© 2019 by M. Keith Booker

When William Butler Yeats won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1923, he became the first Irish writer to be so honored. And it was an honor well-deserved. Not only had Yeats by this time established himself as one of the world’s greatest poets (though much of his greatest poetry had yet to be written), but much of his poetry was overtly political, written in support of the cause of Irish independence or other related causes. Beginning with his early phase that drew upon Irish mythology to romanticize the Irish past and rural Ireland as a whole, Yeats had by this time already moved into a more modern, urban phase that demonstrated his tremendous range as a poet. And all of this after he had sacrificed much of the first decade of the twentieth century in helping to found the Irish National Theatre, taking much of his time and energy away from the writing of poetry.

“The Lake Isle of Innisfree” (1888)

Probably the best known of Yeats’s early romantic poems is “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” in which the poet imagines moving, Thoreau-like to a peaceful Irish lakeside cabin, free of the hustle and bustle of the modern world:

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

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.

Who Goes with Fergus? (1893)

The emphasis on Irish mythology that informs so much of Yeats’s early poetry can be found in the poem “Who Goes with Fergus?” This poem actually first appeared as a song within Yeats’s 1892 play The Countess Cathleen. In James Joyce’s Ulysses, we learn that Stephen Dedalus sang this song to his dying mother.In the poem, the poet employs the romantic image of the mythical Irish poet-king Fergus (who supposedly thrived around the time of Alexander the Great) to evoke a magical, otherworldly kingdom, free of the mundane cares of this one. That this kingdom is indisputably meant to be Irish also subtly points toward the possibility of an Irish realm free of British rule.

Who Goes with Fergus?

Who will go drive with Fergus now,

And pierce the deep wood’s woven shade,

And dance upon the level shore?

Young man, lift up your russet brow,

And lift your tender eyelids, maid,

And brood on hopes and fear no more.

And no more turn aside and brood

Upon love’s bitter mystery;

For Fergus rules the brazen cars,

And rules the shadows of the wood,

And the white breast of the dim sea

And all dishevelled wandering stars.

“When You Are Old” (1892)

During this same early period in his career as a poet, Yeats met and fell in love with the English heiress and actress Maud Gonne, who had become a strong sympathizer with the Irish Nationalist cause (her family had some Irish background). Gonne, in fact, was much stronger and more militant in her nationalism than was Yeats himself, which caused considerable tension between them. Yeats’ attempts to win over Gonne (and his frustration at the failure of those attempts) produced some of the most enduring love poetry of the time. Indeed, Gonne is said to have claimed that one of the reasons she refused Yeats’ multiple proposals of marriage was because the unrequited nature of his love for her inspired him to write such great poetry. One of his earliest classic “Maud Gonne” poems, “When You Are Old,” already establishes the tone of frustration that would mark all of his poems to her, predicting that their love will remain unrequited but that someday she might regret that she spurned all of his advances. Despite the numerous admirers of her beauty, only, he, Yeats claims, loves her for her soul, a fact that she might recognize when she is old and looking back on her life. What might have been a puerile cliché turned, in the hands of Yeats, into a poetic masterpiece.

When You Are Old 

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.

“September 1913” (1913)

One of the key markers of Yeats’ evolution from his early roots as a poet of rural romanticism to a modern political poet was the poem “September 1913,” written in support of the striking workers in the Dublin Lock-out. The poem excoriates Dublin’s businessmen for their greed in trying to squeeze every cent of profit out of their businesses by mistreating their workers. Among other things, the poem rejects the Irish fascination with the past, something that had been central to Yeats’ own work in his early years as a poet. But the bitterness and violence of the lock-out—together with the squalid, oppressive conditions that led to the strike in the first place—remind us that, as the poem says, “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone, / It’s with O’Leary in his grave.” The “O’Leary” to whom Yeats refers, incidentally, is John O’Leary (1830–1907), a key leader in the nineteenth-century fight for Irish independence and an early leader of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. In 1865, his political activities led to his conviction on a charge of “treason felony” and to a sentence of twenty years of penal servitude, five years of which were served in English prisons, followed by fifteen years of exile, mostly in Paris, with some time also spent in the United States. In 1885 O’Leary returned to Ireland and became active in the nationalist cause there, associating with younger nationalists such as Yeats and Maud Gonne. O’Leary is also mentioned in Yeats’ poem “Beautiful Lofty Things.”

Among others mentioned in the poem, Edward Fitzgerald (1763–1798) died of wounds received while resisting arrest on charges of treason related to the 1798 Irish rebellion, while Wolfe Tone (1763–1798) was the leader of that rebellion, during which he was captured, dying sixteen days later under suspicious circumstances. Robert Emmet (1778–1803) led an abortive subsequent rebellion in 1803, after which he was captured and executed—hanged until dead, then beheaded. All (especially Tone and Emmet) are well-known figures in the list of Irish martyrs who have given their lives in the cause of Irish independence, but Yeats here suggests that the world of 1913 is different from the world of previous centuries and that the Irish should perhaps move on to deal with present ills (such as economic inequality) rather than spending all their energies celebrating past martyrs. Indeed, the poem anticipates (though in a more somber mode) Joyce’s later mockery of Irish hero-worship in the “Cyclops” chapter of Ulysses. Here, Joyce presents a barroom full of drunken Irish Nationalists who attempt to claim a long list of diverse figures (including Buddha, Cleopatra, Muhammed, Dante, Shakespeare, Benjamin Franklin, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Beethoven) as examples of the heroic Irish past (12.176–99).[1]

“September 1913” is written in relatively straightforward language and is structured in the simple form of eight-line stanzas, each consisting of a rhymed quatrain. It thus eschews romantic language just as it turns away from romantic reveries about the past. The deaths of men such as Fitzgerald, Emmet, and Tone in the cause of Irish independence were not the stuff of romance, but the stuff of politics, something Yeats fears the Irish have forgotten in the rush to romanticize their deaths. He thus ends the poem with a stanza complaining about the Irish penchant for turning bloody deaths into romantic reveries of a kind that might more properly be dedicated to the effect of “some woman’s yellow hair” on some smitten lover.[2]

September 1913

What need you, being come to sense,
But fumble in a greasy till
And add the halfpence to the pence
And prayer to shivering prayer, until
You have dried the marrow from the bone;
For men were born to pray and save;
Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,
It’s with O’Leary in the grave.

Yet they were of a different kind,
The names that stilled your childish play,
They have gone about the world like wind,
But little time had they to pray
For whom the hangman’s rope was spun,
And what, God help us, could they save?
Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,
It’s with O’Leary in the grave.

Was it for this the wild geese spread
The grey wing upon every tide;
For this that all that blood was shed,
For this Edward Fitzgerald died,
And Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone,
All that delirium of the brave?
Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,
It’s with O’Leary in the grave.

Yet could we turn the years again,
And call those exiles as they were
In all their loneliness and pain,
You’d cry “Some woman’s yellow hair
Has maddened every mother’s son”:
They weighed so lightly what they gave.
But let them be, they’re dead and gone,
They’re with O’Leary in the grave.

“Easter, 1916” (1916)

Yeats responded to the Easter Rising with the poem “Easter, 1916,” in which he acknowledges that an event he had not initially supported has had a profound effect on him, very much capturing (in advance) the profound impact the Rising (unpopular and unsuccessful when it first occurred) would ultimately have on Irish history. Yeats’s own ambivalence about the event can be seen in the fact that he did not publish the poem until 1921, though he wrote it shortly after the Rising. The poem is elegant and restrained, yet confused and uncertain about just how to regard the rebellion; it thus expressed what a great many people in Ireland felt at the time. Yeats, of course, had a special connection to the event, having personally known some of the participants through his activities in support of the republican cause. The second stanza, of course, is particularly personal, as he recalls Constance “Countess” Markievicz (1868–1927), a key Irish political figure whom Yeats had known since she was a teenager. Markievicz was arrested and sentenced to death after the Rising, but the sentence was commuted because she was a woman. She would go on to become the first woman elected to the British House of Commons in 1918, though she (like all of the other Irish members) refused to take her seat. Later, she became the Minister of Labor in the post-civil-war Irish government.[3] Yeats also refers to the school teacher Patrick Pearse and to Pearse’s associate Thomas McDonagh, himself a teacher, poet and playwright. The “drunken, vainglorious lout” to whom he refers is, of course, John MacBride, the estranged husband of Maud Gonne, whom Yeats resented both for marrying Gonne and for subsequently mistreating her. Such personal touches give the poem a special poignance, humanizing the rebellion, as does the listing of the executed leaders in the closing stanza. Yeats’ final musing in that stanza over whether their deaths were ultimately for nothing, because perhaps the British would have followed through on their earlier promises and granted freedom to Ireland, would, of course, be answered by history. It took a war of independence and a subsequent civil war before Ireland would finally begin to move beyond British control.

Easter, 1916

I have met them at close of day   

Coming with vivid faces

From counter or desk among grey   

Eighteenth-century houses.

I have passed with a nod of the head   

Or polite meaningless words,   

Or have lingered awhile and said   

Polite meaningless words,

And thought before I had done   

Of a mocking tale or a gibe   

To please a companion

Around the fire at the club,   

Being certain that they and I   

But lived where motley is worn:   

All changed, changed utterly:   

A terrible beauty is born.

That woman’s days were spent   

In ignorant good-will,

Her nights in argument

Until her voice grew shrill.

What voice more sweet than hers   

When, young and beautiful,   

She rode to harriers?

This man had kept a school   

And rode our wingèd horse;   

This other his helper and friend   

Was coming into his force;

He might have won fame in the end,   

So sensitive his nature seemed,   

So daring and sweet his thought.

This other man I had dreamed

A drunken, vainglorious lout.

He had done most bitter wrong

To some who are near my heart,   

Yet I number him in the song;

He, too, has resigned his part

In the casual comedy;

He, too, has been changed in his turn,   

Transformed utterly:

A terrible beauty is born.

Hearts with one purpose alone   

Through summer and winter seem   

Enchanted to a stone

To trouble the living stream.

The horse that comes from the road,   

The rider, the birds that range   

From cloud to tumbling cloud,   

Minute by minute they change;   

A shadow of cloud on the stream   

Changes minute by minute;   

A horse-hoof slides on the brim,   

And a horse plashes within it;   

The long-legged moor-hens dive,   

And hens to moor-cocks call;   

Minute by minute they live:   

The stone’s in the midst of all.

Too long a sacrifice

Can make a stone of the heart.   

O when may it suffice?

That is Heaven’s part, our part   

To murmur name upon name,   

As a mother names her child   

When sleep at last has come   

On limbs that had run wild.   

What is it but nightfall?

No, no, not night but death;   

Was it needless death after all?

For England may keep faith   

For all that is done and said.   

We know their dream; enough

To know they dreamed and are dead;   

And what if excess of love   

Bewildered them till they died?   

I write it out in a verse—

MacDonagh and MacBride   

And Connolly and Pearse

Now and in time to be,

Wherever green is worn,

Are changed, changed utterly:   

A terrible beauty is born.

“No Second Troy” (1916)

The “terrible beauty” of which Yeats speaks in “Easter, 1916” would turn out to be an invigorated anticolonial movement in Ireland that would eventually lead to independence—but only at great cost. The Easter Rising also marked a turning point in Yeats’s personal life. With Maud Gonne now a widow, Yeats issued one final marriage proposal to her, though apparently he was just going through the motions and did not expect (and perhaps did not even hope for) a positive response. The response was indeed negative, after which Yeats, now past fifty, turned to Gonne’s twenty-one-year-old daughter Iseult, to whom he proposed in 1917 (and again in 1918). Those proposals were also refused. In the meantime, Yeats had written a sort of poetic farewell to Maud. “No Second Troy” is a rather bitter farewell that once again notes Maud’s legendary beauty (made legendary partly by Yeats himself) but describes her as a destructive force, resembling in that sense another great beauty, Helen of Troy, whose behavior caused the ancient city of Troy to be destroyed. The comparison grows directly from Yeats’s personal experience with Maud, but it also marks a tendency during this period for Yeats to draw upon classical analogies to enliven his poetry.

No Second Troy

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?

“The Second Coming” (1919)

Yeats also draws upon classical precedents of a sort in “The Second Coming,” widely regarded as one of the central poetic expressions of the intense sense of crisis that informs so much modernist literature. Here, however, Yeats draws on the Christian notion of the second coming of Christ, rather than on Greek or Roman precedents, to express his sense of the possible approach of an apocalyptic event. In many ways, this poem simply expresses a typical modernist sense that human history, in the wake of World War I, might have been approaching a crucial turning point, the current order on the brink of collapse and a new (possibly ominous) order about to begin. In an Irish context, it is worth remembering that the poem was written at a time when the Irish War of Independence was just underway, so that this sense of crisis was particularly tangible. At the same time, both the feel of this poem and some of its imagery draw upon Yeats’s particular interest in mysticism and the occult, studies in which had led him to conclude that human history unwinds in cycles of about two thousand years, one of which (which began with the birth of Christ) was coming to an end.

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst   

Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.   

The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out   

When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert   

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,   

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,   

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it   

Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.   

The darkness drops again; but now I know   

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,   

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,   

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

“Leda and the Swan” (1923)

One of the clearest uses of classical mythology occurs in the poem “Leda and the Swan,” which is also related to his vision of cyclical history. Here, in the very traditional form of a Petrarchan sonnet Yeats recounts a story directly from Greek mythology, in which the god Zeus takes the form of a swan and rapes the human woman Leda. The story has taken various forms over time, but, in one of the standard versions, the rape directly leads to Leda giving birth to Helen and Polydeuces, while at the same time giving birth to the human children (via her husband Tyndareus, King of Sparta) Castor and Clytemnestra. In telling the story of the rape, Yeats alludes to the way it ultimately led to the fall of Troy (thanks to Helen’s role in the event), as well as to the death of Agamemnon, in most versions killed by Clytemnestra. Since Clytemnestra was supposedly the daughter of Tyndareus, the poem thus implies that Clytemnestra’s killing of Agamemnon might have somehow been related to trauma she experienced during the rape. The poem then closes with one of the rhetorical questions that Yeats so favored during this period, wondering whether Leda might have taken on some of Zeus’s godlike knowledge and power as a result of the encounter.

The poem clearly depicts the rape of Leda as a sort of turning point in history and thus possibly as the beginning of the two-thousand-year cycle that “The Second Coming” suggests might have been ushered in by the birth of Christ. It is clear, in this shift of mythological referents, that Yeats does not mean for either attribution to be taken literally; each simply symbolizes the notion that history runs in cycles, landmark events initiating each new cycle. One is, of course, also free to give the poem a more contemporary political reading, seeing Leda as a symbol of Ireland and the swan/Zeus as a symbol of England and the British Empire, whose rule in Ireland had so recently ended, beginning another sort of new era.

Leda and the Swan

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still

Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed

By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,

He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

How can those terrified vague fingers push

The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?

And how can body, laid in that white rush,

But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there

The broken wall, the burning roof and tower

And Agamemnon dead. Being so caught up,

So mastered by the brute blood of the air,

Did she put on his knowledge with his power

Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

“Among School Children” (1926)

In 1926, while he was a member of the Irish Senate, Yeats toured a Montessori school in Ireland as part of his official duties. He recorded his impressions of the school and its students in a poem expands beyond these impressions to include another guest appearance by Maud Gonne, whom he imagines (in Stanzas II-IV) as a child the age of the children he sees in the school. This thought then leads him into a meditation in aging (especially his own), envisioning himself (as he would at several points in his later poetry) as a “comfortable kind of old scarecrow … Old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird.” Along the way, he compares the inevitable disappointments that mothers experience from their children to the inevitable disappointments that nuns experience from their religion.[4] The poem then ends with a meditation on the relationship between art and the artists who produce it, closing with the famous line “How can you tell the dancer from the dance?,” which suggests the perfect achievement of an aesthetic vision, the poet at one with his poem.

Among School Children


I walk through the long schoolroom questioning;

A kind old nun in a white hood replies;

The children learn to cipher and to sing,

To study reading-books and history,

To cut and sew, be neat in everything

In the best modern way—the children’s eyes

In momentary wonder stare upon

A sixty-year-old smiling public man.


I dream of a Ledaean body, bent

Above a sinking fire, a tale that she

Told of a harsh reproof, or trivial event

That changed some childish day to tragedy—

Told, and it seemed that our two natures blent

Into a sphere from youthful sympathy,

Or else, to alter Plato’s parable,

Into the yolk and white of the one shell.


And thinking of that fit of grief or rage

I look upon one child or t’other there

And wonder if she stood so at that age—

For even daughters of the swan can share

Something of every paddler’s heritage—

And had that colour upon cheek or hair,

And thereupon my heart is driven wild:

She stands before me as a living child.


Her present image floats into the mind—

Did Quattrocento finger fashion it

Hollow of cheek as though it drank the wind

And took a mess of shadows for its meat?

And I though never of Ledaean kind

Had pretty plumage once—enough of that,

Better to smile on all that smile, and show

There is a comfortable kind of old scarecrow.


What youthful mother, a shape upon her lap

Honey of generation had betrayed,

And that must sleep, shriek, struggle to escape

As recollection or the drug decide,

Would think her son, did she but see that shape

With sixty or more winters on its head,

A compensation for the pang of his birth,

Or the uncertainty of his setting forth?


Plato thought nature but a spume that plays

Upon a ghostly paradigm of things;

Solider Aristotle played the taws

Upon the bottom of a king of kings;

World-famous golden-thighed Pythagoras

Fingered upon a fiddle-stick or strings

What a star sang and careless Muses heard:

Old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird.


Both nuns and mothers worship images,

But those the candles light are not as those

That animate a mother’s reveries,

But keep a marble or a bronze repose.

And yet they too break hearts—O Presences

That passion, piety or affection knows,

And that all heavenly glory symbolise—

O self-born mockers of man’s enterprise;


Labour is blossoming or dancing where

The body is not bruised to pleasure soul,

Nor beauty born out of its own despair,

Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.

O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,

Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,

How can we know the dancer from the dance?

“Sailing to Byzantium” (1928)

Plagued by declining health, Yeats retired from public politics after six years in the Irish Senate. He remained very active as a poet, however, devoting much of his final poetry to expressions of his acceptance of the aging process itself, which he often addressed with good humor. But he remained interested in other topics as well, including the process of poetry. A poem from 1928, “Sailing to Byzantium,” involves both aging and poetry, and is built around Yeats’s (somewhat Orientalist) vision of the ancient city of Byzantium (capital of the eastern branch of the Roman Empire, now known as Istanbul) as a utopian space where all aspects of human life were fused into a single, harmonious whole. Byzantium, in short, becomes a sort of image of poetry itself, a city where the visions of poets can be achieved. They cannot, however, be achieved easily, even there, and the journey to Byzantium (that is, poetic success) is not an easy one, especially for an aging poet like Yeats, now in his mid-60s.

Sailing to Byzantium


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.


An aged man is but a paltry thing,

A tattered coat upon a stick, unless

Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing

For every tatter in its mortal dress,

Nor is there singing school but studying

Monuments of its own magnificence;

And therefore I have sailed the seas and come

To the holy city of Byzantium.


O sages standing in God’s holy fire

As in the gold mosaic of a wall,

Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,

And be the singing-masters of my soul.

Consume my heart away; sick with desire

And fastened to a dying animal

It knows not what it is; and gather me

Into the artifice of eternity.


Once out of nature I shall never take

My bodily form from any natural thing,

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make

Of hammered gold and gold enamelling

To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;

Or set upon a golden bough to sing

To lords and ladies of Byzantium

Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

“The Circus Animals’ Desertion” (1939)

One of Yeats’s final poems begins with an expression of frustration at a period he had recently experienced in which he found that his poetic inspiration was beginning to leave him. The poem then turns into a retrospective on his own life and career, with another reference to Maud Gonne and to the way “fanaticism and hate” nearly consumed her. Finally, Yeats realizes that all the inspirations for his lofty poetry came from worldly sources, from his own humanity. His inspiration failing, he then has no choice but simply to be a human and to settle into the “foul rag and bone shop of the heart,” whence all his earlier inspiration came. There is, of course, a tremendous irony in the poem: it (in this sense resembling The Waste Land) is a brilliant poetic masterpiece about Yeats having lost the ability to produce brilliant poetic masterpieces.

The Circus Animals’ Desertion


I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,

I sought it daily for six weeks or so.

Maybe at last being but a broken man

I must be satisfied with my heart, although

Winter and summer till old age began

My circus animals were all on show,

Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot,

Lion and woman and the Lord knows what.


What can I but enumerate old themes,

First that sea-rider Oisin led by the nose

Through three enchanted islands, allegorical dreams,

Vain gaiety, vain battle, vain repose,

Themes of the embittered heart, or so it seems,

That might adorn old songs or courtly shows;

But what cared I that set him on to ride,

I, starved for the bosom of his fairy bride.

And then a counter-truth filled out its play,

`The Countess Cathleen’ was the name I gave it,

She, pity-crazed, had given her soul away

But masterful Heaven had intervened to save it.

I thought my dear must her own soul destroy

So did fanaticism and hate enslave it,

And this brought forth a dream and soon enough

This dream itself had all my thought and love.

And when the Fool and Blind Man stole the bread

Cuchulain fought the ungovernable sea;

Heart mysteries there, and yet when all is said

It was the dream itself enchanted me:

Character isolated by a deed

To engross the present and dominate memory.

Players and painted stage took all my love

And not those things that they were emblems of.


Those masterful images because complete

Grew in pure mind but out of what began?

A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,

Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,

Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut

Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone

I must lie down where all the ladders start

In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.


[1] Scholars traditionally cite the Gabler edition of Ulysses by chapter number followed by line number, rather than the page numbers used with most texts.

[2] For a useful discussion of this poem and its political context, see Bornstein.

[3] Yeats would later write an entire poem about Countess Markievicz and her sister Eva, entitled “In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz,” which describes the sisters as “two girls in silk kimonos, both beautiful,” further referring to Constance as a “gazelle.”

[4] Yeats, a Protestant who was in any case never very religious in the traditional sense, was, at this time, somewhat at odds with the Catholic Church due to its attempts to impose its will on the postcolonial Irish nation. One of his most famous acts as a senator was an impassioned (and, as it turned out, fruitless) speech against a proposed law banning divorce in Ireland, a law that would pass and then remain in effect for another seventy years.