapted it in his own later prose and plays.

Much could be written, then, of Yeats’s Irishness, as seen in this and related poems; and generically “After Long Silence” can be profitably compared to the love poems of John Donne, and to Keats and Shelley. Most important: no short lyric exists in itself, as a kind of anthology piece; such positioning is always deceptive. So “After Long Silence” deserves to be read, first in the context of Yeats’s Collected Poems, and then vis-à-vis the pre-Raphaelites who were his early mentors and beyond these, the Romantics. Then, too, the antitheses Yeats accepts as part of the human condition are clarified by a reading of his cosmology, A Vision. There is enough material relevant to the poem, including the study of the early drafts cited above, to constitute a much longer essay or even a book.

Space forbids such further speculations. But let me conclude by saying something about the remarkable use of tone (voice and address) in “After Long Silence.” Imagine, for a moment, what the “speech” in question would have looked like had it been Olivia’s rather than the poet’s. Would a woman be willing to admit that her age makes the very notion of sexual love obsolete? Would she settle for what Yeats calls “wisdom”? Or would she declare ruefully that—as was, in fact, the case for Yeats—this “old man” is still busy wooing younger women; it’s only the one his own age that he rejects sexually? There is, no doubt, a certain arrogance in Yeats’s stance—a measure, perhaps, of self-regard that would make some readers uncomfortable. It is the role, in any case, of a great poem to bring all these conflicting attitudes into play, to produce the complexity that Pound referred to when he said that poetry is news that stays news, that it is language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.

Footnotes


[1]
The Collected Works of W. B. Yeats: Volume I, The Poems, ed. Richard J. Finneran (New York: Macmillan, 1989), 265.

[2]
The following standard diacritical marks are used: primary stress (/), secondary stress (/), caesura (||), run-over line (>)

[3]
W. B. Yeats, Words for Music Perhaps: Manuscript Materials, ed. David R. Clark (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999), 491-97.

[4]
Hugh Kenner, ” A Homemade World: The American Modernist Poets (1975: Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1989), 60.