Eight years ago, in early 2013. I was well into my first season of singing with the Cherry Creek Chorale in Englewood, Colorado. We were preparing for a March concert with the title “Mass Appeal,” a clever play on words as we were actually singing part of a Roman Catholic Mass but also singing other pieces that were more broadly popular. One such piece was “A Dream of a Blessed Spirit” with text by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats. As I recall, the notes on our sheet music said that Yeats was writing about a woman named “Maud Gonne,” a feminist, suffragette, and activist. I was curious about some of the wording in the poem and wanted to know more about this Maud person. In fact, before I go on, let me include the poem here as it’s very short:
All the heavy days are over;
Leave the body’s coloured pride
Underneath the grass and clover,
With the feet laid side by side.
One with her are mirth and duty;
Bear the gold-embroidered dress,
For she needs not her sad beauty,
To the scented oaken press.
Hers the kiss of Mother Mary,
The long hair is on her face;
Still she goes with footsteps wary
Full of earth’s old timid grace.
With white feet of angels seven
Her white feet go glimmering;
And above the deep of heaven,
Flame on flame, and wing on wing.
I googled “Maud Gonne” and found that she had her own Wikipedia entry. What a fascinating woman! She had led Yeats a merry dance, never accepting his proposals but never cutting him out of her life completely. Her involvement with Irish politics worried Yeats, as she often exhausted herself with the work of helping starving and evicted tenant farmers. He saw parallels between Maud and the legend of the Countess Kathleen O’Shea, who sold all her goods and finally her soul to help her starving tenants. Because she gave her soul for the good of others and not to enrich herself, God refused to let her be damned and instead brought her to heaven.
The background information both about Maud and the Countess helped me understand some of the puzzling lines a little better. So the imagery is actually that of the Countess, who does indeed waste away and die after selling her soul. I’m still a bit unclear over the phrase “the body’s coloured pride” and have found no explanation of it; why is the pride “coloured”? I’m guessing that the line is a reference to the idea that after death the body becomes gray and lifeless. The Countess is obviously in her grave, “underneath the grass and clover,” lying on her back with her feet sticking up, side by side. (I guess.) She’s now beyond either the mirth or the duties of life, and she no longer needs to wear rich clothes, including her “gold-embroidered dress.” Actually she had sold all of her possessions to help the peasants, so I don’t know why she even still has this item of clothing. But never mind! It may interest you to know that a “press” is an old name for what today we’d call a “wardrobe” or an “armoire.” I could go on and on with the etymology here but will restrain myself and say that storing clothes on a rod with hangers is fairly modern; clothes were typically stored folded and were therefore “pressed.” The Countess’s closet is made of oak and is “scented,” meaning that there were sachets of dried herbs and flowers hanging in it, probably to repel moths. Also, the lines make better sense if you switch them to say: “Bear the gold-embroidered dress/To the scented oaken press.”
So that wraps up the first two stanzas. The last two describe the Countess as she’s being welcomed into heaven: she receives a kiss from “Mother Mary”—Mary the mother of Jesus, of course. I’m not sure whose “long hair” is meant, but the image I get in my own mind is that of Mary bending over the Countess to kiss her, and Mary’s hair tumbles down over the Countess’s face. And why does the Countess go with “footsteps wary”? Again, hard to pin down, but I think of the Countess not being completely sure that she’s actually welcome in heaven after selling her soul, still timid and graceful as she was on earth.
The last stanza is a mystical picture of heaven. The seven angels have white feet, and so does she. Seven is the number of perfection. The “deep of heaven” is filled with angels’ wings—or are they flames? Both are true.
The musical setting for the poem comes from the Welsh lullaby “Suo Gân” and was written by the contemporary American choral composer/arranger Daniel J. Hall, who published the piece in 2006. There is also a setting of the poem by another modern American composer, John Edmunds, but I haven’t been able to find a performance of it. Hall’s setting is truly lovely, so I guess we’ll stick with that!
After I did my initial research about Yeats’ poem I felt that I could sing the piece with a little more understanding. Then a lightbulb moment occurred as I thought: “Who else in the Chorale has looked this up?” And the answer was, almost certainly, “nobody.” I was intrigued because of my high-school-literature-teacher background, but maybe other people had, like, lives to live. Managing the words and music was perhaps enough without also bopping around the internet looking for literary references. Eventually I started writing background essays for the Chorale’s concert selections, a practice that eventually grew into this website, but until now I’d never written anything about the “Dream.” In the process of doing so I’ve learned much more than I did from that first Wikipedia entry; now I hope that the Chorale sings it again sometime.
Here’s a good performance with an intro giving the story about the Countess and conducted by Z. Randall Stroope, whose music I’ve also sung and plan to write about on this site:
And here’s a performance of the original Welsh lullaby by a boy soprano:
And if your appetite for literary analysis has not been sated, I will direct you to “The Blessed Damozel” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, written about 60 years before Yeats’ poem. If you read the Rossetti poem you’ll see some very strong resemblances between the two. Did Yeats borrow from the earlier poem? I think he must have, although Rossetti’s literary style, the “Pre-Raphaelite,” was sort of in the air for quite awhile:
“The Blessed Damozel“
The post The Beginning of this Website’s Dream–“A Dream of a Blessed Spirit” appeared first on Behind the Music.