William Butler Yeats (1865 – 1939) was a leading figure of 20th century literature who remains Ireland’s most famous poet. In 1889, Yeats met Maud Gonne, an English-born Irish revolutionary, suffragette and actress. Yeats fell deeply in love with her but she turned down at least four marriage proposals from him; and instead married Major John MacBride. Many of Yeats’s poems are inspired by Maud Gonne or mention her. Modernism was an influential movement, primarily in Europe and North America. In literature, the modernists rejected traditional ways of writing; and experimented with literary form and expression. Yeats wrote several important works of modernist poetry. In 1923, W. B. Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. He was the first Irish Nobel Laureate. Here are the 10 most famous poems by W. B. Yeats including The Stolen Child, The Second Coming, Sailing to Byzantium and Among School Children.
#10 A Prayer for My Daughter
In 1917, W. B. Yeats married Georgie Hyde-Lees. Their daughter Anne was born on February 26, 1919. Yeats wrote the poem two days after Anne’s birth, while staying in a tower at Thoor Ballylee during the Irish War of Independence. Comprising of ten eight line stanzas, this poem primarily focuses on the concern of Yeats for his daughter who must live in a world of violence and anarchy. Apart from expressing Yeats’s wishes and advice for his daughter, the poem is notable for reflecting his complicated views on Irish Nationalism and sexuality. A Prayer for My Daughter remains one of Yeats’s most popular poems and it is regarded as an important work of Modernist poetry.
May she be granted beauty and yet not
Beauty to make a stranger’s eye distraught,
Or hers before a looking-glass, for such,
Being made beautiful overmuch,
Consider beauty a sufficient end,
Lose natural kindness and maybe
The heart-revealing intimacy
That chooses right, and never find a friend.
#9 Among School Children
Among School Children is regarded as one of the finest poems written by Yeats in his later years. It is inspired by a visit made by Yeats, as a sixty-year old Senator, to a convent school in Waterford, Ireland in February 1926. The poem contains eight stanzas of eight lines. It begins by describing his visit to the school and its children but quickly the speaker turns to his inward thoughts. He thinks of his muse, Maud Gonne; how she was when she was young and how she must be now. He then turns to analysing his present condition in old age and the value of life itself. Mortality, and the worth of human life, are among the major themes of the poem.
What youthful mother, a shape upon her lap
Honey of generation had betrayed,
And that must sleep, shriek, struggle to escape
As recollection or the drug decide,
Would think her son, did she but see that shape
With sixty or more winters on its head,
A compensation for the pang of his birth,
Or the uncertainty of his setting forth?
#8 Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven
Later titled He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven, this poem is one of the shortest poems of Yeats comprising of only one verse of eight lines. In it, the speaker tells his beloved that he would have spread “heavens’ embroidered cloths” under her feet if he possessed them but, as he is poor, he only has his dreams to spread under her feet and hence she should tread softly. Aedh is an Irish God of Death. Aedh appears in several works by Yeats as a pale and lovelorn man. It is thought that Aedh in this poem is Yeats, who is expressing his feelings for his muse Maud Gonne. Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven is one of the most popular short poems by W B Yeats.
Had I the heaven’s 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.
#7 Leda and the Swan
In Greek mythology, Leda was a princess of Aetolia who became the wife of king Tyndareus of Sparta. Zeus, the king of the Gods, was attracted to her beauty. He took the guise of a swan and raped her on the same night she slept with her husband. Based on this myth, the poem by Yeats describes the rape of Leda by Zeus in the form of a swan. It is written in the form of a Petrarchan sonnet and combines psychological realism with a mystic vision. Leda and the Swan is one of the most famous poems of Yeats’s 1928 collection The Tower, which is one of the most celebrated and important literary works of the 20th century.
A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?
A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?
#6 The Stolen Child
The Stolen Child was written in 1886 when Yeats was only 21. It is the most famous poem of his first published poetry collection The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems; and is regarded as one of his most important early works. Yeats had great interest in Irish mythology and the poem is based on Irish legends. In it, a human child is being enchanted into a wonderful fairyland away from the real world “which is more full of weeping than he can understand“. The prominent theme of the poem is loss of innocence in the modern world.
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.
#5 When You Are Old
This poem is considered to be an expression of Yeats’s unrequited love for his muse Maud Gonne. The speaker of the poem talks directly to his former lover. He asks her to cast her mind to a time when she is old. At that time, she will remember her past beauty and the many men who admired it. But unlike others he “loved the pilgrim soul” in her. Then she will murmur sadly “how Love fled” and regret that she didn’t value his love then. When You Are Old is written from the perspective of a young person imaging the one who rejected his love, when she is old. A novel expression of unrequited love, it remains one of the most popular love poems by W B 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.
#4 Easter, 1916
Easter Rising was an armed insurrection in Ireland against British rule on Easter Monday, April 24, 1916. The uprising was unsuccessful, and most of the Irish republican leaders involved were executed for treason. It is famous for being the event that brought Irish republicanism to the forefront in the politics of the country, which ultimately led to the Irish War of Independence. Though Yeats was against violence as means to achieve Irish independence, he was shocked at the executions of the revolutionaries and understood their contribution to the greater national cause. He wrote this poem to commemorate the martyrs of the Easter Rising. It is the best-known literary work to come out of the event and its line “A terrible beauty is born” is one of the most famous in modern poetry.
I write it out in a verse –
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
#3 Sailing to Byzantium
In the words of Yeats, Byzantium was the “centre of European civilization and the source of its spiritual philosophy” and hence he symbolized “the search for the spiritual life by a journey to that city” in this poem. The speaker of the poem lives in a country of the young which neglect the old. His solution is to travel to the holy city of Byzantium where he hopes the sages will take him away from his body into “the artifice of eternity”. Sailing to Byzantium uses a journey to Byzantium as a metaphor for a spiritual journey. It is considered one of the best works of Yeats and it is the most famous poem of his greatest poetry collection, The Tower.
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.
#2 Lake Isle of Innisfree
Isle of Innisfree is an uninhabited island within Lough Gill, in County Sligo, Ireland, where Yeats spent his summers as a child. In this short poem of three stanzas of four lines, the speaker, who is residing in an urban city, yearns to return to the peace and serenity of Innisfree. The poem is notable as being a famous work of the Irish Literary Revival movement which aimed to create distinct art and literature that was Irish in origin rather than one that adhered to the standards set by the English. Lake Isle of Innisfree was critically acclaimed when it was published. It remains one of the best known poems of Yeats with multiple references to it being made in popular culture over the years.
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.
#1 The Second Coming
This poem was written at the end of the First World War and the beginning of the Irish War of Independence. In it Yeats uses Christian imagery regarding the Apocalypse and Second Coming to describe the atmosphere of post-war Europe. The speaker first gives an account of anarchy and violence in the world; and then uses it as a sign to indicate that “the Second Coming is at hand.” He concludes with the prophesy that a rough beast is on its way to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Christ, to be born into the world. The Second Coming is regarded as one of the most important works of Modernist poetry. It is one of the most influential poetic works of the 20th century and the most famous poem by William Butler Yeats.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?