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

A summary of a classic Yeats poem by Dr Oliver Tearle

‘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’.

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.


Discover more of Yeats’s greatest poetry with The Major Works including poems, plays, and critical prose (Oxford World’s Classics). For more discussion of his work, see our analysis of Yeats’s ‘Among School Children’, our thoughts on his ‘Leda and the Swan’, and our pick of his best poems.

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


  1. Look at these amazing men!! Consummate war general….transcendent artist wow what skill what talent what genius!!

    Look at this amazing woman! She’s….pretty.

    Got it, great work