My Little Poem: ‘The Mother of God’ by W.B. Yeats
for Annunciation, March 25
Many people might choose a little poem about the Virgin Mary to learn by heart in December, but March — with the Feast of Annunciation — works too.
I came into the Catholic church at the Great Vigil of Easter, 2012, but it is only in the last few months that I have been captivated by all things Marian. So I chose this poem by Yeats to memorize.
Yeats is not my favorite poet (not by an epic poem). But when he’s good, he’s very, very good. One of the first poems I learned was his “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” This poem is more complicated than a lot of other old poems I’ve learned by heart. It took me a while.
The Mother of God
The threefold terror of love; a fallen flare
Through the hollow of an ear;
Wings beating about the room;
The terror of all terrors that I bore
The Heavens in my womb.
Had I not found content among the shows
Every common woman knows,
Chimney corner, garden walk,
Or rocky cistern where we tread the clothes
And gather all the talk?
What is this flesh I purchased with my pains,
This fallen star my milk sustains,
This love that makes my heart’s blood stop
Or strikes a Sudden chill into my bones
And bids my hair stand up?
– William Butler Yeats
“The Mother of God” takes us inside the Annunciation, the announcement from Gabriel to Mary that she was to be the Mother of God. The poem’s first stanza shows us Heaven come down, the second muses on how Mary doesn’t fit in with common women, and the third is centered in the pregnancy itself, the bodiliness of it.
I found myself learning the second stanza first. I am “every common woman” at the “Chimney corner / garden walk, / or rocky cistern.” I like to “gather all the talk.” Not Mary. She is other, of the first and last stanzas. Like The Reed of God, this poem puts us right next to her, as if she were our best friend, telling us not only the facts of what happened, but also how it sounded, how it felt (in her emotions and in her actual body). The poem makes me want to pull back the blue veil on every Nativity scene and see if Mary’s hair was standing up.
As I sat with the poem all month, its capitalization intrigued me. The first word of each line is capitalized, which was common back in the day, but there are only two other capitalized words: Heaven, for the place, and Sudden.
Yeats doesn’t capitalize “flesh” or “love,” which he could have when writing about the Son of God. I looked to see if he capitalized “baby” or “child” and discovered neither word appears in the poem. Instead, Yeats gives us “Sudden.”
It’s a bone-chilling, hair-raising moniker. What better word could there be?
I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro