One of my favorite poems is W.B. Yeats’ “The Man Who Dreamed of Fairyland.”
He stood among a crowd at Dromahair;
His heart hung all upon a silken dress,
And he had known at last some tenderness,
Before earth took him to her stony care;
But when a man poured fish into a pile,
It seemed they raised their little silver heads,
And sang what gold morning or evening sheds
Upon a woven world-forgotten isle
Where people love beside the ravelled seas;
That Time can never mar a lover’s vows
Under that woven changeless roof of boughs:
The singing shook him out of his new ease.
I have fallen terribly behind. As you know, I was sick for two weeks. And then my computer was sick, and now I have so much to do, and so I haven’t been able to get to the smaller things at all, like answering emails or responding to comments on this blog. I’ve had to focus on the larger things: responding to copyedits on the Secret Project, preparing to teach at Odyssey, writing my next Folkroots column, and revising my dissertation. All very large things.
“His heart hung all upon a silken dress, / And he had known at last some tenderness”: he found love, mortal love, but all the silver fish sang of Fairyland, “Where people love beside the ravelled seas; / That Time can never mar a lover’s vows.” Where love is immortal.
He wandered by the sands of Lissadell;
His mind ran all on money cares and fears,
And he had known at last some prudent years
Before they heaped his grave under the hill;
But while he passed before a plashy place,
A lug-worm with its grey and muddy mouth
Sang that somewhere to north or west or south
There dwelt a gay, exulting, gentle race
Under the golden or the silver skies;
That if a dancer stayed his hungry foot
It seemed the sun and moon were in the fruit:
And at that singing he was no more wise.
Some people work at desks, and when I type, I do it at a desk, of course. But so much of my work I do wherever I have space. So, for example, the work I was doing today, I spread out on my bed. (Today: responding to copyedits.)
When I write, I often do it on the bed, lying on my stomach and leaning on one elbow. Or leaning back against the headboard, with the notebook propped on my knees. Or in my chair, with the notebook on one broad arm. (It’s a mission-style chair, the arms are very broad).
“His mind ran all on money cares and fears, / And he had known at last some prudent years”: so finally he wasn’t worrying about money, as we all do. At last he had some savings, but the lug-worm (which, by the way, is large marine worm of the phylum Annelida) sang of a place where there are no money cares and fears at all. Where value is calculated otherwise.
He mused beside the well of Scanavin,
He mused upon his mockers: without fail
His sudden vengeance were a country tale,
When earthy night had drunk his body in;
But one small knot-grass growing by the pool
Sang where – unnecessary cruel voice –
Old silence bids its chosen race rejoice,
Whatever ravelled waters rise and fall
Or stormy silver fret the gold of day,
And midnight there enfold them like a fleece
And lover there by lover be at peace.
The tale drove his fine angry mood away.
Today, I spread the copyedits out on the bed and knelt beside it, as though it were a low table. Which looked rather like this, except that this is obviously posed, because I’m holding the pen in my left hand (for effect). I’m right handed, so usually I would be holding it in my right hand. But I couldn’t get a picture from that direction that wasn’t backlit. This is me in full working mode: glasses, comfortable sweater.
Don’t I look all pensive and writerly? Which was I today, the writer in the world, thinking of cares and fears, or the writer dreaming of Fairyland? Because of course the poem is really about being a poet, a writer. It’s about what the writer experiences, living that half-and-half life I described. A writer dreams of Fairyland, and that dream transforms ordinary life. Sometimes it makes ordinary life difficult to live.
He slept under the hill of Lugnagall;
And might have known at last unhaunted sleep
Under that cold and vapour-turbaned steep,
Now that the earth had taken man and all:
Did not the worms that spired about his bones
proclaim with that unwearied, reedy cry
That God has laid His fingers on the sky,
That from those fingers glittering summer runs
Upon the dancer by the dreamless wave.
Why should those lovers that no lovers miss
Dream, until God burn Nature with a kiss?
The man has found no comfort in the grave.
Even in death, he has found no comfort – the man who dreamed of Fairyland. Even in the grave he dreams of a place beyond the ordinary world. There is no peace for him, once he has seen Fairyland, and there never will be.
I’m not sure why I combined these two things, the pictures of me responding to copyedits and Yeats’ poem. Except that I think they represent the two halves of a writer’s life. One half of you dreams of Fairyland and will find no peace in this world, except perhaps when you are piecing together the fragments of that dream, turning them into a poem, a story, a novel. And the other half is depositing checks and responding to copyedits, which are both things I did today. It’s a strange life, a life that takes a sort of double consciousness.
Which may be why I ended the day with a terrible headache.