Y is for William Butler Yeats

A Drinking Song

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 I sigh.

W.B. Yeats was born in Dublin in 1865.  He studied painting, following in his father’s footsteps, but realized he preferred poetry.  Though he never learned Gaelic, his writing drew extensively from Irish mythology and folklore.

His verse reflected a pessimism about the politicial situation in Ireland in the 1920’s, and he was influenced by Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, although Yeats never abandoned his strict adherence to traditional verse forms.  He was appointed a senator in 1922, and is remembered as a major playwright (he was one of the founders of the famous Abbey Theatre in Dublin) and as one of the very greatest poets—in any language—of the century.  Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1923 and died in 1939 at the age of 73.

When my husband comments on the sad state of our society today, I usually tell him, “Honey, it’s no country for old men.”  This is a poster from the 2007 movie by the Coen brothers.   The movie is based on a 2005 novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy (born in Providence, RI), and the book’s title comes from the first line of Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium.”


THAT is no country for old men.  The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
– Those dying generations – at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

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.

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.


9 thoughts on “Y is for William Butler Yeats

  1. I love Yeats! In college I had professor from Oxford, Donald Davie–head of The Movement in British Poetry and renowned critcic, considered the world’s expert on Pound. He got mad at the whole class one day because we evidently didn’t know as much as we should, thanks to our American education (so he said), and the punishment was we each had to memorize and recite a poem, which he assigned. Mine was guess what? Regardless, I still love Sailing to Byzantium! And I did adore Professor Davie. He was a difficult task master, but he taught me so much.


  2. One of our emerging playwrights is a huge Yeats fan, and wrote a monologue about his piece ‘When you are old and grey’, which we then adapted for film. Check out BAT EYES, here

    Hope you enjoy.

    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.


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