This is a lovely poem from WB Yeats, which is at once a conversation about the art of poetry, about beauty in general, and finally a love poem. And it has a narrative flow which is rather satisfying. I don’t know how to explain the title, but there is plenty else to enjoy in this poem.
BY WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS
We sat together at one summer’s end,
That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,
And you and I, and talked of poetry.
I said, ‘A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.’
That beautiful mild woman for whose sake
There’s many a one shall find out all heartache
On finding that her voice is sweet and low
Replied, ‘To be born woman is to know—
Although they do not talk of it at school—
That we must labour to be beautiful.’
I said, ‘It’s certain there is no fine thing
Since Adam’s fall but needs much labouring.
There have been lovers who thought love should be
So much compounded of high courtesy
That they would sigh and quote with learned looks
Precedents out of beautiful old books;
Yet now it seems an idle trade enough.’
We sat grown quiet at the name of love;
We saw the last embers of daylight die,
And in the trembling blue-green of the sky
A moon, worn as if it had been a shell
Washed by time’s waters as they rose and fell
About the stars and broke in days and years.
I had a thought for no one’s but your ears:
That you were beautiful, and that I strove
To love you in the old high way of love;
That it had all seemed happy, and yet we’d grown
As weary-hearted as that hollow moon.
The first three lines set the scene, time and place, protagonists, subject. Three people, the poet,, his friend and a woman, sitting together at the end of summer talking of poetry. The woman is both beautiful and mild, and the close friend, perhaps lover of the poet’s friend. They are having an intimate conversation, which turns to the subject of poetry.
The poet, speaking from his own experience, talks of the hard labour that goes into crafting a poem, one line takes hours, perhaps, and compares it to other forms of hard physical labour like scrubbing steps on your hands and knees or breaking stones like a prisoner. And yet the readers who see the well-formed verse imagine it was easy, that the writer set down the line fully-formed and already beautiful. And so those respectable people following professions like bankers or schoolmasters look down on the poet as an idle scribbler.
The conversation continues with the beautiful mild woman replying in a voice that reinforces her attractiveness, it is sweet and low. She finds parallel in woman’s beauty, most women need to work very hard to look beautiful all the time, whereas men think beauty is natural. (Compare the effort women put in to things like hair styling, make up, nails, skin care etc. with what most men do – it does indeed look like hard work.)
The poet replies that all fine things require much effort, even being in love, as lovers take inspiration from studying old books about love.
In the final part of the poem, the three fall silent, comfortable in their silence and in each other’s company as the late summer’s day finishes and the moon rises. Inspired by the conversation, the poet thinks he is falling in love with the woman, but knows it will not be easy, for love is hard and they are both conscious that their self-awareness prevents them from falling into the easy illusions of falling in love.
The Poetry Dude