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. Yeats’s precise relationship with literary modernism remains a subject of much debate, but he is certainly an important poet of the first few decades of the twentieth century.
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. Below, we select and introduce some of the best-known and most important quotations from Yeats’s work.
‘Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.’
One of Yeats’s most popular poems is just eight lines long:
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.
The message is straightforward: 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. But (he goes on) I’m only a poor man, so all I have of any worth are my dreams. And dreams are delicate and vulnerable – hence ‘Tread softly’.
‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold’.
This quotation, and the one immediately below, are both taken from ‘The Second Coming’: Yeats’s 1919 poem in response to the struggle for Irish independence and the First World War. Yeats prophesies that some sort of Second Coming is due, and that the anarchy that has arisen all around the world (partly because of the events of the First World War, though the tumultuous events in Yeats’s home country of Ireland are also behind the poem) is a sign that this Second Coming cannot be far off.
This line has become well-known for its memorable evocation of chaos and a time of violent upheaval and change. Chinua Achebe used the first three words for the title of his novel Things Fall Apart.
‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.’
This is another memorable quotation from ‘The Second Coming’ and its first stanza, which portrays a society in the grip of dramatic change.
‘Those that I fight I do not hate;
Those that I guard I do not love.’
This couplet is from ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’, one of Yeats’s best-known poems: it is simultaneously both a war poem and a poem about Irishness, and yet, at the same time, neither of these, as we discuss in our analysis of the poem.
‘It is not a writer’s business to hold opinions.’
Yeats said these words to the playwright, Denis Johnston, according to an article published in The Guardian on 5 May 1977.
‘A terrible beauty is born.’
This is a repeated line in ‘Easter 1916’, a poem Yeats wrote in the summer of 1916, shortly after the Easter Rising in Dublin. Yeats had conflicted feelings towards the rising, since he deplored violence (in most cases) as a way of achieving Irish independence from the British. Nevertheless, he acknowledges that a new ‘beauty’ has been ‘born’ out of the struggle.
‘Nor dread nor hope attend
A dying animal’.
One of Yeats’s shortest poems is ‘Death’, in which he talks about how ‘man has created death’: no other living thing understands the concept of death or that it will die one day, since it has no concept of its own mortality.
‘When you are old and grey and full of sleep’.
These words open one of Yeats’s best-known early poems, which is believed to be about Maud Gonne, Yeats’s muse. In 1891, when Yeats wrote ‘When You Are Old’, he and Gonne were in a relationship, but it was failing and Yeats feared he was losing her:
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 …
However, these words, and the poem as a whole, are a loose translation of a poem by the fifteenth-century French poet Ronsard.
‘That is no country for old men.’
These are perhaps the best-known opening words to any W. B. Yeats poem: they begin ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, his classic 1927 poem about growing older and feeling increasingly out of place in the world:
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.
Cormac McCarthy borrowed the opening words for the title of his novel, No Country for Old Men.
‘Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!’
Let’s conclude this pick of the best W. B. Yeats quotations with the final three lines of his poem ‘Under Ben Bulben’, which became Yeats’s epitaph when he died in 1939, and can be found on his tomb. Ben Bulben is the name of a flat-topped mountain near Sligo, which Yeats had a particular attachment to. He’d already chosen it as his final resting-place when he died, so he is looking ahead to when he himself will lie ‘under Ben Bulben’.