I have been rereading Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and have found myself as enthralled as Stephen Dedalus and Joyce himself by Yeat’s verse that Stephen quotes, Cathleen’s last words from the play, The Countess Cathleen. The whole chapter is full of references to the swallows. The words have stayed with me, and I am reproducing Cathleen’s short speech from the play. The fourteen lines that follow are my own.
Bend down your faces, Oona and Aleel;
I gaze upon them as the swallow gazes
Upon the nest under the eave, before
She wander the loud waters. Do not weep
Too great a while, for there is many a candle
On the High Altar though one fall. Aleel,
Who sang about the dancers of the woods,
That know not the hard burden of the world,
Having but breath in their kind bodies, farewell
And farewell, Oona, you who played with me,
And bore me in your arms about the house
When I was but a child and therefore happy,
Therefore happy, even like those that dance.
The storm is in my hair and I must go.
W.B. Yeats: The Countess Cathleen Scene 5.
I watch the swallow swoop above the grass,
Their wings as sharp as spearpoints, voices shrill
As children playing at their thoughtless games,
And wonder will they call back from the sea,
When storms sweep, tossing waves and bringing night
To hearts that only ever knew the summer sweet.
Will they call back to what they left behind,
The meadows rich with sun, the light that warmed
And danced with them the days the summer long,
That slip to autumn now that they are gone?
The wind wails cold among the darkening trees,
Cold the days to come, the candles dim,
When swallows flock to fly the waters loud
And leave me empty-eyed in this wild crowd.