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Featured Poem: Hound Voice by WB Yeats

Written by Emma Walsh, 23rd May 2016

Our choice of Featured Poem this week takes us a little off the beaten track of WB Yeats' poetry. Hound Voice offers something a little different to chew over.

Before reading this poem with a group on the Wirral some months ago, I couldn't make head nor tail (pun entirely intended!) of Hound Voice, but having always loved WB Yeats' work I was determined to make sense of it and I knew I could rely on my group members to help me pick it apart.

I discovered the poem quite by accident after reading that Margaret Atwood had written a response to one of Yeats' poems as part of his centenary celebration (Atwood's interpretation of the poem is also worth a read if you're interested).

The opening lines paint a picture of a stark landscape upon which it's easy to imagine a pack of wolves skulking through a patch of heather or barren land. It draws the mind back through history to the earliest 'ancient' settlements when humans first 'companioned' with hounds. Yeats seems to glorify this time compared to the "boredom of the desk or of the spade" which could illustrates a more modern, civilised period of history.

The poem goes on to discuss the picking of a mate as well as a canine companion, a woman who "spoke sweet and low and yet gave tongue" and although there could be a suggestion of romantic fate in the line "We picked each other from afar and knew", the emphasis still leans toward the need to survive as the rather gruesome scenes in the closing lines remind us.

Throughout there is a recurring sense of 'waking up' to something, a voice or call we can no longer hear clearly, finally finding ourselves "wide awake" as the hunt begins toward the end of the poem. Where this ancient voice comes from is hard to say but Yeats seems to speak to some primitive instinct in humankind through the poem's raw imagery of the "blood dark track" and cleaning out the kill.

The poem ends with "chants of victory" yet there remains an underlying sense of threat from "the encircling hounds", which leaves the reader unsure of what to trust. There is still that sense of glory in the victory of a kill, the continuing survival of an ancient race but the glorification of such an era seems less definitive, the danger seems ever present.

This makes the poem a little unsettling yet it does seem to speak to something familiar to us, the instinct to survive, to persevere in the face of whatever "terror comes to test the soul". There does seem to be something very relevant about that feeling of being 'half awake', of stumbling through things "slumber-bound" ... but then, perhaps that is just Monday.


Hound Voice

Because we love bare hills and stunted trees
And were the last to choose the settled ground,
Its boredom of the desk or of the spade, because
So many years companioned by a hound,
Our voices carry; and though slumber-bound,
Some few half wake and half renew their choice,
Give tongue, proclaim their hidden name - 'Hound Voice.'

The women that I picked spoke sweet and low
And yet gave tongue. 'Hound Voices' were they all.
We picked each other from afar and knew
What hour of terror comes to test the soul,
And in that terror's name obeyed the call,
And understood, what none have understood,
Those images that waken in the blood.
Some day we shall get up before the dawn
And find our ancient hounds before the door,
And wide awake know that the hunt is on;
Stumbling upon the blood-dark track once more,
Then stumbling to the kill beside the shore;
Then cleaning out and bandaging of wounds,
And chants of victory amid the encircling hounds.

William Butler Yeats


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