A pity beyond all telling
Is hid in the heart of love:
The folk who are buying and selling,
The clouds on their journey above,
The cold wet winds ever blowing,
And the shadowy hazel grove
Where mouse-grey waters are flowing,
Threaten the head that I love.
For such a short poem, I find this very challenging. The difficulty in deciphering the meaning lies in the fact that it is unclear who or what love symbolizes. As is often the case with Yeats, there are several possible interpretations.
One possibility is that the love he is describing is the love for a woman. The pity is that as time passes, symbolized by the clouds, the winds, and the flowing waters, the chances are that the object of his love will also change and their love will not last. Physical love, like everything else in this world, is subject to change and as a result frequently temporary.
Another interpretation is that the object of the love in this poem is Ireland. The pity then would be that as Yeats observes the scenes about Ireland which he finds so moving and inspiring, he knows that his country is changing, that the Ireland of myth will eventually fade into the mists of obscurity and distant memory.
Finally, the love of this poem could also represent the godhead, since Yeats makes it clear at the end that it is a head that he loves. The pity then would be that although Yeats feels a deep love and connection with the divine source, he knows that he must exist within this world and cannot become one with the godhead until after he dies and leaves the beauty and inspiration of this life behind. This creates an inner conflict as Yeats longs both for unification with the divine and communion with the divine creation which is this world, but is painfully aware that he cannot have both at the same time.
Sometimes it seems that the shorter the poem is, the more difficult it is to interpret. There is less to work with. That said, Yeats was the master of evoking myriad images with his words. So while I am leaning more toward the idea of the embodiment of love being the godhead, I feel that Yeats also crafted his symbol to represent other vessels of love.
Feel free to share any other interpretations or impressions that you have. Cheers, and keep reading interesting and challenging stuff.