“The Rose of the World” by William Butler Yeats

Rose

Who dreamed that beauty passes like a dream?
For these red lips with all their mournful pride,
Mournful that no new wonder may betide,
Troy passed away in one high funeral gleam,
And Usna’s children died.

We and the laboring world are passing by:—
Amid men’s souls that day by day gives place,
More fleeting than the sea’s foam-fickle face,
Under the passing stars, foam of the sky,
Lives on this lonely face.

Bow down, archangels, in your dim abode:
Before you were, or any hearts to beat,
Weary and kind one stood beside His seat;
He made the world, to be a grassy road
Before her wandering feet.

According to the literary analysis I read, this poem was written by Yeats to Maud Gonne, with whom he was in love. He expresses that she is the embodiment of beauty that is eternal and does not pass and fade “like a dream.” He compares her beauty with Helen of Troy’s, as well as with Usna from ancient Irish mythology. While I do not question that Gonne was the inspiration for this poem, I think that Yeats is also expressing something else here.

The first two stanzas address the temporality and impermanence of our lives, contrasted with the eternal, spiritual quality of Beauty, symbolized by the rose. For me, the key to understanding the hidden meaning in this poem lies in the third stanza, where Yeats asserts that Beauty is archetypal and existed before the existence of the archangels.

Bow down, archangels, in your dim abode:
Before you were, or any hearts to beat,

As the stanza continues, we are presented with the image of God just prior to his creation of the world. Beside him is an unnamed feminine presence. This would be the goddess aspect of the dyad, or the feminine half of the godhead. Yeats is claiming that Beauty is a characteristic of the goddess and existed before creation. Since Maud Gonne possesses Beauty in Yeats’ eyes, he can only assume that the goddess is manifest within her.

Yeats was very interested in mythology and the occult. Whenever I read a poem by Yeats, I always approach it from the perspective that he has hidden occult symbolism somewhere in the verse. In this poem, I believe that the rose is the symbol for the goddess, whose eternal beauty is expressed in human form through Maud Gonne.

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9 Comments

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9 responses to ““The Rose of the World” by William Butler Yeats

  1. My favorite part of your analysis is:

    “The first two stanzas address the temporality and impermanence of our lives, contrasted with the eternal, spiritual quality of Beauty, symbolized by the rose. For me, the key to understanding the hidden meaning in this poem lies in the third stanza, where Yeats asserts that Beauty is archetypal and existed before the existence of the archangels”

    It seems that the Rose of the World might be linked here to the Mystery of Love… It is interesting that he doens’t mention the rose in the poem but just in the title!.As to the rose symbolism I found this online:

    “The Rose and the Grail share many spiritual resonances. The word ‘chalice’ comes from the Latin word, calyx, which means cup, and is the name given to the cup-like sepals of a flower which support the petals. Both these symbols suggest the receptive vessel of the soul, opening to receive the in-pouring of Divine influence. Indeed the symbolism of the Rose is even more complex than the Grail, given the beauty of its form, the number and arrangement of the petals with their velvety texture, the intoxicating perfume and, deep inside, the hidden golden heart enfolded within the petals, concealing the Mystery of the Centre”.

    Best wishes dear Jeff!~ Aquileana 😀

    • Wow!! This is one of the greatest comments I have ever received. You definitely cast light upon another layer of symbolism hidden in this poem. Yeats was so masterful and had such a deep understanding of the mystical, I’m not surprised that there was more here than I originally found. Thank you for an amazing and thoughtful comment. It is always a pleasure to hear from you.

      Jeff

  2. Wouldn't You Love To Know

    Hi Jeff, I was wondering how you knew that the poem was about Maud Gonne. Did he write this in a letter, or is it just one of those things that everybody knows?

    I’m not being facetious, I would just really like to know, as I am writing an essay about mythology within Yeats poem, and wanted to use this poem.

    • Hi.Great question! I struggled with this poem, so I read some online reviews which pointed out the MG inspiration. That brought back memories from college (I took a class on Yeats) and the professor emphasized MG’s influence on Yeats’ work. Sorry I didn’t include a link to the site, but I am sure you can find the info with a quick Google search. Good luck on your essay!

  3. Rob

    There’s a different version of this poem, which I believe is the more generally read. In that version, the second verse reads: We and the labouring world are passing by: Amid men’s souls , that waver and give place like the pale waters in their wintry race, Under the passing stars, foam of the sky, Lives on this lonely face.

    There is also a slight difference in the third verse, where the subject “lingered” rather than “stood by His seat.” I think this version is superior to the one you’ve listed. It also, to me, seems to more closely and deeply adhere to your insightful interpretation, which I really enjoyed reading.

    • Hi Rob. Thanks for sharing that. I think it’s interesting comparing the nuances between different versions of poetry. Doing so provides insight into the creative process as well as the craftsmanship involved in composing verse. Cheers!

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