Unforgettable poets – Yeats and MacNeice

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), Irish poet and playwright, was one of the foremost figures of 20th century literature. In 1923 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for what was described as “inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation.”

Yeats is generally considered to have completed his greatest works after being awarded the Nobel Prize, including The Tower (1928) and The Winding Stair and Other Poems (1929). Yet “Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” was published in 1899 in Yeats’s third volume of poetry, The Wind Among the Reeds.

The speaker of the following lines is the character Aedh, who appears in Yeats’s work along with two other archetypal characters of the poet’s myth-making. Neither time nor familiarity have diminished their romantic yearning:

“Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”

The Irish poet and playwright Louis MacNeice (1907-63) was a friend and contemporary of W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender at Oxford and his poetry has often been linked to theirs. True, they share certain characteristics, including an acute political awareness, but in recent years MacNeice’s poetry has been re-evaluated on its own terms and there is a move to reclaim him as an Irish writer. “The Sunlight on the Garden” is one of his best known poems.

“The sunlight on the garden
Hardens and grows cold,
We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold,
When all is told
We cannot beg for pardon.

Our freedom as free lances
Advances towards its end;
The earth compels, upon it
Sonnets and birds descend;
And soon, my friend,
We shall have no time for dances.

The sky was good for flying
Defying the church bells
And every evil iron
Siren and what it tells:
The earth compels,
We are dying, Egypt, dying

And not expecting pardon,
Hardened in heart anew,
But glad to have sat under
Thunder and rain with you,
And grateful too
For sunlight on the garden.”

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