“Ephemera” by William Butler Yeats

WBYeatsReading Yeats is challenging. He draws on a lot of symbolism and mythology, so there is always work involved in getting at the meaning of one of his poems. Before continuing, you should take a couple of minutes and read the poem at least once (click here to read it online).

The word ephemera is defined as “any transitory written or printed matter not meant to be retained or preserved. The word derives from the Greek, meaning things lasting no more than a day.” (source: Wikipedia) So the title implies that whatever Yeats is describing is something fleeting.

Upon my first pass, the poem appears to describe two lovers who are nearing the end of their lives. Their passion is fading as a result of their age. They stand together by a lake and reminisce about their past, which seems distant. There is imagery of autumn and falling leaves, adding to the sense of aging. Also, the comparison of the leaves to “faint meteors in the gloom” adds to the overall sense of the ephemeral.

I knew there had to be more to the poem than what was on the surface, so I read the poem a couple more times and thought about it. The first thing that struck me was the possibility that the man and woman in the poem might be Adam and Eve. My reason for considering this symbolism lies in the following lines:

Turning, he saw that she had thrust dead leaves
Gathered in silence, dewy as her eyes,
In bosom and hair.

I considered that the hair might be pubic, and if that is the case, then she could be covering her nakedness. This is what lead me to consider the possibility that Yeats was referring to the Adam and Eve story. But I still felt like I was missing something , so I reread it and thought about it some more. Then, it came to me.

I began to see the man as a poet and the woman as his muse. The passion between them is the creative spark, the inspiration for writing poetry. That inspiration, like a meteor, is bright, yet fleeting. Then we have the leaves, faded and yellowed with age, which represent the pages of old poems written in the past. So not only is the inspiration ephemeral, but the actual poems themselves are nothing but ephemera, destined to fade.

The poem ends on a somewhat positive note, as the poet realizes that as he nears the end of his life and has lost his inspiration to write, he faces the prospect of the next plane of existence and the new inspiration that potentially hides behind the veil of death.

‘Ah, do not mourn,’ he said,‘That we are tired, for other loves await us,
Hate on and love through unrepining hours.
Before us lies eternity; our souls
Are love, and a continual farewell.’

For me, there is something really gratifying about uncovering the hidden meaning in a poem like this. I suspect, knowing Yeats as I do, that there are probably other meanings hidden and woven in to the poem. If you see something else, I would love to hear about it. Thanks for visiting my blog, and keep on reading!



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10 responses to ““Ephemera” by William Butler Yeats

  1. Great analysis! I already loved this poem, but after reading your insights I can truly appreciate this and cherish it! You’ve made this poem seem even more beautiful to me than it already was! Thank you!

    • I’m so glad you liked the post. Yeats is amazing. The more I read his works, the more in awe I am of his skill as a writer. Have a great day!

    • Phenomenal dissection! Gave me further insight. During my first read, I assumed it was man and woman. However, I really love the way you have perceived it: a writer parting from his craft. Gives it a stronger meaning, to me. Relationships are easy to write about, but absolving from your passion is an entirely different feeling. Thank you!

  2. Callum B

    I’ve been reading a few of your posts regarding Yeats. It’s great to see the different perspectives you bring to them and the excitement you find rereading his works. Thank you!

    I agree with your idea that this could be a poet and his muse, especially considering Yeats had a long-standing and unrequited love for Maud Gonne. Much of his writing was inspired by her.

    The poem can also be read in the context of the poems surrounding it. Yeats often had arrangements in mind when writing and collecting his poems, and this poem in a way ends a brief respite, a sort of series of poems in the Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems that deal with love and sorrow. These poems were arranged between the shepherd poems and the The Madness of King Goll, which begins a cycle of Irish mythical ballads. Reading them in sequence, you begin to see how the influence of Mohini Chatterjee and his Theosophist teachings affected him. In this sequence, there is a little bit of Hindu, Sufi, Buddhist, Christian. A reader can become quite giddy and overwhelmed standing over the abyss that his poetry is. I sometimes feel like an ecstatic child on a treasure hunt.

    This week, I started rereading his Collected Poems, one a day, starting at the beginning with the poems in the retitled Crossways, and letting each one really sink in. I came across your post while reading into The Falling of the Leaves and your idea never occurred to me. In this short poem, he describes yellow leaves, not once, but twice. Leaves are all over the place as the autumn is dropping on the speakers love. Now I see the triple potential of his use of the word ‘leaves’, taken as moving away, a cycle of coming into being, budding and beautiful, then thriving, dying, and disappearing, as leaves do, into the earth–and now I see it too: leaves as sheets of paper! Ephemera’s stark contrast is in the poem that precedes The Falling of the Leaves, called The Indian to his Love, where love is budding, and love appears eternal as an Indian star. Okay, I can spend all day on this, so I’ll end it here. Thanks again!

    • Wow! Thanks for your thoughtful comment! I’m always thrilled to meet people who share my excitement for Yeats. While I do not consider myself a Yeats scholar, i have read and pondered his work and will certainly continue to do so. There is such a wealth of beauty and mystery in his work.

      Enjoy your rereading of one of the world’s greatest poets!!


  3. Adi

    I like your language, your techniques and your thinking.Your thinking and opinions are logical and very much interesting. We want more….thank you

  4. Mike

    Damn your analysis! This poem has been, for me, nothing more sophisticated than two lovers who realize their love is at its end. It resonates because most of us have been right there; appreciating that the end has arrived (before its even acknowledged) and the pain of delivering the coup de grace is all that remains. I was 20-21 when I first could apply this poem to my own experience. It has meant that for me ever since. However, I am also a student of Yeats and can not deny the wisdom and insight of your analysis. You have probably nailed it. Do me a favor, do NOT analyze When You are Old!!
    I tease, of course. I enjoyed your commentary and will look for more!

  5. Katherine Hobbes

    My issue with this is Yeats wrote this at 24, well before his writing career has advanced. Your writing this critique like he’s near the end of his life but he’s still quite a young man this interpretation is fitting like how the Tempest is for Shakespeare.

    • Thanks for your comment. I see your point, which is valid, but stand by my interpretation. I don’t believe that one has to be a certain age to write from the perspective of someone more mature. To follow up on the Shakespeare example, Shakespeare was about 39 when he wrote King Lear and was certainly able to express the fears and suffering that accompany old age.

      Again, thanks for commenting, and I hope you have an amazing day!