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  • Orality, Literacy, and Their Discontents
  • Denis Donoghue (bio)

Let us suppose that we are reading the Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats and we come upon a poem called “A Deep-Sworn Vow”:

Others because you did not keep That deep-sworn vow have been friends of mine; Yet always when I look death in the face, When I clamber to the heights of sleep, Or when I grow excited with wine, Suddenly I meet your face. 1

If I were to describe the poem, I would say something like this. It is an encomium, a poem of tribute. Technically, it has six lines, each line varying in the number of syllables from seven to ten. The lines have masculine end-rhymes in the pattern abc/abc, the “c” rhyme being the sole repeated word face. The first “face” is metaphorical—the face of death—the second is literal, your face. There are internal rhymes of which the most telling is the one that connects the strong accusation of keep—”you did not keep / That deep-sworn vow”—with deep and sleep and the near-rhyme of meet. It is an unusual feature of the poem that the first word of the first and the last line—”Others” and “Suddenly”—diverge from the generally iambic meter: they are, respectively, a trochee and a dactyl. Grammatically, the poem consists of two unequal sentences, the first one occupying two lines, the second the remaining four: the sentences are strongly linked by the conjunction yet. The implied speaker may be man or woman and is of a certain age, since the experiences alluded to are those of mature or declining life. I would also make a point of noting a surprising feature of the poem, that although in the end it becomes intensely personal, it starts out with a distancing word—”Others”—and goes on immediately to a remarkably truculent piece of syntax, the intrusion of the phrase “because you did not keep / that deep-sworn-vow” before the subject reaches its verb. “Because” commits the speaker at once to a tone of recrimination that has to be transcended before the poem can become what it generically is, an encomium. The tone of resentment is extended in the demonstrative “that”—”that deep-sworn vow,” a phrase of such severity that the ending [End Page 145] of the line with the casual “have been friends of mine” is astonishing. It is not “were friends of mine” but “have been,” as if the speaker’s casualness had entered a dismissive syntax. The poem goes from the syntactical clottedness of “Others because . . .” to the comparative intimacy of you and mine before reaching the speaker I—”Yet always when I look death in the face. . . .” The second part of the poem reverses this direction, goes from the I—spoken four times, as if compulsively—to the you of “your face,” and says nothing more of “others.” It is as if the face had taken possession of the whole scene of life, now that the speaker is alluding only to experiences extreme or fundamental—death, sleep, the excitement of wine—in that unusual order. But the four uses of “I” are not the same. The first one—”when I look death in the face”—is metaphysical or melodramatic, as if the speaker were a match for the allegorical force or image of death. The second “I” is psychological. The clambering to the heights of sleep is odd: one usually thinks of sleep as deep rather than high, something to sink into rather than to climb to. And the next “I” is biological, the excitement being erotic and again strange in a context usually found to be narcotic or depressant. With a certain bravado the speaker has looked death in the face, but there is no bravado in the last line when looking turns to meeting: “Suddenly I meet your face.” Not “Suddenly I see your face.” The other people are relegated to gone times. The unity of the poem, if we choose to interest ourselves in that, is of the temporal kind, a phase of the speaker’s implied life: it is enforced by the connectives “because,” “yet...

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pp. 145-159
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