Here’s a romantic poem by William Butler Yeats, in both senses of that word. “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” is Romantic in the literary and artistic sense in that it seeks to reconcile personal emotional experience with some sublime otherness through imagination, and it’s romantic in the sense that the poem takes a courting stance, that it’s an expression of love for another.
Yeats is one of those “bridge” poets who did substantial work in both the 19th and the 20th centuries. Always fiercely lyrical, he was able to recast his poetry so it continued to be read into the Modernist era. This poem, though written in the 19th century—and proving it by using an entirely antique word “Enwrought” to start off its second line—remains in circulation as some lovers still recall its ending.
It’s a short poem, only eight lines, so it can’t waste time.* The first four lines are devoted to a nicely rendered image of the sky and a richly embroidered cloth, the sort of thing that would indicate high fashion when it was written. Of course, this is self-consciously an image on the poet’s part, he acknowledges that he’s made it as poets make images, as a new way to apprehend reality.
Oliver Tearle, over at the always Interesting Literature blog, points out that prime English Modernist T. E. Hulme made his own version of this sky/cloth image only a few years after Yeats when he wrote his “The Embankment.” Hulme saw himself as setting out to overthrow Romanticism, and I’d suppose it’s possible that he could even have been thinking of Yeats’ poem as he created his different one. Considering the two poems together makes for an interesting contrast.**
After those first four lines, Yeats goes on to reference something that was once a widely-known tale—just as untrue, but just as commonly known as Washington copping to chopping down the cherry tree. In the English mythical tale, Walter Raleigh, acting as a paradigm of Elizabethan courtly love and devotion was said to have taken off his expensive cloak and laid it over a muddy spot on the road so that Queen Elizabeth wouldn’t soil her royal footwear. And so it is that Yeats says he’d make this beautiful image and then allow his beloved to trod all over it.
Yeats’ poem enwrought by sculptor Jackie McKenna in Drumcliff Ireland. Photo by Eric Jones.
There’s also something more here than just self-abasement or Yeats’ confidence in his brand of detergent: by saying he could put the plane of the heavens underneath his beloved, he’s also saying his poetry could take her to Heaven. But blink and you’d miss that implication.
Yes, the closing three lines are the poem’s best remembered, still quoted by those who have put themselves in the danger of love, or the danger of love refused. Romantic and romantic, and like most anything by Yeats, it just sounds so good! I performed it with acoustic guitar, electric bass, and a bevy of woozy keyboards, and you can hear it with the gadget I have spread below under your feet (or finger or mouse). Click softly.
*Here’s the text of the poem for those who like to read along. When the poem was originally published, Yeats used a persona as the poem’s speaker. Aedh was a kind of John-Keats-besotted nebbish character from what I read, and in doing so, Yeats is hedging his bets on the poem’s Romanticism, kind of a “I’m just asking for a friend” deal. When he included the poem in later collections, he dropped the persona.
**Here’s Tearle’s run-down of how Yeats’ does it in this poem, which also has links to his post about Hulme’s “The Embankment.” To hear my performance of Hulme’s “The Embankment,” you can click here. Beside producing one of the best daily literature blogs, I owe Dr. Tearle for introducing me to the work of T. E. Hulme, the pioneering Modernist poet and theorist who I’ve often featured here.