"A Poet to His Beloved" was written by William Butler Yeats and published in his collection "The Wind Among the Reeds" in 1899. The poem is a lyrical pronouncement of his love for Maud Gonne a political activist and actress. His life went through many changes, as had hers, but the story of his devotion to Gonne is well known. Even though she never agreed to marry him, Yeats continued to love her for most of his adult life. This poem was also a part of his first collective publication of poems. It is also somewhat out of place in his first collection which is mostly tributes to historic figures. Yeats was in transition at this point moving from writing lyrical stage plays to his most notable works today as a poet.
A Poet to His Beloved
Poem lyrics of A Poet To His Beloved by William Butler Yeats.
I bring you with reverent hands
The books of my numberless dreams,
White woman that passion has worn
As the tide wears the dove-grey sands,
And with heart more old than the horn
That is brimmed from the pale fire of time:
White woman with numberless dreams,
I bring you my passionate rhyme.
The words "reverent hands" in Line 1 are used as a way to show his devotion and respect. Line 2 "The books of my numberless dreams" is indicative of years of holding his heart for this one woman. As a lyricist and poet, Yeats would use such words to communicate the depth of his love.
After study of this beautiful poem and learning of Yeats private life, I am determined that this poem was written as a part of one of his proposals of marriage to Maud Gonne. Yeats met her in his younger years when she sought him out. She had admired his work and was anxious to meet him.
It seems Yeats fell in love with the young woman and remained faithfully celibate even though she married another man. After her marriage ended in 1899 Yeats began proposing again, but their political differences kept her from accepting. So the following lines refer to his memory of her as a young "White" idealistic woman whose passions over the many years have taken a toll.
"White woman that passion has worn
As the tide wears the dove-grey sands"
Maud Gonne was known for her tumultuous lifestyle. I don't believe that he refers only to sexual passions but to her many years of political activism, marriage and loss. Sexuality may have been hinted at here, but only in passing. Yeats allegedly stayed true to her until their relationship was finally consummated in a one night affair in 1908.
The comparison to a tide wearing down "dove-grey sands" is a reference to her age though not in an insulting way. The next line refers to his age and long devotion.
"And with heart more old than the horn"
The word horn seems appropriate for this line as a "horn" was often used to proclaim or to announce a proclamation.
"That is brimmed from the pale fire of time:"
For this line I want to note the seeming contradiction of the words brimmed and pale in such a manner. But they are not surprising as Yeats was a very complex and often contradictory personality and it showed in his work. However; in this case I don't think he intends a contradiction but refers to how his love has grown even if his passion as he ages may be waning somewhat. It is a way of telling her his love has grown the longer they have known each other. It is as if he already is married to her in his heart of hearts. The punctuation at the end of the line has not escaped notice either. It indicates a continuation.
"White woman with numberless dreams,"
In continuing he refers back to his first address to her as "white woman." This is a reference to her youth. He is now focusing on what she wanted from life "with numberless dreams," he acknowledges how they both started out as idealistic and young.
Yeats never indicated that he wished her to be any other way than she was. He in fact admired her for her convictions and determination.
The last line of the poem is the presentation of this poem to his love interest.
"I bring you my passionate rhyme."
Yeats did finally give up on Gonne after a bland proposal at the age of 51. He no longer seemed to yearn for her. He wanted to marry and have an heir. He did marry a young woman by the name of Georgie. His life continued to leap between one political ideal and another as well as from religious convictions into mysticism and back to his Protestant roots, at least for a time. He did continue to care about Gonne and they remained friends.
A Nobel Prize winning author for some of his plays, Yeats is today known best for his poetry which took up most of the later years of his life. Though complex and wavering in his life, Yeats experimenting with views gives us a rich diversity to enjoy in his writings.