Poetry Review: “Why Should Not Old Men Be Mad?” by W.B. Yeats

Yeats1I have to come to see lately that much of the music I most love comes from angry young men… while much of the poetry I love seems to come from angry old men. What does that say about me? About the nature of music and poetry?

Yeats as a poet is unique in that he grew greater as he aged. He wrote some of his best poems as an old man… just weeks before his death. While the poetry of his youth is not born in anger some  of his later poetry certainly is. He became an angry old man… grew mad.

The rhyme scheme of “Why Should Not Old Men Be Mad?” is straightforward as is the argument. So much that is familiar to close and frequent readers of Yeats is here… words/images/symbols: the not-so-veiled reference to Maude Gonne, the Helen of Troy reference, the journalist slight, “figured,” “old books,” “lighted screen.” When you spend time with Yeats you begin to recognize themes and patterns that enrich and adorn individual poems and interconnect one to another.

With anger still on my mind (see yesterday’s Music Monday), Yeats’ “Why Should Not Old Men Be Mad” seems like just the thing on a Tuesday morning.


Why Should Not Old Men Be Mad?

Why should not old men be mad?
Some have known a likely lad
That had a sound fly-fisher’s wrist
Turn to a drunken journalist;
A girl that knew all Dante once
Live to bear children to a dunce;
A Helen of social welfare dream,
Climb on a wagonette to scream.
Some think it a matter of course that chance
Should starve good men and bad advance,
That if their neighbours figured plain,
As though upon a lighted screen,
No single story would they find
Of an unbroken happy mind,
A finish worthy of the start.
Young men know nothing of this sort,
Observant old men know it well;
And when they know what old books tell
And that no better can be had,
Know why an old man should be mad.


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