Van Zandt and Yeats – Enchantment and Oblivion

This image from Townes Van Zandt’s At My Window sounds awfully like an echo of William Butler Yeats.

Time flows
through brave beginnings
she leaves her endings
beneath our feet
walk lightly
upon their faces
leave gentle traces
upon their sleep

Here’s the short Yeats poem, “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven.”

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

“Tread softly because you tread on my dreams” is one of the more memorable lines in the English canon. It would be surprising to me if this wasn’t a deliberate allusion.  Assuming that the quote’s on purpose, what is Van Zandt doing with the Yeats?

The Yeats poem is about hope – the narrator lays out his aspirations to the listener and hopes they are treated gently. In Van Zandt poem, the narrator also asks the listener to tread lightly, but the fragile floor-covering represents the remainder of things that have ended.* Yeats’ narrator is poor but hopeful – he offers his dreams to the listener. TVZ’s narrator is down on his luck and high on heroin “Three dimes / hard luck and good times / fast lines and low rhymes.”

Yeats’ envisions night-time as enchanted – the blue and the dim and the dark cloths of night and light and the half light. Van Zandt’s nightfall is a more uneasy place “At my window watching the sun go/hoping the stars know/it’s time to shine” – maybe the stars won’t come out and the night will stay black. Yeats’ magical night-time is a representation of heaven. Van Zandt’s nightfall is an allusion to death without afterlife “Living is laughing / dying says nothing at all”

Not to forget sheer style – Yeats’ early lyric style is notoriously pretty; Van Zandt has one of the better lyric ears in the language for whatever my opinion is worth; and Van Zandt carries the tradition without sounding precious. (“Aloft” is a little poetic, but so is “enwrought”.) Yeats uses the lyric style to convey enchantment. TVZ conveys a feeling of being tranquilized. Feel fine / feel low and lazy / feel grey and hazy / feel far away.

If Townes Van Zandt is quoting Yeats, he is doing something rather different with a similar image in related style – Yeat’s poem is a vision of hope; Townes’ lyric is a vision of oblivion.

*The image of walking over sleeping faces also brings to mind Tolkien’s dead marshes; Van Zandt is also known to have read Tolkein, maybe he’s quoting that too?

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