Tag Archives: William Butler Yeats

To an Isle in the Water

The Proposal. William Adolphe Bouguereau. 1872.


To an Isle in the Water

William Butler Yeats, 1889


Shy one, shy one,

Shy one of my heart,

She moves in the firelight

Pensively apart.


She carries in the dishes,

And lays them in a row.

To an isle in the water

With her would I go.


She carries in the candles,

And lights the curtained room,

Shy in the doorway

And shy in the gloom;


Any shy as a rabbit,

Helpful and shy.

To an isle in the water

With her would I fly.

Brown Penny

Girl by a Fountain. Henri Martin. 1896.


Brown Penny

William Butler Yeats


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 a 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.

Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven

The Evening Star. Camille Corot. 1864.


Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven

William Butler Yeats, 1899


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 a 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.


This poem is often published as “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven,” but the poem’s original speaker was Yeats’ archetypal character Aedh. The lovelorn Aedh is enthralled by la belle dame sans merci.

A Prayer for My Daughter

Miranda (The Tempest). John William Waterhouse. 1916.


A Prayer for My Daughter

William Butler Yeats, 1919


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 being chosen found life flat and dull

And later had much trouble from a fool,

While that great Queen, that rose out of the spray,

Being fatherless could have her way

Yet chose a bandy-legg’d smith for man.

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 kindess cannot take his eyes.


May she become a flourishing hidden tree

That all her thought may like the linnet be,

And have no business but dispensing rounf

Their magnanimities of sound,

Nor but in merriment begin a chase,

Nor but in merriment a quarrel.

O 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 is 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 bellow’s 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.


Yeats’ prayer for his daughter may be my favorite poem. Here, the “murderous innocence” of the stormy sea causes him to think of what the future years may hold for the baby girl asleep in her cradle. He prays that she would be given kindness, wisdom, charm, and gladness, and that she would enjoy the prosperity and permanence of a “flourishing hidden tree.”

William Butler Yeats wrote the poem while staying in the tower at Thoor Ballylee during the Anglo-Irish War, two days after the birth of his daughter Anne in February 1919. The storm may be symbolic of the Irish struggle for Independence, a frequent topic of Yeats’s poetry. “A Prayer for My Daughter,” considered an important work in Modernist poetry, was published in 1921, in the collection Michael Robartes and the Dancer.

More than once in his “Prayer,” Yeats asks that his daughter would be like a green laurel tree. Feminists have decried Yeats for wishing his daughter to be a “vegetable: immobile, unthinking, and placid.” But a rooted tree has ever been the symbol of fruitfulness, beauty, and strength. (The laurel tree, specifically, is a symbol of victory and nobility.) The Psalmist sings of the righteous man, “He shall be like a tree, planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall propser.” The upright “shall never be moved”; the immobility here does not connote paralyzation or barrenness, but growth, fruitfulness, and continuance. “The wicked are not so, but are like the chaff which the wind driveth away.”

Down by the Salley Gardens

Water Willow. Dante Gabriel Rossetti. 1871.


Down by the Salley Gardens

William Butler Yeats, 1889


Down by the salley gardens, my love and I did meet.

She passed the salley gardens with little, snow-white feet.

She bid me take life easy, as the leaves grow on the tree;

But I, being young and foolish, with her did not agree.


In a field by a river, my love and I did stand,

And on my leaning shoulder she laid her snow-white hand.

She bid me take life easy, as the grass grows on the weirs;

But I was young and foolish and now am full of tears.


A Little Poetry—Yeats presented “Down by the Salley Gardens” (originally titled “An Old Song Resung”) as “an attempt to reconstruct an old song from three lines imperfectly remembered by an old peasant woman.”

The word ‘salley’ suggests a garden of weeping willow trees. A ‘weir’ is a dam built across a river to control water levels.

A Little Music—In 1909, Hubert Hughs set Yeat’s poem to the wistful air “The Maids of the Mourne Shore.” You can listen to Roisin Reilly sing it on YouTube. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=g5e8OJibhmI>