Monday, 27 December 2010

Coleridge and Yeats’s “Daddy” poems

Any father of an infant knows – roughly – what sort of person he’d like his child to grow up to be: imagining this helpless, tiny, pink, smelly, squawling creature as an adult is particularly appealing, because there are, as yet, no limits to how they might turn out. 
And because the father still tends to be in the prime of his own life, his speculations are inevitably fueled by his own hopes, triumphs and disappointments. (I’m concentrating on fathers here, because I am one: I suspect women react in much the same way, but are probably more concerned with the well-being of the child as it is right now.)

Coleridge and Yeats give us a fascinating glimpse of what goes on inside newbie dads’ heads when faced with the fruit of their loins, in poems whose parallels suggest the latter is a deliberate echo of the former (I suspect anyone who studied English at a decent university might know). Two fathers, late at night, one in a cottage, one in a tower, watch over their sleeping offspring, and ruminate about their future lives. 

In Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight”, “My cradled infant slumbers peacefully”, while in “A Prayer For My Daughter”, Yeats tells us “half hid/Under this cradle-hood and coverlid/My child sleeps on”.

In both poems, Nature plays a key role in their musings. In Coleridge’s poem, the world is almost unnaturally quiet: 

        Tis calm indeed! so calm, that it disturbs
        And vexes meditation with its strange
        And extreme silentness. Sea, hill, and wood,
        With all the numberless goings-on of life,
        Inaudible as dreams!

In a beautiful passage (the whole poem is exquisitely beautiful), Coleridge discerns an affinity between his own thoughts and the flickering flame on the low fire before him:

        …the thin blue flame
        Lies on my low-burnt fire, and quivers not;
        Only that film, which fluttered on the grate,
        Still flutters there, the sole unquiet thing.
        Methinks its motion in this hush of nature
        Gives it dim sympathies with me who live,
        Making it a companionable form,
        Whose puny flaps and freaks the idling Spirit
        By its own moods interprets, every where
        Echo or mirror seeking of itself,
        And makes a toy of Thought.

Meanwhile, at Chez Yeats, the wind (“...haystack- and roof-levelling...”) is howling, and the poet’s mental state is very different:

        For an hour I have walked and prayed 
        Because of the great gloom that is in my mind. 

        I have walked and prayed for this young child an hour 
        And heard the sea-wind scream upon the tower, 
        And under the arches of the bridge, and scream 
        In the elms above the flooded stream; 
        Imagining in excited reverie 
        That the future years had come, 
        Dancing to a frenzied drum, 
        Out of the murderous innocence of the sea.

Coleridge’s thoughts are “puny flaps and freaks”: Yeats’s mind is full of “screaming”, and the sound of a “frenzied drum”. (Mind you, Yeats probably wasn’t on opium.)

Coleridge’s feelings of love towards his son are immediate, emotional, tender:

        Dear Babe, that sleepest cradled by my side,
        Whose gentle breathings, heard in this deep calm,
        Fill up the interspersed vacancies
        And momentary pauses of the thought!
        My babe so beautiful! it thrills my heart
        With tender gladness, thus to look at thee…

He reflects on his own childhood, stuck in a school in London, and wishes a more natural upbringing for his son Hartley:

        For I was reared
        In the great city, pent mid cloisters dim,
        And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars.
        But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze
        By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
        Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,
        Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores
        And mountain crags: so shalt thou see and hear
        The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
        Of that eternal language, which thy God

Yes, Coleridge is a bit of a hippie – lucky for Hartley he wasn’t called “Leaf” or “Moon” or “Patchouli” or somesuch.

Yeats doesn’t want his daughter to grow up to be a wild-child with a free spirit, roaming the countryside, listening to God: he wants her to be a quiet, calm, stately woman leading a rooted life (“…may she live like some green laurel/Rooted in one dear perpetual place”) in her husband’s house “where all’s accustomed, ceremonious… How but in custom and in ceremony/Are innocence and beauty born?”

                                    Painting by Anne Yeats

Yeats wants his daughter to be protected from the screaming wind through an inner quietness resulting from an absence of hatred and arrogance (“If there’s no hatred in a mind/Assault and battery of the wind/Can never tear the linnet from the leaf”). Having landed a punch on the radical activist, Maud Gonne, who rejected him (“an old bellows full of angry wind”) Yeats underlines the importance of rejecting hatred, and echoes Coleridge’s desire for his child to be in tune with God:

        Considering that, all hatred driven hence, 
        The soul recovers radical innocence 
        And learns at last that it is self-delighting, 
        Self-appeasing, self-affrighting, 
        And that its own sweet will is Heaven's will; 
        She can, though every face should scowl 
        And every windy quarter howl 
        Or every bellows burst, be happy still.

For Yeats, the world becomes a dangerous and violent place when we give free rein to our fancies and passions – represented here by Nature at its wildest. If we bring order to our passions – bridle our urges – the danger recedes, represented here by Nature at its most benign: for Coleridge, the danger lies in cutting ourselves off from Nature – our natures – which he is careful to present in its most non-threatening aspects. Both of them are, I believe, right. My own experiences would suggest that ignoring the promptings of one’s inner voice leads to misery – but so does automatically following its every urging. 

Yeats’s poem has been attacked as a sexist tract – Maud Gonne was a “liberated”, opinionated woman who gave him the bum’s rush, so his daughter’s going to be “planted” like a placid vegetable, equably tending to her husband’s needs, while Coleridge’s son is going to be encouraged to run free, unencumbered by responsibility. Undoubtedly some truth in that – but it doesn’t prevent “A Prayer for My Daughter” being a superb poem.

Anne Yeats, who died in 2001, enjoyed a long and distinguished career as a painter and stage designer. She never married. Hartley Coleridge – very much his father’s son, except in the matter of genius - led a somewhat rackety existence as a writer (best known for biographies and sonnets), after his dissolute habits caused his Oxford college to rescind his scholarship. After involvement in a number of failed schemes, he ended his days living quietly at Grasmere and Rydal, wandering around the Lake District, as his father might have wished.

I’ll end with the last stanza of Coleridge’s glorious poem, whose last three lines are my favourite in all poetry:

        Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
        Whether the summer clothe the general earth
        With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing
        Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
        Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch
        Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
        Heard only in the trances of the blast,
        Or if the secret ministry of frost
        Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
        Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.

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