By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’ is one of W. B. Yeats‘s (1865-1939) most popular poems. It’s also one of his shortest – just eight lines in all.
Since we started to offer our own close analysis of short English poems that we believe repay closer attention, we’ve offered, among others, a short analysis of a Wilfred Owen poem, ‘Futility’. Now, it’s Yeats’s turn. So first, here’s the poem.
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.
This short poem was written for Maud Gonne, the woman Yeats loved for many years and viewed as his chief muse. They never married, although Yeats asked her on several occasions. Joseph Hone, one of Yeats’s best biographers, records that Yeats once commented in a lecture that another of his poems, ‘The Cap and Bells‘, was the way to win a woman, while ‘He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’ was the way to lose one.
Although many readers have responded positively to Yeats’s poem – which places romantic dreams and ambitions over material riches – it appears that, at least in terms of his own love life, the poem didn’t have the effect Yeats desired.
Interestingly, when the poem was first published in Yeats’s third volume of poems, The Wind among the Reeds, in 1899, it appeared under the title ‘Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’, Aedh being the speaker of the poem – a pale, sensitive, Keatsian, Romantic figure of a poet.
This suggests that we are supposed to view the poem itself as slightly tongue-in-cheek, a somewhat over-the-top declaration (which casts Aedh as a sort of Sir Walter Raleigh of poetry, figuratively spreading his cloak of dreams beneath the female addressee, as Sir Walter was supposed to have laid his cloak over a puddle for Queen Elizabeth I).
Even with the later change in title to ‘He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’, there is something in that title – with the use of the present tense and third-person pronoun suggesting something of the stage direction – that renders it slightly ironic.
The message is straightforward, and a perennial one in poetry (and, indeed, song lyrics). The speaker, addressing his lover or would-be lover, says: if I were a rich man, I’d give you the world and all its treasures. If I were a god, I could take the heavenly sky and make a blanket out of it for you. (This is similar to the sentiment expressed by the speaker of T. E. Hulme’s ‘The Embankment’.)
But (he goes on) I’m only a poor man, and obviously the idea of making the sky into a blanket is silly and out of the question, so all I have of any worth are my dreams. And dreams are delicate and vulnerable – hence ‘Tread softly’.
This is a rather old idea, but what helps to make the poem striking and memorable is its use of repetition of key words: cloths (three times), dreams (three times), light (three times), spread (twice), tread (twice), under your feet (twice). (And, if we include the title, you might add an extra ‘cloths’ and count ‘heaven’ as one of the repeated words.) The rhyme of the poem supports this repetition: technically, there are no rhymes as such, merely the same words repeated at the end of lines: cloths, light, feet, dreams.
This gives the words of the poem a simplicity but also a sense of familiarity, even banality: the poet is reduced to finding slightly different ways of saying the same thing. But playing off this rhyme-that-is-not-rhyme at the end of the lines is the internal rhyme: ‘Of night and light and the half light‘, ‘I have spread my dreams under your feet; / Tread softly because you tread on my dreams’.
Because this involves words which are themselves repeated, it shifts the expected rhyme (e.g. night and light at the end of the lines) to the middle of the lines, highlighting that things are not as the poet would wish them to be.
Perhaps its brevity and simplicity is one reason why this Yeats poem is so loved; but our aim in this short analysis of the poem has been to bring home some of the subtler things at work in it.
About W. B. Yeats
William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) is one of the greatest of all Irish poets. His first collection, Crossways, appeared in 1889 when he was still in his mid-twenties, and his early poetry bore the clear influence of Romanticism. As his career developed and literary innovations came with modernism in the early decades of the twentieth century, Yeats’s work retained its focus on traditional verse forms and rhyme schemes, but he became more political, more allusive, and more elliptical.
His late work, such as his 1927 poem ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, about growing old, show a thoughtful and contemplative poet whose imagery and references defy easy exegesis (what exactly does the ancient city of Byzantium represent in this poem?). And yet, at the same time, there is a directness to his work which makes readers feel personally addressed, and situates his work always at one remove from more famous modernist poets (such as T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound).
Yeats died in 1939. Throughout much of his life, a woman named Maud Gonne was his muse. Yeats asked her to marry him several times, but she always refused. She knew she could be of more use to him as a muse than as a wife or lover. Yeats was in favour of Irish independence but, in poems such as ‘Easter 1916’ which respond to the Easter Rising, he reveals himself to be uneasy with the violent and drastic political and military methods adopted by many of his compatriots. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923.
If you like ‘He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’, you might also like ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree‘, our analysis of ‘The Second Coming’, our summary of ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, and our commentary on ‘Leda and the Swan’. We have more about Yeats’s beliefs here.
The best edition of Yeats’s essential poetry (and some of his prose and dramatic works) is The Major Works including poems, plays, and critical prose (Oxford World’s Classics). It also has a very helpful introduction and copious notes.
Or if you’re looking for your next poet to discover, check out our pick of Robert Burns’s best poems and the greatest Thomas Hardy poems. Our advice on how to write an English essay might also be of interest.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: W. B. Yeats in 1911, by George Charles Beresford; Wikimedia Commons.
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Thanks for this discussion of one of his greatest poems. I don’t view it as tongue in cheek, but as an expression of deep devotion. Aedh is one of the personae in that book who take turns speaking, different aspects of his personality. And I think Aedh is the “vulnerable Yeats” who loved Maud Gonne and was rejected.
Wonderful post. Helping with the new book, too.
Another of my favourite poems. I really like these posts of yours. Will share again on FB. :)
Ah… a very good analysis of one of my favourite poems. I feel in love with it a lifetime ago when I was a teenager and wasn’t operating with any kind of filter or irony regarding my love – it seemed to sum up my own feelings perfectly:). As I’ve matured, I still love the apparent simplicity and elegant craft that makes it so popular. Thank you.
That’s a very good analysis of the poem. I often though about the hidden rhyme (so to speak) but you’ve brought it out so beautifully! :)
Gorgeous, romantic, sweet and tender. Thanks for bringing awareness to me of this lovely poem.