Friday 22 June 2012

"Memory" by W.B. Yeats

Recently I've come across two lengthy interpretations of this poem, one on Edmund Prestwich's blog and another in Widdowson's "Practical Stylistics". The poem's new to me. Here is it


One had a lovely face,
And two or three had charm,
But charm and face were in vain
Because the mountain grass
Cannot but keep the form
Where the mountain hare has lain.

The structure of the reasoning is "X Because Y", but the connection between the parts isn't clear. Nor are the parts themselves simple - there's artifice in the language, certain words are emphasized, and the imagery can be read in different ways. In particular, the hare/grass image suggests that memory has less permanence than charm has, but there's also a suggestion of memory being involuntary.

As an experiment Widdowson re-orders the lines then tries a prose version, but as he points out, doing so only makes the contradictions more evident. Changing "Cannot but" to "Cannot" helps in a way, according to Jon Stallworthy, when the paraphrase might become "however attractive women are, they'll be forgotten".

Widdowson thinks that the first 3 lines aren't trying to be particular - after all, the poem's not called "A memory" or "The memory". He thinks that they are an attempt to remember - vague and unreliable. He asks why there's an emphasis on "mountain", suggesting that it's what the hare and grass have in common. He suggests that the surface contradiction forces a deeper interpretation. He writes "One idea might be that as the hare and the grass are of their nature associated, so what is impressed on the mind is something which the mind is already disposed to receive. Another idea might be that since the grass is inanimate and it is the animate hare that acts upon it, so the memory is the passive receive of impressions and is acted upon in the same way: it cannot but take the impression of something with which it is also associated. This interpretation, based on the association of images, resolves the apparent contradiction in the argument of the poems which was discussed earlier. If we read these lines as ruminative association rather than rational argument, as representation rather than reference, there is no contradiction".

Edmund Prestwich sees it rather differently, writing that

  • "The argument moves forward strongly with 'but' and 'because' clearly and emphatically placed at the beginning of lines. The simple, sequential unfolding of rhymes is in harmony with this clear argumentative progression"
  • Of the first half of the poem he writes "The first line has a songlike lilt, and 'lovely' is given a kind of energy by metrical stress. Otherwise the language of lines 1 – 3 couldn’t be much duller, more literal, more inert or less evocative"
  • In the 2nd half "our imaginations are filled with the vastness of the mountain, the emptiness of the grass, and the strength, speed, wildness and evasiveness of the hare"
  • He says that "We have to intuit that he’s talking about women and realise the contrast of linguistic intensity between the first and second halves of the poem reflects the different kinds of impact that other women and the One Woman have had on him"
  • "The complications of feeling are obvious. ... Yeats is simultaneously saying that he’ll never stop loving the woman and recognising that nothing in human life is forever"
  • "There’s a kind of pride in the poem (he and she belong to the same order of being – the wild 'mountain grass' with the wild 'mountain hare' in implicit contrast to the tame world of ordinary emotions) but there’s also an utter humility in the contrast between the helpless passivity of the grass and the wilful freedom of the hare"
  • "it’s as if the calm formal progression of the whole poem towards the final clinchingly and ringingly full rhyme itself expresses the naturalness and inevitability of his faith, which, given the one-sidedness of the relationship, is a kind of submission (I don’t think I’m projecting this into the poem by knowing the story of his love for Maude Gonne; it’s there in the image of the mountain hare)"

I had a skim through some books. Angela Leighton writes that "The word [form] ... hints at the verse-form from which the subject has escaped". According to David Halderman the poem (published in 1917 but written before that) was one of several about Maude Gonne. Ellmann quotes "Because the mountain grass Cannot but keep the form" as an example of where "Writing English as a learned language, he caught up usages long out of fashion".

In "Cognitive Metaphor" (New Literary History, 13.2, 1982), Charles Hartman makes several valuable points, especially regarding the use of mountain and form

hare = a woman
mountain = the speaker (solidity and isolation)
form = a memory (a hare's nest is called a "form")
grass = the faculty of memory

I interpret the hare as symbolizing something fleeting. I think the "cannot but" construction is inelegant, especially since "but" is mentioned earlier. Perhaps it's deliberately so, to attract attention. The repetition of "mountain" seems similarly unwarranted, though Prestwich and Widdowson may be right. Why mountain hare? Its Latin name is Lepus timidus and its diet is mostly grass. Unlike similar creatures it was here before the Romans arrived. Hares traditionally symbolize witches, who use charms. If forced to paraphrase, I offer "however attractive women are, I can only recall the fleeting memory of the one I was destined to love".


  1. You might be interested in my "Cognitive Metaphor" (New Literary History, 13.2, 1982), in which this poem is a central example.
    Charles Hartman

  2. I was looking for the year this poem was written, and came across your analysis quite belatedly. I interpret the poem as meaning one's true love makes a deep, induring impression beyond more superficial beauty or charm.