“The Song of the Old Mother” by William Butler Yeats

Source: BBC

Source: BBC

Since today is the Winter Solstice, I thought this would be the perfect poem to read and contemplate.

I rise in the dawn, and I kneel and blow
Till the seed of the fire flicker and glow;
And then I must scrub and bake and sweep
Till stars are beginning to blink and peep;
And the young lie long and dream in their bed
Of the matching of ribbons for bosom and head,
And their days go over in idleness,
And they sigh if the wind but lift a tress:
While I must work because I am old,
And the seed of the fire gets feeble and cold.

As the cycle of the year reaches the longest night and darkness dominates, the Goddess is manifest as the Crone, or the old mother. All the world and all of creation sleeps through the long winter night, waiting to be reborn. The Crone rises at dawn to kindle the “seed of the fire,” symbolizing the beginning of a new cycle and the rebirth of light.

The poem is composed of five couplets, or ten lines. As an initiate into the Golden Dawn, Yeats would have been aware of the mystical significance of the number ten, particularly in regard to the kabbalistic Tree of Life. According to kabbalah, all existence is formed from the ten sefirot. Because this poem is comprised of ten lines, Yeats was implying that the rebirth of the Goddess and the rebirth of light correlates with the rebirth of all existence, that all of creation is rekindled on the Winter Solstice.

The last thing I would like to point out regarding this poem is the couplet that structurally forms the very center of the poem (lines 5 and 6). I see two meanings here. The surface meaning is that humanity and Nature are both at rest, sleeping through the long night. Note that bed refers to both a place of rest for a person as well as the soil in a garden, from which new life will grow in the spring. But this couplet also symbolizes the two other forms of the Goddess: the Maiden and the Mother. In the spring, the Goddess is reborn as the Maiden and will be adorned with the colorful ribbons symbolic of spring.

On this longest night of the year, may the light be rekindled within you and may it burn brightly throughout the coming year. Blessed be!



Filed under Literature

10 responses to ““The Song of the Old Mother” by William Butler Yeats

  1. Dear Jeff,

    What a wonderful poem in honor of the solstice!

    I think the ancients had it right and that we could all use an experience of hibernation during this time of year, rather than the frantic experience of shopping and parties. But, to each their own.

    I like the idea of the bed as a fallow place where rest and tending the hearth are necessary preparations for the rebirth that spring brings.

    Happy Solstice to you!

    • Hi Debra!

      I’m glad you enjoyed the poem as much as I did. It’s been great getting to know you through your writing and I look forward to reading more from you in 2015. Blessings to you and your family.


  2. Blessed be, and thank you for reminding me of this poem!

  3. Stunning analysis dear Jeff… I enormously enjoyed it…
    How interesting is the fact that Yeats included natural cycles (through the death rebirth of the Goddess and the seasonal changes)…That first point reminded me of Goddess of the Harvest, Demeter.
    Also interesting that the Archetype of The Mother appears here, being linked to origins and light coming from darkness (fiat Lux)
    Thanks for sharing!. All my best wishes to you and… Merry Christmas.
    Aquileana 😀

    • Hi Aquileana!

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. I have to say that the more I read Yeats, the more I am fascinated by his work. Wishing you all the best for the holidays.


  4. nikki maxwell

    i didnt get it.

  5. Beautiful and much appreciated.