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Friday Poem: William Butler Yeats


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On June 13th 1865 the poet William Butler Yeats became the first Irish person ever to win the Nobel Prize for literature. Nearly a century and a half later, we take a look at the life and works of this much-loved poet. 

While Yeats belonged to an Anglo-Irish elite who largely considered themselves to be English people born in Ireland, he stood out among them for his staunch commitment to his Irish nationality. Many of his poems feature Irish settings and themes, especially among his later works.

He was influenced in this cultural nationalism by his long-standing infatuation with Maud Gonne, a young woman passionately supportive of Irish nationalism. Some of Yeats’ most famous poems are based on this fascination, such as ‘Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’, and ‘When You Are Old’.

Yeats was also an active playwright, and was involved in the founding of the Irish National Theatre Society in the early 20th century.

Below is one of Yeats’ less widely-quoted poems, ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’:

The Wild Swans at Coole

The trees are in their autumn beauty,

The woodland paths are dry,

Under the October twilight the water

Mirrors a still sky;

Upon the brimming water among the stones

Are nine-and-fifty swans.


The nineteenth autumn has come upon me

Since I first made my count;

I saw, before I had well finished,

All suddenly mount

And scatter wheeling in great broken rings

Upon their clamorous wings.


I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,

And now my heart is sore.

All's changed since I, hearing at twilight,

The first time on this shore,

The bell-beat of their wings above my head,

Trod with a lighter tread.


Unwearied still, lover by lover,

They paddle in the cold

Companionable streams or climb the air;

Their hearts have not grown old;

Passion or conquest, wander where they will,

Attend upon them still.


But now they drift on the still water,

Mysterious, beautiful;

Among what rushes will they build,

By what lake's edge or pool

Delight men's eyes when I awake some day

To find they have flown away?


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