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Selected Poems (W. B. Yeats)

Published onFeb 12, 2024
Selected Poems (W. B. Yeats)

Selected Poems

By W. B. Yeats


“Adam's Curse”

We sat together at one summer’s end,

That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,   

And you and I, and talked of poetry.

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.’

                                          And thereupon

That beautiful mild woman for whose sake   

There’s many a one shall find out all heartache   

On finding that her voice is sweet and low   

Replied, ‘To be born woman is to know—

Although they do not talk of it at school—

That we must labour to be beautiful.’

I said, ‘It’s certain there is no fine thing   

Since Adam’s fall but needs much labouring.

There have been lovers who thought love should be   

So much compounded of high courtesy   

That they would sigh and quote with learned looks   

Precedents out of beautiful old books;   

Yet now it seems an idle trade enough.’

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.

“Among School Children”


I walk through the long schoolroom questioning;

A kind old nun in a white hood replies;

The children learn to cipher and to sing,

To study reading-books and history,

To cut and sew, be neat in everything

In the best modern way—the children's eyes

In momentary wonder stare upon

A sixty-year-old smiling public man.


I dream of a Ledaean1 body, bent

Above a sinking fire, a tale that she

Told of a harsh reproof, or trivial event

That changed some childish day to tragedy—

Told, and it seemed that our two natures blent

Into a sphere from youthful sympathy,

Or else, to alter Plato's parable,2

Into the yolk and white of the one shell.


And thinking of that fit of grief or rage

I look upon one child or t'other there

And wonder if she stood so at that age—

For even daughters of the swan can share

Something of every paddler's heritage—

And had that colour upon cheek or hair,

And thereupon my heart is driven wild:

She stands before me as a living child.


Her present image floats into the mind—

Did Quattrocento3 finger fashion it

Hollow of cheek as though it drank the wind

And took a mess of shadows for its meat?

And I though never of Ledaean kind

Had pretty plumage once—enough of that,

Better to smile on all that smile, and show

There is a comfortable kind of old scarecrow.


What youthful mother, a shape upon her lap

Honey of generation had betrayed,

And that must sleep, shriek, struggle to escape

As recollection or the drug decide,

Would think her son, did she but see that shape

With sixty or more winters on its head,

A compensation for the pang of his birth,

Or the uncertainty of his setting forth?


Plato4 thought nature but a spume that plays

Upon a ghostly paradigm of things;

Solider Aristotle5 played the taws

Upon the bottom of a king of kings;

World-famous golden-thighed Pythagoras6

Fingered upon a fiddle-stick or strings

What a star sang and careless Muses heard:

Old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird.


Both nuns and mothers worship images,

But those the candles light are not as those

That animate a mother's reveries,

But keep a marble or a bronze repose.

And yet they too break hearts—O Presences

That passion, piety or affection knows,

And that all heavenly glory symbolise—

O self-born mockers of man's enterprise;


Labour is blossoming or dancing where

The body is not bruised to pleasure soul,

Nor beauty born out of its own despair,

Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.

O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,

Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,

How can we know the dancer from the dance?


The unpurged images of day recede;

The Emperor's drunken soldiery are abed;

Night resonance recedes, night-walkers' song

After great cathedral gong;

A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains

All that man is,

All mere complexities,

The fury and the mire of human veins.

Before me floats an image, man or shade,

Shade more than man, more image than a shade;

For Hades' bobbin bound in mummy-cloth

May unwind the winding path;

A mouth that has no moisture and no breath

Breathless mouths may summon;

I hail the superhuman;

I call it death-in-life and life-in-death.

Miracle, bird or golden handiwork,

More miracle than bird or handiwork,

Planted on the starlit golden bough,

Can like the cocks of Hades crow,

Or, by the moon embittered, scorn aloud

In glory of changeless metal

Common bird or petal

And all complexities of mire or blood.

At midnight on the Emperor's pavement flit

Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit,

Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame,

Where blood-begotten spirits come

And all complexities of fury leave,

Dying into a dance,

An agony of trance,

An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.

Astraddle on the dolphin's mire and blood,

Spirit after spirit! The smithies break the flood,

The golden smithies of the Emperor!

Marbles of the dancing floor

Break bitter furies of complexity,

Those images that yet

Fresh images beget,

That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.

“The Circus Animals’ Desertion”


I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,

I sought it daily for six weeks or so.

Maybe at last being but a broken man

I must be satisfied with my heart, although

Winter and summer till old age began

My circus animals were all on show,

Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot,

Lion and woman and the Lord knows what.


What can I but enumerate old themes,

First that sea-rider Oisin8 led by the nose

Through three enchanted islands, allegorical dreams,

Vain gaiety, vain battle, vain repose,

Themes of the embittered heart, or so it seems,

That might adorn old songs or courtly shows;

But what cared I that set him on to ride,

I, starved for the bosom of his fairy bride.

And then a counter-truth filled out its play,

`The Countess Cathleen'9 was the name I gave it,

She, pity-crazed, had given her soul away

But masterful Heaven had intervened to save it.

I thought my dear must her own soul destroy

So did fanaticism and hate enslave it,

And this brought forth a dream and soon enough

This dream itself had all my thought and love.

And when the Fool and Blind Man stole the bread

Cuchulain10 fought the ungovernable sea;

Heart mysteries there, and yet when all is said

It was the dream itself enchanted me:

Character isolated by a deed

To engross the present and dominate memory.

Players and painted stage took all my love

And not those things that they were emblems of.


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.

“Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop”

I met the Bishop on the road

And much said he and I.

`Those breasts are flat and fallen now

Those veins must soon be dry;

Live in a heavenly mansion,

Not in some foul sty.'

`Fair and foul are near of kin,

And fair needs foul,' I cried.

'My friends are gone, but that's a truth

Nor grave nor bed denied,

Learned in bodily lowliness

And in the heart's pride.

`A woman can be proud and stiff

When on love intent;

But Love has pitched his mansion in

The place of excrement;

For nothing can be sole or whole

That has not been rent.'

“Easter, 1916”


One of the most powerful political poems of the 20th century was written by a man who was ambivalent about politics. William Butler Yeats (1865–1939) began his career under the spell of the late Victorian era. Art in that time was generally more romantic than worldly. The word spell is relevant here: in 1887, Yeats became a Theosophist and an acolyte of Russian occultist Madame Blavatsky. He participated in various spiritualist practices—from séances to automatic writing—for the rest of his life. His early poems feature his passion for Celtic mythology and Gaelic sagas—as in the widely known lyric poems “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” and “The Song of Wandering Aengus.” Nationalism was widespread in all its forms in Ireland at that time, but Yeats preferred his romantic literary nationalism to the new insurrectionary nationalism of his great love, the actor and activist Maud Gonne. Her beauty attracted him and her zealotry repelled him in equal measure. For the first 45 years of his life, Yeats focused his nationalistic energies on writing plays and songs and collected folk tales about Ireland’s past but wrote little about its complicated present or uncertain future.

In middle age, Yeats became disillusioned, or perhaps more attuned to certain realities. As Virginia Woolf pointed out, “human character changed” somewhere around 1913, when Ezra Pound published his imagist manifesto and began work as Yeats’s unofficial secretary—the unstoppable artistic revolutions of Modernism goaded Yeats into a crisis that ultimately resolved into a leaner style and a wider scope. He wrote the political and personal poem “September 1913,” commemorating the work and death of nationalist friend John O’Leary, which included the refrain “Romantic Ireland's dead and gone, / It's with O'Leary in the grave.” Three years later, Yeats said the poem “sounds old-fashioned now,” just before he began writing “Easter, 1916.” That poem expanded his political engagement and stood as an artistic breakthrough. Its innovation rested in Yeats’s ability to preserve older techniques that gave his verse its power—incantatory rhythm, rhyme, symbolism, and allegory—while engaging frankly with the interplay of personality, history, and politics of the present. The oxymoronic refrain of the poem, “a terrible beauty is born,” entered the language as Shakespeare’s “to be or not to be” or Pope’s “fools rush in where angels fear to tread” did. In “Easter, 1916,” focused so closely on an unsuccessful struggle in Ireland’s fight for independence, Yeats had timeless and universal things to say about it.

The engagement with the Modernist rather than the idyllic Ireland is evident in the first stanza of the poem:

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 a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,  
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn: …

As in Ezra Pound’s “apparition of these faces in the crowd” in the Paris metro or Eliot’s London “city block … trampled by insistent feet / At four and five and six o’clock,” readers are in the presence of the modern metropolis (for Yeats, it was Dublin). Yeats’s fellow citizens and compatriots (“I have met them …”) emerge from a milieu of buildings and counters and desks to an evening of urban amusement: the clubs where people exchange gossip and repartee, where “motley” means both the entertaining diversions of the city and the court fool’s attire. Yeats allowed readers to entertain a general “them” for only a few lines; as we will see, four distinct persons will emerge from this crowd of convivial Dubliners. The transformation from ordinary citizen to revolutionary is marked by the refrain that will reverberate through the poem: “All changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born.”

The “change” was the Easter Rising (or Easter Rebellion of 1916) of around a thousand Irish Republicans who wanted to secede from Great Britain and establish an independent Ireland. The insurrection was put down less than a week later, and many of its leaders were swiftly executed by firing squad. Although the original rebellion did not enjoy wide support among the general populace, the ruthlessness of the British response unnerved the Irish and led to the growth of the ultranationalist group Sinn Féin. “I had no idea that any public event could so deeply move me,” Yeats said, months later. In the wake of the courts-martial and executions of May 1916, he wrote to Lady Gregory that he was “trying to write a poem.” His simultaneous awe of and ambivalence toward the event are clearly coded in the both title and refrain. The Easter Rising is a double entendre on the holiday; the “terrible beauty” was “born” during Holy Week, which marks the occasion of Christ’s sacrifice. Hence, the Easter Rising is simultaneously crucifixion and resurrection, reality and archetype.

Yeats traced the movement of hard-nosed realism to mythography through the poem. The second stanza elegizes the rebels whom Yeats intimately knew: “that woman” refers to the nationalist politician Constance Gore-Booth Markievicz; “this man” was the poet Patrick Pearse, a leader of the uprising; “his helper and friend” was the poet Thomas MacDonagh; the “drunken, vainglorious lout” was John MacBride, Maud Gonne’s abusive former husband. They were not depicted heroically: Yeats chastised Markievicz for her shrillness and described MacBride as loathsome; the two poets, he observed, might have been better off remaining educators and writers. But in the first stanza, Yeats reluctantly recognized that each “resigned his part / In the casual comedy” of everyday life. The freedom to pursue individual liberty and happiness—the “casual comedy” of the modern city, in which one pursues love and leisure uninterrupted by political calamity—was rejected to promote collective liberty and happiness. At this point, Yeats shifted into the mythologizing third stanza, comparing the hearts of the revolutionaries to immovable rock:

Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road,
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute by minute they live:
The stone's in the midst of all.

With its lyrical nature images, this stanza evokes a centuries-old pastoral tradition. The pastoral is meant to convey, above all, the peacefulness of the natural world. But there’s a twist: instead of a landscape of changeless peace, we perceive a landscape in which the natural order encompasses movement and transformation. The unnaturally fixed stone causes violence; it “troubles” the flow of water. It is soulless, that is, “inanimate”; the root of animation—the state of being “full of life”—is in the classical Latin word for soul, anima. So revolutionaries, in Yeats’s view, seem soulless when they have “one purpose alone”: one ideology, one principle, one goal.

Yeats’s stanza enacts a terrible swiftness. The poem’s rhythm is magical and defies classification: I have seen it referred to as free verse, as iambic trimeter, and with its many seven-syllable lines, a trimeter with an unfulfilled tetrameter lurking behind it. He prized poetry that enchants with “metrical forms that seemed old enough to have been sung by men half-asleep or riding upon a journey.” In his essay “The Symbolism of Poetry” (1900), Yeats explained:

The purpose of rhythm, it has always seemed to me, is to prolong the moment of contemplation, the moment when we are both asleep and awake, which is the one moment of creation, by hushing us with an alluring monotony, while it holds us waking by variety, to keep us in that state of perhaps real trance, in which the mind liberated from the pressure of the will is unfolded in symbols.

Our inability to pin down his trance-inducing metric is a symptom of its archaic power. The poem seems to have written itself: the original manuscript shows few revisions until the fourth stanza. It also shows that Yeats first wrote that the shadow of the cloud on the stream is “changed.” By revising it into active voice, Yeats underscores the agency of individual actors in a whole in which “are changed, changed utterly” (italics mine). The parts may be active, but the whole is produced, passively, by this interplay. In a poem about historical destiny, this is significant; it implies that all citizens participate in the production of their destiny, but the outcome is unpredictable.

If, as the manuscript shows, Yeats had the most trouble writing the final stanza, it must be because its summary argument is difficult to articulate and even more difficult to digest. It is a lament for the dead. He asks his final, desperate question in three ways:

O when may it suffice?

Was it needless death after all?

And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?

Yeats is not convinced the sacrifice is worthwhile. There is no definitive end to sacrifices that may be made because change is constant, peace cannot ever be a steady state, and more sacrifice is always a possibility. This particular sacrifice may have been needless; Great Britain at this moment in 1916 may well have been ready for a long-term diplomatic solution to the Republican conflict. It had suspended Ireland’s bill for Home Rule in 1914 while promising to restore it after the conflicts subsided. Finally, the most horrible question the poet asked was whether “excess of love” for country can hound one to one’s death, reducing honor and glory to mere bewilderment.

Yeats banished these terrible considerations with the invocation of a mother uttering her child’s name in the dark. If there is any consolation, it can be only in commemoration. “Our part” reinvokes the comparison of life to drama: various roles, motley costumes, and the “casual comedy” turned tragedy:

To murmur name upon name,  
As a mother names her child  

I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse

In his Autobiography, Yeats writes about where these lines come from:

One day, some old Irish member of Parliament made perhaps his only appearance at a gathering of members. He recited with great emotion a ballad of his own composition in the manner of Young Ireland, repeating over his sacred names, Wolfe Tone, Emmet, and Owen Roe, and mourning that new poets and new movements should have taken something of their sacredness away. The ballad had no literary merit, but I went home with a troubled conscience; and for a dozen years perhaps, till I began to see the result of our work in a deepened perception of all those things that strengthen race, that trouble remained. I had in mind that old politician as I wrote but the other day—

                                         Our part
To murmur name upon name
As a mother names her child.

In the poet’s telling, a ceremonial naming of the martyrs stamps them in the collective memory. It is also calculated, coming at the very end, to give the poem a definitive crest or climax because the first and second stanzas only sketch the personalities without naming them. The chanting of concrete names finalizes a magical act by a poet who has gathered power from the touchstones of nature in the third stanza. The spell is completed by the repetition of “changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born” (which went missing from the previous stanza). Repetition, circularity, and closure are as important to spells as they are to lullabies or nursery rhymes. In The Virtues of Poetry, James Longenbach points out that repetition is essential as therapy, where trauma must be psychologically processed: “The line must be said again, and then again, the past dragged into the present so that the trauma of the Easter Rebellion, difficult to process at the historical moment of its happening, might truly be experienced.”

Yeats finished the poem on September 25, 1916, and it was printed privately in an edition of 25 copies but did not circulate widely until its publication in both London’s Labour journal The New Statesman and New York’s The Dial in the autumn of 1920 and then in Yeats’s next book of poetry, Michael Robartes and the Dancer, in 1921. One wonders whether the four-year lapse between writing and publishing made the poem seem less tied to a particular event and more embedded in the historical long view. Its desperate questions regarding a solution to the fight were still unresolved. It certainly helps that the verb tenses of the poem begin with a quasi-mythic “I have met them … I have passed …” and segue abruptly to a present-tense “A terrible beauty is born” and “I number him in the song ... I write it out in a verse.” As Longenbach again asserts, we could either read this scenario allegorically or literally; the effect is almost bifocal, the events both foreground and background as the poet completes his commemoration in an eternal present tense.

It’s worth noting that Yeats waited to collect the poem for aesthetic reasons:he composed his books as books and cared greatly about the ordering of poems: he did not want just loose collections of poems. “Easter, 1916” reverberates with other famous single poems in the book: “The Second Coming” and “A Prayer for My Daughter,” both of which juxtapose birth and apocalypse, mythical order and historical bloodshed, and it appears directly before Yeats’s other poems about the Rebellion: “Sixteen Dead Men,” “The Rose Tree,” and “On a Political Prisoner.” Donald Davie argued that the full import of “Easter, 1916” could be understood only in the context of the book. Such was Yeats’s artistry that reading one poem inexorably leads to reading another and another without sacrificing the formal integrity of each individual poem.

Yeats once famously declared, “We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” This sentiment is borne out in “Easter, 1916”: as shy as he was of revolutionary action, he wrestles with these doubts while lamenting his bolder confederates. In the tradition of such elegies as “Lycidas” or “England in 1819,” Yeats calls upon the act of writing to preserve collective memory. He makes full use of the Easter myth given to him by the historical contingency and ritualizes the martyrs, and their names, not only with rhetorical means but also song—meter and rhyme. While the experiments of the imagists and vorticists and surrealists were creating aesthetic rebellions, Yeats engaged world events with old magic and Modernist ambivalence. Time is deep, he seems to say: take the long view. A true poem, like life itself, is not a political cause—even a just one. To make it so is to be “enchanted to a stone” and fix it in one moment. In the end, “Easter, 1916” is less of a political poem than an elegy. We read it because it is, in the strange way poems are, alive. And by naming, it animates the dead in turn.

“Easter 1916”11

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 a 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.

That woman's12 days were spent   

In ignorant good-will,

Her nights in argument

Until her voice grew shrill.

What voice more sweet than hers   

When, young and beautiful,   

She rode to harriers?

This man13 had kept a school   

And rode our wingèd horse;   

This other14 his helper and friend   

Was coming into his force;

He might have won fame in the end,   

So sensitive his nature seemed,   

So daring and sweet his thought.

This other man15 I had dreamed

A drunken, vainglorious lout.

He had done most bitter wrong

To some who are near my heart,   

Yet I number him in the song;

He, too, has resigned his part

In the casual comedy;

He, too, has been changed in his turn,   

Transformed utterly:

A terrible beauty is born.

Hearts with one purpose alone   

Through summer and winter seem   

Enchanted to a stone

To trouble the living stream.

The horse that comes from the road,   

The rider, the birds that range   

From cloud to tumbling cloud,   

Minute by minute they change;   

A shadow of cloud on the stream   

Changes minute by minute;   

A horse-hoof slides on the brim,   

And a horse plashes within it;   

The long-legged moor-hens dive,   

And hens to moor-cocks call;   

Minute by minute they live:   

The stone's in the midst of all.

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 Connolly16 and Pearse

Now and in time to be,

Wherever green is worn,

Are changed, changed utterly:   

A terrible beauty is born.

“The Fascination of What’s Difficult”

The fascination of what's difficult

Has dried the sap out of my veins, and rent

Spontaneous joy and natural content

Out of my heart. There's something ails our colt

That must, as if it had not holy blood

Nor on Olympus leaped from cloud to cloud,

Shiver under the lash, strain, sweat and jolt

As though it dragged road metal. My curse on plays

That have to be set up in fifty ways,

On the day's war with every knave and dolt,

Theatre business, management of men.

I swear before the dawn comes round again

I'll find the stable and pull out the bolt.

“Lapis Lazuli”17

(for Harry Clifton18)

I have heard that hysterical women say

They are sick of the palette and fiddle-bow,

Of poets that are always gay,

For everybody knows or else should know

That if nothing drastic is done

Aeroplane and Zeppelin will come out,

Pitch like King Billy19 bomb-balls in

Until the town lie beaten flat.

All perform their tragic play,

There struts Hamlet, there is Lear,

That's Ophelia,20 that Cordelia;21

The great stage curtain about to drop,

If worthy their prominent part in the play,

Do not break up their lines to weep.

They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay;

Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.

All men have aimed at, found and lost;

Black out; Heaven blazing into the head:

Tragedy wrought to its uttermost.

Though Hamlet rambles and Lear rages,

And all the drop scenes drop at once

Upon a hundred thousand stages,

It cannot grow by an inch or an ounce.

On their own feet they came, or on shipboard,

Camel-back, horse-back, ass-back, mule-back,

Old civilisations put to the sword.

Then they and their wisdom went to rack:

No handiwork of Callimachus

Who handled marble as if it were bronze,

Made draperies that seemed to rise

When sea-wind swept the corner, stands;

His long lamp chimney shaped like the stem

Of a slender palm, stood but a day;

All things fall and are built again

And those that build them again are gay.

Two Chinamen, behind them a third,

Are carved in Lapis Lazuli,

Over them flies a long-legged bird

A symbol of longevity;

The third, doubtless a serving-man,

Carries a musical instrument.

Every discolouration of the stone,

Every accidental crack or dent

Seems a water-course or an avalanche,

Or lofty slope where it still snows

Though doubtless plum or cherry-branch

Sweetens the little half-way house

Those Chinamen climb towards, and I

Delight to imagine them seated there;

There, on the mountain and the sky,

On all the tragic scene they stare.

One asks for mournful melodies;

Accomplished fingers begin to play.

Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,

Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.

“The Lake Isle of Innisfree”

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,22

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 slow,

Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;

There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,

And evening full of the 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.

“Leda and the Swan”23

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 thighs?

And how can body, laid in that white rush,

But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there

The broken wall, the burning roof and tower

And Agamemnon24 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?

“A Meditation in Time of War”

For one throb of the artery,

While on that old grey stone I sat

Under the old wind-broken tree,

I knew that One is animate

Mankind inanimate phantasy.

“Meditations in Time of Civil War”25

1. Ancestral Houses

Surely among a rich man s flowering lawns,
Amid the rustle of his planted hills,
Life overflows without ambitious pains;
And rains down life until the basin spills,
And mounts more dizzy high the more it rains
As though to choose whatever shape it wills
And never stoop to a mechanical
Or servile shape, at others' beck and call.

Mere dreams, mere dreams! Yet Homer had not Sung
Had he not found it certain beyond dreams
That out of life's own self-delight had sprung
The abounding glittering jet; though now it seems
As if some marvellous empty sea-shell flung
Out of the obscure dark of the rich streams,
And not a fountain, were the symbol which
Shadows the inherited glory of the rich.
Some violent bitter man, some powerful man
Called architect and artist in, that they,
Bitter and violent men, might rear in stone
The sweetness that all longed for night and day,
The gentleness none there had ever known;
But when the master's buried mice can play.
And maybe the great-grandson of that house,
For all its bronze and marble, 's but a mouse.
O what if gardens where the peacock26 strays
With delicate feet upon old terraces,
Or else all Juno27 from an urn displays
Before the indifferent garden deities;
O what if levelled lawns and gravelled ways
Where slippered Contemplation finds his ease
And Childhood a delight for every sense,
But take our greatness with our violence?
What if the glory of escutcheoned doors,
And buildings that a haughtier age designed,
The pacing to and fro on polished floors
Amid great chambers and long galleries, lined
With famous portraits of our ancestors;
What if those things the greatest of mankind
Consider most to magnify, or to bless,
But take our greatness with our bitterness?

2. My House

An ancient bridge, and a more ancient tower,
A farmhouse that is sheltered by its wall,
An acre of stony ground,
Where the symbolic rose can break in flower,
Old ragged elms, old thorns innumerable,
The sound of the rain or sound
Of every wind that blows;
The stilted water-hen
Crossing Stream again
Scared by the splashing of a dozen cows;
A winding stair, a chamber arched with stone,
A grey stone fireplace with an open hearth,
A candle and written page.
Il Penseroso's Platonist28 toiled on
In some like chamber, shadowing forth
How the daemonic rage
Imagined everything.
Benighted travellers
From markets and from fairs
Have seen his midnight candle glimmering.
Two men have founded here. A man-at-arms
Gathered a score of horse and spent his days
In this tumultuous spot,
Where through long wars and sudden night alarms
His dwinding score and he seemed castaways
Forgetting and forgot;
And I, that after me
My bodily heirs may find,
To exalt a lonely mind,
Befitting emblems of adversity.

3. My Table

Two heavy trestles, and a board
Where Sato's gift, a changeless sword,29
By pen and paper lies,
That it may moralise
My days out of their aimlessness.
A bit of an embroidered dress
Covers its wooden sheath.
Chaucer had not drawn breath
When it was forged. In Sato's house,
Curved like new moon, moon-luminous
It lay five hundred years.
Yet if no change appears
No moon; only an aching heart
Conceives a changeless work of art.
Our learned men have urged
That when and where 'twas forged
A marvellous accomplishment,
In painting or in pottery, went
From father unto son
And through the centuries ran
And seemed unchanging like the sword.
Soul's beauty being most adored,
Men and their business took
Me soul's unchanging look;
For the most rich inheritor,
Knowing that none could pass Heaven's door,
That loved inferior art,
Had such an aching heart
That he, although a country's talk
For silken clothes and stately walk.
Had waking wits; it seemed
Juno's peacock screamed.

4. My Descendants

Having inherited a vigorous mind
From my old fathers, I must nourish dreams
And leave a woman and a man behind
As vigorous of mind, and yet it seems
Life scarce can cast a fragrance on the wind,
Scarce spread a glory to the morning beams,
But the torn petals strew the garden plot;
And there's but common greenness after that.
And what if my descendants lose the flower
Through natural declension of the soul,
Through too much business with the passing hour,
Through too much play, or marriage with a fool?
May this laborious stair and this stark tower
Become a roofless min that the owl
May build in the cracked masonry and cry
Her desolation to the desolate sky.
The Primum Mobile30 that fashioned us
Has made the very owls in circles move;
And I, that count myself most prosperous,
Seeing that love and friendship are enough,
For an old neighbour's friendship chose the house
And decked and altered it for a girl's love,
And know whatever flourish and decline
These stones remain their monument and mine.

5. The Road at My Door

An affable Irregular,31
A heavily-built Falstaffian man,
Comes cracking jokes of civil war
As though to die by gunshot were
The finest play under the sun.
A brown Lieutenant and his men,
Half dressed in national uniform,
Stand at my door, and I complain
Of the foul weather, hail and rain,
A pear-tree broken by the storm.
I count those feathered balls of soot
The moor-hen guides upon the stream.
To silence the envy in my thought;
And turn towards my chamber, caught
In the cold snows of a dream.

6. The Stare's Nest by My Window

The bees build in the crevices
Of loosening masonry, and there
The mother birds bring grubs and flies.
My wall is loosening; honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the state.
We are closed in, and the key is turned
On our uncertainty; somewhere
A man is killed, or a house burned,
Yet no cleat fact to be discerned:
Come build in he empty house of the stare.
A barricade of stone or of wood;
Some fourteen days of civil war;
Last night they trundled down the road
That dead young soldier in his blood:
Come build in the empty house of the stare.
We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart's grown brutal from the fare;
More Substance in our enmities
Than in our love; O honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

7. I see Phantoms of Hatred and of the Heart's
Fullness and of the Coming Emptiness

I climb to the tower-top and lean upon broken stone,
A mist that is like blown snow is sweeping over all,
Valley, river, and elms, under the light of a moon
That seems unlike itself, that seems unchangeable,
A glittering sword out of the east. A puff of wind
And those white glimmering fragments of the mist sweep by.
Frenzies bewilder, reveries perturb the mind;
Monstrous familiar images swim to the mind's eye.
'Vengeance upon the murderers,' the cry goes up,
'Vengeance for Jacques Molay.'32 In cloud-pale rags, or in lace,
The rage-driven, rage-tormented, and rage-hungry troop,
Trooper belabouring trooper, biting at arm or at face,
Plunges towards nothing, arms and fingers spreading wide
For the embrace of nothing; and I, my wits astray
Because of all that senseless tumult, all but cried
For vengeance on the murderers of Jacques Molay.
Their legs long, delicate and slender, aquamarine their eyes,
Magical unicorns bear ladies on their backs.
The ladies close their musing eyes. No prophecies,
Remembered out of Babylonian almanacs,
Have closed the ladies' eyes, their minds are but a pool
Where even longing drowns under its own excess;
Nothing but stillness can remain when hearts are full
Of their own sweetness, bodies of their loveliness.
The cloud-pale unicorns, the eyes of aquamarine,
The quivering half-closed eyelids, the rags of cloud or of lace,
Or eyes that rage has brightened, arms it has made lean,
Give place to an indifferent multitude, give place
To brazen hawks. Nor self-delighting reverie,
Nor hate of what's to come, nor pity for what's gone,
Nothing but grip of claw, and the eye's complacency,
The innumerable clanging wings that have put out the moon.
I turn away and shut the door, and on the stair
Wonder how many times I could have proved my worth
In something that all others understand or share;
But O! ambitious heart, had such a proof drawn forth
A company of friends, a conscience set at ease,
It had but made us pine the more. The abstract joy,
The half-read wisdom of daemonic images,
Suffice the ageing man as once the growing boy.

“Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen”


Many ingenious lovely things are gone

That seemed sheer miracle to the multitude,

Protected from the circle of the moon

That pitches common things about. There stood

Amid the ornamental bronze and stone

An ancient image made of olive wood—

And gone are Phidias'33 famous ivories

And all the golden grasshoppers and bees.

We too had many pretty toys when young:

A law indifferent to blame or praise,

To bribe or threat; habits that made old wrong

Melt down, as it were wax in the sun's rays;

Public opinion ripening for so long

We thought it would outlive all future days.

O what fine thought we had because we thought

That the worst rogues and rascals had died out.

All teeth were drawn, all ancient tricks unlearned,

And a great army but a showy thing;

What matter that no cannon had been turned

Into a ploughshare?34 Parliament and king

Thought that unless a little powder burned

The trumpeters might burst with trumpeting

And yet it lack all glory; and perchance

The guardsmen's drowsy chargers would not prance.

Now days are dragon-ridden, the nightmare

Rides upon sleep: a drunken soldiery

Can leave the mother, murdered at her door,

To crawl in her own blood, and go scot-free;

The night can sweat with terror as before

We pieced our thoughts into philosophy,

And planned to bring the world under a rule,

Who are but weasels fighting in a hole.

He who can read the signs nor sink unmanned

Into the half-deceit of some intoxicant

From shallow wits; who knows no work can stand,

Whether health, wealth or peace of mind were spent

On master-work of intellect or hand,

No honour leave its mighty monument,

Has but one comfort left: all triumph would

But break upon his ghostly solitude.

But is there any comfort to be found?

Man is in love and loves what vanishes,

What more is there to say? That country round

None dared admit, if Such a thought were his,

Incendiary or bigot could be found

To burn that stump on the Acropolis,

Or break in bits the famous ivories

Or traffic in the grasshoppers or bees.


When Loie Fuller's35 Chinese dancers enwound

A shining web, a floating ribbon of cloth,

It seemed that a dragon of air

Had fallen among dancers, had whirled them round

Or hurried them off on its own furious path;

So the platonic Year

Whirls out new right and wrong,

Whirls in the old instead;

All men are dancers and their tread

Goes to the barbarous clangour of a gong.


Some moralist or mythological poet

Compares the solitary soul to a swan;

I am satisfied with that,

Satisfied if a troubled mirror show it,

Before that brief gleam of its life be gone,

An image of its state;

The wings half spread for flight,

The breast thrust out in pride

Whether to play, or to ride

Those winds that clamour of approaching night.

A man in his own secret meditation

Is lost amid the labyrinth that he has made

In art or politics;

Some Platonist affirms that in the station

Where we should cast off body and trade

The ancient habit sticks,

And that if our works could

But vanish with our breath

That were a lucky death,

For triumph can but mar our solitude.

The swan has leaped into the desolate heaven:

That image can bring wildness, bring a rage

To end all things, to end

What my laborious life imagined, even

The half-imagined, the half-written page;

O but we dreamed to mend

Whatever mischief seemed

To afflict mankind, but now

That winds of winter blow

Learn that we were crack-pated when we dreamed.


We, who seven years agoTalked of honour and of truth,

Shriek with pleasure if we show

The weasel's twist, the weasel's tooth.


Come let us mock at the great

That had such burdens on the mind

And toiled so hard and late

To leave some monument behind,

Nor thought of the levelling wind.

Come let us mock at the wise;

With all those calendars whereon

They fixed old aching eyes,

They never saw how seasons run,

And now but gape at the sun.

Come let us mock at the good

That fancied goodness might be gay,

And sick of solitudeMight proclaim a holiday:

Wind shrieked -- and where are they

Mock mockers after that

That would not lift a hand maybe

To help good, wise or great

To bar that foul storm out, for we

Traffic in mockery.


Violence upon the roads: violence of horses;

Some few have handsome riders, are garlanded

On delicate sensitive ear or tossing mane,

But wearied running round and round in their courses

All break and vanish, and evil gathers head:

Herodias' daughters have returned again,36

A sudden blast of dusty wind and after

Thunder of feet, tumult of images,

Their purpose in the labyrinth of the wind;

And should some crazy hand dare touch a daughter

All turn with amorous cries, or angry cries,

According to the wind, for all are blind.

But now wind drops, dust settles; thereupon

There lurches past, his great eyes without thought

Under the shadow of stupid straw-pale locks,

That insolent fiend Robert Artisson

To whom the love-lorn Lady Kyteler brought

Bronzed peacock feathers, red combs of her cocks.

“No Second Troy” 37

Why should I blame her that she filled my days

With misery, or that she would of late

Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways,

Or hurled the little streets upon the great,

Had they but courage equal to desire?

What could have made her peaceful with a mind

That nobleness made simple as a fire,

With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind

That is not natural in an age like this,

Being high and solitary and most stern?

Why, what could she have done, being what she is?

Was there another Troy for her to burn?

“A Prayer for My Daughter”38

Once more the storm is howling, and half hid   

Under this cradle-hood and coverlid   

My child sleeps on. There is no obstacle   

But Gregory's Wood and one bare hill   

Whereby the haystack and roof-levelling wind,   

Bred on the Atlantic, can be stayed;   

And for an hour I have walked and prayed   

Because of the great gloom that is in my mind.

I have walked and prayed for this young child an hour,

And heard the sea-wind scream upon the tower,

And under the arches of the bridge, and scream

In the elms above the flooded stream;

Imagining in excited reverie

That the future years had come   

Dancing to a frenzied drum   

Out of the murderous innocence of the sea.

May she be granted beauty, and yet not   

Beauty to make a stranger's eye distraught,   

Or hers before a looking-glass; for such,   

Being made beautiful overmuch,   

Consider beauty a sufficient end,   

Lose natural kindness, and maybe   

The heart-revealing intimacy   

That chooses right, and never find a friend.

Helen,39 being chosen, found life flat and dull,   

And later had much trouble from a fool;   

While that great Queen40 that rose out of the spray,   

Being fatherless, could have her way,   

Yet chose a bandy-leggèd smith for man.41   

It's certain that fine women eat   

A crazy salad with their meat   

Whereby the Horn of Plenty is undone.

In courtesy I'd have her chiefly learned;   

Hearts are not had as a gift, but hearts are earned   

By those that are not entirely beautiful.   

Yet many, that have played the fool

For beauty's very self, has charm made wise;   

And many a poor man that has roved,   

Loved and thought himself beloved,   

From a glad kindness cannot take his eyes.

May she become a flourishing hidden tree,   

That all her thoughts may like the linnet be,   

And have no business but dispensing round   

Their magnanimities of sound;   

Nor but in merriment begin a chase,   

Nor but in merriment a quarrel.   

Oh, may she live like some green laurel   

Rooted in one dear perpetual place.

My mind, because the minds that I have loved,   

The sort of beauty that I have approved,   

Prosper but little, has dried up of late,   

Yet knows that to be choked with hate   

May well be of all evil chances chief.   

If there's no hatred in a mind   

Assault and battery of the wind   

Can never tear the linnet from the leaf.

An intellectual hatred is the worst,   

So let her think opinions are accursed.   

Have I not seen the loveliest woman born

Out of the mouth of Plenty's horn,   

Because of her opinionated mind   

Barter that horn and every good   

By quiet natures understood   

For an old bellows full of angry wind?

Considering that, all hatred driven hence,   

The soul recovers radical innocence   

And learns at last that it is self-delighting,

Self-appeasing, self-affrighting,   

And that its own sweet will is heaven's will,   

She can, though every face should scowl   

And every windy quarter howl   

Or every bellows burst, be happy still.

And may her bridegroom bring her to a house   

Where all's accustomed, ceremonious;   

For arrogance and hatred are the wares   

Peddled in the thoroughfares.   

How but in custom and in ceremony   

Are innocence and beauty born?   

Ceremony's a name for the rich horn,   

And custom for the spreading laurel tree.

“Sailing to Byzantium”42


That is no country for old men. The young

In one another's arms, birds in the trees,

—Those dying generations—at their song,

The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,

Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long

Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

Caught in that sensual music all neglect

Monuments of unageing intellect.


An aged man is but a paltry thing,

A tattered coat upon a stick, unless

Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing

For every tatter in its mortal dress,

Nor is there singing school but studying

Monuments of its own magnificence;

And therefore I have sailed the seas and come

To the holy city of Byzantium.


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.


Once out of nature I shall never take

My bodily form from any natural thing,

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make

Of hammered gold and gold enamelling

To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;

Or set upon a golden bough to sing

To lords and ladies of Byzantium

Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

“The Second Coming”43

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 shape with lion body and the head of a man,   

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?

“September 1913”44

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’Leary45 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 Fitzgerald46 died,

And Robert Emmet47 and Wolfe Tone,48

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.

“Who goes with Fergus?”49

Who will go drive with Fergus now,

And pierce the deep wood's woven shade,

And dance upon the level shore?

Young man, lift up your russet brow,

And lift your tender eyelids, maid,

And brood on hopes and fear no more.

And no more turn aside and brood

Upon love's bitter mystery;

For Fergus rules the brazen50 cars,

And rules the shadows of the wood,

And the white breast of the dim sea

And all dishevelled wandering stars.

“The Wild Swans at Coole”51

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 away?

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