What with one thing and another, the Unwelcome Guest has been claiming just too much of my time and attention recently – too much time spent driving to hospitals, some far away, too much time being prodded and poked and zapped and pinned and needled. A whole army of experts and specialists is dedicated just to Me – I’ve never had so much attention in my life. (Ah, if only editors would be so interested…) Last week, we went to a fairly distant hospital, which, as well as a five hour round trip, involved several hours sitting waiting for treatment. The hospital, unlike my local one, was a pretty grim place. Whoever decided it was a good idea to sit cancer patients in a waiting room that resembles the economy lounge of an airport in a third world country? Luckily a kindly nurse directed us to a Maggie’s drop-in centre just around the corner. Maggie’s centres were the inspiration of Maggie Jencks, who died of cancer in 1995. She believed in the therapeutic qualities of the right environment, and also that cancer patients sometimes needed somewhere to ‘just go’. Here, in a beautifully designed building, lovingly furnished, I was able to spend my several hours sitting calmly and comfortably sipping coffee; certainly an indication of how environment can affect mood. Even the books on the shelves at Maggie’s were books I wanted to read and not the usual junk (yes, I am a literary snob.) I found a copy of Yeats’s poems, which I was glad to do, because this poem had been running through my head for days, having seen many swans on many lakes after all this wet weather. While Yeats’s later poems can be tortuous and obscure, with meanings to be grappled with and teased out, some of the early ones are straightforwardly beautiful. We’ve grown rather suspicious of beauty in art in the last hundred years or so – we’ve been taught to feel that art’s main role is to startle and shock and unnerve us. As indeed it must, some of the time, or our minds would get flabby and complacent. But… there is still a place for simple beauty, a Mozart aria, a Piero della Francesco Madonna, a Shakespeare sonnet, a Chinese porcelain dish. And this early poem by Yeats, which is…just beautiful.
The Wild Swans at Coole William Butler Yeats
The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky:
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans
The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since first I made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.
I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.
Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air:
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.
But now they drift on the still water,
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?