WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS ( 1865-1939)

Yeats is considered one of the most important poets of Modernism, the literary movement which at the turn of the 20th century grouped poets who experimented with new form style in poetry. Together with Erza Pound and T.S.Eliot, Yeats contributed to the revolution of modern poetry and in 1923 he received the Nobel Prize for literature. When he died, T.S. Eliot wrote of him:” He was the greatest poet of our time”.

Yeats was an Irishman and he was closely involved with the political and cultural life of his native Ireland during the time of its struggle for independence. He was the son of a protestant landowner originally English family and he didn’t have a Gaelic background. Notwithstanding that, he had great sympathy with the Irish Nationalist cause even if he was never a very active Nationalist himself. His interest in Irish Nationalism was stimulated by Maud Gonne, a committed Nationalist young girl he fell in love with, and loved all his life long.  She refused his repeated offers of marriage and she eventually married another man. Yeats suffered for that and his frustrated love for Maud inspired much of his poetry at this time.  When the Irish Free State was founded in 1922, he became a Senator and served till 1928.During this period of political activity, he developed an admiration for Mussolini and Italian fascism.   He was one of the founders of the Irish National Theatre which involved a group of patriots and intellectuals who aimed at the so-called Irish Revival. They intended to oppose the English invaders’ language and literature and wrote plays dealing with the Irish Folklore and traditions and using the Gaelic language.

Yeats wrote plays and prose works, but he is nowadays remembered as a poet. His best poems are contained in the volumes The Wild Swans at Cool (1919), The Tower (1928) and The Winding Stairs and other Poems (1933).

INFLUENCES: his early works were influenced by the Aestheticism, which he was introduced to by his father, who had friends in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. He was introduced in painting and in the 1890s he was an associate of the Aesthetes. Other later influences were the ones coming from the French Symbolist Movement, Neo-Platonism, the Italian G.B.Vico and above all Blake’s mysticism.

Another important influence on him came from his interest in spiritualism and occultism; he studied theosophy* and other esoteric subjects such as Alchemism** and Rosicrucianism***, to which he devoted himself all over his life.

(*THEOSOPHY: doctrine based on claims of a mystic insight into the nature of God and the laws of the Universe. The theosophists believed that the truest knowledge comes not through the observation of phenomena through the senses and their explanation through reason, but through a direct communion of the soul with the divine reality.

**ROSACRUCIANISM: theosophical association founded by a German Scholar, Rosenkreuz. Their members believe in occultism and maintain that they are able to enter in touch with the after-death world.

***ALCHEMISM: science which in the remote past aimed at the modification and transformation of the vile metal into gold)

A VISION: This prose work is divided into five sections which contain the revelations communicated to Yeats by supernatural beings through his wife’s extra-sensorial faculties. He put these revelations into a system and built up a theory of The Great Wheel of the Lunar Phases. According to this theory each man is governed by four faculties: The WILL (that is the power of determination), THE MASK (the image of what we want to become), THE CREATIVE MIND (the intellect) and THE BODY OF FATE (the physical and mental environment); the prevalence in a man of one or the other determined a certain type of human personality.

Yeats was very much interested in K.Jung’s The Psychology of Unconscious. Unlike Eliot, who found a solution to the spiritual crisis of modern man in Christian religion, Yeats believed that the common Racial Memory could provide the basis for a new sense of unity and security for modern man who, at the turn of the 19th century, was doubtful and insecure and felt a sense of isolation in an indifferent mechanical universe. Unlike Jung, Yeats’s racial memory, which he calls the Spiritus Mundi, is not an individual memory but a kind of collective memory of the world; it is the soul of the Universe, the universal unconscious in which all the memories and symbols of the human race are stored. As the racial memory operates on a symbolic level, Yeats’s poems are full of symbols and images which must be interpreted correctly. Yeats’s own symbolic system is contained in his prose work A Vision, which is an important source for understanding both the imagery and Yeats’s theory of historical cycles.He also represented his theory graphically: he drew a sort of closed circle corresponding to the orbit of the moon and positioned in it 28 possible types of personality following the various lunar phases from the dark moon to the full moon and vice versa. If in a man the dark moon was predominant he was rational and objective, if the full moon prevailed he had got poetic imagination and creativity. These characteristics faded as the birthday went far or near one of the two poles (something like that existed in medieval doctrine: physicians believed that human personality was determined by four fluids or humours, Blood, Phlegm, Yellow bile and Black bile. They were influenced by the position of the planets and by the four natural elements, Earth, Air, Fire and Water .The prevalence and the combination of the fluids and the elements determined the particular character of an individual).

IDEAS ON HISTORY: Yeats gave a great importance to History because he hoped of discovering an alternative system of ideas which could provide a satisfactory interpretation of the human experience and of the history of the world. To explain his own ideas on history, he worked out the theory of THE GYRE. Starting from G.B.Vico’s corsi e ricorsi storici, Yeats saw history as formed by a series of opposite cycles, each cycle lasting 2,000 years (In Astrology each Astrological Era lasts 2,000 years because it depends from the period of time that it will take the Earth’s axis to run 30° degrees of the Zodiac, that is the heaven space containing the 12 constellations. The Era he lived in, the Era of Pisces started with Jesus Christ, was going to end and the new Era, the Era of the Aquarius, was going to start).The Era of the Pisces is linked to the Christian Era because the fish represents an important Christian symbol: the early Christians chose a fish as an identification sign among themselves, Christ’s Apostle were fishermen and the multiplication of the fish was Christ’s most important miracle.

Each cycle has a circular development and it is represented like a climbing spiral which gradually ascends, reaches its climax, descends, collapses and it is replaced by the following cycle, that is why each age is the opposite of the previous one: an Age of rule, order and authority will be followed by an Age of anarchy, violence and wars. Yeats represented this theory graphically by a cone penetrating another cone the point of which touches the base of the other and vice versa. Each cycle starts with the unnatural union between a mortal and an immortal being.

The first cycle, The Pagan Age, had started with the union between Leda and The Swan (form taken by Jupiter), it had come to an end with the Birth of Christ (the son of the Virgin Mary and the Holy Spirit) and it was going to close with the birth of the Antichrist (The son of a woman and the Devil).

As we can see, Yeats’s own science was an occult one but his poems, even if full of images and symbols, contain the theme of the age: a pessimistic view of the empty modern world, a bitter vision of man’s destiny and a belief in the eternity and beauty of Art.

THE ROLE OF THE POET: he believed that the poet could discover the hidden symbolic meanings contained in the racial memory,   understand them and     communicate them through a language which spoke to the irrational rather than the rational in the reader.


       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 love easy, as the leaves grow on the tree;                                                        But I, being young and foolish, with her would not agree.      4

       In a field by the 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.           8

Fu là nei giardini dei salici che io e la mia amata ci incontrammo;
Ella passava là per i giardini con i suoi piccoli piedi di neve.
M’invitò a prendere amore così come veniva, come le foglie crescono sull’albero;
Ma io, giovane e sciocco, non volli ubbidire al suo invito.
Fu in un campo sui bordi del fiume che io e la mia amata ci arrestammo,
E lei posò la sua mano di neve sulla mia spalla inclinata.
M’invitò a prendere la vita così come veniva, come l’erba cresce sugli argini;
Ma io ero giovane e sciocco, e ora son pieno di lacrime.

This short poem, too, is inspired by Yeats’s love for Maude Gonne. The two stanzas have a similar structure:   first line: the two lovers meet;  second line: recalls the girl’s beauty;   third line: the girl asks to consider love as a natural thing;  last line: the poet complaints about his past foolishness.

They describe two meetings between two lovers. Both meeting are inserted in a natural setting : a salley garden and a field by the river.  In both stanzas the girl is at one with nature and is part of it: “She passed the salley gardens with little snow-white feet. ……. And on my leaning shoulder she laid her snow-white hand”. She accepts love as a natural thing and asks his lover to do the same: “She bid me take love easy, as the leaves grow on the tree; …… She bid me take life easy, as the grass grows on the weirs; “. The two stanzas are built on the contrast between youth and old age,   beautiful memories and a nostalgic sorrowful present. Line 4 and 8 have much in common but the situation is not identical because the former belongs to the past and the latter to the present: “But I, being young and foolish, with her would not agree. ……. But I was young and foolish, and now am full of tears“. Love and life are compared to leaves and grass to stress that they are part of the same great natural cycle.


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.

Quando tu sarai vecchia e grigia e piena di sonno
e china accanto al fuoco, tira giù questo libro
e lentamente leggilo e sogna del dolce sguardo
che i tuoi occhi ebbero un tempo e delle loro ombre profonde;
quanti amarono i tuoi istanti di lieta grazia
e amarono la tua bellezza con falso e vero amore,
ma un solo uomo amò in te l’anima pellegrina
e amò il dolore del tuo mutevole volto,
e chinandoti giù verso i tizzoni incandescenti,
mormora, un po’ tristemente, quanto amore fuggì
e misurò i suoi passi sulle montagne in alto
e nascose il suo viso
fra una moltitudine di stelle

This is another poem on Old age and a reflection on past love and youth.The theme of Old Age is presented with the theme of lost love. It is contained in the collection “The Rose” of 1983.This poem, too,refers to Yeats’s love for Maude Gonne and most of his love poems are written for Maude Gonne   and his passion for her had become a real obsession. The first and last stanza were inspired by a poem “A Helene” by Pierre Rondard, a French poet belonging to the French Renaissance Movement :  “La Pléiade”. However Yeats’s poem isn’t an invitation,as Ronsard’s one, to follow Horace’s “Carpe Diem”; it is   a bitter reflection on love and old age  stressing that love does not belong to old age.

Yeats imagines the woman when she is old; she is near the fire,reading the love poems Yeats had written for her( “take down this book”); The book reminds her to her past life(“And slowly read and dream”), when she was young and beautiful( “the soft look your eyes had once,and their deep shadows”),when she had many persons in love with her (“How many loved your moments of glad grace and loved your beauty”),when the poet loved her. The poets love was different; he did not love her because she was beautiful; he loved her because she was capable of expressing feelings; he loved “the pilgrim soul in you”  and went on loving her even when she grew old (“ loved the sorrow of your changing face”): She remembers all that and she regreats for not loving him. The woman is described “old and grey and full of sleep/ And nodding by the fire”. Her former beauty has faded. Her eyes have lost “the soft look …   their shadows deep”. The poem starts in the future and goes back to the past(line 4 :”your eyes HAD once”). The verb “dream” in the third line introduces the transition from future to past.

The second stanza is characterized by the repetition of “loved/love” because the poet wants to stress that love belongs to the past. When we are old “love fled/ and paced upon the mountains overhead/ and hid his face amid a crowd of stars”, then it is distant, unreachable and difficult to find.

In 1986 the Italian singer Angelo Branduardi  made an LP in which he adapted ten poems by Yeats. One of these, “Quando Tu Sarai”, is quite the literal translation of this poem.

   The Second Coming

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?

Il secondo avvento

Girando e volteggiando nella spirale che si allarga,
Il falco non può udire il falconiere;
Tutto si disintegra; il centro non può reggere;
la pura anarchia dilaga nel mondo,
La marea torbida di sangue dilaga, ovunque
Annega il rito dell’innocenza;
Ai migliori manca ogni fede, e i peggiori
sono pieni di appassionata intensità.
Certo qualche rivelazione è vicina;
Certo  il Secondo Avvento è vicino.
Il Secondo Avvento!  appena dette queste parole                                                                
un’immensa immagine originata dallo Spiritus Mundi
Mi turba la vista; in qualche luogo nelle sabbie del deserto
Una forma dal corpo di leone e dalla testa d’uomo
Con gli occhi vuoti e impietosi come il sole avanza
Con le sue lente cosce, mentre attorno
Ruotano l’ombre degli indignati uccelli del deserto.
Ritorna l’oscurità; ma ora so
Che venti secoli di un sonno di pietra
Furono trasformati in incubo dal dondolio di una culla.
E quale rozza bestia, finalmente giunta la sua ora
avanza verso Betlemme per esservi incarnata?

This poem was written in 1919 and published in 1921 in the collection ‘Michael Robartes and the Dancer’.

THE TITLE  derives from the common belief in the second coming of Jesus Christ, the “Saviour”, who has to save mankind from destruction.

STRUCTURE: the poem is divided into two parts of unequal length: in the first part the poet deals with the condition of the world in his own time in symbolic term, in the second part he speaks about the second coming.

HISTORY:The second coming is the poem which best illustrates Yeats’s theories of history cycles.A first cycle of history,the Pagan Era, had started about 2,000 years before Christ with the unnatural union between Leda and the swans( one of the forms taken by Jupter). It had come to an end with the birth of Jesus Christ, born by the unnatural union between the Virgin Mary and the Holy spirit and it was followed by the Christian Era. In 1919, after 2,000 years, it was going to close and to give start to the Anti-Christian  Era  with the birth of the Anti-Christ born by the unnatural union between a woman and the Devil.That would happen in the year 2,000.Yeats saw the year 2,000 as a coming apocalypse: everything would go out of control. The state of disintegration of his own contemporary society would certainly represent for him the prelude to the Second Coming: World War One was just over, the Irish Question had become worst after the “Easter Monday in 1916, Europe was living a period of social disorder especially after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917. In the first stanza there are allusions to all these events.

FIRST STANZA:This stanza describes through a series of dreadful and impressive image, which have all got negative connotations, the end of the Christian Era: “the Falcon cannot hear the falconer…. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world ….the centre cannot hold”, innocence and the truth are destroyed by brutality,confusion and doubt have killed the faith of the best, while  the worst reveal all their brutal passion and determination. The wicked, that is the Bolsheviks in Russia,will overcome the Good, that is the Liberals in western society. In the first line  we find the symbol of the Gyre which represents the cycles of history. The image  of the Falcon and the Falconer in the second line suggests that our civilization, the Falcon is escapingfrom the Falconer, Jesus Christ, and cannot hear his voice anymore. So things are going out of control. Some interpret this image differently: the Falcon stands for modern man and the Falconer for nature and then it may suggest that everything is collapsing because man and nature have lost contact with each other. The images in line 3 and 4 could serve as an epitaph to the whole century. They are the images of the disintegration of modern society going towards “mere anarchy”, bloodshed and the overturning of human values: man has become alienated, reality,time and truth are questioned in a century which sees “things fall apart”. The centre, (Christianity) “cannot hold” and “the blood dimmed tide”(first world war, Russian Revolution, the Irish riots) like a New Flood, in a reversed image, drowns Baptism(“the ceremony of innocence”) not in water but in blood.

SECOND STANZA:It starts with two lines which: “Surely some revelation is at hand/ Surely the Second Coming is at hand”. These lines seem to offer an element of optimism, a hope in the myth of the return of a Messiah to a troubled world. The momentary hope for the salvation of mankind is soon replaced by the image which dominates the rest of the poem: a terrifying vision of “ a shape with lion body and the head of a man”. It comes out of our racial memory, our ancestral subconscious,  which Yeats calls “Spiritus Mundi”. It  is a monster which reminds us of the anti-Christ described in Saint Pauls Revelations or in the book of the Apocalypse in the Bible: All the details contribute to its identification as the anti-Christ: it “Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born” there and to destroy twenty centuries of Christian civilization. The First Coming had put an end to “twenty centuries of  stony sleep”, the Pagan Era,; it had introduced a centre that held, Christianity, and a Falconer that could guide the Falcon. Now the cradle is rocking again and then a new birth is awaited. This time there won’t be a Messiah but a sphinx-like creature, with “A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun “. When “The darkness drops again”, that is when the vision ends, the poet realizes (“Now I Know”) that the Gyre is widening and reaching its climax because a new cycle is going to start and that a “ rough beast” is destined to release the Second Coming. Was he prophetic?


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        5
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                                                    10
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,               15
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                                             20
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,                       25
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?                                30


Belli sono gli alberi nel loro autunno,
nel bosco i sentieri sono asciutti,
un cielo immobile si specchia nell’acqua
quando viene il crepuscolo d’ottobre;
cinquantanove cigni
stanno sul fiume in piena tra le pietre.
E’ giunto a me il diciannovesimo autunno
dal giorno che li contai;
d’improvviso li vidi volare via
in grandi anelli spezzati
e roteando perdersi via
sulle loro ali sonore.
Io le ho viste, creature di luce,
così ora è triste il mio cuore.
Tutto è cambiato da quando io,
per la prima volta su questa spiaggia,
potei udire sul capo come campane il battito delle loro ali,
ascoltando allora io camminavo con passo più leggero.
Vanno instancabili, amanti a coppie,
seguono le fredde correnti amiche,
navigando risalgono nell’aria;
i loro cuori non sono invecchiati,
passione e conquista li accompagnano
dovunque essi vadano vagando.
Ma ora lenti scivolano sull’acqua,
misteriosi e belli;
tra quali giunchi faranno il nido,
presso la sponda di quale lago
porteranno delizia agli occhi degli uomini
il giorno in cui mi sveglierò
e scoprirò che se ne sono volati via?
 Traduzione di Luisa Zappa per l’album “Branduardi canta Yeats” di Angelo Branduardi.

This poem was written in 1916 and published in the Collection with the same title in 1919. The occasion was given by Yeats’s second visit at Coole in Western Ireland. The poet is now 51 and remembers 19 years before, when he was 32, and visited Coole for the first time.The main theme is a deep meditation on life through a comparison between his first and second visit.

STRUCTURE: the poem is made up of 5 stanzas of six lines. Each stanza ends with a final rhymed couplet and has got the same rhyme scheme: ABCBDD. The lines are varying in length and a larger line alternates with a shorter one.It contains some figures of speech: alliterations (the most important are in lines 17/18 because they reproduce onomatopoeic sounds: the “ bell-beat“, that is the noise of the birds wings, and the “ trod ….thread”, that is a man’s step).The general tone is melancholic.

YEATS/WORDSWORTH: If we analyse the tenses of the verbs, we can see that there is an alternation of present and past tense. As in a poem by Wordsworth, the past is lived through recollections of former impressions in a sort of flashback; while describing the present situation, the poet goes back through his memory to the past and recollects his first visit at Coole 19 years before. Further, like in Wordsworth Nature remains always the same while what changes is the poet’s attitude to it.

1st STANZA: the poets describes a small lake surrounded by trees in October, at twilight, in a quiet autumnal landscape. He uses the present tense because he is describing what he is now looking at. The waters are so still as to mirror the sky. The scene is static as in a painting.

2nd STANZA: recollecting his first visit, the poet compares himself when he first saw the swans to himself now. The swans are still there and they are always 59, but “All’s changed” because “now my heart is sore” while their hearts have not grown old”.

LAST TWO STANZAS: the poet describes the swans in their present appearance: mysterious and beautiful. They contrast with the poet’s condition: he feels older, sadder, tired and alone; he has lost every hope of obtaining Maude Gonne’s love and is oppressed by the thought of his imminent end. The swans, instead, have still the same vitality as before; they are not alone, but mated, and “lover by lover, they paddle in the cold companiable streams or climb the air”.Obviously the swans Yeats is looking at, are not the same as 19 years before; The poet insists on their immutability because he wants to make them the symbol of life itself, which is, as nature, changing and changeless   at the same time. They represent then the flux of life but also its fixedness.

The last stanza ends with a final question about  the future; it concerns man’s destiny and expresses the contrast between mortality and what is changeless. The poet suffers because he feels his destiny of man as individual and unique; unlike the swans, which are always 59 because when one dies it is replaced by another perfectly identical, the poet can’t be replaced after death, even if he hopes he will be able to awake again. The verb “awake” seems to convey an image of rebirth and of a new life. In the last stanza the swans have got contrasting meanings: they symbolize both the eternal beauty and passion, but also Yeats’s youth and past life which may reappear, as the swans, in a new life.


About rosariomario

retired teacher docente in pensione
This entry was posted in appunti di letteratura inglese per studenti italiani e non, tratti da testi vari. Notes of English Literature for Italian/non-Italian students taken from various school textbooks, ricordi scolastici. Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Aileen Smith says:

    What a wonderful set of translations. I was wondering if you happen to have also a translation of “had I but the heaven’s embroidered cloths” or if you can recommend to me where I can find one?

  2. Can you please tell me whether the Gyre image is copyrighted or not? I’d like to use it in a book.

    • rosariomario says:

      Sorry, I don’t Know but I don’t think it is copyrighted. I took it from a school textbook. It is a drawing by Yeats himself from the manuscript of ‘A Vision’, as the caption tag below the image says.You may put the same caption tag.Should you need the title of the textbook,ask me^_^

  3. Olivia says:

    Do you have the citations for the sources used in your article?

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