William Butler Yeats: Irish prose writer, dramatist and poet; Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923. 1865-1939; compiled the Oxford Book of Modern Verse.
My favourite Irish author would have been 150 years today. Ireland, myself included, celebrates a man so talented, his words still touches people today.
Two years ago, and on my birthday, I visited Yeats’s grave in Drumcliffe, County Sligo, Ireland. Because he was one of my favourites since my teenage years, it was a bucket-list moment that was finally realized! I wished I was in Sligo this weekend, but I’m sure I will go back before too long, especially since his house, Thoor Ballylee, has finally been opened to the public, something many fans had been asking for a very long time.
To celebrate Yeats’s 150th birthday today, here are some of my favourite quotes, mostly lifted from his poetry.
“In dreams begins responsibility.”
(Epigraph to the book Responsibilities (1914); this was later adapted as the title of the story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” (1937) by Delmore Schwartz)
“We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.”
(Per Amica Silentia Lunae (1918): Anima Hominis, part V)
“Words are always getting conventionalized to some secondary meaning. It is one of the works of poetry to take the truants in custody and bring them back to their right senses.”
(Letter to Ellen O’Leary (3 February 1889)
“The creations of a great writer are little more than the moods and passions of his own heart, given surnames and Christian names, and sent to walk the earth.”
(Letter to the Editor, Dublin Daily Express, 27 February 1895)
“We are no petty people. We are one of the great stocks of Europe. We are the people of Burke; we are the people of Swift, the people of Emmet, the people of Parnell. We have created most of the modern literature of this country. We have created the best of its political intelligence.”
(speech in the Irish Senate, June 11, 1925)
“One day when I was twenty-three or twenty-four this sentence seemed to form in my head, without my willing it, much as sentences form when we are half-asleep: “Hammer your thoughts into unity.” For days I could think of nothing else, and for years I tested all I did by that sentence.”
(“If I Were Four-and-Twenty,” printed in Irish Statesman, 23 August 1919)
“This country will not always be an uncomfortable place for a country gentleman to live in, and it is most important that we should keep in this country a certain leisured class. I am afraid that Labour disagrees with me in that. On this matter I am a crusted Tory. I am of the opinion of the ancient Jewish book which says “there is no wisdom without leisure.”
(Speech, (28 March 1923), Seanad Éireann (Irish Free Senate), on the Damage to Property (Compensation) Bill)
“All things uncomely and broken, all things worn out and old,
The cry of a child by the roadway, the creak of a lumbering cart,
The heavy steps of the ploughman, splashing the wintry mould,
Are wronging your image that blossoms a rose in the deeps of my heart.
The wrong of unshapely things is a wrong too great to be told;
I hunger to build them anew and sit on a green knoll apart,
With the earth and the sky and the water, re-made, like a casket of gold
For my dreams of your image that blossoms a rose in the deeps of my heart.”
(The Lover Tells of the Rose in his Heart)
“We have lit upon the gentle, sensitive mind
And lost the old nonchalance of the hand;
Whether we have chosen chisel, pen or brush,
We are but critics, or but half create,
Timid, entangled, empty and abashed,
Lacking the countenance of our friends.”
(Ego Dominus Tuus, st. 4)
“Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with the golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams beneath your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”
(The Lover Tells of the Rose in his Heart)
“I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.”
(The Wind Among the Reeds, 1899)
“I write it out in a verse –
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.”
“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.
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.”
(Down by the Salley Gardens, 1889)
“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”
(The Lake Isle of Innisfree, st. 1)
“Where beauty has no ebb, decay no flood,
But joy is wisdom, time an endless song.
The Land of Faery,
Where nobody gets old and godly and grave,
Where nobody gets old and crafty and wise,
Where nobody gets old and bitter of tongue.”
(Land of Heart’s Desire, 1893, Lines 48–52)
“Life moves out of a red flare of dreams
Into a common light of common hours,
Until old age bring the red flare again.
I would mould a world of fire and dew
With no one bitter, grave, or over wise,
And nothing marred or old to do you wrong.
Land of Heart’s Desire,
Where beauty has no ebb, decay no flood,
But joy is wisdom, time an endless song.”
(Land of Heart’s Desire, 1893, Lines 373–375)
“You that would judge me, do not judge alone
This book or that, come to this hallowed place
Where my friends’ portraits hang and look thereon;
Ireland’s history in their lineaments trace;
Think where man’s glory most begins and ends
And say my glory was I had such friends.”
(The Municipal Gallery Revisited, st. 7)
“Under bare Ben Bulben’s head
In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid.
An ancestor was rector there
Long years ago, a church stands near,
By the road an ancient cross.
No marble, no conventional phrase;
On limestone quarried near the spot
By his command these words are cut:
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!”
(Under Ben Bulben, 1939)
If you’re just as mad about William Butler Yeats, do hop over to these pages:
WB Yeats in Sligo
Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven
Orderly William Butler Yeats
WB Yeats, the Collected Poems
The Second Coming, by WB Yeats
WB Yeats’s Pain
When You are Old, by WB Yeats
The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats
©Willeke Van Eeckhoutte and Ireland, Multiple Sclerosis & Me, 2011-2015.