—William Butler Yeats
It would be an exaggeration to report that it didn’t matter what you said to my father (Short story writer and novelist) or to my mother (Poet, and wife of short story writer and novelist) as long as you said it well. But then it wouldn’t be all that much of an exaggeration. If my father was the king, then language was the faith. I was a good little boy, but for most of my life my mother made me feel deeply ashamed of the many books I hadn’t read. My father wasn’t an alpha in the way that Cesar Millan means alpha. Nevertheless, he was the patriarch. He was often funny, and sometimes even inspiring, but he could also be ruthless. He never struck me. He didn’t have to. Disney’s Davy Crockett only needed to catch a bear’s eye in order to stare the beast to death. Within earshot, I’m convinced that my old man could have convinced the bear to commit suicide. I learned the language as the horse learns the bit.
My father liked the histories written by Francis Parkman. In particular he liked volume II of Montcalm and Wolfe. Parkman tells how the English General, James Wolfe had his army rowed secretly—and at night—around the French fortifications at Quebec.
“For full two hours the procession of boats, borne on the current, steered silently down the St. Lawrence,” Parkman writes. “The stars were visible, but the night was moonless and sufficiently dark. The General was in one of the foremost boats, and near him was a young midshipman, John Robison, afterwards professor of natural philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. He used to tell in his later life how Wolfe, with a low voice, repeated “Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard” to the officers about him. . . Among the rest was the verse which his own fate was soon to illustrate: The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
‘Gentlemen,’ he said, as his recital ended, ‘I would rather have written those lines than take Quebec.’”
Wolfe did take Quebec, of course, although both he and Montcalm died. It wasn’t Wolfe’s military genius that my father admired. What he appreciated was the man’s willingness to honor a poet above all else.
So the above line from Yeats’s “The Song of the Happy Shepherd” stopped me dead.
Yeats was baldly stating something I had only dared to suspect. Here’s the passage from which the line is drawn.
“Word alone are certain good.
Where are now the warring kings,
Word be-mockers? —By the Rood,
Where are now the warring Kings?
An idle word is now their glory,
By the stammering schoolboy said,
Reading some entangled story:
The kings of the old time are dead;
The wandering earth herself may be
Only a sudden flaming word,
In clanging space a moment heard,
Troubling the endless reverie.