Tread Softly … Honouring W.B. Yeats

W.B. Yeats
W.B. Yeats

Tomorrow, January 28th, marks the anniversary of the death in 1939 of the  great Irish poet and Nobel Laureate, William Butler Yeats.

W.B.Yeats has been a part of my life pretty much from the day I was born, with my mother quoting lines of his work. One of her favourites, when I’d be getting into a tizz-wizz over something would be:

She bid me take life easy,
   as the grass grows on the weirs;
But I was young and foolish,
and now am full of tears. 
(From: W.B. Yeats, Down by the Salley Gardens)
W.B. Yeats’ poetry was a fundamental part of English in school and it was there that I fell in love with The Wild Swans at Coole. I associate the poem very much with my birthday in October, just when we’d be getting settled back into the first term after the long summer holidays.
I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,   
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,   
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,  
Trod with a lighter tread.
(From: W.B. Yeats, The Wild Swans at Coole)
It was when I was a student at Trinity College, Dublin that I became acutely aware of the broader context of W.B. Yeats’ life and was very taken by the fact that his brother, Jack Yeats, was such a brilliant artist. His painting, The Liffey Swim, was one which I used to go and admire endlessly in the National Gallery of Ireland.
But, most of all, I found myself wondering endlessly about W.B. Yeats’ love life and especially the whole issue of unrequited love which was something he battled with, like so, so many people. The poem The White Birds, which he wrote after the love of his life, Maud Gonne, rejected his marriage proposal is never far from my mind:
I am haunted by numberless islands, and many a Danaan shore,
Where Time would surely forget us, and Sorrow come near us no more;
Soon far from the rose and the lily, and fret of the flames would we be,
Were we only white birds, my beloved, buoyed out on the foam of the sea!
(From: W.B Yeats, The White Birds)
It seemed only natural that I would read W.B. Yeats’ poetry to our son from when he was very young and there were precious, precious nights when we would share absolute gems while he drifted off to sleep. So many lines spring to mind as I recall those nights but none more than these:
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.

(From: W.B. Yeats, The Lake Isle of Innisfree)

One of my proudest achievements in recent years has been running a Poetry Thread on Linkedin. It has been a little oasis in a crazy world and it seemed only natural that I would choose a line from W.B. Yeats to start if off:

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.’ 

(From W.B. Yeats, Aodh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven)

And, as I’ve aged and read more and more poetry, I still think that W.B. Yeats’ poem, When You Are Old, is the best love poem ever written. The lines that I simply adore from it are these:

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;
(From W.B. Yeats, When You Are Old )
Tonight, on the eve of W.B. Yeats’ anniversary, I feel incredibly fortunate to have been soaked in his poetry throughout my life. I hope it will continue to travel with me, like an old friend, forever more.



Author: socialbridge

I am a sociologist and writer from Ireland. I have worked as a social researcher for 30 years and have had a lifelong passion for writing. My main research interests relate to health care and sense of place.

30 thoughts on “Tread Softly … Honouring W.B. Yeats”

  1. That’s amazing and beautiful to me Jean that your life has been so intertwined with the poetry of Yeats: that you were quoted Yeats by your Mother and you passed that interest along to your kids. There is much more respect for poets and poetry in Ireland than there seems to be here. i don’t know anyone who has such an interest and familiarty in the works of a poet unless they are scholars of the subject. I have always suspected that the Irish were greater patrons of the arts than North Ameicans.

    Great Post. thank you for sharing.

    1. Hi Paul, thanks for your kind words.
      I suspect you may be correct about Irish people and poetry. We have quite a passion for it here and, as a country, we punch above our weight with great poets like W.B. Yeats and Seamus Heaney, both winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.

  2. Yeats has always been my favorite poet. “Moments of glad grace….” such a lovely phrase. “And bending down beside the glowing bars, Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled And paced upon the mountains overhead And hid his face among a crowd of stars.”

  3. What a lovely post – we were on the same wavelength today in thinking of him. I just adore his poetry , such beautiful lines from such beautiful thoughts! Thank you for sharing such a warm tribute!

  4. I’ve always loved “Innisfree” and “When You Are Old” – thank you for reminding me of those. That first one is a perfect one to quote to a teenager. That made me smile thinking of your mom saying that to you.

  5. Ah, fellow Yeats lover as I know you are, it is always fantastic seeing people lean towards Yeats and feel connected somehow. He had such an interesting life, so full of love unrequited and still so full of passion with every sentence he wrote.

  6. Thanks. Yeats was an authentic genius – able to combine in his poetry the roles of bard, sage and myth maker. He has left us so many poems that lodge in the heart and soul to be cherished and which come to the surface often unexpectedly in response to the surges of our lives. Thanks for this lovely memoir. Regards Thom.

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