Happy 150th WB Yeats

IMG_0102Anyone with an interest in Irish literature or even anyone who follows an Irish book blog will be aware that today is WB Yeats 150th birthday. If James Joyce is the father of Irish literature then WB Yeats is the father of Irish poetry. Poet, leader of the Gaelic revival, founder of the national theater the Abbey and senator in the newly founded Irish state, few men can be said to have played such a significant role in Irish cultural life. Every Irish child learns his poems in school at some point.

Today while listening to the radio I heard a recording of Michael Gambon reciting The Song of Wandering Aengus.


It’s extremely beautiful, and got me thinking about my favourite Yeats poems. After much deliberation I have three to share with you covering the three main periods in Yeats life.

The first is from his early romantic period. The poems from this period are my least favourite. They are overly romantic and idyllic. If I never hear The Lake Isle of Innisfree again it’ll be too soon. However I absolutely love He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven. The final three lines are among the most beautiful and romantic lines in poetry. I’d defy Shakespeare to come up with such a beautiful sentiment.

He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,

Enwrought with golden and silver light,

The blue and the dim and the dark cloths

Of night and light and the half-light,

I would spread the cloths under your feet:

But I, being poor, have only my dreams;

I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams. 

My second choice is from Yeats middle period when Ireland and the World was going through a lot of change and a more political period in Yeats life. September 1913 was written against the backdrop of the 1913 Lockout in Dublin, a mass trade union movement when workers campaigned for the right to join trade unions. The campaign received little support from the Catholic Church, the nationalist movement or the general population. The movement sadly failed and the workers were forced to go back to work. In the poem Yeats criticises the predominantly Catholic middle classes for forgetting their history, becoming preoccupied with greed and forsaking their countrymen. It’s message seems as poignant and applicable to Ireland today as 100 years ago.

September 1913

What need you, being come to sense,

But fumble in a greasy till

And add the halfpence to the pence

And prayer to shivering prayer, until

You have dried the marrow from the bone;

For men were born to pray and save:

Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,

It’s with O’Leary in the grave.

Yet they were of a different kind,

The names that stilled your childish play,

They have gone about the world like wind,

But little time had they to pray

For whom the hangman’s rope was spun,

And what, God help us, could they save?

Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,

It’s with O’Leary in the grave.

Was it for this the wild geese spread

The grey wing upon every tide;

For this that all that blood was shed,

For this Edward Fitzgerald died,

And Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone,

All that delirium of the brave?

Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,

It’s with O’Leary in the grave.

Yet could we turn the years again,

And call those exiles as they were

In all their loneliness and pain,

You’d cry, ‘Some woman’s yellow hair

Has maddened every mother’s son’:

They weighed so lightly what they gave.

But let them be, they’re dead and gone,

They’re with O’Leary in the grave.

The final poem, Wild Swans of Coole, is from the beginning of Yeats final period. He has returned to the romanticism of his youth but now it is tinged with age and experience. He is reflecting back on his life.

Wild Swans at Coole

The trees are in their autumn beauty,

The woodland paths are dry,

Under the October twilight the water

Mirrors a still sky;

Upon the brimming water among the stones

Are nine-and-fifty swans.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me

Since I first made my count;

I saw, before I had well finished,

All suddenly mount

And scatter wheeling in great broken rings

Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,

And now my heart is sore.

All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,

The first time on this shore,

The bell-beat of their wings above my head,

Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,

They paddle in the cold

Companionable streams or climb the air;

Their hearts have not grown old;

Passion or conquest, wander where they will,

Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water,

Mysterious, beautiful;

Among what rushes will they build,

By what lake’s edge or pool

Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day

To find they have flown

In celebration of Yeats’s 150th birthday, what is your favourite poem. And please don’t say The Lake Isle of Innisfree unless you can explain why.

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