William Butler Yeats – He Wishes for the Quotes of Heaven

Forgive my pun on W. B. Yeats’s famous poem, He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven, but I’ll write about William Butler Yeats, one of my favorite poets, through the lens of his Muses and inspirations and how he inspires other artists and media.

John Singer Sargent, Portrait of W. B. Yeats, 1908

From Symbolism, Maud Gonne, Irish Mythology and Identity…

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) is an Irish poet, but also a playwright and an occult researcher, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923.
His first poems were Romantic, inspired by Irish folklore and mythology. (See W. B. Yeats, The Major Works, introduction by Edward Larrissy, Oxford World’s Classics. Other quotes and ideas from Larrissy are from this book.)

The Lake Isle of Innisfree was supposed to create an Irish form of poetry, in contrast with British standards. Strangely devoid of occult or mystic symbolism – Yeats joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in 1890 – but inspired by Walden (Thoreau), and pastoral remembrances when he lived in London, it became a very popular poem.

The Lake Isle of Innisfree (From: The Rose – 1893)

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.

W. B. Yeats met his Muse in 1889, as he fell in love with Maud Gonne (1866-1953). His love remained mostly unrequited.

Maud Gonne ca. 1900

Most poems from The Rose – and a lot of subsequent ones – were inspired by Maud. She was a feminist and an actress as well as an Irish Revolutionary. While Yeats was an Irish nationalist, he was not as revolutionary and distanced himself progressively from the political scene. But he kept on proposing to her, in vain. She married John MacBride, who was later executed for his participation in the Easter Rising.

When You Are Old is inspired by Ronsard’s poem “Quand Vous Serez Bien Vieille” in Sonnets Pour Helene (1578). Yeats liked to compare Maud to Helen of Troy, so it fits.

When You Are Old (From: The Rose – 1893)

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.

According to Edward Larrissy, the later poem The Song of Wandering Aengus shows Yeats’s interest in Irish and Celtic folklore, as the stream acts like a boundary, a crack through which the supernatural may appear, and hazel is a Celtic magical wood. It is also a Symbolic poem, the duality of Male and Female being stressed in the lunar/solar opposition, as well as the Day and Light duality. This poem is also very evocative, the sounds carefully selected. Yeats saw no real difference between magic and poetic symbols, as stated in his essays Magic and The Symbolism of Poetry.

The Song of Wandering Aengus (From: The Wind among the Reeds – 1899)

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.

In the same volume, He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven – also known as Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven – might be one of my favorite poems. In this text, probably inspired by Maud Gonne too, Aedh is a lovesick archetypal character. Yeats also uses other archetypes – one being intellectually powerful, the other a Romantic primitivist – and the three characters represent the Principles of the Mind. The colors are very symbolic- blue being royal or religious, while golden and silver are symbols of wealth and thus show how expensive and precious those cloths would be.

He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven (From: The Wind among the Reeds – 1899)

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.

Another poem was inspired by both Olivia Shakespear and Maud Gonne. In 1894, Yeats met British novelist and playwright Olivia Shakespear (1863-1938) with whom he had an affair. However, Yeats couldn’t help thinking about Maud Gonne. The affair with Olivia ended in 1897. This might be the inspiration of this short, moving poem, from Yeats’s most Symbolic book (says Larrissy), The Wind among the Reeds.

 photograph of Olivia Shakespear
Olivia Shakespear, 1897

The Lover Mourns For The Loss Of Love (From: The Wind among the Reeds – 1899)

Pale brows, still hands and dim hair,
I had a beautiful friend
And dreamed that the old despair
Would end in love in the end:
She looked in my heart one day
And saw your image was there;
She has gone weeping away.

In later poem No Second Troy, Maud Gonne is once again compared to Helen of Troy, as she leads men to war with her wits and beauty.

No Second Troy (From: The Green Helmet and other poems – 1910)

Why should I blame her that she filled my days
With misery, or that she would of late
Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways,
Or hurled the little streets upon the great.
Had they but courage equal to desire?
What could have made her peaceful with a mind
That nobleness made simple as a fire,
With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind
That is not natural in an age like this,
Being high and solitary and most stern?
Why, what could she have done, being what she is?
Was there another Troy for her to burn?

…To Cyberpunk, Parallel Worlds, Songs and Novels

Yeats, “elevated to the modernist trinity of Yeats, Eliot, and Pound” according to Larrissy, is widely studied and had been a growing poetic influence (at least until the 1970s).

However, Yeats’s influence is now clearly visible in other media, such as novels, songs, movies or series. His poems might have pervaded the English-speaking world’s collective mind, maybe through their evocative, moving power, transcending their own sources and inspirations to make them cherished by most poetry aficionados. They provide a various range of works with dramatic quotes and emotional inspirations.

He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven is used in Equilibrium, a 2002 dystopian cyberpunk movie dealing with a society in which emotions are chemically suppressed, so as to stop wars and sadness – but also art and love… The poem might thus be seen as a symbol, representing emotions such as love and artistic beauty.

Irish band The Cranberries tweaks the iconic last sentence of He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven in their song “Delilah” (from Bury the Hatchet, 1999).

John Irving uses two poems by Yeats in his novel A Widow for One Year:  “When you are Old” at a memorial service and “He wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” at a wedding. Here too, Yeats seems like a fitting choice for emotion-ridden life events.


The Cranberries also named a song Yeats Grave, a beautiful tribute to Yeats. which quotes No Second Troy and refers to Maud Gonne, MacBride and the Isle of Innisfree. No Second Troy seems likely to have moved the Cranberries, whose song Zombie is a tribute to children killed by an IRA bombing and a reference to the Easter Rising.

The Lake Isle of Innisfree also appears in the finale episode of Fringe Season 4, Brave New World (Part 2), 2012. William Bell, played by Leonard Nimoy, recites the beginning of the poem as he speaks about his plan to play god and create a new world by collapsing the two universes. While darkly alluding to the peaceful, almost Eden-like world Bell wants to create, the poem also adds some drama as Bell seems a mad scientist and Walter reaches for his gun to the rhythm of the poem.

I do hope Yeats will inspire more artists, and that his poetry will keep on being read – as it is so worth it.

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