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This article is taken from PN Review 221, Volume 41 Number 3, January - February 2015.

‘The Fisherman’: Poet and Audience Neil Powell

Although sensible readers should be wary of poems which become personal talismans or touchstones, there’s no escaping the fact that this does sometimes happen. It’s almost a century since Yeats wrote ‘The Fisherman’ and getting on for fifty years since I first read the poem: with its eloquent contrast between the boorishly vulgar public world and the pure vocation of the artist, it was just the thing to appeal to a literary sixteen-year-old. It seemed an unusually quiet poem for its author: at once melancholy and resolute, and quite without bombast. There are greater and grander things in Yeats, but there is nothing finer.

‘The Fisherman’ consists of two unequal verse paragraphs, the first of which climbs steadily to its angry summit. Yeats begins by remembering (or so it seems) this ‘freckled man who goes / To a grey place on a hill / In grey Connemara clothes / At dawn to cast his flies…’; but the memory is also a recollection of his own younger self who, as he tells us in ‘The Stirring of the Bones’, tried to dress in what he took to be a suitably nationalistic style ‘until a letter of apology from my tailor informed me that “It takes such a long time getting Connemara cloth as it has to come all the way from Scotland.”’ In any case, the poem continues, ‘It’s long since I began / To call up to the eyes / This wise and simple man.’ So the fisherman, who in the opening lines seemed unquestionably solid and real, has already modulated into ...

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