24 renowned poems from Ireland's most famous poet William Butler Yeats, set to new music by Raymond Driver, performed by a plethora of popular traditional Irish musicians.
William Butler Yeats (13 June 1865 – 28 January 1939) was an Irish poet, dramatist, prose writer and one of the foremost figures of 20th-century literature. He was a driving force behind the Irish Literary Revival and became a pillar of the Irish literary establishment who helped to found the Abbey Theatre, and in his later years served two terms as a Senator of the Irish Free State.
Yeats was born in Sandymount, Ireland, and educated there and in London. He was a Protestant and member of the Anglo-Irish community. He spent childhood holidays in County Sligo and studied poetry from an early age, when he became fascinated by Irish legends and the occult. These topics feature in the first phase of his work, lasting roughly from his student days at the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin until the turn of the 20th century. His earliest volume of verse was published in 1889, and its slow-paced and lyrical poems display debts to Edmund Spenser, Percy Bysshe Shelley and the poets of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
From 1900, his poetry grew more physical and realistic. He largely renounced the transcendental beliefs of his youth, though he remained preoccupied with some elements, including cyclical theories of life. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1923. His major works include 1928's "The Tower" and "Words for Music Perhaps and Other Poems", published in 1932.
Yeats is considered one of the key twentieth-century English-language poets. He was a Symbolist poet, using allusive imagery and symbolic structures throughout his career. He chose words and assembled them so that, in addition to a particular meaning, they suggest abstract thoughts that may seem more significant and resonant. His use of symbols is usually something physical that is both itself and a suggestion of other, perhaps immaterial, timeless qualities.
Unlike the modernists who experimented with free verse, Yeats was a master of the traditional forms. The impact of modernism on his work can be seen in the increasing abandonment of the more conventionally poetic diction of his early work in favour of the more austere language and more direct approach to his themes that increasingly characterises the poetry and plays of his middle period, comprising the volumes In the Seven Woods, Responsibilities and The Green Helmet. His later poetry and plays are written in a more personal vein, and the works written in the last twenty years of his life include mention of his son and daughter, as well as meditations on the experience of growing old. In his poem "The Circus Animals' Desertion", he describes the inspiration for these late works:
Now that my ladder's gone
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.
During 1929, he stayed at Thoor Ballylee near Gort in County Galway (where Yeats had his summer home since 1919) for the last time. Much of the remainder of his life was lived outside Ireland, although he did lease Riversdale house in the Dublin suburb of Rathfarnham in 1932. He wrote prolifically through his final years, and published poetry, plays, and prose. In 1938, he attended the Abbey for the final time to see the premiere of his play Purgatory. His Autobiographies of William Butler Yeats was published that same year. The preface for the English translation of Rabindranath Tagore's Gitanjali (Song Offering)(for which Tagore won the Nobel prize in Literature) was written by Yeats in 1913.
While Yeats's early poetry drew heavily on Irish myth and folklore, his later work was engaged with more contemporary issues, and his style underwent a dramatic transformation. His work can be divided into three general periods. The early poems are lushly pre-Raphaelite in tone, self-consciously ornate, and, at times, according to unsympathetic critics, stilted. Yeats began by writing epic poems such as The Isle of Statues and The Wanderings of Oisin. His other early poems are lyrics on the themes of love or mystical and esoteric subjects. Yeats's middle period saw him abandon the pre-Raphaelite character of his early work and attempt to turn himself into a Landor-style social ironist.
Critics who admire his middle work might characterize it as supple and muscular in its rhythms and sometimes harshly modernist, while others find these poems barren and weak in imaginative power. Yeats's later work found new imaginative inspiration in the mystical system he began to work out for himself under the influence of spiritualism. In many ways, this poetry is a return to the vision of his earlier work. The opposition between the worldly-minded man of the sword and the spiritually minded man of God, the theme of The Wanderings of Oisin, is reproduced in A Dialogue Between Self and Soul.
Some critics claim that Yeats spanned the transition from the nineteenth century into twentieth-century modernism in poetry much as Pablo Picasso did in painting while others question whether late Yeats has much in common with modernists of the Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot variety.
Modernists read the well-known poem "The Second Coming" as a dirge for the decline of European civilisation, but it also expresses Yeats's apocalyptic mystical theories and is shaped by the 1890s. His most important collections of poetry started with The Green Helmet (1910) and Responsibilities (1914). In imagery, Yeats's poetry became sparer and more powerful as he grew older. The Tower (1928), The Winding Stair (1933), and New Poems (1938) contained some of the most potent images in twentieth-century poetry.
Yeats's mystical inclinations, informed by Hinduism, theosophical beliefs and the occult, provided much of the basis of his late poetry, which some critics have judged as lacking in intellectual credibility. The metaphysics of Yeats's late works must be read in relation to his system of esoteric fundamentals in A Vision (1925).
I went out to the hazel wood, Because a fire was in my head, And cut and peeled a hazel wand, And hooked a berry to a thread; And when white moths were on the wing, And moth-like stars were flickering out, I dropped the berry in a stream And caught a little silver trout. When I had laid it on the floor I went to blow the fire a-flame, But something rustled on the floor, And someone called me by my name: It had become a glimmering girl With apple blossom in her hair Who called me by my name and ran And faded through the brightening air. Though I am old with wandering Through hollow lands and hilly lands, I will find out where she has gone, And kiss her lips and take her hands; And walk among long dappled grass, And pluck till time and times are done, The silver apples of the moon, The golden apples of the sun.
"The Song of Wandering Aengus" is a poem by Irish poet W. B. Yeats. It was first printed in 1897 in British magazine The Sketch under the title "A Mad Song." It was then published under its standard name in Yeats' 1899 anthology The Wind Among the Reeds. It is especially remembered for its two final lines: "The silver apples of the moon,/ The golden apples of the sun."
The poem is told from the point of view of an old man who, at some point in his past, had a fantastical experience in which a silver trout fish he had caught and laid on the floor turned into a "glimmering girl" who called him by his name, then vanished; he became infatuated with her, and remains devoted to finding her again.
In an 1899 letter to fellow poet Dora Sigerson, Yeats called "The Song of Wandering Aengus" "the kind of poem I like best myself—a ballad that gradually lifts ... from circumstantial to purely lyrical writing."
Yeats later said that "the poem was suggested to me by a Greek folk song; but the folk belief of Greece is very like that of Ireland, and I certainly thought, when I wrote it, of Ireland, and of the spirits that are in Ireland." At least one scholar has pointed to the Greek folk song "The Fruit of the Apple Tree" as the likely source of Yeats' inspiration. That song was included in a volume of Greek poetry translated by Lucy Garnett, which Yeats had written a review of in 1896.
It has been claimed that the poem's story is based on the Irish god Aengus, and specifically the story of the "Dream of Aengus", which had first appeared in the 8th century, in which Aengus falls in love with a woman whom he sees only in his dreams.
The poem has also been compared to the aisling genre of Irish poetry, in which a magical woman appears who represents the country of Ireland.
Both "The silver apples of the moon" and "The golden apples of the sun" have inspired the names of various bands (including the Silver Apples), albums (including Morton Subotnick's Silver Apples of the Moon), books (including Ray Bradbury's anthology The Golden Apples of the Sun) and films.
In the 2002 episode "Rogue Planet" of the TV series Star Trek: Enterprise, a member of a shape-shifting, telepathic alien species takes the form of a young woman to communicate with Captain Jonathan Archer, based on Archer's own childhood memories of hearing "The Song of Wandering Aengus". Part of the poem was also recited in the 2015 episode "No Room at the Inn" of the TV series The Leftovers.
In the 1995 film The Bridges of Madison County, when going for a walk after supper Robert Kincaid (Clint Eastwood) quotes the lines "The silver apples of the moon" and "The golden apples of the sun." Francesca Johnson (Meryl Streep) replies, "Yeats." Clint Eastwood's character talks about the themes of the poem and references his own Irish heritage. Later that night, she is alone on the porch reading Yeats' book of poems. Inspired, Francesca writes a note and drives to post it on Roseman bridge for Robert to find the next day. The note asks him for supper and quotes another line, "While white moths are on the wing."
The most famous musical setting of the poem was by Travis Edmonson of the folk duo Bud & Travis. Edmonson titled the song "Golden Apples of the Sun", and it was released on the 1960 Bud & Travis album Naturally: Folk Songs for the Present. Their version has been covered, sometimes as "Golden Apples of the Sun" and sometimes as "The Song of Wandering Aengus", by artists including Judy Collins (on the album Golden Apples of the Sun, 1962), Terry Callier (on The New Folk Sound of Terry Callier, 1965), Dave Van Ronk (on No Dirty Names, 1966), Christy Moore (on Ride On, 1984), Peg Millett (on Clear Horizon, 1994), Karan Casey (on Songlines, 1997), Paul Winter (on Celtic Solstice, 1999), 10,000 Maniacs (on Twice Told Tales, 2015) and Tiny Ruins (on Hurtling Through, 2015).
British singer Donovan recorded his own musical setting of the poem on the 1971 children's album HMS Donovan.
British-Irish band The Waterboys recorded their own musical adaptation of "The Song of Wandering Aengus" on the 2011 Yeats-themed album An Appointment with Mr Yeats.
It was also put to music by Benjamin Attahir.
"The Lake Isle of Innisfree" is a twelve-line poem comprising three quatrains, written by William Butler Yeats in 1888 and first published in the National Observer in 1890. It was reprinted in The Countess Kathleen and Various Legends and Lyrics in 1892 and as an illustrated Cuala Press Broadside in 1932.
"The Lake Isle of Innisfree" exemplifies the style of the Celtic Revival: it is an attempt to create a form of poetry that was Irish in origin rather than one that adhered to the standards set by English poets and critics. It received critical acclaim in the United Kingdom and France. The poem is featured in Irish passports.
Innisfree is an uninhabited island within Lough Gill, in Ireland, near which Yeats spent his summers as a child. Yeats describes the inspiration for the poem coming from a "sudden" memory of his childhood while walking down Fleet Street in London in 1888. He writes, "I had still the ambition, formed in Sligo in my teens, of living in imitation of Thoreau on Innisfree, a little island in Lough Gill, and when walking through Fleet Street very homesick I heard a little tinkle of water and saw a fountain in a shop-window which balanced a little ball upon its jet, and began to remember lake water. From the sudden remembrance came my poem "Innisfree," my first lyric with anything in its rhythm of my own music. I had begun to loosen rhythm as an escape from rhetoric and from that emotion of the crowd that rhetoric brings, but I only understood vaguely and occasionally that I must for my special purpose use nothing but the common syntax. A couple of years later I could not have written that first line with its conventional archaism—"Arise and go"—nor the inversion of the last stanza."
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree, And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made; Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee, And live alone in the bee-loud glade. And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow, Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings; There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow, And evening full of the linnet’s wings. I will arise and go now, for always night and day I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore; While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey, I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
The twelve-line poem is divided into three quatrains and is an example of Yeats's earlier lyric poems. The poem expresses the speaker's longing for the peace and tranquility of Innisfree while residing in an urban setting. He can escape the noise of the city and be lulled by the "lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore." On this small island, he can return to nature by growing beans and having bee hives, by enjoying the "purple glow" of heather at noon, the sounds of birds' wings, and, of course, the bees. He can even build a cabin and stay on the island much as Thoreau, the American Transcendentalist, lived at Walden Pond. During Yeats's lifetime it was—to his annoyance—one of his most popular poems, and on one occasion was recited (or sung) in his honor by two (or ten—accounts vary) thousand Boy Scouts. The first quatrain speaks to the needs of the body (food and shelter); the second to the needs of the spirit (peace); the final quatrain is the meeting of the inner life (memory) with the physical world (pavement grey).
Was it for this the wild geese spread The grey wing upon every tide; For this that all that blood was shed, For this Edward Fitzgerald died, And Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone, All that delirium of the brave? Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone, It’s with O’Leary in the grave.
"September 1913" is a poem by W. B. Yeats. The poem was written midway through his life as a highly reflective poem which is rooted within the turbulent past. Most notably, the poem provides insight into Yeats' detestation of the middle classes whilst also glorifying figures such as John O'Leary.
The use of the strong ABAB rhyme scheme maintains a spiteful and accusatory tone, and unpleasant adjectives such as 'greasy' are very much indicative of this.
The poem focuses on manifesting Yeats' new stance of exploring his political mind and celebrating those whom he believes worth of praise. Notably, in all four of the refrains, Yeats mentions John O'Leary, who was an Irish separatist 'of a different kind'. O'Leary's political stance was much less self-interested than many of his contemporaries, as he instead focused on getting the greatest good for Ireland. It is clear through the poem that Yeats admires this and wishes for a return to the less egotistical and self-driven politics of a bygone era. Yeats does, however, appear to question whether these great historical figures, whom he admired and previously emulated in the style of his earlier work, are comprehensive in their understanding of the world in which they lived.
"September 1913" functions also as an iconic example of Yeats's own fidelity to the literary traditions of the 19th century British Romantic poets. A devoted reader of both William Blake and Percy Shelley, Yeats' repetition of the phrase "Romantic Ireland" connects the politically motivated ideals of the Romantics "to an Irish national landscape." The fact that Yeats attaches a second repetition of "It's with O'Leary in the grave" indicates further the speaker's belief that John O'Leary embodied a nationalism in his political actions that now rests solely within the poem. Indeed, John O'Leary "directed Yeats not just to large-mindedness, but to a way of combining Romanticism with Irishness into an original synthesis." In other words, O'Leary's influence on Yeats enables the poet to both inherit the literary legacy of the Romantics while carrying on the nationalistic vision of O'Leary. As a result, the romantic idealism found in Blake and Shelley is now transformed into a fundamentally Irish concept whereas Yeats's deep Irish heritage becomes Romantic in every sense of the word. "September 1913" thus illustrates that "Romantic Ireland is not dead after all; rather, it lives on in the remarkable voice uttering the poem, the voice of O'Leary's greatest disciple, fully of hybridity and passion at once." In a matter of four stanzas, the poem's speaker manages to exist at the confluence of British Romanticism and Irish nationalism.
Yeats's endorsement of the Romantic imagination in "September 1913" is also used to identify several of its flaws that are in need of his revision. Writing at the nexus of the Romantic and Irish traditions "enabled him to correct flaws not only of Shelley but also of Blake, who he thought should have been more rooted and less obscure." Now that "Romantic Ireland's dead and gone," it can no longer express its will and thus requires Yeats poetic prowess to clarify Ireland's message. Speaking specifically about Irish leaders such as Edward Fitzgerald, Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone, Yeats describes them as brave yet a bit delirious, a classification that treats the poet as far more grounded in his politics than the Irish nationalists who died. Yeats channels the fervor of their idealism and struggle through his words by insisting that his own poem continues the nationalist project initiated by those who came before him. The speaker's voice thus becomes "the characteristic note of Yeats's great mature poetry."
Hugh Lane offered his collection of paintings to the Dublin Municipal Corporation. Public reaction was mostly negative on economic and moral grounds. In the end, as Yeats said "the mob" prevailed. In a note to this poem Yeats wrote that the pictures "works by Corot, Degas and Renoir - were compared to the Trojan Horse 'which destroyed a city'. They were dubbed 'indecent' and those who admired the painting were called 'self-seekers, self-advertisers, picture dealers, log-rolling cranks, and faddists'..."
Yeats wrote this poem following the Dublin lock-out and the Hugh Lane bequest. Robert Emmet, mentioned in the poem, planned for a revolution several times, unsuccessfully. When he was finally successful, he was said to try and stop everything mid-rebellion, because he witnessed a man being pulled from his horse and killed. Considering that Emmet had spent months previously manufacturing explosives and weapons, this sudden drawback at the sight of violence, suggests that he did not fully understand the implications of a revolution. Perhaps Yeats is acknowledging the naivety of some Irish Republican figures like Robert Emmet, and himself, following public violence as a result of attempts at revolution.
I know that I shall meet my fate Somewhere among the clouds above; Those that I fight I do not hate, Those that I guard I do not love; My country is Kiltartan Cross, My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor, No likely end could bring them loss Or leave them happier than before. Nor law, nor duty bade me fight, Nor public men, nor cheering crowds, A lonely impulse of delight Drove to this tumult in the clouds; I balanced all, brought all to mind, The years to come seemed waste of breath, A waste of breath the years behind In balance with this life, this death.
"An Irish Airman Foresees His Death" is a poem by Irish poet William Butler Yeats (1865–1939), written in 1918 and first published in the Macmillan edition of The Wild Swans at Coole in 1919. The poem is a soliloquy given by an aviator in the First World War in which the narrator describes the circumstances surrounding his imminent death. The poem is a work that discusses the role of Irish soldiers fighting for the United Kingdom during a time when they were trying to establish independence for Ireland. Wishing to show restraint from publishing political poems during the height of the war, Yeats withheld publication of the poem until after the conflict had ended.
The airman in the poem is widely believed to be Major Robert Gregory, a friend of Yeats and the only child of Lady Augusta Gregory.
The poem contains 16 lines of text arranged in iambic tetrameter. The rhyme scheme is arranged in four quatrains of ABAB.
The poem is featured on the Yeats tribute album Now and in Time to Be, where it is sung by Shane MacGowan of the rock group The Pogues. The British rock group Keane based their song "A Bad Dream" (featured on the album Under the Iron Sea) on it, and a recording of the poem, read by Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy, is played before the song at live venues, explaining their reasons for the lyrics. Hannon appeared in person to read it at the Keane gig at The Point Depot in Dublin (now known as the 3Arena) on 19 July 2007 and again at The O2 on 21 July 2007, though the poem's title and author went unmentioned.
In 2011 the poem was included on the Waterboys album An Appointment with Mr Yeats, a collection of Yeats poems set to music by Mike Scott.
In the movie Memphis Belle, the character Sgt. Danny Daly, a crewman on a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress recites the poem, omitting the lines referring to Ireland.
In the movie Congo, Dr. Peter Elliot says that his reason for teaching the ape to talk is "a lonely impulse of delight."
The final four lines are quoted in the first episode of the second series of the BBC Three zombie drama In the Flesh by the character Simon Monroe, who is played by Irish actor Emmett J. Scanlan, to Kieren Walker, played by the English actor Luke Newberry.
The song "A Bad Dream" by the English band Keane was inspired by the poem. The song appeared on their second studio album, Under the Iron Sea.
In his LP Branduardi canta Yeats (1986), Angelo Branduardi sings an Italian version of this poem.
A line in Pat Barker's 2018 novel The Silence of the Girls alludes to the poem: "Some of the girls, mainly those who’d been slaves in their previous lives, were genuinely indifferent. No likely end would bring them loss, or leave them happier than before."
The playwright John Patrick Shanley used Yeats' phrase 'A Lonely Impulse of Delight' as the title of a humorous short play about a man who falls in love with a mermaid named Sally, who supposedly lives in a pond in New York's Central Park.
"The Stolen Child" is a poem by William Butler Yeats, published in 1889 in The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems.
Where dips the rocky highland Of Sleuth Wood in the lake, There lies a leafy island Where flapping herons wake The drowsy water rats; There we've hid our faery vats, Full of berrys And of reddest stolen cherries. Come away, O human child! To the waters and the wild With a faery, hand in hand, For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.
The poem was written in 1886 and is considered to be one of Yeats's more notable early poems. The poem is based on Irish legend and concerns faeries beguiling a child to come away with them. Yeats had a great interest in Irish mythology about faeries resulting in his publication of Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry in 1888 and Fairy Folk Tales of Ireland in 1892.
The poem reflects the early influence of Romantic literature and Pre-Raphaelite verse.
The poem was first published in the Irish Monthly in December 1886. The poem was then published in a compilation of work by several Irish poets Poems and Ballads of Young Ireland in 1888 with several critics praising the poem. It was later published in his first book of poetry The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems as well as Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry.
The poem was first set to music as his Op.38 by the English composer Cyril Rootham, originally for SATB voices and piano (1911) and then for SATB chorus and small orchestra (1912). The poem was also set to music and recorded by Loreena McKennitt on her 1985 debut album Elemental and again on Nights from the Alhambra (2006). Subsequently, additional musical versions were recorded by the folk rock group The Waterboys, appearing on their 1988 album Fisherman's Blues, with portions of the poem spoken by Tomas Mac Eoin; Heather Alexander on her 1994 album Wanderlust; and Hamilton Camp on his 2005 album Sweet Joy in the song "Celts". Another version, set to music and recorded on the Danny Ellis album 800 Voices, was released in 2006. The poem was also set to music and recorded by Kate Price on her 1993 album The Time Between.
In 2012, Merrymouth, a folk band led by Simon Fowler of Ocean Colour Scene recorded the poem set to a melody written by Fowler and music by Merrymouth (Fowler, Sealey, McNamara) for their debut album Simon Fowler's Merrymouth. The American composer Eric Whitacre has also set this poem in a piece for The King's Singers and the National Youth Choir of Great Britain. British composer and guitar virtuoso Steve Hackett recorded a version of Yeats' poem under the title "Waters of the Wild" on his 2006 album Wild Orchids.
The poem has also been set to music by Norwegian composer Marcus Paus, and was included on the Grammy-nominated album Kind (2010) by Ensemble 96; Stephen Eddins wrote that Paus's work is "sumptuously lyrical and magically wild, and [...] beautifully captures the alluring mystery and danger and melancholy" of Yeats. Kirk McElhearn wrote that "it presents a sound-world that is astounding and moving."
This poem was written on the wall of the Wohnheim (employees' hostel) of Odenwald-Konserven in 1989, presumably by one of the Irish students working there.
Keith Donohue's novel The Stolen Child (Nan A. Talese, 2006) was inspired by the poem. The refrain is prominently featured in Steven Spielberg's film A.I. Artificial Intelligence. The poem is also featured in the television series Torchwood episode "Small Worlds", being spoken by a fairy who steals a young girl. The novel Dies the Fire also incorporates the poem into elements of Wiccan rituals.
An Irish dance show called The Prophecy is based upon the poem. It is performed by Scottish-based company Siamsoir Irish Dancers and has won an award for the Best Dance and Theatre act at the world's largest Robert Burns festival, The Big Burns Supper in Dumfries.
The refrain is featured in the 2014 movie Song of the Sea, which is based largely on Celtic mythology. The novella "The World More Full of Weeping" by Robert Wiersema references this poem. The novel "Shutter Man" by Richard Montanari references the last stanza of the poem. The poem is referenced in the novel "The Lost Book of the White" by Cassandra Clare. In chapter 10. On the television show The Finder, the line "Come away, O human child" is seen inscribed on Eloise Jade Knox's headstone in episode 10, The Conversation. American hard rock band The Sword, in the liner notes from their debut album Age of Winters, quotes the refrain of the poem, among artwork of trees and faeries. In the 2020 movie Comes Away directed by Brenda Chapman, it is used in both prologue and epilogue of the movie.
Text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License.
Date: February 2021.
Photo Credits: (1) I AM OF IRELAND - Yeats in Song, (2) William Butler Yeats, (3) Kevin Burke, (4) John Spiers, (5) Jackie Oates, (6) Seamie O'Dowd, (7) Cathy Jordan, (8) Ashley Davis, (9) Jack Rutter, (10) Dave Curley, (11) Cormac De Barra, (12) Niall Hanna, (13) Meabh, (15) Solid Ground, (16) Kyle Alden, (17) Paul Kelly, (18) Valerie Armstrong, (20) Cillian Vallely, (21) Shane MacGowan, (22) Mike Scott (Waterboys), (23) Simon Fowler (Ocean Colour Scene), (24) Loreena McKennitt, (26) Mick O'Brien, (27) Leonard Barry, (28) Christine Collister, (29) Mick McAuley (unknown/website); (14) Christy Moore, (30) Eleanor Shanley, (by The Mollis); (18) John Doyle, (25) Colin Farrell, (31) Trevor Hutchinson (by Walkin' Tom).