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The Poetry of W. B. Yeats

William Butler Yeats (1865 – 1939) was a great Irish poet, and was a driving force behind the Irish Literary Revival with Lady Gregory, Edward Martyn and others. He helped to found the Abbey Theatre and served as an Irish Senator for two terms.

Born in Sandymount, Ireland, he spent childhood holidays in County Sligo, studying poetry from an early age. Irish legends and the occult feature in the first phase of his work. His earliest volume of lyrical poems was published in 1889, and drew from the styles of Edmund Spenser, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and the poets of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. After 1900, he renounced the transcendental beliefs of his youth to a large degree, though he remained fascinated by physical and spiritual masks, and cyclical theories of life. As a result his later poetry was more realistic. In 1923, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Here is a selection of quotes from him:

'Let us go forth, the tellers of tales, and seize whatever prey the heart long for, and have no fear. Everything exists, everything is true, and the earth is only a little dust under our feet.'

'The worst thing about some men is that when they are not drunk they are sober.'

'The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.'

'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.’

'I bring you with reverent hands

The books of my numberless dreams.’

'For he would be thinking of love

Till the stars had run away

And the shadows eaten the moon.'

'Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.'

'There are no strangers, only friends you have not met yet.’

'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.'

'Think like a wise man but communicate in the language of the people.’

'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.'

'...I'm looking for the face I had, before the world was made…'

'Do not wait to strike till the iron is hot; but make it hot by striking.’

'Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,

Enwrought with golden and silver light,

The blue and the dim and the dark cloths

Of night and light and the half light,

I would spread the cloths under your feet:

But I, being poor, have only my dreams;

I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.'

'Faeries, come take me out of this dull world,

For I would ride with you upon the wind,

Run on the top of the dishevelled tide,

And dance upon the mountains like a flame.'

'Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.’

'A mermaid found a swimming lad,

Picked him up for her own,

Pressed her body to his body,

Laughed; and plunging down

Forgot in cruel happiness

That even lovers drown.'

'Life is a long preparation for something that never happens.'

'Never give all the heart, for love

Will hardly seem worth thinking of

To passionate women if it seem

Certain, and they never dream

That it fades out from kiss to kiss;

For everything that's lovely is

But a brief, dreamy, kind delight.

O Never give the heart outright,

For they, for all smooth lips can say,

Have given their hearts up to the play.

And who could play it well enough

If deaf and dumb and blind with love?

He that made this knows all the cost,

For he gave all his heart and lost.'

'What can be explained is not poetry.’

'In dreams begin responsibilities.'

'Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.'

'Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry.'

'That crazed girl improvising her music.

Her poetry, dancing upon the shore,

Her soul in division from itself

Climbing, falling She knew not where,

Hiding amid the cargo of a steamship,

Her knee-cap broken, that girl I declare

A beautiful lofty thing, or a thing

Heroically lost, heroically found.

No matter what disaster occurred

She stood in desperate music wound,

Wound, wound, and she made in her triumph

Where the bales and the baskets lay

No common intelligible sound

But sang, 'O sea-starved, hungry sea’.

‘Wine comes in at the mouth

And love comes in at the eye;

That's all we shall know for truth

Before we grow old and die.

I lift the glass to my mouth,

I look at you, and sigh.'

'There is another world, but it is in this one.'


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