My Love Affair with W. B. Yeats


I had not heard from Mr. Yeats in years. He was buried in my bookshelf with other old friends, tucked away in closed pages, long gone. Or so I thought–until this past October when I visited Ireland, a country in love with writing and with its writers–especially with William Butler Yeats.

In the interest of compression, the story goes like this: My husband and I were leaving the National Museum of Ireland where we saw the Cashel Man preserved in the Irish peat bogs. He was buried during the early Bronze Age, 2,000 BC, making him 4,000 years old!  (They had bogs; we have blogs.)

"The Lake Isle of Innistree"As we left,  we saw a notice for a Yeats exhibit next door at the  Irish National Library. “Oh my gosh,” I said to my husband, “we  have to go in.”  And there, as if Yeats too had emerged from the bogs of my memory, I found him still alive.  I heard his sonorous voice reading  “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” His words were music. The images of Innisfree were projected onto transparent screens:  the bees, the clover, the land. I listened as  other Irish poets read more of his poems. I was transfixed. One of my favorite poets, the complicated William Butler Yeats, whose poems sent me spiraling as a college student, was here alive and well. For the next hour, we made our way around the exhibit, visiting smaller rooms with multiple inter-active exhibits that captured his loves, his marriage, his politics, his interest in the occult, his writing, and finally his death and re-burial in Ireland. As we left, I knew that my love for Yeats had never really been lost.

If you won’t be making a trip to Ireland anytime soon, you can visit the Irish National Library exhibit and take a virtual tour. Go to The Life and Works of William Butler Yeats.

A few weeks after we returned from Ireland,  I opened my e-mail to find  that Yeats was still speaking to me. There in my mailbox was his poem, “Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” (Poem-a-Day, Academy of American Poets). Go to a Video Homage to “Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” for a lovely reading of this poem.

Over the past several weeks, I’ve met many times with my friend, W. B. Yeats, reading his poems and biography and tracking him down on the internet.  I discovered a favorite poem, “When You Are Old,” one of his best-loved poems, written when he was quite young. As an extra bonus, I found a wonderful love story related to “When You Are Old”  from the Favorite Poem Project (founded by former Poet Laureate, Robert Pinsky) about a young woman, her grandfather, and her husband-to-be. The lovely video shows how one poem can connect several people and give meaning to each of their lives. Click here to watch it:  “Yeats, When You Are Old,”  Favorite Poem Project.


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.



Writing Ideas: Take the phrase “My Love Affair with _________.” Try out different words to fill in the blank: “My Love Affair with the Ocean,”  “My Love Affair with My ’62 White Buick Convertible,” “My Love Affair with Chopin or Elvis.” Don’t think too much about it. Just write for at least ten minutes. There’s passion there–and longing. I know.

Or take the lines: “But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you/ And loved the sorrows of your changing face.” There’s plenty there to fill a few pages of your writer’s notebook. Go.images-9

5 thoughts on “My Love Affair with W. B. Yeats

  1. In October, right after 9/11, Poets & Writers sponsored a poets’ reading in the Village. Poets laureate, other famous poets galore. Tickets impossible to get, but I knew someone who knew someone who got us in. I was struck by how many read Yeats rather than their own work.

    • Right after 9/11, Poets & Writers sponsored a reading in Greenwich Village. Poets laureate, famous poets galore. Tickets were impossible, but I knew someone who knew someone who got us in. I was struck by how many of them read Yeats, rather than their own work.

    • Because Yeats was so active with the politics of Ireland, the Irish Civil War, and the Irish War for Independence, many of his poems such as “Easter, 1916” and “The Second Coming” are about war and violence. I can see why a poet might choose one of his poems as a reflection on 9/11. Thanks for your comment, Carol.

  2. What a wonderful post, thank you so much for all the time and effort you put into writing it. It’s taken me so long to respond because I had to go wander through the virtual landscape of the museum; go find my Yeats book and see what poems I’d marked (one is When You Are Old) and found again The Dawn….I would be ignorant as the dawn….what a line. Ignorant and wanton as the dawn. What a gift to wander Ireland. I want so much to do that. It’s on the list! My Sunderland roots have driven me into the high country to wander the Celtic lands at least in spirit and going to Ireland would be the crown on it all. Thanks again, Vicky. I’m so glad you went and came back and reported. J.

    • Thanks so much, dear Janet, for reading my post and actually following the links. I was hoping someone would do that, but in this world of “tweets,” most people go for the short sound-bite.

      And yes, Ireland is definitely a place for us writers–and spiritual explorers. The Yeats exhibit alone was worth the visit. I’ll be going back because our son and family will be there for two years, so I plan to do more of the literary sites.

      I’m enjoying your posts, especially the one today, because it tells me you are writing. Music to my ears. Happy Thanksgiving–with much gratitude for YOU!

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