“. . . Till Truth obeyed his call. . .” (W.B. Yeats)

In his poem “An acre of green grass,” William Butler Yeats wrote,

. . . Or that William Blake
Who beat upon the wall
Till Truth obeyed his call. . .


I’ve asked a question I cannot answer. It’s not—by the way—a “rhetorical question.” No such thing exists. In a formal argument, asking a question one can’t answer is simply disingenuous—or, perhaps, an unintentional display of one’s ignorance.

I learned about Blake’s poetry in high school English class—“Tyger! Tyger! burning bright,” “Little Lamb who made thee,” “And did those feet in ancient time,” and so on. I’ve read his work since then. I have a Dover reprint edition of Songs of Innocence. I’d say I know something of Blake. But neither a Google nor an EBSCO search has turned up a poem with anything about “beat[ing] upon the wall.”

While I have found several scholarly articles that treat Yeats’ poem, “An acre of green grass,” I have found none so far that explains the reference. I know the story of Timon of Athens, perhaps the strangest of Shakespeare’s plays, in which Timon curses the walls of Athens and eventually tries to arrange for them to be destroyed.

We all know King Lear’s wild old-man ravings out in the countryside in the rain. Michelangelo lived to be 89 (1475-1654), but I don’t understand Yeats’ reference to him.

Perhaps Yeats (1865-1939) was confused in his old age. He wrote the poem at 73, a year before he died, so he can be forgiven for confusing the plot of Timon with some poem of Blake’s, and not remembering Michelangelo quite correctly.

"Ancient of Days," by William Blake

“Ancient of Days,” by William Blake

Perhaps someone who is more scholarly than I, or at the very least has a better memory than I, can answer my non-rhetorical question, “Why?”

Last night a friend invited me to go with him to a show at the Eisman Center in Richardson, TX, titled “4 Girls 4.” The four “girls” were Andrea McArdle (51), Christine Andreas (63), Donna McKechnie (72), and Maureen McGovern (65)—Broadway singers all, and—I think most people would assume—past their prime all. Perhaps!

Andrea McArdle is no longer the little girl who sang “Tomorrow,” but her voice is rich and enchanting (she doesn’t have to belt it out any more). Christine Andreas belted out “I love Paris” in as fine a fashion as Edith Piaf or any other cabaret singer ever did. Stunning voice control even on high notes no one her age ought to be able to sing. Donna McKechnie re-auditioned for Chorus Line with a richness and style she could only hope for in 1975—she didn’t exactly “dance,” but she moved with grace and elegance. Maureen McGovern sang “Morning After,” and then she caught the audience off guard and astonished us with her unaccompanied, “Somewhere over the rainbow,” poignant and affecting.

I have to make that list to help myself remember the show (I’ve forgotten more than I know by a factor of at least 10), but also as a companion piece to the Yeats poem.

. . . myself must I remake
Till I am Timon and Lear
Or that William Blake
Who beat upon the wall
Till Truth obeyed his call;

A mind Michael Angelo knew
That can pierce the clouds,
Or inspired by frenzy
Shake the dead in their shrouds;
Forgotten else by mankind,
An old man’s eagle mind.

“I must myself remake . . . forgotten, else by mankind, an old man’s eagle mind.” I—me, as differentiated from and not comparing myself with Yeats—have never had an eagle mind. Nor have I ever done anything approaching the art and entertainment of Donna McKechnie’s dancing. If I stood on the edge of the stage in a hushed auditorium with light only on me and sang “Somewhere over the rainbow” (or anything else), the audience would be embarrassed at my lack of ability and disbelieving at my temerity.

But I am learning to remake myself, an old man’s mind—probably not as sharp as an eagle’s.

This week I recounted in more detail than I ever have in one sitting the five most painful moments of my life. That I can name specifically the most painful moments of my life indicates I’ve never freed myself of them—forgiven myself for them.

I’ve begun working with a gerontological psychologist. (How’s that for special?)

I’m having—as I should think anyone who has any self-awareness does—some trouble thinking of and accepting myself as being 70 years old. This is one the most difficult realities we have to face. Even at 60 it is impossible to imagine how it feels to be 70.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, average life expectancy in the US is now 78.8 years. I have 8.4 or so years left.

Here’s the deal. I have 8.4 years left to do all of those things I’ve been planning to do all my life—write the Great American Novel, see the Emperor Penguins in Antarctica, learn to make my bed every morning, lose 20 pounds. All of those things. “Grant me,” Yeats says, “an old man’s frenzy, Myself must I remake.”

Not possible. I am what I am. I’m not going to remake myself (perhaps get another tattoo).

It’s OK. It’s enough. I can tutor college football players. I can devote more time to explaining what I know about Palestinian poetry. I can play the organ. The stuff I’ve been doing that has satisfied me all along.

I don’t have to know “why” Yeats said Blake beat upon the wall. I didn’t know two weeks ago, and I don’t know today. I do, however, know the notes for the Bach Prelude and Fugue in G Major, and who the poet Sami Muhanna is. That’s enough.

And I can come to peace with those five distressing moments and disallow their power over me for the next 8.4 years.

“An Acre of Green Grass,” by William Butler Yeats

PICTURE and book remain,
An acre of green grass
For air and exercise,
Now strength of body goes;
Midnight, an old house
Where nothing stirs but a mouse.

My temptation is quiet.
Here at life’s end
Neither loose imagination,
Nor the mill of the mind
Consuming its rag and bone,
Can make the truth known.

Grant me an old man’s frenzy,
Myself must I remake
Till I am Timon and Lear
Or that William Blake
Who beat upon the wall
Till Truth obeyed his call;

A mind Michael Angelo knew
That can pierce the clouds,
Or inspired by frenzy
Shake the dead in their shrouds;
Forgotten else by mankind,
An old man’s eagle mind.

Time to see them yet.

Time to see them yet.

About Harold Knight
Retired English prof, SMU. Old man. Musician. Passionate about justice, equality, freedom. Therefore, I am a fervent supporter of and advocate for the Palestinian People as they struggle to survive genocide. That also means, of course, I have no use for US 45.

One Response to “. . . Till Truth obeyed his call. . .” (W.B. Yeats)

  1. Don’t fother Easter Island!!!

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