National Poetry Month: William Butler Yeats

April is National Poetry Month and to celebrate, I like to profile a poet. This year, I chose to celebrate the poetry of William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), the great Irish dramatist and poet.

According to the critic M.L. Rosenthal, who has compiled the poetry of Yeats:

“William Butler Yeats is the most widely admired, by common reader and sophisticate alike, of all modern poets who have written in English. Early and late he has the simple, indispensable gift of enchanting the ear…”

Sketch of William Butler Yeats in 1908 by John Singer Sargeant

Yeats had a life-long interest in mysticism, spiritualism, occultism, and astrology, Irish myth and folklore, and contemporary political issues. All of these interests are reflected in his verse. As Rosenthal explains, it was not Yeats’ gift with words that made him great, but also his investment in political questions of his day, especially in Ireland.

Yeats received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923. As his Nobel Prize web page points out:

“Yeats is one of the few writers whose greatest works were written after the award of the Nobel Prize. Whereas he received the Prize chiefly for his dramatic works, his significance today rests on his lyric achievement.”

As my contribution, I am posting some of my favorite poems by Yeats. There are any number of interpretative books and articles on the Web if you care to consult them, but I like the poems well enough just for the musicality of the words.

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

Note: Yeats wrote of the origin of this poem, “I had … the ambition, formed in Sligo in my teens, of living in imitation of Thoreau on Innisfree, a little island in Lough Gill…”

“I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
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 gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.


Lake Isle of Innisfree

An Irish Airman Foresees His Death

Note: The Irish airman in this elegy is Major Robert Gregory (1881-1918), only child of Yeats’s friend Lady Augusta Gregory. He was killed on the Italian front.

“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 man, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balance 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.


Aerial view of a German mustard gas attack on the Eastern Front.

When You Are Old

Note: This has always been one of my very favorites.

“When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars


"A crowd of stars" (M55: Globular Star Cluster)

“A crowd of stars” (M55: Globular Star Cluster)

Who Goes With Fergus

Note: Believe it or not, this is my favorite poem by Yeats. (It was also James Joyce’s favorite Yeats poem, so I feel I am in good company.) Fergus, a recurring character in Yeats’ poems, was a king in Irish legend who gave up his throne to become a wandering poet. He has one step in reality and another in the realm of desire and imagination. In this poem, he (or Yeats, invoking his cause) seeks to lure the reader into the dominion of dance and dreams. As the Yeats scholar Frank Hughes Murphy writes: “In “Who Goes with Fergus?” the imagination wins its most triumphant moment. Here, in a compact but richly articulated structure, we gain a vision of imagination’s triumph over all creation.”

“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 brazen cars,
And rules the shadows of the wood,
And the white breast of the dim sea
And all dishevelled wandering stars.


William Butler Yeats in 1923

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25 Responses to National Poetry Month: William Butler Yeats

  1. Julie P. says:

    I’m enjoying all of these poetry posts because I have never read much poetry before. I like that I’m getting educated this month!

  2. JoAnn says:

    Great post, Jill! You’ve inspired me to seek out more Yeats… who would have thought?

  3. Wow, this was a great post. While I’ve read Yeats before, I have not read these selections, and boy have I been missing out. I had often considered Yeats one of my least favorite poets, but I think you’ve changed my mind with these selections.

    Thanks for participating and remember to put your link into Mr. Linky and email it to Susan at winabook.

  4. ds says:

    Oh, thank you. Yeats is one of my absolute favorites; several of these are my favorite poems as well. You gave me something new with “Who Goes with Fergus,” though, and for that I am most grateful. For even though I am old and grey and full of sleep, I felt that in my “deep heart’s core.”

  5. caite says:

    lost my post…lets try again…

    I will admit it. I am not a great fan of poetry. But Yeats…ok, I will make an exception for Yeats. First he is Irish. Second, how can you not love “I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree..”

    I have been to his grave in Drumcliffe Ireland, under the shadow of Benbulben.
    “Cast a cold Eye
    On Life, on Death.
    Horseman, pass by.”

  6. Valerie says:

    Wow, I can see why you like Yeats so much. I love the last line of “Who Goes with Fergus”. I will have to seek out more of his works; I tend to read more current poetry.

  7. Alyce says:

    These poems are so beautiful! I’m not normally that much a fan of poetry, but I may have to read more Yeats because of any, this is the kind I like.

  8. I’ve never attempted Yeats…I find myself very intimidated by poetry!!!

  9. Janel says:

    I really liked “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”. It sounds like he is describing a perfect writer’s retreat.

  10. bermudaonion says:

    Great post! I really enjoyed reading When You Are Old.

  11. Jenny says:

    Aw, Yeats. I like his poetry, particularly “The Second Coming” (so creepy!), though he was apparently very crazy in the head by the time he was old. I’ve been fond of him ever since I heard a recording of him reading Innisfree, where he said he had worked too hard to get it into metre not to damn well read it that way. 🙂

  12. Belle says:

    Yeats is one of my favorite poets, too – I don’t remember ever seeing a picture of him though. I must say, he looks to me exactly the way I always picture a male poet should look, kind of dreamy-eyed!

  13. Nymeth says:

    This post made me miss my Irish Studies class, which gave me a whole new appreciation for Yeats (and Irish literature in general). “When You Are Old” is one of my favourites too!

  14. Pingback: West Of Mars — Win A Book! » Blog Archive » National Poetry Month Goes Classic!

  15. When You Are Old got to me tonight. Nice pick!

    All posted for you at Win a Book! Thanks for the e-mail, babe. Can’t wait to see what you’re up to next…

  16. Jenners says:

    OK … wow.. Yeats was kind of hot in that sketch!!!
    (How shallow am I??)

    I just love “When You Are Old.” I remember you sharing it when I shared his very scary poem “The Second Coming” for FreeVerse one week.

    Well done!

  17. Christine H says:

    I’ve loved Poetry since I was 13. While I can say my personal writing was not up to Yeats. It’s something I’ve always enjoyed.

    When You Are Old has to be one of my favorites as well.

  18. This was a great post, I love how National Poetry Month brings so many people together who love poetry and celebrate all poets dead or alive 🙂

  19. Thank you for sharing some of your Yeats favorites! Adding the images to the poems is a great touch. 🙂 I am just loving National Poetry Month!

  20. Margot says:

    This was a beautiful post. I could definitely feel your love for Yeats. He writes in a way that makes me see landscapes. Not sure if that was his intention. My favorite here is An Irish Alman Forsees His Death. Not sure why – I just like how it sounds.

  21. Lisa says:

    Totally with Jenners on the Yeats was hot bit! Except when he got old and did that weird “come all of your hair back over the top” thing.

  22. The Lake Isle of Innisfree is also a favorite of mine. Nice post!

  23. Anna says:

    Excellent post! Serena gave me a collection of Yeats work awhile back, but I haven’t read it yet. Looks like I’m missing out on some good poetry.

  24. Jeanne says:

    The first poem I remember spontaneously memorizing is by Yeats, “She lived in storm and strife.” I liked it so much I found that soon I could recite it, and of course still can.

  25. Janelle says:

    Now I’m trying to remember which of Yeats’ poems I studied in school.

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