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Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Tossing "Brown Pennies" While "Looped In the Loops of Her Hair"

Brown Penny 
by William Butler Yeats (1910)

I whispered, 'I am too young,'
And then, 'I am old enough';
Wherefore I threw a penny
To find out if I might love.
'Go and love, go and love, young man,
If the lady be young and fair.'
Ah, penny, brown penny, brown penny,
I am looped in the loops of her hair.

O love is the crooked thing,
There is nobody wise enough
To find out all that is in it,
For he would be thinking of love
Till the stars had run away
And the shadows eaten the moon.
Ah, penny, brown penny, brown penny,
One cannot begin it too soon.

“Brown Penny” first appeared in a volume of poetry written by William Butler Yeats entitled, The Green Helmet and Other Poems. The theme focuses on romantic relationships and what it really means to fall in love with all the complications of joy, dismay, fear, wonder, and doubt.

In “Brown Penny,” Yeats writes about a young man who is questioning whether or not he is of age to truly appreciate and experience love. Such is the confusing effect of first infatuation. In its all-consuming intoxication, young love tosses its giddy victim into an ocean of overwhelming affection that teems with novel questions and doubts.

The youth has conflicting feelings about his strong emotions, so he does what any such “fool in love” may do. He gives up on logic and simply decides to toss a penny in hopes of finding some sign of fate for his answers. By flipping the penny, he reveals he is vulnerable to taking a chance. Besides, he is already smitten by this woman. The man has decided that the best way to find out if he will find the full depth of true love is to follow his heartfelt feelings and resist relying upon reasoning.

In the United States, there is a similar old folk-custom of taking a daisy, a small flower with many long white petals, and removing them one at a time, saying, alternately: "She loves me, she loves me not, she loves me.... In this manner, the petal plucker lets the flower decide the ultimate outcome of his affection.

The old penny of the United Kingdom (known to Irishman Yeats) was a large brown coin, and it had symbolic meaning to the common folk. One of those meanings was that love was something priceless, to which no mere material value could be attached. Although not understood today, that symbolism survives in the expression "a penny for your thoughts," which originally was used to indicate to the person spoken to that deep emotion motivated the question.

Such superstitious belief in blind faith has much precedence. In fact, many cultures have traditions that associate pennies (or other low-value coins) with luck. Finding a new penny (especially face up) is widely considered an omen of good fortune. Also, a bride might put a penny in her shoe for good luck, or a new homeowner might put a penny over the threshold to ward off evil spirits. 

Any idea, too, may be specifically related to this verse. Some believe in a ritual observance that involves throwing away a penny for luck, especially before setting off on a journey. In one of these traditions. Some fishermen empty their pockets of pennies before going out on their boats. And, of course, many tourists have a great fondness for tossing coins into fountains and making a wish.

So, bowing to one of the superstitions concerning predictions and love, the man engages in pitching the penny as a random and happenstance act. It requires little effort and there’s really no predicting where or how the penny will land. He, himself, is, symbolically, much like the penny -- a young person “throwing himself” to the fates of love with no great experience or significant means of control.

Yeats' message is given in personification as an answer from the “voice” of the penny. In addressing the penny, the youth addresses love itself, and all of the uncertainty which it holds. The penny offers an answer that disregards appropriate age and confirms that anyone can love a lady “young and fair.” The voice is clear: “Get on with it and don't wait or linger."

Yet, even after this direct instruction, a message from a fated love, the young man professes his confusion by saying that he perceives himself to be “looped in the loops of her hair.” 

At this point, the youth is still confused and unsure because of the strong snares in which he is entrapped. His lover's “looping hair” is a fitting symbol of binding and bonding – a symbol of the power of her enticing sensuality, her exquisite beauty, and her irresistible sexuality. He senses he is a mere “boy” caught and suddenly entangled in a serious amorous relationship. In the grand scheme of love, he, too, is just a negligible object much like the “brown penny” he has frivolously tossed.

Loops of hair” is very suggestive of wantonness. Hair is the archetypal symbol of sensuality and beauty. Scientists view hair as playing a large part in natural selection among many species, since thick and healthy hair or fur is frequently a sign of fertility and youth

And, of course, hair is one of the most important ways humans have of presenting themselves. It is evident the man's love "presents herself" very well. Anthony Synnott, noted sociologist, says:

Hair is perhaps the most powerful symbol of individual and group identity – powerful first because it is physical and, therefore, extremely personal, and second because, although personal it is also public rather than private. Finally, hair is malleable, in various ways, and therefore singularly apt to symbolize both differentiations between, and changes in, individual and group identities.”

(Anthony Synnott, “Shame and Glory: A Sociology of Hair,” 
The British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 38, 1987)

The symbolism associated with feminine hair has been extensively researched by anthropologists. Not only does hair symbolize physical strength and virility, also it is a symbol of female instinct, seduction and stunning physical attraction.

Some believe the hair of the head to have spiritual powers. Because of its relationship to fertility and even love (the quantity is related to love-potential), hair may be thought of as the external soul. Most anthropologists agree that long hair symbolizes unrestrained sexuality. 

From the beginning of time, women and their beautiful long hair have enticed poets and writers. Consider this description of Eve by John Milton in Paradise Lost:

"She, as a veil down to the slender waist,
Her adorned golden tresses wore
Dishevelled, but in wanton ringlets waved,
As the vine curls her tendrils..."

None other than Erica Jong offers this “hairy” historical literary obsession with the threadlike outgrowth of the epidermis:

"Dante Gabriel Rosetti was so obsessed with hair that he used to stalk women in the streets, drawn to their streaming manes. Hair was apparently a familial obsession, since in his sister Christina Rosetti’s poem 'Goblin Market,' a golden lock is traded for forbidden sex with subhuman creatures. Hair and sex have been equated since the most ancient times. Alexander Pope hardly invented the theme in 'The Rape of the Lock,' though he gave it the perfect ironic expression. And the Victorians who traded hair lockets and rings were perhaps trading favors of another kind.”

(Erica Jong, "Signaling Sex and Status: Our Fetish for Flaxen Hair,” 
The New York Observer, March 24 2003)

In this next stanza, the man considers his conversation with the penny and comes to the realization that nobody can ever truly understand love or “all that is in it.” The course of love is not straight and direct, rather the entrance to the path is questionable and the passage, itself, is “crooked.” There is too much to explore and learn: to know everything about love before embarking on his journey would require him to think “Till the stars had run away/And the shadows eaten the moon.” Therefore, he concludes that no one is too young or too old to love because it takes more than a lifetime to understand.

My Take

Isn't this “chance” the reality every person in love must ultimately face? Individuals even take a chance when they fall deeply in love with someone. Even though lovers profess their commitment, their fidelity, and their everlasting ardor, so-called "true love" often sours and dies. 

The poem speaks in favor of risking it all for loving "the right person"; however, “Go and love, go and love, young man/If the lady be young and fair” also seems to encourage young hearts to take advantage of every opportunity of youthful sexual pleasure and passion. In this respect, Yeats may be saying that love lost may never be recompensed.

Perhaps if the young man would have chanced tossing a silver dollar instead of a lowly penny, his coin would have answered differently. I wonder what might have been at stake in a costlier, more mature venture of chance. An older person with more experience who considers entering a new love affair must surely consider his potential losses. Being older, he most often bears burdens of great responsibility, and he suffers scars inflicted by the amorous proceedings of his past.

Yeats did not write Brown Penny when he was young. He wrote it in middle age. I believe that perspective of maturity is evident in the tone of the work. The poem with its moon-hungry shadows, where love is labeled a “crooked thing” can be viewed as dark. That which is crooked is usually cold and hard. The poem might be cloaking a caution to future lovers about rushing into loving relationships. And, we all know pennies have two sides, just as does love. 

What do you think? Is it true that “One cannot begin it too soon”? After all, isn't the chance of finding true love pretty much like the act of flipping a coin? Being in love is so confusing that even 50/50 odds of achieving its longevity probably seem pretty good. I wonder what the latest divorce rates and happiness statistics tell. Most people in love wouldn't even care to know.

What a tangled web it weaves. And men continue to be suckers for those "loops" of beautiful hair. At least, natural attraction still prevails.

 "Brown Penny" is performed/read aloud in the movie Must Love Dog

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