The Lover Tells of the Rose in His Heart by William Butler Yeats (1892)
All things uncomely and broken, all things worn out and old,
The cry of a child by the roadway, the creak of a lumbering cart,
The heavy steps of the ploughman, splashing the wintry mould,
Are wronging your image that blossoms a rose in the deeps of my heart.
The wrong of unshapely things, is a wrong too great to be told;
I hunger to build them anew, and sit on a green knoll apart,
With the earth and the sky and the water, re-made like a casket of gold
For my dreams of your image that blossoms a rose in the deeps of my heart.
Notes and Analysis:
Back in freshman year in college, about a decade ago, the class was asked to pick a poem from our poetry book and to present our analysis of said work. I picked The Lover Tells of the Rose in His Heart by William Butler Yeats. Having had little exposure to W.B. Yeats’s works and little access to the World Wide Web, I ended up with a rather rudimentary and straightforward assessment of what I would later discover to be a historically rich piece.
Armed with handwritten notes, acetate film, and a projector, I proceeded to tell the class my limited understanding of the work. I spoke of how the simplicity of the every day becomes an affront to a man in love. The lover speaks of wanting to rebuild the world to suit the perfection of his loved one. The “wrongness” of the commonplace when set beside the luxurious line “re-made like a casket of gold,” implies the wealth of emotion the speaker feels for the addressed. How the mundane quality of everyday things pales in comparison to the depth of his emotions and the beauty of “the rose in the deeps of his heart.” And while there may be some merit to this surface-level analysis, there are certain themes I feel I’ve missed. Consider this an attempt to correct my earlier report.
W.B. Yeats was born in 1865 in Dublin, Ireland. When he was a child, his family moved to London to help further his father’s career as an artist. Much of his youth and early adulthood was then spent in the capital city of England. In fact, Yeats purportedly wrote The Lover Tells of the Rose in His Heart during his stay in Bedford Park in 1892. Despite the long years spent abroad, Yeats seems to have remained profoundly devoted to his homeland. Closer examination of the abovementioned poem even discloses allusions to life in Ireland—“the cry of a child by the roadway, the creak of a lumbering cart/the heavy steps of the ploughman, splashing the wintry mould/Are wronging your image that blossoms a rose in the deeps of my heart.”
Could the “you” being portrayed here be something other than a person? Could it, in fact, be the land itself? He speaks of a “hunger to build them anew,” these “unshapely things.” Consider “you” to be Ireland, and the poem takes on a whole new meaning. This makes it altogether possible that the poem isn’t so much about romantic love as it is about nationalistic ideals—the desire to connect with and improve a country that is much beloved though distant. That’s one idea that can be explored.
The other, is that the piece is, in fact, really just a wonderfully written love poem dedicated to Yeats’s long-term love; the English-born feminist, actress, and Irish revolutionary, Maud Gonne. Maud figured heavily in Yeats’s writings throughout the span of his infatuation. She is said to have inspired works like “No Second Troy,” “This, This Rude Knocking,” and “A Man Young and Old.” The poet was so enamored with the Irish revolutionary that he proposed marriage to her, no less than five times (in 1891, 1899, 1900, 1901, and once again in 1916). Though by the time of the last proposal, the romance had reportedly long since fizzled out. It must have been an amicable break because that same year, the 52-year-old Yeats also proposed marriage to Maud’s 22-year-old daughter, Iseult. She also turned him down. When seen in this context, the straightforward analysis of yore works.
And here’s a personal observation from my 28-year-old self: how terribly prophetic that Yeats would use “re-made like a casket of gold” in a poem dedicated to Maud—how a grand gesture could in fact signal the end of a grand, long-standing romance, as one reads too much into the word “casket.” But that’s overreaching and over-reading, as a lover of words is wont to do.
The last idea, which is my favorite, is that like all great works from master wordsmiths, The Lover Tells of the Rose in His Heart is actually a complex combination of these ideas, and more. It’s a love poem written for both a ‘dream lover’ and the ‘dream of a better nation.’ I could also say that it’s an example of how great poetry works—with its ever-shifting meanings borne of the reader’s active imaginings.
The Sylvia Plath Connection: At this point, it’s no great secret that I am a big fan of Sylvia Plath’s works. It was Sylvia Plath’s “Mirror” which awoke my desire to write for a living. Being also a fan of W.B. Yeats’s writings, imagine my surprise when I found out that the two shared something other than great talent. At the time of Sylvia Plath’s death, she was living in a flat where William Butler Yeats once lived. She had taken it as a sign of greater things.
And that concludes today’s lengthy ramblings.