Featured Poem: An Image From a Past Life by W B Yeats

As a post-festive ritual, I am currently in the midst of a major ‘sort out’ – call it an immensely early spring clean if you will – in the hope that if I de-clutter my surroundings it will have a similar effect on my mind. Of course, the New Year is the perfect time to gain some fresh perspective and let go of the junk tying you down. So far I have discovered that I have accumulated the equivalent of several small rainforests, mainly in the form of old lecture notes (all of which will be recycled, so I can reverse the damage). But I have also come across many things from times past that I had buried away, some of which had been forgotten about, all of which got me in quite a nostalgic mood. Old notebooks, birthday cards, photographs, even silly stories I’d written years ago… all complete with their own memories. Being a sentimental type I couldn’t consign them to the pile of rubbish – so much for a fresh start.

Inspired by my reminiscence is this week’s featured poem by W.B Yeats. Perhaps it’s more bittersweet, concerned with the somewhat problematic but frequently unavoidable issue of past love. The poem is split into two voices of two current lovers, and it is that of the female that is disconcerted by the ghost-like presence of the male’s past lover (though it is the male who first speaks of the ‘scream from terrified, invisible beast or bird, image of poignant recollection’ – lines I find particularly evocative). It shows that while the past may not always be particularly desirable, it is too idealistic and indeed impractical from us to escape from it completely. On a more simplistic level, it’s a poem I find quite intriguing in its narrative style and beautiful – I hope you do too.

An Image From A Past Life

He. Never until this night have I been stirred.
The elaborate starlight throws a reflection
On the dark stream,
Till all the eddies gleam;
And thereupon there comes that scream
From terrified, invisible beast or bird:
Image of poignant recollection.

She. An image of my heart that is smitten through
Out of all likelihood, or reason,
And when at last,
Youth’s bitterness being past,
I had thought that all my days were cast
Amid most lovely places; smitten as though
It had not learned its lesson.

He. Why have you laid your hands upon my eyes?
What can have suddenly alarmed you
Whereon ’twere best
My eyes should never rest?
What is there but the slowly fading west,
The river imaging the flashing skies,
All that to this moment charmed you?

She. A Sweetheart from another life floats there
As though she had been forced to linger
From vague distress
Or arrogant loveliness,
Merely to loosen out a tress
Among the starry eddies of her hair
Upon the paleness of a finger.

He. But why should you grow suddenly afraid
And start – I at your shoulder –
Imagining
That any night could bring
An image up, or anything
Even to eyes that beauty had driven mad,
But images to make me fonder?

She. Now She has thrown her arms above her head;
Whether she threw them up to flout me,
Or but to find,
Now that no fingers bind,
That her hair streams upon the wind,
I do not know, that know I am afraid
Of the hovering thing night brought me.

W.B Yeats (1865-1939)

2 thoughts on “Featured Poem: An Image From a Past Life by W B Yeats”

  1. I have always been of the persuasion that nothing ever vanishes (really) – only from all that you have already lived can you become something more. So, I don’t suppose I support the well-known phrase – ‘get over it’ – what does it mean exactly? That everything is merely skin deep, soon to be forgotten, nothing much at all? I am of course not just talking about affairs of the heart as W B Yeats seems to be.

    But looking at the poem, actually speaking out the ‘he’ ‘she’ stanzas in your head is potent – you feel each one a sharp, intense and very singular voice but as if split from the same incoming sound seemingly registered by ‘him’ and translated into imagery by her. But what of the ‘hovering thing’ itself – an image to arouse jealousy or sympathy does she call herself into being? Is there always a secret, unknown element to any recall/recollection; something that is always there, mysteriously of its own volition, lingering on afterwards, a shadow of a time supposedly passed by, waiting for recognition, and strangely casting a shadow upon time still to come?

    I remember watching a programme about ‘time’ a couple of years ago and one scientist/physicist attracted my attention in particular as he remarked energetically – we know nothing of time – (not a word for word quote) – wow I thought, and with such a gleam in his eye too!

    Do you really, really want to re-cycle all your university notes? Why not commit some to your pc then you can re-live the moments which truly need to be kept alive!

  2. Are the capitalizations of “Sweetheart” (line 23) and “She” (line 36) misprints? They do not appear in my Penguin Poetry Library edition…

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