I was sixteen when I first came across this poem. I was in the throes of on-coming exams and had just been left by my first serious (nearly a year together) girlfriend, only to find out that she was embarking on a relationship with my best friend. I was inconsolable, jealous, devastated and desperately wanted her back – with hindsight I may have been grieving the loss of him more than her. This poem mirrored all I promised her one wet Sunday afternoon on bended knee as I pleaded with her to take me back. Although, looking back my childish longing in no way compares with Yeats’s life-long, selfdestructive yearning for his unrequited love, Maud Gonne. My feelings shadowed Yeats’s plea with its implicit understanding that the object of love could only truly be asked to be gentle in her destruction of his hopes. The poem is at once full of epic vistas and yet very personal and grounded in the sadness that is unrequited love.
The verse plays the intricate and expensive cloth against the ephemeral, weightless promise of “light and the half-light” of dawn and dusk. For me, the way Yeats ends the first four lines with clothslight- cloths-light emphasises the contrast between the perception of his lover’s emotion and his own doomed hope.
The second half of the poem alludes to the heavy thud of her feet on his dreams – the inevitable acceptance that she will desecrate his dreams is physically and emotionally echoed within the line endings where “your feet” literally stands on “my dreams”. There is an acceptance in the failure of his wished-for love and this is reflected in the trudging images that remind me of the poem The Second Coming where Yeats’s rough beast “slouches towards” its inevitable cosmic sorrow.
You’d think that on receipt of such a heavenly poem she would have thrown herself at the poet’s feet. Being a hopeless romantic, I suppose I’m still wondering if she ever regretted her rejection and realised what she gave up. Maud Gonne that is, not my ex.
W B Yeats
He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven
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.