At the Feet of the Goddess: Yeats’s Love Poetry and the Feminist Occult

  • Elizabeth Butler Cullingford

Abstract

Yeats’s early poetry consistently deploys the traditional romance structure of elevation and abasement: the mistress is above and the lover is at her feet. “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” is paradigmatic:

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;

(VP 176)

Elaborate repetition and consonantal patterning establish the cloths of heaven as both the starry skies and the costly blue vestments of a priest dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Expensive formal and imagistic embroidery, however, is beyond the means of the “poor” poet, who resorts to chivalric gesture, spreading his dreams under the feet of his goddess as Raleigh spread his cloak over the puddle for Queen Elizabeth.

Keywords

Dust Foam Decid Heroine Alan 

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Notes

  1. 2.
    Yeats noted when reading this poem for audiences that the sympathy it demands was not in fact granted. He described it as an example of how to lose a woman, while “The Cap and Bells” was an example of how to win one. See Joseph Hone, W. B. Yeats, 1865–1939, 2nd edn (London: Macmillan, 1962) p. 321.Google Scholar
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    David Bleich argues that, while men and women read prose fiction differently, “both sexes read lyric poetry similarly” because they perceive and respond to the “voice” of the lyric poet in the same way — Gender and Reading, ed. Patrocinio P. Schweickart (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986) p. 239. His arguments seem to me suggestive but supported by insufficient empirical evidence. We might interpret the similar readings reported by Bleich as evidence of the superior power of the lyric genre to control and determine the uses to which it is put: to prevent, in fact, questions such as my own.Google Scholar
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© Deirdre Toomey 1997

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  • Elizabeth Butler Cullingford

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