WHEN YOU ARE OLD
William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)
WHEN you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
“When You Are Old” is reprinted from The Rose. W.B. Yeats. 1893.
Not all books have it – that particular, distinct smell. It doesn’t define the quality of a book – has no relation to its contents – but the scent draws you to it. The Borrowers by Mary Norton had that smell, so had The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (C.S. Lewis), Mary Poppins (P.L. Travers), The Patchwork Girl of OZ (L. Frank Baum). Our local library was a neighbour’s front room. Cats slept on the shelves amidst the books. Ducklings were hatched in the oven.
Stories of Red Hanrahan and the Secret Rose – W.B.Yeats
London: MacMillan and Co. Ltd – 1927
THE TWISTING OF THE ROPE.
Hanrahan was walking the roads one time near Kinvara at the fall of day,and he heard the sound of a fiddle from a house a little way off the roadside. He turned up the path to it, for he never had the habit of passing by any place where there was music or dancing or good company, without going in. The man of the house was standing at the door, and when Hanrahan came near he knew him and he said: ‘A welcome before you,Hanrahan, you have been lost to us this long time.’ But the woman of the house came to the door and she said to her husband: ‘I would be as well pleased for Hanrahan not to come in to-night, for he has no good name now among the priests, or with women that mind themselves, and I wouldn’t wonder from his walk if he has a drop of drink taken.’ But the man said, ‘I will never turn away Hanrahan of the poets from my door,’ and with that he bade him enter.
There were a good many neighbours gathered in the house, and some of them remembered Hanrahan; but some of the little lads that were in the corners had only heard of him, and they stood up to have a view of him, and one of them said: ‘Is not that Hanrahan that had the school, and that was brought away by Them?’ But his mother put her hand over his mouth and bade him be quiet, and not be saying things like that. ‘For Hanrahan is apt to grow wicked,’ she said, ‘if he hears talk of that story, or if anyone goes questioning him.’ One or another called out then, asking him for a song, but the man of the house said it was no time to ask him for a song, before he had rested himself; and he gave him whiskey in a glass, and Hanrahan thanked him and wished him good health and drank it off.The fiddler was tuning his fiddle for another dance, and the man of the house said to the young men, they would all know what dancing was like when they saw Hanrahan dance, for the like of it had never been seen since he was there before. Hanrahan said he would not dance, he had better use for his feet now, travelling as he was through the five provinces of Ireland. Just as he said that, there came in at the half-door Oona, the daughter of the house, having a few bits of bog deal from Connemara in her arms for the fire. She threw them on the hearth and the flame rose up, and showed her to be very comely and smiling, and two or three of the young men rose up and asked for a dance. But Hanrahan crossed the floor and brushed the others away, and said it was with him she must dance, after the long road he had travelled before he came to her. And it is likely he said some soft word in her ear, for she said nothing against it, and stood out with him, and there were little blushes in her cheeks. Then other couples stood up, but when the dance was going to begin, Hanrahan chanced to look down, and he took notice of his boots that were worn and broken, and the ragged grey socks showing through them; and he said angrily it was a bad floor, and the music no great things, and he sat down in the dark place beside the hearth. But if he did, the girl sat down there with him.
The dancing went on, and when that dance was over another was calledfor, and no one took much notice of Oona and Red Hanrahan for a while, in the corner where they were. But the mother grew to be uneasy, and she called to Oona to come and help her to set the table in the inner room. But Oona that had never refused her before, said she would come soon, but not yet, for she was listening to whatever he was saying in her ear.
The mother grew yet more uneasy then, and she would come nearer them, and let on to be stirring the fire or sweeping the hearth, and she would listen for a minute to hear what the poet was saying to her child. And one time she heard him telling about white-handed Deirdre, and how she brought the sons of Usnach to their death; and how the blush in her cheeks was not so red as the blood of kings’ sons that was shed for her, and her sorrows had never gone out of mind; and he said it was maybe the memory of her that made the cry of the plover on the bog as sorrowful in the ear of the poets as the keening of young men for a comrade. And there would never have been that memory of her, he said, if it was not for the poets that had put her beauty in their songs. And the next time she did not well understand what he was saying, but as far as she could hear, it had the sound of poetry though it was not rhymed, and this is what she heard him say:
‘The sun and the moon are the man and the girl, they are my life and your life, they are travelling and ever travelling through the skies as if under the one hood. It was God made them for one another. He made your life and my life before the beginning of the world, he made them that they might go through the world, up and down, like the two best dancers that go on with the dance up and down the long floor of the barn, fresh and laughing, when all the rest are tired out and leaning against the wall.’
The old woman went then to where her husband was playing cards, but he would take no notice of her, and then she went to a woman of the neighbours and said: ‘Is there no way we can get them from one another?’ And without waiting for an answer she said to some young men that were talking together: ‘What good are you when you cannot make the best girl in the house come out and dance with you? And go now the whole of you,’ she said, ‘and see can you bring her away from the poet’s talk.’ But Oona would not listen to any of them, but only moved her hand as if to send them away. Then they called to Hanrahan and said he had best dance with the girl himself, or let her dance with one of them. When Hanrahan heard what they were saying he said: ‘That is so, I will dance with her; there is no man in the house must dance with her but myself.’
He stood up with her then, and led her out by the hand, and some of the young men were vexed, and some began mocking at his ragged coat and his broken boots. But he took no notice, and Oona took no notice, but they looked at one another as if all the world belonged to themselves alone. But another couple that had been sitting together like lovers stood out on the floor at the same time, holding one another’s hands and moving their feet to keep time with the music. But Hanrahan turned his back on them as if angry, and in place of dancing he began to sing, and as he sang he held her hand, and his voice grew louder, and the mocking of the young men stopped, and the fiddle stopped, and there was nothing heard but his voice that had in it the sound of the wind. And what he sang was a song he had heard or had made one time in his wanderings on Slieve Echtge, and the words of it as they can be put into English were like this:
O Death’s old bony finger
Will never find us there
In the high hollow townland
Where love’s to give and to spare;
Where boughs have fruit and blossom
At all times of the year;
Where rivers are running over
With red beer and brown beer.
An old man plays the bagpipes
In a gold and silver wood;
Queens, their eyes blue like the ice,
Are dancing in a crowd.
And while he was singing it Oona moved nearer to him, and the colour had gone from her cheek, and her eyes were not blue now, but grey with the tears that were in them, and anyone that saw her would have thought she was ready to follow him there and then from the west to the east of the world. But one of the young men called out: ‘Where is that country he is singing about? Mind yourself, Oona, it is a long way off, you might be a long time on the road before you would reach to it.’ And another said: ‘It is not to the Country of the Young you will be going if you go with
him, but to Mayo of the bogs.’ Oona looked at him then as if she would question him, but he raised her hand in his hand, and called out between singing and shouting: ‘It is very near us that country is, it is on every side; it may be on the bare hill behind it is, or it may be in the heart of the wood.’ And he said out very loud and clear: ‘In the heart of the wood; oh, death will never find us in the heart of the wood. And will you come with me there, Oona?’ he said.
But while he was saying this the two old women had gone outside the door, and Oona’s mother was crying, and she said: ‘He has put an enchantment on Oona. Can we not get the men to put him out of the house?’
‘That is a thing you cannot do, said the other woman,’ for he is a poet of the Gael, and you know well if you would put a poet of the Gael out of the house, he would put a curse on you that would wither the corn in the fields and dry up the milk of the cows, if it had to hang in the air seven years.’
‘God help us,’ said the mother, ‘and why did I ever let him into the house at all, and the wild name he has!’
‘It would have been no harm at all to have kept him outside, but there would great harm come upon you if you put him out by force. But listen to the plan I have to get him out of the house by his own doing, without anyone putting him from it at all.’
It was not long after that the two women came in again, each of them having a bundle of hay in her apron. Hanrahan was not singing now, but he was talking to Oona very fast and soft, and he was saying: ‘The house is narrow but the world is wide, and there is no true lover that need be afraid of night or morning or sun or stars or shadows of evening, or any earthly thing.’
‘Hanrahan,’ said the mother then, striking him on the shoulder, ‘will you give me a hand here for a minute?’ ‘Do that, Hanrahan,’ said the woman of the neighbours, ‘and help us to make this hay into a rope, for you are ready with your hands, and a blast of wind has loosened the thatch on the haystack.’
‘I will do that for you,’ said he, and he took the little stick in his hands, and the mother began giving out the hay, and he twisting it, but he was hurrying to have done with it, and to be free again. The women went on talking and giving out the hay, and encouraging him, and saying what a good twister of a rope he was, better than their own neighbours or than anyone they had ever seen. And Hanrahan saw that Oona was watching him, and he began to twist very quick and with his head high, and to boast of the readiness of his hands, and the learning he had in his head, and the strength in his arms. And as he was boasting, he went backward, twisting the rope always till he came to the door that was open behind him, and without thinking he passed the threshold and was out on the road. And no sooner was he there than the mother made a sudden rush, and threw out the rope after him, and she shut the door and the half-door and put a bolt upon them.
She was well pleased when she had done that, and laughed out loud, and the neighbours laughed and praised her. But they heard him beating at the door, and saying words of cursing outside it, and the mother had but time to stop Oona that had her hand upon the bolt to open it. She made a sign to the fiddler then, and he began a reel, and one of the young men asked no leave but caught hold of Oona and brought her into the thick of the dance. And when it was over and the fiddle had stopped, there was no sound at all of anything outside, but the road was as quiet as before.
As to Hanrahan, when he knew he was shut out and that there was neither shelter nor drink nor a girl’s ear for him that night, the anger and the courage went out of him, and he went on to where the waves were beating on the strand.
He sat down on a big stone, and he began swinging his right arm and singing slowly to himself, the way he did always to hearten himself when every other thing failed him. And whether it was that time or another time he made the song that is called to this day ‘The Twisting of the Rope,’ and that begins, ‘What was the dead cat that put me in this
place,’ is not known.
But after he had been singing awhile, mist and shadows seemed to gather about him, sometimes coming out of the sea, and sometimes moving upon it. It seemed to him that one of the shadows was the queen-woman he had seen in her sleep at Slieve Echtge; not in her sleep now, but mocking, and calling out to them that were behind her: ‘He was weak, he was weak, he had no courage.’ And he felt the strands of the rope in his hand yet, and went on twisting it, but it seemed to him as he twisted, that it had all the sorrows of the world in it. And then it seemed to him as if the rope had changed in his dream into a great water-worm that came out of the sea, and that twisted itself about him, and held him closer and closer, and grew from big to bigger till the whole of the earth and skies were wound up in it, and the stars themselves were but the shining of the ridges of its skin. And then he got free of it, and went on, shaking and unsteady, along the edge of the strand, and the grey shapes were flying here and there around him. And this is what they were saying, ‘It is a pity for him that refuses the call of the daughters of the Sidhe, for he will find no comfort in the love of the women of the earth to the end of life and time, and the cold of the grave is in his heart for ever. It is death he has chosen; let him die, let him die, let him die.’
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