William Butler Yeats in London

A tall man with pleasing regular features,
stooping slightly while adjusting
his spectacles on a finely-chiselled nose.
His thick black hair, protecting his head
from an autumn mist while he walked
over slabs of stone pavement
laid in earlier times by Irish labourers.

His thoughts captured by the magic of Sligo,
an area of folklore, “country of the heart.”
Delightful childhood reminiscences
for a grown man with poetic instincts.
Those memories provided mystic material.
He had determined to explore the inner man
via the occult, metaphysics and the paranormal.

Suddenly he saw the mist thicken to a pea-soup fog
fuelled by thousands of coal fires burning.
Poisoned air, dangerous, and hung heavily yellow.
He pulled his scarf up around his nose for protection.
Street-lamp lights were diffused to dripping halos.
Pathetically propped up by a wet lamppost
the bedraggled figure of a blind man selling matches.

“This melancholy London – I sometimes
imagine that the souls of the lost are
compelled to walk through its streets
perpetually. One feels them,
passing like a whiff of air.”
The plane trees in Cartwright Gardens
survived city pollution by shedding bark.

A young Irish boy would have seen
those plane tree limbs as a threatening
and sinister presence invading his space
as they lurked furtively behind iron railings.
He quietly bit his full lower lip
and then his defined cupid’s bow,
as he momentarily mused on childhood fears.

Strung out by his sexuality, his autobiography
confessed he was stunned by sexual awakening
and so chose a long period of abstinence.
“The tragedy of sexual intercourse
is the perpetual virginity of the soul.”
Had he found in some strange mythology
that sex robbed you of creative energy?

“One must get all the fruit one can
from every mood – for the mood will pass
and will never return,” he said.
Did he have to detach himself
to concentrate on his solitary vision?
At 18, Woburn Buildings on Monday nights
were group evenings neither boring nor bland.

In spite of those lively social gatherings,
he was really a private man, with public meetings.
He would then read aloud with a voice of
rhythm, resonance, and beat:
half humming and stressing each syllable
with his own cadence of meaning,
a pitch and inflection of his direction.

“My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup
On the marble table-top.”
Aware of being alone in a crowded place, but not separate;
he liked to encourage people and awaken their souls.

He was sensitive to – and sought – epiphanies.
In this clarity, did he speak of Woburn Walk?
“While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.”