William Butler Yeats



Yeats was born in Dublin.  His father had given up the law to take up painting from which he made a precarious living.  At first William went off to school to become an artist but then elected to become a poet.  His first poems were published in 1885 when he was 20.


Yeats' father was a religious skeptic, but he believed in the "religion of art" and this belief influenced William.


The Madness of King Goll                          


I sat on cushioned otter-skin:

My word was law from Ith to Emain,             (Ith, Emain, and Amergin are ancient

And shook at Inver Amergin                                      places in Ireland.)

The hearts of the world-troubling seamen,

And drove tumult and war away

From girl and boy and man and beast;

The fields grew fatter day by day,

The wild fowl of the air increased;

And every ancient Ollave said,                        (Ollave = a learned man)

While he bent down his fading head,

"He drives away the Northern cold."

They will not hush, the leaves a-flutter round me,

   the beech leaves old.



I sat and mused and drank sweet wine;

A herdsman came from inland valleys,

Crying, the pirates drove his swine

To fill their dark-beaked hollow galleys.

I called my battle-breaking men

And my loud brazen battle-cars

From rolling vale and rivery glen;

And under the blinking of the stars

Fell on the pirates by the deep,

And hurled them in the gulph of sleep:             (gulph of sleep = they were killed)

These hands won many a torque of gold.           (torque = collar)

They will not hush, the leaves a-flutter round me,

   the  beech leaves old.




(In these first two passages, Yeats describes a highly successful King Goll.  Everything is going well for him and his people.  But still, "They will not hush…."  Yeats is alerting us to the fact that the King is mentally unstable even when things are going well in his kingdom.  This poem is about a legendary ancient Irish king.  The king went mad and hid himself.  The legend states that madmen of Ireland were believed to wish to gather in a particular valley near Cork if they were free.)



But slowly, as I shouting slew

And trampled in the bubbling mire,

In my most secret spirit grew

A whirling and a wandering fire:

I stood: keen stars above me shone,

Around me shone keen eyes of men:

I laughed aloud and hurried on

By rocky shore and rushy fen;

I laughed because birds fluttered by,

And starlight gleamed, and clouds flew high,

And rushes waved and waters rolled.

They will not hush, the leaves a-flutter round me,

    the beech leaves old




(Kind Goll is now beginning to show his madness.  He is giving in to his desire to laugh at everything because he hears voices…."They will not hush….Today he would most likely be diagnosed as schizophrenic.)




And now I wander in the woods

When summer gluts the golden bees,

Or in autumnal solitudes

Arise the leopard-coloured trees;

Or when along the wintry strands

The cormorants shiver on their rocks;

I wander on, and wave my hands,

And sing, and shake my heavy locks.

The grey wolf knows  me; by  one ear

I lead along the woodland deer;

The hares run by me growing bold.

They will not hush, the leaves a-flutter round me,

    the beech leaves old.

(Now the king has become completely unhinged.  His hair has grown long, he lives with the animals, a wild and lonely figure walking along mumbling to himself and waving his hands in response to the voices.)




I came upon a little town

That slumbered in the harvest moon,

And passed a-tiptoe up and down,

Murmuring, to a fitful tune,

How I have followed, night and day,

A tramping of tremendous feet,

And saw where this old tympan lay        (tympan = a stringed, Celtic instrument,

Deserted on a doorway seat,                                       played with a bow)

And bore it to the woods with me;

Of some inhuman misery

Our married voices wildly trolled.           (trolled = to sing lustily)

They will not hush, the leaves a-flutter round me,

   the beech leaves old.


I sang how, when day's toil is done,

Orchil shakes out her long dark hair

That hides away the dying sun

And sheds faint odours through the air:

When my hand passed from wire to wire

It quenched, with sound like falling dew,

The whirling and the wandering fire;

But lift a mournful ulalu,

For the kind wires are torn and still,

And I must wander wood and hill

Through summer's heat and winter's cold.

They will not hush, the leaves a-flutter round me,

   the beech leaves old.


(In the poem we see a great king descend into madness and become a lone wandering wreck.  But, at the same time, we might also catch ourselves being just a little bit envious.  He is at one with nature, he is laughing and singing, he is free now of all of his responsibilities.  Yes, he is cold and materially destitute…..but…..)



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."


(The Bishop is lecturing Jane who is dirty and wandering around in her madness.  Jane responds as follows.)


"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        (sole = without another, single)

That has not been rent."                     (rent = torn)



(The above is one of a series of poems by Yeats dealing with the paradox that wisdom may reside with fools and beggars rather than with the respectable representatives of  the church or any other institution.  The Bishop tells Jane to shape up and she helps the Bishop see that life is more complex than how he sees it.    "Fair and foul" need one another.  Hey, she says, you wouldn't have a job if it were not for the likes of me!  Seeing the depths to which a human being can sink helps us to avoid sinking.  Then in her second response she explains what has caused her downfall.  She once was together, once was not mad.  Jane in her earlier years was "proud and stiff when on love intent"….she is not talking about someone else, she is talking about herself but also philosophically indicating that this is a universal problem.  But, love exists in a shitty world, so when it goes bad it really stinks.  She is alone and mad because she has been torn apart by love that went wrong.  But, at the same time Jane recognizes that the tearing apart process can also make someone stronger, more whole.  "For nothing can be sole OR whole that has not been rent."   This short poem sets forth a basic philosophy that is at the heart of effective psychotherapy---those in emotional pain need to see how that pain can be turned into a healing process that produces a stronger personality.)