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‘The white birds’ by William Butler Yeats

I would that we were, my beloved, white birds on the foam of the sea!
We tire of the flame of the meteor, before it can fade and flee;
And the flame of the blue star of twilight, hung low on the rim of the sky,
Has awakened in our hearts, my beloved, a sadness that may not die.

A weariness comes from those dreamers, dew-dabbled, the lily and rose;
Ah, dream not of them, my beloved, the flame of the meteor that goes,
Or the flame of the blue star that lingers hung low in the fall of the dew:
For I would we were changed to white birds on the wandering foam: I and you!

I am haunted by numberless islands, and many a Danaan shore,
Where Time would surely forget us, and Sorrow come near us no more;
Soon far from the rose and the lily, and fret of the flames would we be,
Were we only white birds, my beloved, buoyed out on the foam of the sea!

I think this was the first poem I ever memorised for my own pleasure. I like to memorise poems so that I can carry them with me, and recite them to myself in my head if I am on a train, in a waiting room or on the metro. This particular poem mesmerises me with its music and its wistful romance.

Apparently, Yeats wrote this poem for Maud Gonne after she refused his proposal of marriage. He creates a beautiful fantasy of their being transformed into white birds — symbols of innocence and freedom — and flying to where “Time” and “Sorrow” would no longer haunt them. You can feel his desire to escape his circumstances, to escape society, pressures, everything that is keeping them apart. My favourite phrases are, “hung low on the rim of the sky” and “hung low on the fall of the dew” – that repetition is just so melodious.

“White birds” to me conjure up the idea of freedom and innocence, as I already mentioned. They evoke the idea of being completely free of social conventions and pressures (especially ones that might prohibit love.)

The image of the the lily and rose, described so beautifully as “dew-dabbled” dreamers, is evocative of the ephemeral nature of every living thing, and, perhaps, of the couple’s love. Yeats urges his beloved to “dream not of them”, because he wants their love to be free of the fate of those flowers. He wants an evergreen love, one that will not wilt and die.

But I think that by recreating himself and the woman he loves as white birds, “buoyed out on the foam of the sea” — through this poem — he has already made their love eternal. He has transformed them into art, which never dies.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh