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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

From ‘The Shadowy Waters’

By William Butler Yeats (1865–1939)

  • [In ‘The Shadowy Waters,’ which, as Yeats himself confesses, is a pure piece of fantasy, there are some passages of incomparable beauty. It might be called ‘The Cruise of the Soul in Search of an Impossible Love.’]

  • FORGAEL—Where the world ends

    The mind is made unchanging, for it finds

    Miracle, ecstasy, the impossible hope,

    The flagstone under all, the fire of fires,

    The roots of the world.

    For it is love that I am seeking for

    But of a beautiful unheard of kind

    That is not in the world.

    Aibric—In middle life

    They take a kiss for what a kiss is worth,

    And let the dream go by.

    Forgael—It’s not a dream,

    But the reality that makes our passion

    As a lamp shadow—no—no lamp, the sun.

    What the world’s million lips are thirsting for

    Must be substantial somewhere.


    For it is dreams

    That lift us to the flowing changing world

    That the heart longs for.


    I shall find a woman

    One of the ever-living, as I think—

    One of the laughing people—and she and I

    Shall light upon a place in the world’s core

    Where passion grows to be a changeless thing,

    Like charmed apples made of chrysoprase,

    Or chrysoberyl or beryl or chrysolite;

    And there, in juggleries of sight and sense,

    Become one movement, energy, delight,

    Until the over-burthened moon is dead.

    In ‘The King’s Threshold’ Yeats uses a motive of the simplest character. Seanchan (pronounced Shanahan) the poet resents the indignity of being offered a place at the king’s table “below the salt” by refusing both food and drink. By dying on the king’s threshold he will leave a curse upon the regal line. In its way it is a fine vindication of the true poet’s mission. Seanchan’s claim is that the mission of the poet, being of a creative character, comes first of all, before even the high kingship. In answer to the pleadings of his pupils to forego his pride and eat, Seanchan answers,

  • At Candlemas you called this poetry
  • One of the mighty, fragile things of God
  • That die at an insult.
  • When one of his scholars says in justification of his own conformity to the etiquette of the court,
  • For how could I sing verses or make music
  • With none to praise me, and a broken heart?
  • Seanchan answers:
  • What was it that the poets promised you
  • If it was not their sorrow? Do not speak.
  • Have I not opened school on these bare steps
  • And are not you the youngest of my scholars?
  • And I would have all know that when all falls
  • In ruin, poetry calls out in joy,
  • Being the scattering hand, the bursting pod,
  • The victim’s joy among the holy flame,
  • God’s laughter at the shattering of the world.
  • In the end the pupils are brought around to Seanchan’s point of view and the king yields.
    It may be instructive to note the character of Yeats’s women. They are all distinguished by a certain high, heroic quality. Whatever other virtues they may possess: whether the serenity and purity of the Countess Kathleen, the elfish waywardness of Marie Bruin, or the wild romanticism of Dectora, they share in common a certain spirit of wild daring. The unknown has no terror for them. Whatever the chalice of fate may contain they drink boldly. They indeed seem to be cognizant all the while that it is only through some form of human tragedy that they may hope to pass out to the world where love is of truly heroic proportions and of immortal duration—the world of gods and heroes. Their very mirth is but a ripple of laughter on the breaking wave of tragedy. They live and move and have their being in the very shadow of the supernatural realm. In ‘Deirdre’ we have this:
  • What’s the merit in love play,
  • In the tumult of the limbs,
  • That dies out before ’tis day:
  • Heart on heart, or mouth on mouth,
  • All that mingling of our breath
  • When love longing is but drought
  • For the things come after death?
  • In ‘On Baile’s Strand’ Cuchulain thus speaks of love:
  • I never have known love but as a kiss
  • In the mid battle, and a difficult truce
  • Of oil and water, candles and dark night,
  • Hillside and hollow, the hot-footed sun,
  • And the cold, sliding, slippery-footed moon,
  • A brief forgiveness between opposites
  • That have been hatreds for three times the age
  • Of this long ’stablished ground.
  • But let Cuchulain’s portrait of Aoife stand for the Yeats warrior-woman.
  • Cuchulain—You call her a “fierce woman of the camp,”
  • For having lived among the spinning wheels
  • You’d have no woman near that would not say,
  • “Ah! how wise!” “What will you have for supper?”
  • “What shall I wear that I may please you, sir?”
  • And keep that humming through the day and night
  • Forever—A fierce woman of the camp—
  • But I am getting angry about nothing.
  • You have never seen her, ah! Conchobar, had you seen her
  • With that high, laughing, turbulent head of hers
  • Thrown backward and the bow-string at her ear,
  • Or sitting at the fire with those grave eyes
  • Full of good counsel as it were with wine,
  • Or when love ran through all the lineaments
  • Of her wild body—although she had no child,
  • None other had all beauty, queen, and lover,
  • Or was so fitted to give birth to kings.