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Meditations in Time of Civil War

Author: William Butler Yeats

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Electronic edition compiled and proof-read by Beatrix Färber, Rebecca Daly

Funded by School of History, University College, Cork

1. First draft.

Extent of text: 2268 words


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Text ID Number: E910001-055

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First published 1896 in the journal London Mercury 7, (January 1923), 232–38 and in The Dial 74.1 (January 1923), 50–56.


    Literature (a small selection)
  1. W. B. Yeats, The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats, consisting of Reveries over childhood and youth, The trembling of the veil, and Dramatis personae (New York 1938).
  2. Richard Ellmann, Yeats: The Man and the Masks. Corrected edition with a new preface (Oxford 1979). [First published New York 1948; reprinted London 1961.]
  3. Peter Allt and Russell K. Alspach, The variorum Edition of the Poems of W.B. Yeats (New York: Macmillan 1957).
  4. W. B. Yeats, Essays and Introductions (New York: Macmillan 1961).
  5. W. B. Yeats, Explorations: selected by Mrs W. B.Yeats (London/New York: Macmillan 1962).
  6. Richard Ellmann, The Identity of Yeats (New York 1964).
  7. Norman Jeffares, A New Commentary on the Poems of W.B. Yeats (Stanford 1984).
  8. Helen Vendler, Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form (Oxford/New York 2007).
  9. A general bibliography is available online at the official web site of the Nobel Prize. See:
    The edition used in the digital edition
  1. William Butler Yeats Meditations in Time of Civil War in , Ed. William Butler Yeats The Cat and the Moon: and certain Poems. Cuala Press, Dublin, (1924) page 16–25


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Created: By William Butler Yeats (1865–1939). Date range: c.1922.

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Language: [EN] The poem is in English.

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Corpus of Electronic Texts Edition: E910001-055

Meditations in Time of Civil War: Author: William Butler Yeats

Meditations in Time of Civil War

Ancestral Houses


  1. SURELY among a rich man s flowering lawns,
    Amid the rustle of his planted hills,
    Life overflows without ambitious pains;
    And rains down life until the basin spills,
    And mounts more dizzy high the more it rains
    As though to choose whatever shape it wills
    And never stoop to a mechanical
    Or servile shape, at others' beck and call.


    Mere dreams, mere dreams! Yet Homer had not Sung
    Had he not found it certain beyond dreams
    That out of life's own self-delight had sprung
    The abounding glittering jet; though now it seems
    As if some marvellous empty sea-shell flung
    Out of the obscure dark of the rich streams,
    And not a fountain, were the symbol which
    Shadows the inherited glory of the rich.
    Some violent bitter man, some powerful man
    Called architect and artist in, that they,
    Bitter and violent men, might rear in stone
    The sweetness that all longed for night and day,
    The gentleness none there had ever known;
    But when the master's buried mice can play.
    And maybe the great-grandson of that house,
    For all its bronze and marble, 's but a mouse.
    O what if gardens where the peacock strays
    With delicate feet upon old terraces,
    Or else all Juno from an urn displays
    Before the indifferent garden deities;
    O what if levelled lawns and gravelled ways
    Where slippered Contemplation finds his ease
    And Childhood a delight for every sense,
    But take our greatness with our violence?


    What if the glory of escutcheoned doors,
    And buildings that a haughtier age designed,
    The pacing to and fro on polished floors
    Amid great chambers and long galleries, lined
    With famous portraits of our ancestors;
    What if those things the greatest of mankind
    Consider most to magnify, or to bless,
    But take our greatness with our bitterness?
  2. My House

    1. An ancient bridge, and a more ancient tower,
      A farmhouse that is sheltered by its wall,
      An acre of stony ground,
      Where the symbolic rose can break in flower,
      Old ragged elms, old thorns innumerable,
      The sound of the rain or sound
      Of every wind that blows;
      The stilted water-hen
      Crossing Stream again
      Scared by the splashing of a dozen cows;
      A winding stair, a chamber arched with stone,
      A grey stone fireplace with an open hearth,
      A candle and written page.
      i{Il Penseroso's} Platonist toiled on
      In some like chamber, shadowing forth


      How the daemonic rage
      Imagined everything.
      Benighted travellers
      From markets and from fairs
      Have seen his midnight candle glimmering.
      Two men have founded here. A man-at-arms
      Gathered a score of horse and spent his days
      In this tumultuous spot,
      Where through long wars and sudden night alarms
      His dwinding score and he seemed castaways
      Forgetting and forgot;
      And I, that after me
      My bodily heirs may find,
      To exalt a lonely mind,
      Befitting emblems of adversity.

    2. p.20

      My Table

      1. Two heavy trestles, and a board
        Where Sato's gift, a changeless sword,
        By pen and paper lies,
        That it may moralise
        My days out of their aimlessness.
        A bit of an embroidered dress
        Covers its wooden sheath.
        Chaucer had not drawn breath
        When it was forged. In Sato's house,
        Curved like new moon, moon-luminous
        It lay five hundred years.
        Yet if no change appears
        No moon; only an aching heart
        Conceives a changeless work of art.
        Our learned men have urged
        That when and where 'twas forged
        A marvellous accomplishment,
        In painting or in pottery, went
        From father unto son
        And through the centuries ran
        And seemed unchanging like the sword.
        Soul's beauty being most adored,
        Men and their business took
        Me soul's unchanging look;
        For the most rich inheritor,
        Knowing that none could pass Heaven's door,


        That loved inferior art,
        Had such an aching heart
        That he, although a country's talk
        For silken clothes and stately walk.
        Had waking wits; it seemed
        Juno's peacock screamed.
      2. My Descendants

        1. Having inherited a vigorous mind
          From my old fathers, I must nourish dreams
          And leave a woman and a man behind
          As vigorous of mind, and yet it seems
          Life scarce can cast a fragrance on the wind,
          Scarce spread a glory to the morning beams,
          But the torn petals strew the garden plot;
          And there's but common greenness after that.
          And what if my descendants lose the flower
          Through natural declension of the soul,
          Through too much business with the passing hour,
          Through too much play, or marriage with a fool?
          May this laborious stair and this stark tower
          Become a roofless ruin that the owl
          May build in the cracked masonry and cry
          Her desolation to the desolate sky.


          The primum Mobile that fashioned us
          Has made the very owls in circles move;
          And I, that count myself most prosperous,
          Seeing that love and friendship are enough,
          For an old neighbour's friendship chose the house
          And decked and altered it for a girl's love,
          And know whatever flourish and decline
          These stones remain their monument and mine.
        2. The Road at My Door

          1. An affable Irregular,
            A heavily-built Falstaffian man,
            Comes cracking jokes of civil war
            As though to die by gunshot were
            The finest play under the sun.
            A brown Lieutenant and his men,
            Half dressed in national uniform,
            Stand at my door, and I complain
            Of the foul weather, hail and rain,
            A pear-tree broken by the storm.
            I count those feathered balls of soot
            The moor-hen guides upon the stream.
            To silence the envy in my thought;


            And turn towards my chamber, caught
            In the cold snows of a dream.
          2. The Stare's Nest by My Window

            1. The bees build in the crevices
              Of loosening masonry, and there
              The mother birds bring grubs and flies.
              My wall is loosening; honey-bees,
              Come build in the empty house of the state.
              We are closed in, and the key is turned
              On our uncertainty; somewhere
              A man is killed, or a house burned,
              Yet no cleat fact to be discerned:
              Come build in he empty house of the stare.
              A barricade of stone or of wood;
              Some fourteen days of civil war;
              Last night they trundled down the road
              That dead young soldier in his blood:
              Come build in the empty house of the stare.
              We had fed the heart on fantasies,
              The heart's grown brutal from the fare;
              More Substance in our enmities
              Than in our love; O honey-bees,
              Come build in the empty house of the stare.

            2. p.24

              I see Phantoms of Hatred and of the Heart's Fullness and of the Coming Emptiness

              1. I climb to the tower-top and lean upon broken stone,
                A mist that is like blown snow is sweeping over all,
                Valley, river, and elms, under the light of a moon
                That seems unlike itself, that seems unchangeable,
                A glittering sword out of the east. A puff of wind
                And those white glimmering fragments of the mist sweep by.
                Frenzies bewilder, reveries perturb the mind;
                Monstrous familiar images swim to the mind's eye.
                'Vengeance upon the murderers,' the cry goes up,
                'Vengeance for Jacques Molay.' In cloud-pale rags, or in lace,
                The rage-driven, rage-tormented, and rage-hungry troop,
                Trooper belabouring trooper, biting at arm or at face,
                Plunges towards nothing, arms and fingers spreading wide
                For the embrace of nothing; and I, my wits astray
                Because of all that senseless tumult, all but cried
                For vengeance on the murderers of Jacques Molay.
                Their legs long, delicate and slender, aquamarine their eyes,
                Magical unicorns bear ladies on their backs.
                The ladies close their musing eyes. No prophecies,
                Remembered out of Babylonian almanacs,
                Have closed the ladies' eyes, their minds are but a pool
                Where even longing drowns under its own excess;


                Nothing but stillness can remain when hearts are full
                Of their own sweetness, bodies of their loveliness.
                The cloud-pale unicorns, the eyes of aquamarine,
                The quivering half-closed eyelids, the rags of cloud or of lace,
                Or eyes that rage has brightened, arms it has made lean,
                Give place to an indifferent multitude, give place
                To brazen hawks. Nor self-delighting reverie,
                Nor hate of what's to come, nor pity for what's gone,
                Nothing but grip of claw, and the eye's complacency,
                The innumerable clanging wings that have put out the moon.
                I turn away and shut the door, and on the stair
                Wonder how many times I could have proved my worth
                In something that all others understand or share;
                But O! ambitious heart, had such a proof drawn forth
                A company of friends, a conscience set at ease,
                It had but made us pine the more. The abstract joy,
                The half-read wisdom of daemonic images,
                Suffice the ageing man as once the growing boy.