Saturday, October 28, 2006



A man that had six mortal wounds, a man
Violent and famous, strode among the dead;
Eyes stared out of the branches and were gone.

Then certain Shrouds that muttered head to head
Came and were gone. He leant upon a tree
As though to meditate on wounds and blood.

A Shroud that seemed to have authority
Among those bird-like things came, and let fall
A bundle of linen. Shrouds by two and three

Came creeping up because the man was still.
And thereupon that linen-carrier said
'Your life can grow much sweeter if you will

'Obey our ancient rule and make a shroud;
Mainly because of what we only know
The rattle of those arms makes us afraid.

'We thread the needles' eyes and all we do
All must together do.' That done, the man
Took up the nearest and began to sew.

'Now we shall sing and sing the best we can
But first you must be told our character:
Convicted cowards all by kindred slain

'Or driven from home and left to die in fear.'
They sang, but had nor human notes nor words,
Though all was done in common as before,

They had changed their throats and had the throats of birds.

--W.B. Yeats

I've been thinking about this poem a lot lately. Not entirely sure why. I started remembering the last line, which I find fascinating, and I don't really know why. The act of transformation? Transformation as a metaphor for death--when Cuchulain sees the transformation he is at the point of dying? Transformation as a matter of redemption--the 'convicted cowards' redeemed in some sort of usefulness as birds? Are we meant as readers to empathize with the cowards or with Cuchulain? Cuchulain (coo-HOO-lan) is a great Irish hero, to the best of my memory about this series of Yeats' poems. As readers, we can empathize with his dying, certainly, with the fear of death--is Cuchulain afraid? Perhaps the presence of the cowards suggests the presence of the fear of dying. They, of course, are not afraid now--presumably as they're already dead.

I think we're meant to empathize with the cowards: we sing our own heroes out of this life, remember them in 'song' or poetry. We're the chorus. Parallels with our citizenry's reaction to the Iraq War? IDK.

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