“The Cloak, The Boat, and The Shoes” by William Butler Yeats

WBYeatsI decided to cover a Yeats poem today, so I opened my book of collected Yeats poems and plays and just picked the fist one, which was “The Cloak, The Boat, and The Shoes.” Since it is relatively short, I will go ahead and include the poem in the post.

‘What do you make so fair and bright?’

‘I make the cloak of Sorrow:
O lovely to see in all men’s sight 
Shall be the cloak of Sorrow,
In all men’s sight.’

‘What do you build with sails for flight?’

‘I build a boat for Sorrow:
O swift on the seas all day and night
Saileth the rover Sorrow,
All day and night.’

What do you weave with wool so white?’

‘I weave the shoes of Sorrow:
Soundless shall be the footfall light
In all men’s ears of Sorrow,
Sudden and light.’

Whenever I read Yeats, I am always looking for hidden mystical symbolism and meaning in his work. He was, after all, a member of the Golden Dawn and actively studied the occult. With this in mind, the first thing that struck me about this poem is the structure. It is broken into three parts and three is a number that is endowed with mystical qualities, such as the association with the Trinity, mind-body-spirit, birth-life-death, and many others. So the structure alone causes me to view this as a mystical poem.

Next, I considered the title and what might be the meaning of the three items. If you are looking at this from a metaphysical perspective, the cloak could represent the ceremonial attire worn by magicians. The boat is used to travel across a body of water, and water is a common metaphor for the subconscious mind. Finally, there are the shoes. I had to think about this one, but came to the conclusion that shoes are needed to walk along a path, especially a rocky one, hence this is likely a reference to traveling along a difficult spiritual path.

The actual text I found fascinating. The whole poem is a contrast between light and dark, almost like he is trying to balance shadow with illumination. All the words used to describe Sorrow are images of light, brightness, and beauty. This is a stark contrast to the dark and heavy imagery generally associated with Sorrow. It seems as if Yeats is beckoning the reader to look into the twilight space between the light and the darkness, that hidden there is some occult secret.

Every time I read Yeats, I remember how much I love his works. There is so much woven into so few words that you continue to discover more and more each time you read one of his poems. He has definitely earned his place among the greatest of the mystic poets.



Filed under Literature

10 responses to ““The Cloak, The Boat, and The Shoes” by William Butler Yeats

  1. Love Yeats myself and my appreciation of his genius, the pleasure of reading him, only increases with the passing years

    • Stuff Jeff Reads

      Hi Margaret. Thanks for your comment!! It’s true, as we move along in life, we learn more and that additional knowledge increases one’s appreciation of Yeats.

  2. Liz Cabelli

    Jeff, I enjoyed the Yeats poem and your analysis. I wonder if anyone has put the words to music. Seems to me that there’s an Irish ballad melody waiting to be written for these words . . . Liz C

    • Stuff Jeff Reads

      Hey Liz. Thanks for your comment!! I did a quick YouTube search and found several versions. Here is one I liked.


  3. Amy

    Do you know what year he wrote this poem and whether it was part of a collection or not?

    • Hi Amy. The poem was written in 1885. It appears that it was originally published in a collection called “Crossways,” but I have it in my copy of “William Butler Yeats: Selected Poems and Three Plays.” Hope that helps. Cheers!

  4. Pingback: Sudden and Light | Gregory Vajda

  5. Hamish

    It might be that he refers to his loss of love , as the conversation seems to be with the person who produces those goods maybe female.
    Cloak of time loves lost sorrow
    Path of love trodden too heavily.

    Plus reference to morality, Greek fates etc

  6. Maureen

    Yeats was awfully young; I took it to mean he wanted to transform his sorrow, or the sorrow of someone he loved, into something swift, light, and comforting. Your deeper analysis is fascinating; I simply took it ar face value.