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Thoughts on “The Hosting of the Sidhe” by William Butler Yeats

Image Source: Wikipedia

The host is riding from Knocknarea
And over the grave of Clooth-na-Bare;
Caoilte tossing his burning hair
And Niamh calling Away, come away:
Empty your heart of its mortal dream.
The winds awaken, the leaves whirl round,
Our cheeks are pale, our hair is unbound,
Our breasts are heaving, our eyes are agleam,
Our arms are waving, our lips are apart;
And if any gaze on our rushing band,
We come between him and the deed of his hand,
We come between him and the hope of his heart.

The host is rushing ’twixt night and day,
And where is there hope or deed as fair?
Caoilte tossing his burning hair,
And Niamh calling Away, come away.

Before we can begin to understand the symbolism in this poem, we have to know the names and places mentioned by Yeats.

  • Sidhe—The Faeries, but with a more general implication of supernatural beings.
  • Knocknarea—Mountain in Sligo.
  • Clooth-na-Bare—A faery who sought death in the deepest lake in the world, which she found in Sligo; hence, also a place name.
  • Caoilte—Legendary Irish hero (companion of Oisin).
  • Niamh—Beloved of Oisin, whom she lures into the adventure described in Yeats’s long early narrative poem “The Wanderings of Oisin.” Her name means “brightness and beauty.”

(Definitions source: M.L. Rosenthal)

Rosenthal provides further information regarding the Sidhe and what they meant to Yeats in particular.

Thus the Sidhe are more than mere faeries in the ordinary sense; they are supernatural beings of a more exalted character. Yeats sometimes thinks of them as including all mythical heroes, and at other times makes them quite sinister. To be touched by them is to be set apart from other mortals, an ambivalent condition common to all who succumb to enchantment.

Clearly, this is a complex poem which contains layers of symbolism. I’ll do my best to bring some of these symbols to the surface.

The Sidhe appear to embody the mythology of Ireland, a combination of the mystical and the heroic. They are the Druids, the poets, the heroes, the supernatural beings, all combined into one host. Essentially, they are the source of inspiration for Yeats.

Knocknarea and Clooth-na-Bare are both in Sligo, so we have the lofty peak and the deepest lake, respectively, in the same location. Yeats seems to be implying that the mystical inspiration for his poetry is drawn both from searching the heavens, or the realm of the divine, as well as in exploring the depths of the waters, which symbolizes the deep wellspring of the subconscious mind. This places Ireland at a sort of crossroads, a place where the divine and the human meet, where god consciousness blends with the magical power of human consciousness.

Niamh is a little more complicated. I see three possible representations here. First, she could represent Ireland as the mother country. Second, she could symbolize the embodiment of the divine creative force, or the muse which inspires the poet to craft verse. And thirdly, I suspect there is a correlation between Niamh and Maud Gonne, Yeats’s beloved and personal inspiration. Considering that there are three possible representations embodied in Niamh, it is also possible that Yeats intended her to symbolize the triple goddess (maiden, mother, crone).

I suspect that Yeats sees himself reflected in the character of Caoilte. He is an Irish hero, heeding the call of the Sidhe, lured into the adventure of creating poetry by the mythical being of Niamh. As I envision him “tossing his burning hair,” I see a symbol of the mystical poet, whose mind and thoughts are aflame with the divine fire of inspiration, burning with a passion to rekindle the creative flame that was once Ireland.

As with so many of Yeats’s poems, I suspect this one is open to other interpretations. This one is just my personal view. If you have other thoughts or ideas regarding this poem, please feel free to share them in the comments section.

Thanks for stopping by, and happy St. Patrick’s Day.


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“To Ireland in the Coming Times” by William Butler Yeats

Know, that I would accounted be
True brother of a company
That sang, to sweeten Ireland’s wrong,
Ballad and story, rann and song;
Nor be I any less of them,
Because the red-rose-bordered hem
Of her, whose history began
Before God made the angelic clan,
Trails all about the written page.
When Time began to rant and rage
The measure of her flying feet
Made Ireland’s heart begin to beat;
And Time bade all his candles flare
To light a measure here and there;
And may the thoughts of Ireland brood
Upon a measured quietude.

Nor may I less be counted one
With Davis, Mangan, Ferguson,
Because, to him who ponders well,
My rhymes more than their rhyming tell
Of things discovered in the deep,
Where only body’s laid asleep.
For the elemental creatures go
About my table to and fro,
That hurry from unmeasured mind
To rant and rage in flood and wind;
Yet he who treads in measured ways
May surely barter gaze for gaze.
Man ever journeys on with them
After the red-rose-bordered hem.
Ah, faeries, dancing under the moon,
A Druid land, a Druid tune!

While still I may, I write for you
The love I lived, the dream I knew.
From our birthday, until we die,
Is but the winking of an eye;
And we, our singing and our love,
What measurer Time has lit above,
And all benighted things that go
About my table to and fro,
Are passing on to where may be,
In truth’s consuming ecstasy,
No place for love and dream at all;
For God goes by with white footfall.
I cast my heart into my rhymes,
That you, in the dim coming times,
May know how my heart went with them
After the red-rose-bordered hem.

This is one of Yeats’ Irish nationalist poems, where he envisions an Ireland free from English rule. He aligns himself with three other Irish nationalist poets: Thomas Osborne Davis, James Clarence Mangan, and Sir Samuel Ferguson. Yeats believes that Irish poetry and art, which extol Irish heritage (symbolized by faeries and Druids), will inspire the Irish people and usher in the Irish Renaissance.

A metaphor which is repeated in each stanza is the “red-rose-bordered hem.” I thought about this image quite a bit, trying to figure out what exactly Yeats was trying to represent here. My thought is that Yeats was making a reference to Lady Liberty, as expressed in Delacroix’s famous revolutionary painting (see below). The implication here is that the hem of Liberty’s dress may have to get stained with the blood of revolutionaries before Ireland can become a free nation. The sad truth is that revolutions are rarely bloodless.

Eugène Delacroix

While I personally prefer Yeats’ mystical poetry, I can appreciate his nationalistic works as well. Artistic expression is almost always influenced to some extent by the socio-political climate at the time the artist is working. I confess, I am curious to see what works of art arise from our current social and political climate.

Thanks for stopping by, and feel free to share any thoughts in the comment section below.


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Thoughts on “The Two Trees” by William Butler Yeats

Picasso: Two Trees

Beloved, gaze in thine own heart,
The holy tree is growing there;
From joy the holy branches start,
And all the trembling flowers they bear.
The changing colours of its fruit
Have dowered the stars with merry light;
The surety of its hidden root
Has planted quiet in the night;
The shaking of its leafy head
Has given the waves their melody,
And made my lips and music wed,
Murmuring a wizard song for thee.
There the Loves a circle go,
The flaming circle of our days,
Gyring, spiring to and fro
In those great ignorant leafy ways;
Remembering all that shaken hair
And how the wingèd sandals dart,
Thine eyes grow full of tender care:
Beloved, gaze in thine own heart.

Gaze no more in the bitter glass
The demons, with their subtle guile,
Lift up before us when they pass,
Or only gaze a little while;
For there a fatal image grows
That the stormy night receives,
Roots half hidden under snows,
Broken boughs and blackened leaves.
For all things turn to barrenness
In the dim glass the demons hold,
The glass of outer weariness,
Made when God slept in times of old.
There, through the broken branches, go
The ravens of unresting thought;
Flying, crying, to and fro,
Cruel claw and hungry throat,
Or else they stand and sniff the wind,
And shake their ragged wings; alas!
Thy tender eyes grow all unkind:
Gaze no more in the bitter glass.

According to the Eden myth, there were two trees in the Garden: The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the Tree of Life. In this poem, Yeats uses these two trees as symbols for the creative and the mortal aspects of the human psyche, respectively. The first stanza corresponds with the Tree of Knowledge, and the second stanza corresponds to the Tree of Life.

While the story of eating from the Tree of Knowledge is often interpreted as something negative, a rebellion and fall from grace, Yeats does not seem to see it this way. For Yeats, knowledge of good and evil is essentially what makes us godlike, and the true mystical power of god is the power to create. The first stanza is filled with imagery of growth and flowering, which symbolizes the blossoming of the creative spirit in an individual. He encourages the reader to “gaze in thine own heart,” because that is where the “holy tree” of creativity is rooted, within the deeper self.

Other metaphors that Yeats uses in the first stanza are music and circles. Music is a fairly standard metaphor for poetry, which Yeats attributes to the eating of the fruit from the first tree. The circle conjures images of pagan rituals, most likely Druid or Wiccan, but possibly also of the Golden Dawn. The circles, spirals, and gyres evoke a sense of ritual performed within a circle around a fire. Yeats would have likely believed that the development of spiritual and occult arts was a result of the symbolic eating from the Tree of Knowledge.

And this brings us to the second stanza, and the Tree of Life. It is important to keep in mind that the archetypal humans did not eat of this tree, and as such are destined to wither and die. The effects of this tree are manifested on the outside of a person, as opposed to the Tree of Knowledge which is internal. Hence the demons hold up “the bitter glass,” which is a mirror. Gazing in to it, one becomes aware of aging, of mortality, of impending death. All the symbols that Yeats uses in the second stanza—night, snow, broken boughs, blackened leaves, barrenness, ravens—are all associated with death.

So what is the larger message that Yeats is trying to convey here? It seems to me that he is encouraging us to shift our focus from our outer selves, away from the flesh and our mortality, and instead focus on the inner self, the spirit, the divine essence within all of us. We will die, that is inevitable; but we do not have to spend our lives worrying about getting old and dying. We should live full, spiritual, and creative lives, building loving relationships with others, and creating beauty for future generations.

Thanks for taking the time to read my reflections, and as always, please feel free to share yours in the comment area below. Cheers!



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“The Man Who Dreamed of Faeryland” by William Butler Yeats

This is a poem about the tension between the worldly and the spiritual and how that tension manifests during the various stages of a person’s life. Since it is a fairly long poem, I decided to include the text at the end of the post for those who need to reference it.

The poem is divided into four stanzas. Each stanza is associated with a stage of human life. The stanzas are also associated with specific places within County Sligo, Ireland. I suspect that Yeats intended some connection between the places and the stages of a person’s life, but the references are not clear to me since I am not familiar with those sites. Anyway, the four stages represented in the poem are youth, middle age, old age, and death.

In the first stanza, Yeats describes the youth whose earthly attachment is to physical love, or sexual attraction. When he states that “His heart hung all upon a silken dress,” he is asserting that the young man’s desires are focused solely upon a woman. When the fish sing to him, it symbolizes the divine spirit letting him know that there is a deeper love that exists within the spiritual realm. The young man is shaken “out of his new ease,” but we are left with the sense that even though he is aware of this deeper spiritual love, he cannot relinquish his desire for earthly love.

The singing fish appear to have a dual symbolism. On one hand, they represent the teachings of Christ, but they are also an ancient Celtic symbol for wisdom, inspiration, and prophecy.

As an ancient Celtic symbol, the symbolic meaning of fish (salmon, specifically) dealt with knowledge, wisdom, inspiration and prophecy. Ancient Celts believed the salmon derived its wisdom from consuming the sacred hazel nuts from the well of knowledge (Segais). Further, they believed to eat the salmon would mean gaining the wisdom of the well too.

(Source: http://www.whats-your-sign.com/symbolic-meanings-of-fish.html)

In the second stanza, we are presented with a man in his middle age, whose focus is work and the accumulation of money. At this phase, a lugworm sings to the man, reminding him of the greater wealth within the spiritual realm. The lugworm is an interesting symbol. It burrows in the sand along the beach and is often used for bait in fishing. So in essence, it symbolizes something used to capture the knowledge and inspiration represented by the fish. Also, since they burrow at the shoreline, they symbolize the search for deeper meaning at the threshold between the worldly (the shore) and the spiritual (the sea).

In the third stanza, we see a man in his old age whose current worldly attachment is his obsession over the past, particularly the wrongs that others have perpetrated against him. The knot-grass sings to him, encouraging the man to forgive and let go of his anger and resentment. The man knows that he should do this to prepare himself for the inevitable crossing to the next realm, as evident in the phrase “unnecessary cruel voice.” But one still gets the sense that the old man remains unable to completely forgive and embrace the spiritual.

Finally, in the fourth stanza, Yeats presents us with the man after death, “Now that the earth had taken man and all.” I see an urgent message in this final stanza: if you fail to live a spiritual life while on earth, then you will not enjoy spiritual bliss in the next life. “The man has found no comfort in the grave.” Essentially, if we attach ourselves to worldly obsessions, then we carry those with us to the next realm. It is much more desirable to cross that threshold without the baggage of earthly attachments, and instead cross over with a heart and spirit that is light and ready for union with the divine.

Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts, and here is the full text for those who need.

He stood among a crowd at Dromahair;
His heart hung all upon a silken dress,
And he had known at last some tenderness,
Before earth took him to her stony care;
But when a man poured fish into a pile,
It seemed they raised their little silver heads,
And sang what gold morning or evening sheds
Upon a woven world-forgotten isle
Where people love beside the ravelled seas;
That time can never mar a lover’s vows
Under that woven changeless roof of boughs:
The singing shook him out of his new ease.

He wandered by the sands of Lissadell;
His mind ran all on money cares and fears,
And he had known at last some prudent years
Before they heaped his grave under the hill;
But while he passed before a plashy place,
A lug-worm with its grey and muddy mouth
Sang that somewhere to north or west or south
There dwelt a gay, exulting, gentle race
Under the golden or the silver skies;
That if a dancer stayed his hungry foot
It seemed the sun and moon were in the fruit:
And at that singing he was no more wise.

He mused beside the well of Scanavin,
He mused upon his mockers: without fail
His sudden vengeance were a country tale,
When earthy night had drunk his body in;
But one small knot-grass growing by the pool
Sang where — unnecessary cruel voice —
Old silence bids its chosen race rejoice,
Whatever ravelled waters rise and fall
Or stormy silver fret the gold of day,
And midnight there enfold them like a fleece
And lover there by lover be at peace.
The tale drove his fine angry mood away.

He slept under the hill of Lugnagall;
And might have known at last unhaunted sleep
Under that cold and vapour-turbaned steep,
Now that the earth had taken man and all:
Did not the worms that spired about his bones
proclaim with that unwearied, reedy cry
That God has laid His fingers on the sky,
That from those fingers glittering summer runs
Upon the dancer by the dreamless wave.
Why should those lovers that no lovers miss
Dream, until God burn Nature with a kiss?
The man has found no comfort in the grave.



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“Who Goes With Fergus” by William Butler Yeats


Who will go drive with Fergus now,
And pierce the deep wood’s woven shade,
And dance upon the level shore?
Young man, lift up your russet brow,
And lift your tender eyelids, maid,
And brood on hopes and fear no more.

And no more turn aside and brood
Upon love’s bitter mystery;
For Fergus rules the brazen cars,
And rules the shadows of the wood,
And the white breast of the dim sea
And all dishevelled wandering stars.

I read this poem after doing morning meditation, and it really spoke to me.

To understand this poem, you first need to know what Fergus symbolized for Yeats. According to M.L. Rosenthal, Yeats called Fergus the “poet of the Red Branch cycle, as Oisin was of the Fenian cycle of mythical tales of ancient Ireland.” So essentially, Fergus represents the archetype of the mystical poet who gives up pursuit of the worldly to seek the spiritual realms.

In this poem, Yeats asks the people of Ireland, who will follow the path that Fergus took, to turn away from the hopes and fears of daily life and pursue the mystic, which is symbolized by the woods, the sea, and the wandering stars. It is worth noting that Yeats uses three metaphors to describe the mystical realm. I believe this is intentional, evoking the trinity as well as the kabbalistic crown which represents the godhead. In kabbalah, the crown of the Tree of Life is comprised of three sephirot: Keter, Binah, and Chokhmah. Combined, these three symbolize the godhead from which all existence is manifested.

I could not help but wonder if Yeats was writing about himself, seeing himself as the one who is going forth with Fergus to explore the “shadows of the wood.” I suspect that he did see himself in this role, but that he was also reaching out to others to join him on this path, essentially saying “I am going with Fergus to explore the mysteries of the divine. Who else is willing to join me on this quest?” I for one am glad that Yeats extended this offer.



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“A Dream of Death” by William Butler Yeats

Cypresses: Vincent van Gogh

Cypresses: Vincent van Gogh

I dreamed that one had died in a strange place
Near no accustomed hand,
And they had nailed the boards above her face,
The peasants of that land,
Wondering to lay her in that solitude,
And raised above her mound
A cross they had made out of two bits of wood,
And planted cypress round;
And left her to the indifferent stars above
Until I carved these words:
She was more beautiful than thy first love,
But now lies under boards.

I read this poem twice this morning and had a good sense of the meaning, but felt that I might be missing some historical context. So I did a little research (the internet is an amazing resource) and learned that Yeats composed this poem for Maude Gonne, who had taken a trip to France for health reasons. Clearly, he was expressing concern about her being so far away from home while ill and afraid of what might happen to her in the unfortunate event that she passed away.

What struck me about this poem was the big-picture theme about death and remembrance. Most people who have lived and died are completely forgotten, and this is a sobering thought. We all like to think of our lives as being meaningful, and I do believe that everyone’s life has purpose in the grand scheme, but that does not mean that individual lives are remembered long past death. And I think this is what Yeats was getting at in this poem. His words in this poem ensure that the memory of Gonne would continue after her death, that she would not become just a nameless marker somewhere.

Another thing that is worth mentioning is the symbolism of the cypress trees. In Yeats’ vision, he sees cypress trees planted around Maude’s burial mound. The tree is an ancient symbol of mourning and possesses mystical properties, particularly in regard to ushering the soul from this world to the next realm.

The poet Ovid, who wrote during the reign of Augustus, records the best-known myth that explains the association of the cypress with grief. The handsome boy Cyparissus, a favorite of Apollo, accidentally killed a beloved tame stag. His grief and remorse were so inconsolable that he asked to weep forever. He was transformed into cupressus sempervirens, with the tree’s sap as his tears. In another version of the story, it was the woodland god Silvanus who was the divine companion of Cyparissus and who accidentally killed the stag. When the boy was consumed by grief, Silvanus turned him into a tree, and thereafter carried a branch of cypress as a symbol of mourning.

In Greek mythology, besides Cyparissus, the cypress is also associated with Artemis and Hecate, a goddess of magic, crossroads and the underworld. Ancient Roman funerary rites used it extensively.

(Source: Wikipedia)


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“When You Are Old” by William Butler Yeats


When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

This is such a sad and poignant poem. Yeats appears to be writing to Maud Gonne, entreating her to read his words when she is old and nearing death in order to remember the love he felt for her. There is some beautiful symbolism included, particularly the fire, which represents both her life and the passion that Yeats felt for her. The fire is dying and turning to embers, or “glowing bars.” The shadows are the fading memories of the past.

While this is a beautiful and touching poem about his feelings for Gonne, there is more to it. As with most of Yeats’ poems, there is something mystical hidden within the lines. Yeats was well versed in kabbalah, so I suspect he was making a reference to the Shekhinah, which is essentially the divine feminine aspect of the godhead.

“In the imagery of the Kabbalah the shekhinah is the most overtly female sefirah, the last of the ten sefirot, referred to imaginatively as ‘the daughter of God’. … The harmonious relationship between the female shekhinah and the six sefirot which precede her causes the world itself to be sustained by the flow of divine energy. She is like the moon reflecting the divine light into the world.”

(Source: Wikipedia)

The unnamed woman to whom Yeats is speaking in the poem is described as having a “changing face,” which establishes the connection to the moon and reinforces the symbolic relationship between Maud Gonne and the Shekhinah.

Finally, I think there is a third interpretation to this poem. I believe that the woman to whom Yeats is speaking is also a symbolic representation of Ireland. Yeats was writing in the peak of the Irish Renaissance, and he felt it was paramount to restore Irish mythology to the national identity. Therefore, Yeats was implying that when the flames of the Irish Renaissance are not burning as brightly as before, then Ireland should refer back to his poems, to rekindle the passion and interest in the rich mythology that is part of Ireland’s heritage.



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