“The Pity of Love” by William Butler Yeats


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.



Filed under Literature

13 responses to ““The Pity of Love” by William Butler Yeats

  1. I love the poem, Jeff.
    I think all your offerings are valid. When I was reading the poem, prior to reading your take on it, I had a very strong emotional reaction to it. I thought along these lines: how when we love, our heart is besieged by darkness and shadows, how among the light and warmth fear and all negativity is born.

    Have a Blessed New Year!


    • Hi Monika!

      Wow – your thoughts are as inspiring as the poem. In case I haven’t said it recently, I’m glad that i have gotten to know you through the blogosphere. Your posts, comments, and insights are an inspiration to me.

      May you and your family enjoy many blessings in 2016!

      Your friend, Jeff

  2. With Yeats, perhaps Ireland, romantic (unrequited) love, and a mystical sense of the divine could be united in the person of Maude Gonne.

    • Hi Amber!

      Yes… I can totally see that! Great comment. Thanks for that insight.

      I wish you and your family lots of happiness and blessings for the new year.


  3. Anna

    Maybe “the folk who are buying and selling;the clouds on their journey above” is a reference to the Catholic priests who he perhaps feels are using their power over the simple people to barter their souls for eternal life?

    • Hi Anna. Thanks for your comment. You bring up an interesting point. Yeats certainly would have had an issue with individuals who used others as a means to advance themselves. I think Yeats felt it was the responsibility of “priests” (or any spiritual guide) to elevate the collective spirit of the people. Cheers and blessings!

  4. Roger Cain

    Read the poem right before this poem, ‘A Cradle Song’ ( in my Complete Yeats). I think these two make up one thought; the joy of seeing one’s child, and the realization that terrible facts of life threaten the head that he loves; terrible facts that a parent can not change or prevent.

  5. James

    I think the explanation is perhaps simpler.
    The nature of love is a realisation that we are mortal.This creates a deep pity in the lover for that which he loves.That the object of his most powerful expression will die. The pity is also therefore a sorrow for one self and sadness for all mankind. The beauty of the poem is it’s succinctness and sheer concentration on truth while also employing some vague and banal images in direct counterpoint to this concentration.

    • Hmm. Definitely something to think about. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts. Have a great day.

    • gennabeth

      I too like reading this with the sense that the “head” is his own. He sets up for us that there is darkness and sorrow in deep connection with the world because along with connecting comes the realization of loss. All the images describe things happening, changing, moving. So maybe the sentiment is that to be at one with the world means also a connection with impermanence.

      • Thanks for your comment, Genna. I love your interpretation. Yes, things are moving and changing, and connection ultimately will lead to loss, or disconnection.

        It never ceases to amaze me how many layers one can find within a Yeats poem.

        Thanks again for stopping by and sharing your insights. Stay safe.

  6. The opening lines, which are of sufficient worth for me, always make me think of Desdemona’s telling Othello how she loved him for all the hardships he had undergone. The awareness of another’s suffering, really absorbed, can move beyond pity and blossom into love. I think Yeats has presented the fullness of that possibility.