Literary criticism

These Muted Mothball Days

By: Ian C Smith

My serendipitous introduction to Yeats’ early poem, He Wishes for The Cloths of Heaven, came about when I lifted an antimacassar on my armchair, exposing a hidden letter.  A nephew, my house-sitter during recent travels then, had a girlfriend, the letter’s addressee.  Did she hear his approach, slip it from sight, later forget?  Aswarm with voyeuristic conjecture, I read, mind-chuckling about Victorian novelists’ convenient use of discovered letters.  A man with a European name travelling by bus around northern Australia takes a page to describe arid scenery before getting to the point: his unrequited or ended love – it is unclear which – for my nephew’s girlfriend, heart bleeding all over the following pages, awkward syntax charging its poignancy.  The poor guy inadvertently reduces the effect by writing Clothes instead of the beautiful Cloths.

Minor characters from the past appear in dreams, precise cameos: the neatness of a man’s moustache, the timbre of a woman’s voice, but I rarely dream of people who were close.  The only part of an early story by John Updike I remember is when the narrator describes the past as a vast sheet of darkness where a few moments, apparently pricked at random, briefly shine.  Now, details of even my important events fracted, I wonder if that swain recalls the girl I imagine he lost to my nephew – I never asked – who is still in touch with her.  Now middle-aged, she drinks.  Does he dwell on a bleak bus trip between Broome and Darwin dizzy with desire, anguished thoughts of love lost, carried ever farther from the source of his restlessness?

His added postscript: No more beautiful and better words were ever written.  Isn’t it you and me? followed the copied poem.  Yeats, perhaps with Maud Gonne on his mind, closed with the lines: I have spread my dreams under your feet;/ Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

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Categories: Literary criticism, Poetry

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