From the Hazel Bough of Yeats:  Birney’s Masterpiece

by David Latham

“Have you ever written a masterpiece?” I first heard this question asked when I attended a poetry reading during my first year at university fifteen years ago.  The two readers that evening were Earle Birney and Ralph Gustafson, and after they had finished their readings, the student beside me asked Gustafson the question I thought was so naive.  When Gustafson snapped back, “Yes, the one about the apple”1, I laughed aloud to show him that I recognized the sarcasm behind his quick reply.  When he turned to me in surprise, I realized that he had been serious.

     A few years later, I was watching Earle Birney being interviewed on television.2 Towards the end of the programme, the interviewer leaned forward and earnestly asked if Birney had ever written a masterpiece, something he considered a perfect poem.  Having learned my lesson, I too leaned forward, ready to take the question and the answer seriously.  Birney first gave the conventionally modest denial, that “perfection is not something that can be achieved, but something to strive towards”.  Then he added that his favourite poem, the closest he’s come to composing a masterpiece, is a short lyric entitled “From the Hazel Bough”:

I met a lady
       on a lazy street
hazel eyes
       and little plush feet

her legs swam by
       like lovely trout
eyes were trees
       where boys leant out

hands in the dark and
       a river side
round breasts rising
       with the finger’s tide

she was plump as a finch
       and live as a salmon
gay as silk and
       proud as a Brahmin

we winked when we met
       and laughed when we parted
never took time
       to be brokenhearted

but no man sees
       where the trout lie now
or what leans out
       from the hazel bough

As Birney read the poem aloud, I wondered why he considered this one as his masterpiece.  When we read the soaring Dylan Thomas-like lines of his most popular poem (“David and I that summer cut trails . . .”) and then read “From the Hazel Bough” to the rhythm of what Birney claims is its inspiration—the railway song “Casey Jones”—this poem can read like six silly stanzas of rhyme without reason.

     Birney’s choice of “From the Hazel Bough” was no momentary decision.  When John Robert Colombo in 1969 asked sixty poets to choose from their own poetry one favourite poem with a paragraph to explain that preference, Earle Birney chose “From the Hazel Bough” with the following explanation: “This one is short and easy to read and write/it managed its own mysteries including an open rhythm which so far has prompted 5 wildly different pieces of music/i keep feeling it’s still just ‘casey jones’ “3  Three years later, in his critical study of the Writing and Reading of Poetry, Birney reconfirmed this choice:

     I wrote all but the final stanza of this poem in my head one night, while I was still in military hospital in Toronto.  The nub of what I have to say about “From the Hazel Bough” is available in John Robert Colombo’s How Do I Love Thee, a collection of poets’ own favourites with their reasons for choices.

     Although the basic rhythm was suggested to me quite irrelevantly by ‘Casey Jones,’ it’s been possible for composers to set it to their own sort of music, each wildly different . . . .  But some have found the poem of no interest; the author of a recent 128-page study of my work fails even to mention “From the Hazel Bough”4.

In a cassette recording of a reading of his poetry, Birney concludes with “From the Hazel Bough”, introducing the poem with the following words:

     I suppose all poems, all art, have to do with the most elemental theme of being born and living and dying.  The thing that links it all is love because we’re born out of love—of somebody else’s loving—and we come into love, and we die to make room for the continuation of love.   Maybe that is something behind the poem I’m going to finish with.5

     The only critic who looks closely at “From the Hazel Bough” is Peter Aichinger.  He calls it a “cryptic love poem” (p. 43) “whose obscurity and ambiguity may be a deliberate attempt to conceal Birney’s real attitude toward the relationships between men and women” (p. 73).  The poem

may be full of images of life, beauty, and vigour, the lively meter may suggest the joy and freshness of youth, and the penultimate stanza may claim a jolly, flirtatious cavalier attitude toward love [the fifth stanza is quoted] but the last stanza shifts abruptly to a sad reflection upon death and the loss of love; ever at the latter end of joy comes woe.6

What Birney has said about “Mappemounde”, a poem written during that same period of convalescence when he wrote “From the Hazel Bough” in 1945, applies to both poems and aptly summarizes Aichinger’s analysis: the poem is an “ironic comment, in the style of Hardy, upon the transitory nature of love and faithfulness”7.

     Neither Birney nor his critics mention the poem that “From the Hazel Bough” is most comparable with: W.B. Yeats’ “The Song of Wandering Aengus”:

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire aflame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And some one called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossoms in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver applies of the moon,
he golden apples of the sun.

Yeats tells the haunting story of an old man who recalls how long ago he was compelled by a fire in his head to go out to cut a wand for fishing.  He catches a silver trout which is then transformed into a vision of a glimmering girl.  His quest will be to find this girl who called his name before vanishing.

     In Yeats’ poem we find not only the source of Birney’s imagery—his hazel bough in Yeats’ hazel wood and hazel wand, his trout in Yeats’ silver trout, his river in Yeats’ stream—but we find the same dialectical structure.  Yeats contrasts the past with the present, the inner with the outer, the ethereal with the earthly, the imaginative with the natural.  A break in the middle of each stanza (signalled by a semi-colon or colon) underlines the shift from the earthly and physical to the mysterious and magical, from the concrete world of the particular to the abstract world of the universal.   Birney similarly contrasts then with now, youth with age, love with memory.  Yeats’ silver apples of the moon and golden apples of the sun may have their corresponding imagery in the lunar tides that arouse the sun-rising breasts in Birney’s poem.  (Birney’s treatment of the transformation theme is more immediate, as the lady and the landscape metaphorically merge.)  But obscure allusions account for neither the meaning nor the importance of the poem.  What Birney’s poem owes most to Yeats is its genre.  And it is in this generic context that the silver and golden apples of the moon and sun are most relevant to Birney’s poem.

     “The Song of Wandering Aengus” belongs to the Gaelic genre known as the aisling.8  The word means a vision or a dream; and the vision the poet sees is the spirit of Ireland as a beautiful woman.  The aisling then is a folksong in which a female figure serves as a metaphor for the singer’s homeland, or what in this context we might more aptly call the motherland.

     Yeats explains that “The Song of Wandering Aengus” was “suggested to me by a Green folksong; but the folk belief of Greece is very like that of Ireland, and I certainly thought, when I wrote it, of Ireland, and of the spirits that are in Ireland”9.  Yeats’ interest in reviving Irish culture through Celtic mythology began with quixotic ambitions to create a Celtic counterpart to the Greek Arcadia and Biblical Eden.  In this poem, the fisherman, the silver trout, and the hazel bough are translated into Aengus, Ireland, and the Tree of Knowledge.  Once he’s envisioned the ideal, he is no longer content with reality; thus, metaphorically fallen from paradise, Aengus becomes a lost wanderer.   Baudelaire contends that “any lyric poet, by his very nature, inevitably brings about a return toward the lost Eden”10.   Exiled from the garden, Yeats and Aengus seek return not to the godly father but to the motherland of home.

In an essay published in 1904, Yeats suggests the need to establish a relationship between personal and cultural tradition:

Old writers had an admirable symbolism that attributed certain energies to the influence of the sun, and certain others to the lunar influence.  To lunar influence belong all thoughts and emotions that were created by the community, by the common people, by nobody knows who, and to the sun all that came from the high disciplined or individual kingly mind.  I myself imagine a marriage of the sun and moon in the arts I take most pleasure in; and now bride and bridegroom but exchange, as it were, full cups of gold and silver, and now they are one in a mystical embrace.11

     Turning from this ideal principle to examine its practice in the poem, we see now that the silver and golden apples of the moon and the sun represent the marriage of the bride and bridegroom of poetic inspiration:  the common impulse engaged in the communal folk tradition is wedded to the kingly soul engaged in the individual introspective mind.  Yeats describes the result of this marriage, in a letter to Dora Sigerson (1899) in which he defines his favourite kind of poetry:

     I think a kind of half ballad, half lyric . . . is the kind of poem I like best myself—a ballad that gradually lifts . . . from circumstantial to purely lyrical writing . . . I only learnt that slowly and used to be content to tell stories . . . .  One must always have lyric emotion or some revelation of beauty.12

     All this generic background is unnecessary for answering most questions about Birney’s poem: What do the trout signify?  The lady’s legs.  What does the hazel bough signify?  The lady’s eyes, whose charm enchants the boys.  Where is the lady now?  If no man sees where her legs are laid out, then she may be dead, or at least unloved and forgotten.

     But, if we ask ourselves who the lady is, we get a different answer than when we consider the genre of the poem, if indeed, like Yeats’s poem, Birney’s “From the Hazel Bough” is an aisling.  The poem first appeared in Birney’s 1948 volume of poems entitled The Strait of Anian. The title refers to the alleged Northwest passage which would enable sailors to bypass cold Canada in order to reach the more worthwhile destination of India.  Birney quotes as his epigraph to the volume a 1594 account of Sir Francis Drake’s first voyage to the Indies:

     Sir Francis himself (as I have heard) was of very good will to have sailed still more Northward hoping to find passage through the narrow sea Anian . . . and so from thence to have taken his course Northeast, and so to retourn . . . into England, but his Mariners finding the coast of Nova Albion to be very cold, had no good will to sayle any further Northward.”13

The collection begins with a poem entitled “Atlantic Door” and concludes with one entitled “Pacific Door”.  In between, it moves through poems dealing with the Maritimes, Quebec, Montreal, to Toronto in the centre, and then out to the prairies and the Rockies.  The two Toronto poems are “The Ebb Begins from Dream”, which refers to such regions of the city as Rosedale, Forest Hill, and the Danforth; and “From the Hazel Bough”, which vaguely refers to Hazelton Avenue in the Yorkville neighbourhood.  Birney identifies the neighbourhood when he introduces “From the Hazel Bough” in his recorded reading: “My daily work took me through Yorkville and Cumberland—slum streets before the hippies”14.

     Some of the companion poems in this journey across the country speak of Canada as a girl or as a high school adolescent.  In “Transcontinental” the land is “a great green girl grown sick/with man—sick with the likes of us?”  Her toes are soaked in seaports, her ankles rashed with stubble, her lakeblue eyes scummed by tugboats:

She is too big and strong perhaps to die
of this disease but she grows quickly old
this lady old with us —
nor have we any antibodies for her aid
except our own.”15

     Thus when we ask who is this lady described so in terms of the landscape, we should answer that she is a personification of Canada.  As Yeats was mythologizing Ireland, Birney is mythologizing Canada.  But why is the encounter so brief’?  The answer to that question is suggested in the title of the collection, The Stait of Anian, the ironic reference to the colonial mentality which leaves us thinking of ourselves not as natives proud of our homeland, but as immigrants passing through.  When the desired gaiety and pride is discovered in the local, it sets us dreaming metaphors of the exotic (11. 15-16).  The subtitle of another companion poem—“Can. Lit.”—is a distortion of the maple leaf forever: “them able to leave her ever”16.  Birney’s revisions of the later editions of “From the Hazel Bough”—his changing the “He” to “I” and “they” to “we” (“I met a lady”)—shifts our attention to the overshadowed other subject of the poem: not the lady, but the persona; not Canada, but the Canadian.  “From the Hazel Bough” presents the Canadian as a tourist in a land to which he first felt little commitment.  Now at last he is beginning to recognize with regret his lack of roots in his own land.

     In an essay entitled “Unhiding the Hidden”, Robert Kroetsch quotes Martin Heidegger: “ ‘Roman thought takes over the Greek words without a corresponding, equally authentic experience of what they say’ . . . .  The rootlessness of Western thought begins with this translation”.  Kroetsch then quotes the narrator of Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing as epitomizing “this very Canadian predicament”: “Now we’re on my home ground, foreign territory”17.  As Yeats turned a Greek folk song into a Celtic myth with a fairyland setting, Birney turns Yeats’ Celtic song into a Canadian myth with the treelined, sidewalked neighbourhood of Hazelton Avenue bounded by the Atlantic tides and Pacific salmon.

     What makes “From the Hazel Bough” exceptional is its ability to capture the spirit of the country while transcending its patriotic intention to do so.  That is to say, the aisling does not limit the universality of the poem; “From the Hazel Bough” may be enriched by the patriotic subtext of Birney’s exploration of Canada, but, like Yeats’ poem, is in no way dependent on it.  Not a closed work (however much the last line returns us to the title), it may still be described best as an elegiac lyric about the transitory nature of life, love, and loyalty.  And yet, if we were to transpose the two poems, we would discover immediately that Yeats’ fairyland no more suits Canada than Birney’s transcontinental neighbourhood suits Ireland.  A demonstration of his famous conclusion to “Can. Lit.”—“it’s only by our lack of ghosts/ we’re haunted”—“From the Hazel Bough” is for Canadians as haunting an aisling as any ever written.


  1. Apple,” in Sift in an Hourglass (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1966), 49.[back]

  2. The Education of Mike McManus” (TV Ontario, 1976), 30 min.[back]

  3. John Robert Colombo, How Do I Love Thee: Sixty Poets of Canada Select and Introduce Their Favourite Poems from Their Own Work (Edmonton: Hurtig, 1970), 6.[back]

  4. The Cow Jumped Over the Moon: The Writtng and Reading of Poetry (Toronto: Holt, Rinehart, 1972), 87-8.  Bimey is referring to Frank Davey whose Earle Birney (Toronto: Copp Clark, 1971) ignores “From the Hazel Bough”.[back]

  5. Earle Birney (Toronto: High Barnet Cassettes, 1979), 60 min.[back]

  6. Peter Aichinger, Earle Birney (Boston: Twayne, 1979), 76.[back]

  7. Aichinger, 78.[back]

  8. Daniel Corkery discusses the aisling in The Hidden Ireland: A Study of the Gaelic Munster in the Eighteenth Century (Dublin: Gill, 1925), 28-9.  Birney’s and Yeats’s imagery is similar to that of Seamus Heaney’s two recent aislings, “A Hazel Stick for Catherine Ann” and “An Aisling in the Burren”, in Station Island (London: Faber, 1984), 42, 47.[back]

  9. The Variorum Edition of the Poems of W.B.Yeats, ed. Peter Allt and Russell Alspach (London: Macmillan, 1957), 806.[back]

  10. The translation is from Barbara Johnson’s analysis of Baudelaire’s “Invitation au voyage”: “To love and die/In the land that resembles you.” See her Critical Difference (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1980), 23-9.  Comparisons of the lady as land, the person as place, are found as well in popular rock music: “I know a place—I’ll Take You There (The Staple Singers, 1972) and “The name of the place is I Like It Like That” (Chris Kenner, 1961).  The aisling has much to do with exploring the locations of desire: how our nostalgia for the particular motherland of home may be more powerful than our anticipation of the abstract fatherly god.[back]

  11. Gods and Fighting Men,” in Explorations (London: Macmillan, 1962), 24.[back]

  12. The Letters of W.B. Yeats, ed. Allan Wade (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1954), 322.[back]

  13. The Strait of Anain: Selected Poems of Earle Birney (Toronto: Ryerson, 1948), ii.[back]

  14. Earle Birney (High Barnet Cassettes).[back]

  15. Transcontinental” (Collected Poems, I, 124) was originally entitled “New Brunswick” in The Strait of Anian.[back]

  16. Can. Lit.” was not grouped with the Anian poems until the Collected Poems (1975).[back]

  17. Unhiding the Hidden: Recent Canadian Fiction,” Journal of Canadian Fiction, 3 (1974), 43.[back]