But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
He wasn’t literally poor, of course. William Butler Yeats was born into an Anglo-Irish Protestant family at a time when the landed gentry were still in the last phase of their ascendancy. With that came the big houses, expensive schooling and freedom to move in elevated social circles of London and Dublin. Yet the ardent nationalist, poet and politician would surely be spinning merrily at the result of the Irish referendum.
Dreams come true for many of the 1,149,390 who voted Yes in the world’s only plebiscite on gay marriage. In Ireland homosexuality was illegal just 22 years ago.
What would Yeats have made of it? Despite the dangers of putting thoughts into the mind of a dead poet, and one with such monumental stature, I’m prepared to bet he would be celebrating along with Colm Tóibín the liberation it brings to Irish society – and not just to the gay minority.
‘Tread softly..’ a line sometimes tweeted during the referendum campaign is the soft and lyrical ending of an early work, He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven, a song of longing which could stir a heart of stone (if not Maud Gonne his real life unrequited love). But there are many other moods in a lifetime’s work. Yeats, a gloriously complex man – mystic, romantic, politic, nationalist and proud of his Protestant roots for all that – was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1923 for “inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation”.
That same year he was re-elected to the Senate where he became increasingly outspoken against the political influence of the Roman Catholic Church and its campaign against divorce. Likening the church’s campaign tactics to those of ‘mediaeval Spain’ he said:
Marriage is not to us a Sacrament, but, upon the other hand, the love of a man and woman, and the inseparable physical desire, are sacred. This conviction has come to us through ancient philosophy and modern literature, and it seems to us a most sacrilegious thing to persuade two people who hate each other … to live together, and it is to us no remedy to permit them to part if neither can re-marry.
While Yeats was then arguing for the divorce rights of heterosexual married couples, he might well be intrigued now by the unknown constitutional consequences of this new rejection of Roman Catholic orthodoxy prohibiting gay marriage. With the campaign focus now on Northern Ireland – the only country in Western Europe to ban same sex marriage – there’s an echoing of his prophetic warning to the Senate:
If you show that this country, southern Ireland, is going to be governed by Roman Catholic ideas and by Catholic ideas alone, you will never get the North … You will put a wedge in the midst of this nation.
Too soon to know if the wedge has been loosened or tightened by the result of the southern Irish vote on 22 May. Instead, our poem of the week remembers that thoughts of love can infiltrate even the most ominous political forces.
Here is Yeats’ last poem, dated May 1938, during the Spanish Civil War, with Hitler’s shadow looming across Europe. It was written just eight months before he died in January 1939, aged 73.
How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics?
Yet here’s a travelled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there’s a politician
That has read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war’s alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms!
Find more Yeats poems on Poem Hunter.