William Butler Yeats

May 10, 2006


The twentieth century’s greatest poet in the English language; a major figure in the Irish literary renaissance, Irish Nationalist
Sensuous imagery and fusion of historical references
Experiments with lyric poem by using quotations and change in narrator’s voice
Rebelled against scientific rationalism and believed in the higher knowledge of art
Had a life-long interest in mysticism, spiritualism, and astrology; became the head of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn
Mastery of images: highly visual poetry and dramatic interweaving of specific images
Embittered by the split between narrow Irish nationalism and the free expression of Irish culture
He and his wife dabbled with a form of automatic writing
Developed a strong friendship with Ezra Pound
Won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923
Read his poetry in a heightened voice

“I sometimes compare myself with the mad old slum women I hear denouncing and remembering; ‘How dare you,’ I heard one say of some imaginary suitor, ‘and you without health or home!’ If I spoke my thoughts aloud they might be as angry and as wild.  It was a long time before I had made a language to my liking; I began to make it when I discovered twenty years ago that I must seek, not as Wordsworth thought, words in common use, but a powerful and passionate syntax, and a complete coincidence between period and stanza.  Because I need a passionate syntax for passionate subject matter I compel myself to accept those traditional metres that have developed with the language.”

-from “A General Introduction to My Work”

His tombstone reads an epitaph composed by himself:

“Cast a cold Eye / On Life, on Death. / Horseman, pass by!”


When you are old and grey and full of sleep, / And nodding by the fire, take down this book, / And slowly read, and dream of the soft look / Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace, / And loved your beauty with love false or true, / But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you, / And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars, / Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled / And paced upon the mountains overhead / And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

-When You Are Old

Those masterful images because complete / Grew in pure mind, but out of what began? / A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street, / Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can, / Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut / Who keeps the till.  Now that my ladder’s gone, / I must lie down where all the ladders start, / In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.

-The Circus Animals’ Desertion

O sages standing in God’s holy fire / As in the gold mosaic of a wall, / Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre, / And be the singing-masters of my soul. / Consume my heart away; sick with desire / And fastened to a dying animal / It knows not what it is; and gather me / Into the artifice of eternity.

-Sailing to Byzantium

The brawling of a sparrow in the eaves, / The brilliant moon and all the milky sky, / And all that famous harmony of leaves, / Had blotted out man’s image and his cry.
A girl arose that had red mournful lips / And seemed the greatness of the world in tears, / Doomed like Odysseus and the laboring ships / And proud as Priam murdered with his peers;
Arose, and on the instant clamorous eaves, / A climbing moon upon an empty sky, / And all that lamentation of the leaves / Could but compose man’s image and his cry.

-Sorrow of Love

“I shall find the dark grow luminous, the void fruitful when I understand I have nothing, that the ringers in the tower have appointed for the hymen of the soul a passing bell.”

-A Vision

I said, ‘A line will take us hours maybe; / Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought, / Our stitching and unstitching has been naught. / Better go down upon your marrow-bones / And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones / Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather; / For to articulate sweet sounds together / Is to work harder than all these, and yet / Be thought an idler by the noisy set / Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen / The martyrs call the world.’

We sat grown quiet at the name of love; / We saw the last embers of daylight die, / And in the trembling blue-green of the sky / A moon, worn as if it had been a shell / Washed by time’s waters as they rose and fell / About the stars and broke in days and years.
I had a thought for no one’s but your ears: / That you were beautiful, and that I strove / To love you in the old high way of love; / That it had all seemed happy, and yet we’d grown / As weary-hearted as that hollow moon.

-Adam’s Curse

Metaphoric for poetry, personified as a woman
Rejects the cultural mechanics of love, but doesn’t tell us where to go from there


Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer; / Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned; / The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand; / Surely the Second Coming is at hand. / The Second Coming! / Hardly are those words out / When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi / Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert / A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun, / Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it / Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds. / The darkness drops again; but now I know / That twenty centuries of stony sleep / Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle, / And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

-The Second Coming (in whole)

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  (in whole)

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree, / And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made: / Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee, / And live alone in the bee-loud glade
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping show, / Dropping from the beils of the morning to where the cricket sings; / There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow, / And evening full of linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day / I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore; / While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey, / I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

-The Lake Isle of Innisfree (in whole)
See Poetry Speaks

I would that we were, my beloved, white birds on the foam of the sea./ We tire of the flame of the meteor, before it can fade and flee; / And the flame of the blue star of twilight, hung low on the rim of the sky, / Has awaked in our hearts, my beloved, a sadness that may not die.
A weariness comes from those dreamers, dew-dabbled, the lily and rose; / Ah, dream not of them, my beloved, the flame of the meteor that goes, / Or the flame of the blue star that lingers hung low in the fall of the dew: / For I would we were changed to white birds on the wandering foam: I and you.
I am haunted by numberless islands, and many a Danaan shore, / Where Time would surely forget us, and Sorrow come near us no more; / Soon far from the rose and the lily, and fret of the flames would we be, / Were we only white birds, my beloved, buoyed out on the foam of the sea.

-The White Birds (in whole)

I know that I shall meet my fate / Somewhere among the clouds above; / Those that I fight I do not hate, / Those that I guard I do not love; / My country is Kiltartan Cross, / My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor, / No likely end could bring them loss / Or leave them happier than before. / Nor law, nor duty bade me fight, / Nor public men, nor cheering crowds, / A lonely impulse of delight / Drove to this tumult in the clouds; / I balanced all, brought all to mind, / The years to come seemed waste of breath, / A waste of breath the years behind / In balance with this life, this death.

-An Irish Airman foresees his Death (in whole)

A pity beyond all telling / Is hid in the heart of love: / The folk who are buying and selling, / The coulds on their journey above, / The cold wet winds ever blowing, / And the shadowy hazel grove / Where mouse-grey waters are flowing, / Threaten the head that I love.

-The Pity of Love (in whole)

I have met them at close of day / Coming with vivid faces / From counter or desk among grey / Eighteenth-century houses. / I have passed with a nod of the head / Or polite meaningless words, / Or have lingered awhile and said / Polite meaningless words, / And thought before I had done / Of a mocking tale or gibe / To please a companion / Around the fire at the club, / Being certain that they and I / But lived where motley is worn: / All changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born.

Too long a sacrifice / Can make a stone of the heart. / O when may it suffice? / That is Heaven’s part, our part / To murmur name upon name, / As a mother names her child / When sleep at last has come / On limbs that had run wild. / What is it but nightfall? / No, no, not night but death; / Was it needless death after all? / For England may keep faith / For all that is done and said. / We know their dream; enough / To know they dreamed and are dead; / And what if excess of love / Bewildered them till they died? / I write it out in a verse – / MacDonagh and MacBride / And Connolly and Pearse / Now and in time to be, / Wherever green is worn, / Are changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born.

-Easter, 1916

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still / Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed / By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill, / He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
How can those terrified vague fingers push / The feathered glory from her loosening thigs? / And how can body, laid in that white rush, / But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?
A shudder in the loin engenders there / The broken wall, the burning roof and tower / And Agamemnon dead. / Being so caught up, / So mastered by the brute blood of the air, / Did she put on his knowledge with his power / Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

-Leda and the Swan (in whole)

In Greek mythology the god Zeus, in the form of a swan, raped Leda, a mortal. Helen, Clytemnestra, Castor, and Pollux were the children of this union. Yeats saw Leda’s rape as the beginning of a new age, analogous with the dove’s annunciation to Mary of Jesus’ conception


9 Responses to “William Butler Yeats”

  1. butler Says:

    I ran across your site while just surfing around, wanted to say hi and I like the blog.

  2. thanks, butler
    and hi back, if you ever read this again.

  3. I looked for this website after I saw Christpher Plummer
    recite Brown Penny in a movie – Must Like Dogs.
    I had not been familiar with Brown Penny and to hear
    Plummer recite it was the best part of “Must Like Dogs.”

    I’ve always like Yeats since my high school days in 1965-66
    when I studied Yeats (among others) in my senior year.
    I appreciate these poems being published on a website.

    I will read the other Yeats Websites too.

    Todd Wharton Schaffner

  4. Thanks, Todd! I’m glad you like it so much. I like Yeats, too. Especially “The White Birds.” Thanks for commenting on my website.


  5. Samuel L. Says:

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