Winter Mask

Winter Mask

To the memory of W B Yeats


Towards nightfall when the wind
Tries the eaves and the casements
(A winter wind of the mind
Long gathering its will)
I lay the mind’s contents
Bare, as upon a table,
And ask, in a time of war,
Whether there is still
To a mind frivolously dull
Anything worth living for.


If I am meek and dull
And a poor sacrifice
Of perverse will to cull
The act from the attempt,
Just look into damned eyes
And give the returning glare;
For the damned like it, the more
Damnation is exempt
From what would save its heir
With a thing worth living for.


The poisoned rat in the wall
Cuts through the wall like a knife,
Then blind, drying, and small
And driven to cold water,
Dies of the water of life:
Both damned in eternal ice,
The traitor become the boor
Who has led his friend to slaughter,
Now bites his head – not nice,
The food that he lives for.


I supposed two scenes of hell,
Two human bestiaries
Might uncommonly well
Convey the doom I thought;
But lest the horror freeze
The gentler estimation
I go to the sylvan door
Where nature has been bought
In rational proration
As a thing worth living for.


Should the buyer have been beware?
It is an uneven trade
For man has wet his hair
Under the winter weather
With only fog for shade:
His mouth a bracketed hole
Picked by the crows that bore
Nature to their hanged brother,
Who rattles against the bole
The thing that he lived for.


I asked the master Yeats
Whose great style could not tell
Why it is man hates
His own salvation,
Prefers the way to hell,
And finds his last safety
In the self-made curse that bore
Him towards damnation:
The drowned undrowned by the sea,
The sea worth living for.

from Poems 1922-1947 (Scribners, 1948), used by permission of the Estate of Allen Tate. The recording was made on 1 April 1944 at the Recording Laboratory, Library of Congress, Washington DC and is used with permission of the Library of Congress.

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