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.
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.