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Solomon and the Witch -- William Butler Yeats

 Guest poem submitted by Cristina Gazzieri:
(Poem #407) Solomon and the Witch
 And thus declared the Arab lady:
 "Last night where under the wild moon
 On grassy mattress I had lain me,
        Within my arms great Solomon,
 I suddenly cried out in a strange tongue
 Not his, not mine."
                        And he that knew
 All sounds by bird or angel sung
 Answered: "A crested cockerel crew
 Upon a blossoming apple bough
 Three hundred years before the Fall,
 And never crew again till now,
 And would not now but that he thought,
 Chance being at one with Choice at last,
 All that the brigand apple brought
 And this foul world were dead at last.
 He that crowed out eternity
 Thought to have crowed it in again.
 A lover with a spider's eye
 Will found out some appropriate pain,
 Aye, though all passion's in the glance,
 For every nerve: lover tests lover
 With cruelties of Choice and Chance;
 And when at last the murder's over
 Maybe the bride-bed brings despair,
 For each an imagined image brings
 And finds a real image there;
 Yet the world ends when these two things,
 Though several, are a single light,
 When oil and wick are burned in one;
 Therefore a blessed moon last night
 Gave Sheba to her Solomon."
 "Yet the world stays":
                        "If that be so,
 Your cockerel found us in the wrong
 Although it thought it worth a crow.
 Maybe an image is too strong
 Or maybe is not strong enough"

 "The night has fallen; not a sound
 In the forbidden sacred grove,
 Unless a petal hit the ground,
 Nor any human sight within it
 But the crushed grass where we have lain;
 And the moon is wilder every minute.
 Oh, Solomon! Let us try again."
-- William Butler Yeats
Love poetry is an extremely insidious genre. So many great love poems have been
written that it is difficult to equal Shakespeare or Petrarch in elegance,
refinement and conceit, while, on the contrary, the risk of writing
oversentimental, banal or cloying verses is always present . For these reasons,
Reiner Maria Rilke warned a young poet who had addressed him for advice not to
write love poems.

For these reasons, and for the crisis that love, as well as other traditional
values underwent, great poets in the first half of our century preferred to
exercise their skill on other subjects. Yet, even in the tormented years between
the two wars there was a great poet who felt strong enough to write about love,
achieving results of incredible distinction, of grace and taste and, at the same
time, modern in the use of the verse and images. "Solomon and the Witch", for
example can still appeal to the ear of even the most demanding reader, for the
number of poetic elements and the measure and balance with which they are used
in the poem, as well as for the theme which is inevitably dear to all men of the
twentieth century.

One of the elements of great appeal of the poem lies in the choice of the
protagonists; they are Solomon and the queen of Sheba. These two very great
people, representative of two ancient and influential civilisations, who looked
for each other and met and paid tribute one to the greatness of the other,
inevitably evoke the almost mythical respect that history and literature have
had for them, so it is much the more surprising to read that the "Arab lady",
lying within the arms of "great Solomon" should, unexpectedly and abruptly feel
that she does not belong to him, he does not belong to her, and that she should
feel the urge to cry, "in a strange tongue", in words alien to the situation and
her previous mood, "not his, not mine". Before the sixth verse, Yeats has
secured the interest of the modern reader who knows the way in which one can
feel estranged from the person he loves and is also charmed by the idea that
this feeling might be older than he thought, and that not even "great Solomon"
and the queen of Sheba were shielded against it.

Another successful device of the poem is to be found in the dialogic structure
that allows the two protagonists to speak their language, to reveal their
personality and temper. Solomon's speech, which covers the central part of the
poem, is full of biblical reminiscences (The Fall, The apple tree...), of rich
alliterations (a crested cockerel crew; the bride-bed brings despair;.....), of
sharp puns (each an imagined image brings, and finds a real image there.....),
of metaphors (a lover with a spider's eye; when oil and wick are burned in one).
Solomon is the great ruler with a proverbial wisdom and he can make a cynical
analysis of the nature of love. Through the metaphor of the spider he suggests
that seduction and courtship are a tarantula-like process in which each lover
slowly demolishes the personality of the other until an "imagined image" is
finally superimposed. Yet, after the moment of courtship and seduction, when the
superimposed image fades and lovers have to confront themselves with the real
image of their partners "the bride-bed brings despair". "Choice" proves an
illusion and "Chance" seems to mean blind, bleak destiny. It is not possible to
read these lines without linking them to Sheba's cry: "Not his, not mine". The
consideration on the impossibility of a real and enduring communion between two
lovers might seem banal, yet, the banality of the consideration is made
acceptable and does not seem crass thanks to the powerful, resounding language
of Solomon, who, in spite of his awareness of the misery of human love cannot
but end his speech on a tender note: "Therefore a blessed moon last night gave
Sheba to her Solomon".

Comparing Solomon's voice with Sheba's words, Sheba's language is simpler. She
never uses images or references to holy texts and her tone is much more
colloquial and less resonant. She talks the language a lover can attribute to
his woman, not learned, not cultivated, but strongly evocative. All the quality
of Sheba's speech is in the carefully connoted lexical choice, the queen
mentions the "wild moon", "the grassy mattress", and especially in the final
dialogic sequence her language is deliberately addressed only to lyricism. Her
simple words describe a magic natural setting, a "forbidden sacred grove" a
place of the soul which the queen has preserved silent and holy. Sheba concludes
the poem with a sentence of startling freshness and spontaneity especially if
compared with the cynical words of the king: "Oh, Solomon! Let us try again."

The meter of the poem and the rhyme pattern exploit a device that has found
place in poetic tradition since Romanticism. The poem is written on a basically
tetrametric scheme with slight but frequent variations; and the rhyme, though
often present in thepoem, does not follow any regular pattern. The effect when
reading the poem is one of a slightly evasive rhythm, of a project and a
regularity which cannot fully satisfy the ear, close to perfection, but not
really so, like the love of Sheba and Solomon .

What remains after going over the poem several times is not only the pleasure of
the texture of lines and references but also the suggestion of the bewitching
power of love, so strongly denied and yet not eluded by Solomon, so vividly
evoked by Sheba.

Cristina.

22 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

bruce stevenson said...

I have been tantalized for 20 years by someone who quoted at me, "maybe the marriage bed brings despair, for each imagined image brings and finds another image there'.(whilst I was cutting a hedge in a park in London!)...because though slightly misquoted it sums up the human dilemma that we all see ourselves through the lens of a self-image that is bound to an image of the other, dooming us both to project this image onto another, and to find eventually that the other is also unavailable because they too have been reduced to an image in their own minds...allowing the images to dismantle also seems to be hinted at in this poem in the reference to the single light...Wow! Bruce Stevenson

andy cameron said...

I think this is the most extraordinary poem, not Yeat's most popular
or most often quoted, but I think maybe his best. It has stayed with
me for many many years, partly because it's so mysterious, partly
because it's so beautiful, partly because it's so sexy. I have always
assumed it was in some way about the joy to be found in a real and
enduring relationship and that it is about physical love, not just
spiritual or emotional love. When she cries out in a strange tongue,
surely it is a cry of ecstasy? Surely the reference to the Fall hints
at a time when there was no shame, a state which we sometimes get
back to during physical love? How else can one explain lines like
'yet the world ends, when these two things, though several are a
single light, when oil and wick are burned in one, therefore a
blessed moon last night, gave sheba to her solomon'. When oil and
wick are burned in one? This is erotic writing. Yes, all the stuff
about maybe the bride bed brings despair, for each an imagined image
brings and finds a real image there', this is all fine stuff about
the uncertainties and complications and fear and deceptions upon
which all relationships are based, but what he's saying here, what
he's saying to me at any rate, is that sometimes there are deeper
and simpler and more glorious truths in relationships, beyond and
besides all the confusion and misunderstanding, and sometimes we find
these deeper truths in physical love between husband and wife.

I think the ending is glorious too. There they are, alone together,
in the forbidden, sacred grove. We even have the equivalent of
rumpled bedclothes in the crushed grass where we have lain. And Sheba
liked it so much, whatever it was that happened to her, that she
wants it to happen once more: Oh Solomon, let us try again

I think this is a poem about a man and wife making love.

andy cameron said...

I think this is the most extraordinary poem, not Yeat's most popular
or most often quoted, but I think maybe his best. It has stayed with
me for many many years, partly because it's so mysterious, partly
because it's so beautiful, partly because it's so sexy. I have always
assumed it was in some way about the joy to be found in a real and
enduring relationship and that it is about physical love, not just
spiritual or emotional love. When she cries out in a strange tongue,
surely it is a cry of ecstasy? Surely the reference to the Fall hints
at a time when there was no shame, a state which we sometimes get
back to during physical love? How else can one explain lines like
'yet the world ends, when these two things, though several are a
single light, when oil and wick are burned in one, therefore a
blessed moon last night, gave sheba to her solomon'. When oil and
wick are burned in one? This is erotic writing. Yes, all the stuff
about maybe the bride bed brings despair, for each an imagined image
brings and finds a real image there', this is all fine stuff about
the uncertainties and complications and fear and deceptions upon
which all relationships are based, but what he's saying here, what
he's saying to me at any rate, is that sometimes there are deeper
and simpler and more glorious truths in relationships, beyond and
besides all the confusion and misunderstanding, and sometimes we find
these deeper truths in physical love between husband and wife.

I think the ending is glorious too. There they are, alone together,
in the forbidden, sacred grove. We even have the equivalent of
rumpled bedclothes in the crushed grass where we have lain. And Sheba
liked it so much, whatever it was that happened to her, that she
wants it to happen once more: Oh Solomon, let us try again

I think this is a poem about a man and wife making love. And enjoying
it.

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Anonymous said...

Great analysis! Srsly, you are eloquent and succinct.

My father kept repeating 'how wise' tonight at the dinner table. It was under his breath. I figured 'wisdom' was on his mind. I haven't thought of the poem since Mr. Morone's 10th grade lit class.

I still get tripped up over 'Let us try again!'

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