While I’m devoting an entire month to Irish literature, I thought I’d talk about one of my favorite Irish poems, W. B. Yeats’s “Mongan Thinks of His Past Greatness.” It’s not a very popular poem, for reasons which will become clear in a minute. Nevertheless, it was one of the first Yeats poems I ever heard, so it stuck with me.
The Original Poem
The poem first appeared in 1898 in a London literary magazine called The Dome, where it was titled “The Song of Mongan.” The following year, it was printed again in Yeats’s 1899 collection The Wind among the Reeds. Here’s the poem as it appeared in that book:
“Mongan Thinks of His Past Greatness”
I have drunk ale from the Country of the Young
And weep because I know all things now:
I have been a hazel tree and they hung
The Pilot Star and the Crooked Plough
Among my leaves in times out of mind:
I became a rush that horses tread:
I became a man, a hater of the wind,
Knowing one, out of all things, alone, that his head
Would not lie on the breast or his lips on the hair
Of the woman that he loves, until he dies;
Although the rushes and the fowl of the air
Cry of his love with their pitiful cries.
In 1899, Yeats was still deeply involved in the Celtic Revival movement, as well as harboring a more personal interest in magic and mysticism. This was the period of poems like “The Song of Wandering Aengus” and “The Stolen Child” that teem with mythological allusions and obscure occult symbols. “Mongan Thinks” fits in with these poems perfectly.
In this poem, the speaker is Mongan, a mythical Irish king and the half-human son of the sea god Manannán mac Lir. When Mongan was a baby, his father brought him to Tír na nÓg, the dwelling place of the gods, where he was trained as a master poet and magician. In Irish folklore, though, the downside of learning magic and keeping such close contact with the gods is that you lose the ability to participate in normal, everyday life (See Yeats’s footnotes to the 1899 edition of Reeds). It’s an idea that Yeats had explored before, such as in his 1894 verse drama The Land of Heart’s Desire, in which a young bride follows a faery girl into the woods, thus separating herself forever from her husband and family. Assuming Yeats had this legend in mind when he wrote about Mongan too, then Mongan’s separation from his beloved is not only a physical separation but also an inability to experience life as she does or with her.
Further on, the poem delves into even more obscure imagery. Mongan, for instance, talks of becoming a hazel tree: the hazel tree, according to Yeats’s notes, was a symbol of both the Biblical Tree of Life and of the Tree of Knowledge. So for Mongan to compare himself to a hazel is to say that he is not only immortal, but also that he has been at the center of all wisdom. The hazel was also associated with the constellation Ursa Major—the “Great Bear”—which is made up in part of the “Pilot star” (the North star to us Yanks) and the “Crooked Plough” (the Big Dipper). This is why Mongan talks about stars being hung “among my leaves.”
Eventually, it occurred to Yeats that these mythological references and layers of occult symbolism were not necessarily going to improve the reading public’s opinion of him. So, he revised this and other early poems, leaving much of their original imagery intact, but recasting the poems in such a way as downplayed their arcane roots. In the later editions of The Wind among the Reeds, this poem, now with the unwieldy title–“He Thinks of His Past Greatness When a Part of the Constellations of Heaven”–comes at the end of a string of poems whose speaker is identified only as “The Poet.” The idea now (if my interpretation is correct) is that this is a human poet whose gifts are so great that he was immortalized by the gods in a constellation, yet, even though he has everything else he could want, he still mourns for his lost love. Yeats also changed the final two lines of the poem, so that the sentence begun in line 1 now ends with line 10 and lines 11 and 12 make up their own sentence:
O beast of the wilderness, bird of the air,
Must I endure your amorous cries?
About those two lines . . .
Obviously, William Butler Yeats knows better than I do what should go into his poems. Even so, I’ve always preferred “Mongan Thinks of His Past Greatness” over “He Thinks….” Admittedly, familiarity may have something to do with it: I first heard of this poem while I was browsing through the archives at Harvard’s Woodberry Poetry Room website, and more specifically, through their 1953 recordings of Dylan Thomas. If you listen to Thomas’s recording, you’ll notice that he uses the new title for the poem, but recites the old lines. Since this was the first version of the poem I ever heard, it sticks in my head a little easier than the newer lines do.
There are a few others things that make the old lines stand out to me too: First, the use of the words “rushes,” “cry,” and “cries.” All of them, I think, with their hard “c”s and their noisy “r”s help to establish the poem’s main sound effects. Our image of the speaker places him alone in a forest with the wind whipping about him: naturally, the word “rushes”—both the word itself and its sound—would tend to bring to mind the sound of rushing wind. Though it’s a more subtle effect, I think the words “cry” and “cries” in the final line also help to give a sense of what the speaker is hearing: those hard “c” and “r” sounds remind me, at least, of tree branches waving and hitting each other in the wind.
The placement of these words within the poem is important too. You’ll notice that the last line of the original poem nearly begins and ends with the same word: “Cry of his love with their pitiful cries.” Having those sounds repeated so closely together, I think, reminds a reader not only of wind but of a relentless wind, one that won’t let up, that forces you to hear the same mournful noises over and over and over. And then to put those two words capping a line seems to me to create a feeling of claustrophobia within the poem. If you look at the poem printed out on a page, you’ll notice that it’s sort of small and box-shaped. Having almost the same word to begin and end a line, I think, further boxes the poem in, giving an idea of how trapped the speaker feels. Thinking back on it, the image that this poem created in my mind, from the very first time I heard it, was of a man standing all alone in a forest so dense that he couldn’t find his way out of it if he wanted to. I think it’s amazing that Yeats can use the sounds of words to create a feeling of physical space in a poem.
And with that, I conclude my rant on Yeats and this little-known poem of his. Do let me know in the comments what you think of Yeats, of this poem, and chime in with whatever other interpretations you may have of it.