‘The White Birds’, by William Butler Yeats

Written by, William Butler Yeats, Ireland’s greatest poet, ‘The White Birds’, is an expression of concurrent intertwined feelings when loving someone so much colludes with the crushing despair of unrequited love, when your beloved does not love you back: A sense of loss over something you will never have, being one of the worst feelings ever.

William Butler Yeats wishes that he and his beloved, Irish nationalist Maud Gonne MacBride, with whom he was infatuated, could take flight from their circumstances and be together. This wish is portrayed in the representation of the two of them changed into white birds floating on the sea-foam. He urges his beloved not to muse over mundane and forlorn images of this world – the fading meteor, the rose and lily, depicting the politics of Irish nationalist resistance – and restates his longing to be apart from the world with her, as two white birds together

Tir na nOg in Irish folklore is an imaginary land where persons live as long as fairies by the “Danaan Shore”

I would that we were, my beloved, white birds on the foam of the sea!

We tire of the flame of the meteor, before it can fade and flee;

And the flame of the blue star of twilight, hung low on the rim of the sky,

Has awaked in our hearts, my beloved, a sadness that may not die.

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“…on the foam of the sea…”  (Painting by Kathyrn O’Reilly 2006)

A weariness comes from those dreamers, dew-dabbled, the lily and rose;

Ah, dream not of them, my beloved, the flame of the meteor that goes,

Or the flame of the blue star that lingers hung low in the fall of the dew:

For I would we were changed to white birds on the wandering foam: I and you!

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“… haunted by numberless islands, and many a Danaan shore…”

I am haunted by numberless islands, and many a Danaan shore,

Where Time would surely forget us, and Sorrow come near us no more;

Soon far from the rose and the lily and fret of the flames would we be,

Were we only white birds, my beloved, buoyed out on the foam of the sea!

William Butler Yeats (1892).

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Filed under Ireland, Love, Poetry

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