Posts filed under ‘William Butler Yeats’

An Irish Airman Foresees his Death

W.B. Yeats


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.

I can’t imagine running a theme on War poetry that doesn’t include this one.

Here it is then – the breathlessness of self-realisation, of that weightless and lonely moment when you rise above your own life, watching the things of the world fall away until they seem like toys, wrapped in the cocoon of the your thoughts and balanced precariously between life and death, triumph and surrender. Beyond self-interest, beyond heroism, there is only this quiet apprehension of the self as ephemeral and therefore worth celebrating, and this final effort to exult in what you have somehow become. This is freedom, true, but it is also a lack of gravity, a lack of horizons to hold and be held by. This is the just bearable lightness of being.

Poetry just doesn’t get better than this.

January 24, 2007 at 12:05 am 2 comments

The Rose of the World

W.B. Yeats


Who dreamed that beauty passes like a dream?
For these red lips, with all their mournful pride,
Mournful that no new wonder may betide,
Troy passed away in one high funeral gleam,
And Usna's children died.

We and the labouring world are passing by:
Amid men's souls, that waver and give place
Like the pale waters in their wintry race,
Under the passing stars, foam of the sky,
Lives on this lonely face.

Bow down, archangels, in your dim abode:
Before you were, or any hearts to beat,
Weary and kind one lingered by His seat;
He made the world to be a grassy road
Before her wandering feet.

Quite simply one of my favourite Yeats poems ever.

See commentary on Minstrels

April 18, 2006 at 7:30 am 9 comments

The Old Men Admiring Themselves in the Water

William Butler Yeats


I heard the old, old men say,
'Everything alters,
And one by one we drop away.'
They had hands like claws, and their knees
Were twisted like the old thorn-trees
By the waters.
I heard the old, old men say
'All that's beautiful drifts away
Like the waters.'

Such a simple yet achingly beautiful poem. A poem that simply radiates sadness, that clutches at you like a gnarled hand. I love the rhythm of it, the weariness of tone created by the repetition of the word 'old', the marvellous use of rhyme to suggest a closing out, a surrender. But more than all that, I love the vividness of the image – Yeats' ability to create a portrait of these tired, defeated old men that has all the accuracy of a dream. This is a poem that cries out to be painted, or rather that does not need to be painted because you cannot read it without being able to see the painting that goes with it (I'm thinking El Greco here) as clearly as if it were right in front of you.

March 10, 2006 at 6:05 pm Leave a comment

The White Birds

W. B. Yeats


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 awakened 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!

(falstaff reads the poem)

January 30, 2006 at 8:23 am Leave a comment