February 24th, 2011

This be the missing verse...


                               The Scholar,  by Rembrandt

'The Scholars' by W. B. Yeats

Bald heads forgetful of their sins,
Old, learned, respectable bald heads
Edit and annotate the lines
That young men, tossing on their beds,
Rhymed out in love's despair
To flatter beauty's ignorant ear.

All shuffle there; all cough in ink;
All wear the carpet with their shoes;
All think what other people think;
All know the man their neighbour knows.
Lord, what would they say
Did their Catullus walk that way?

   I'd always assumed Yeats was a young man when he wrote this - it turns out he rattled it off when he was 54. But then you never know with Yeats, at 69 he experienced what he referred to as 'a strange second puberty' (due to a 'Steinbach vasoligature') which gave his poetry, and his behaviour, a renewed vigour.

   Predictably, over the years, my sympathies shifted from those 'tossing on their beds' to those 'forgetful of their sins', but lately something else has happened; I keep thinking about the missing, third, verse. Ideally it would have been written by Phillip Larkin who would, for obvious reasons, have had sympathy for the 'bald heads' even if they were respectable. He would have also brought humour and, I think, a greater insight into how we all, whether 'tossing' or 'bald' or neither, cope with love's despair.