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A Short Analysis of W. B. Yeats’s ‘Long-Legged Fly’

A summary of a classic Yeats poem

‘Long-Legged Fly’ is one of the great poems about silence. Silence is found elsewhere in Yeats’s work – in ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’, for instance, he longs to escape to the tranquillity of the isle mentioned in that poem’s title – but ‘Long-Legged Fly’ is about, in Yeats’s own words, how the mind moves upon silence. Here is the poem, along with a brief analysis of its meaning.

Long-Legged Fly

That civilisation may not sink,
Its great battle lost,
Quiet the dog, tether the pony
To a distant post;
Our master Caesar is in the tent
Where the maps are spread,
His eyes fixed upon nothing,
A hand under his head.

Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.

That the topless towers be burnt
And men recall that face,
Move most gently if move you must
In this lonely place.
She thinks, part woman, three parts a child,
That nobody looks; her feet
Practise a tinker shuffle
Picked up on a street.

Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
Her mind moves upon silence.

That girls at puberty may find
The first Adam in their thought,
Shut the door of the Pope’s chapel,
Keep those children out.
There on that scaffolding reclines
Michael Angelo.
With no more sound than the mice make
His hand moves to and fro.

Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.

‘Long-Legged Fly’ is about the role that silence plays in the fostering of great minds: military tactics, beauty, and artistic creation are treated in each of the poem’s three stanzas. Allied to each of these qualities is a person from history or myth: Julius Caesar (military tactics), Helen of Troy (beauty), and Michelangelo (artistic creation).

In the first stanza, Yeats focuses on Julius Caesar, leader of the Roman Empire, as he plans his military strategy. long-legged-fly-yeats-poemCivilisation itself rests on Caesar winning the battle and thus upholding his empire. The dog is kept quiet and the pony tethered far away, so as not to disturb Caesar as he sits, deep in thought.

In the second stanza, we move to Helen of Troy, as suggested by the first line’s reference to ‘topless towers’ being ‘burnt’, a nod to Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, and Faustus’s words about Helen of Troy: ‘Was this the face that launched a thousand ships / And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?’ The implication of this stanza seems to be that, for Helen of Troy to cultivate her natural grace and beauty – beauty that will inspire Paris, Prince of Troy, to make off with her and thus cause the Trojan Wars (and thus launch a thousand ships for battle). Still young (‘three parts a child’), Helen stands in contrast to Caesar (despite their shared roles in bringing about wars): whereas he sits thinking about his next battle, Helen ‘thinks … / That nobody looks’, and the key to her artless art lies in her lack of self-consciousness.

In the third and final stanza, we move to Michelangelo hard at work painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, during the Renaissance. The children need to be kept out so that the great artist can work in silence. Michelangelo is pictured reclining on scaffolding as he paints (a myth that was later consolidated by the Charlton Heston film, The Agony and the Ecstasy), working quietly on his great masterpiece, the Creation of Adam.

It is curious to analyse the way in which ‘Long-Legged Fly’ is put together. Each of these brief meditations on the nature of silence in shaping history and myth is linked together: Caesar’s military plotting melts into Helen’s cultivation of modest beauty that will bring about another military engagement, while the adolescent Helen blends into the ‘girls at puberty’ admiring Michelangelo’s Adam in the final stanza. And each of the three stanzas ends with the same two lines:

Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.

(Though of course ‘His’ is ‘Her’ in the middle stanza about Helen of Troy.) Yeats appears to be championing the role that quiet meditation and complete focus play in the work of great minds, whether military generals, beautiful women, or talented artists. And of course, in ending on Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, Yeats suggests a link back to the original act of Creation in the Christian story. The image of the long-legged fly on the stream being like a mind ‘moving upon silence’ hardens into a sort of mantra through repetition in the refrain. No mind, however great, can produce greatness without the additional virtue of peace and quiet – the same removal from the bustling everyday world we see in ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ and, arguably, in Yeats’s later poem ‘Sailing to Byzantium’.

Image: Long-legged fly by Judy Gallagher, 2016, via Wikimedia Commons.

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About interestingliterature

A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on February 8, 2017, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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