By W. B. Yeats
There is grey in your hair.
Young men no longer suddenly catch their breath
When you are passing;
But maybe some old gaffer mutters a blessing
Because it was your prayer
Recovered him upon the bed of death.
For your sole sake-that all heart’s ache have known,
And given to others all heart’s ache,
From meagre girlhood’s putting on
Burdensome beauty-for your sole sake
Heaven has put away the stroke of her doom,
So great her portion in that peace you make
By merely walking in a room.
Your beauty can but leave among us
Vague memories, nothing but memories.
A young man when the old men are done talking
Will say to an old man, ‘Tell me of that lady
The poet stubborn with his passion sang us
When age might well have chilled his blood.’
Vague memories, nothing but memories,
But in the grave all, all shall be renewed.
The certainty that I shall see that lady
Leaning or standing or walking
In the first loveliness of womanhood,
And with the fervour of my youthful eyes,
Has set me muttering like a fool.
You are more beautiful than any one,
And yet your body had a flaw:
Your small hands were not beautiful,
And I am afraid that you will run
And paddle to the wrist
In that mysterious, always brimming lake
Where those that have obeyed the holy law
Paddle and are perfect; leave unchanged
The hands that I have kissed
For all sake’s sake.
The last stroke of midnight dies.
All day in one chair
From dream to dream and rhyme to rhyme I have ranged
In rambling talk with an image of air:
Vague memories, nothing but memories.
“Broken Dreams” was published in 1917, only a short while after Yeats’ fifth, and final, proposal to his muse, Maud Gonne. It therefore considers his loss of Gonne, along with his own fears regarding death. He reflects on a time when Gonne was more beautiful, and imagines that this beauty will live on in an existence after her death.
This poem is all about memory and “dreams”. “Broken dreams” reflects how Yeats’ desires to be with Maud Gonne were never fulfilled, or “broken”, whilst “dreams” also alludes to the young Gonne that Yeats remembers from their youth.
Metre & Structure
Yeats uses enjambment throughout the poem, in order to explore and demonstrate how his most passionate ideas are coming quickly and seem out of control. It is written in an elegiac style, as it represents Yeats’ fears regarding the end of his life, and holds a roughly iambic metre, emphasising Yeats’ love and passion for Maud Gonne.
Line by Line
- “There is grey in your hair.” – Linking to the line, “hollow of cheek” in Yeats’ “Among School Children”, this opening line presents themes of change and decay early-on in the poem. The end stop that follows this thought then leaves an impression of finality, and thus also death.
- “Young men” – Yeats not only excludes himself from this bracket of “young”, through this use of third-person, but also implies that no young men “catch their breath” and thus fall for Maud Gonne, because the only man left who cares for her is no longer “young”.
- “Suddenly” – This “suddenly” is used in many of Yeats’ poems, such as “Wild Swans at Coole“, “The Cold Heaven” and “The Fisherman“. Generally, this demonstrates a change of time, often associated with the theme of death; from this, the word seems to reflect what is almost Yeats’ surprise that he is no longer a “young” man, and that, in his mind, his death is not far off.
- “Passing” – A double meaning here refers both to how Yeats is always watching Maud Gonne, even as she walks by him, and also to death in general. Yeats is mainly considering Gonne’s “passing” here, but, through her, may also be fearing his own.
- “Old gaffer” – Yeats refers both to himself, admitting that he is “old”, and to a genuine “old gaffer”, whom Gonne once “recovered […] upon the bed of death”; this demonstrates her compassion, as the event wasn’t fictional, but also holds supernatural and religious connotations, as it is preceded by the notion of “prayer”. The idea of Gonne healing the man thus links to Jesus and his resurrection.
- “Sole sake” – This sibilance hints that the entire poem is based on the concept of dreams, whilst also alluding to sleep, reflective of the themes of loss and death that are prevalent in “Broken Dreams”. The repetition of this term is also very important; the first time it appears, it is alongside ideas about the “heart”, whilst, the second, it is besides “beauty”. This not only alludes to ideas about duality, but also to Yeats’ idea about the gyre. This was a theory of his that, in terms of this poem, stated that a person couldn’t be both truly beautiful and intelligent at the same time. As they grew older and uglier, they would also grow more intelligent.
- “Burdensome beauty” – This idea again refers to the gyre; Yeats is supposing that Gonne’s “beauty” was a “burden”, as, now that she is less beautiful, she is able to pursue her political and intellectual interests, without her beauty distracting her or tying her down.
- “Heaven has put away the stroke of her doom” – A similar idea as raised by the phrase “burdensome beauty”, this line suggests that Gonne is somehow being saved by her death. Whilst “heaven” again alludes to religion and glorifies Gonne, it also represents death and the loss of her beauty, which may again allude to the gyre and how Gonne is now free to pursue her more intellectual interests.
- “Vague memories, nothing but memories” – This repeated message ties in with the concept of “dreams” from the title and signifies how Yeats still remembers Gonne’s youth and beauty, even if it doesn’t exist in the real world anymore. Repetition is also very important in this poem, as it demonstrates the balance that Yeats believed to exist in the gyre.
- “Tell me of that lady” – These lines signify how Yeats is immortalising Maud Gonne through his poetry, either to glorify or discredit her. This reflects how she is only “memories” now, but will still exist through his “memories” and his poetry.
- “When age might well have chilled his blood” – Yeats’ love for Gonne is somehow tainted by Yeats’ old age, demonstrating the power of loss and decay. This line also reveals the loyalty of Yeats, however, as he is saying that, even in his last days, he will be speaking of Maud Gonne, loving and remembering her in his dreams.
- “But in the grave all, all shall be renewed.” – On the surface, this line may refer to how Yeats expects Gonne’s physical beauty to return to her after death, or else to Yeats’ sexual relationship with Iseult Gonne, Maud’s daughter, and perhaps how he saw Maud to be reborn in this way. However, the structure of this line is very important, too; the caesura between the repetition of “all” represents a pause, whilst also drawing attention to the theme of balance offered by the repetition. One interpretation here could be that the comma is death, whilst the final end-stop represents the actual end, which, from this reading, would support Yeats’ belief that Gonne will not come to an end once she dies.
- “In the first loveliness of womanhood, / And with the fervour of my youthful eyes, / Has sent me muttering like a fool” – In this section, Yeats demonstrates how he needs both Gonne and himself to be reborn into youth, because he needs to be young to better appreciate her beauty. Yeats does not yet have these “youthful eyes”, though; he is an “old gaffer” “muttering” and dreaming of Gonne.
- “Your body had a flaw: / Your small hands were not beautiful” – This may demonstrate Yeats’ frustrations at Gonne’s refusals of him as he essentially insults her. On a deeper level, though, Gonne’s hands may represent her power, and, according to the balance of the gyre, Gonne would have had less political power when she was beautiful.
- “In that mysterious, always brimming lake” – This may be a reference to the River Styx, the river that, according to Greek Mythology, separated the world of the living from the underworld. These few lines suggest that Gonne hasn’t entirely left Yeats, or at least that, if she has, she is happy and “perfect”.
- “The last stroke of midnight dies.” – Much like in “The Wild Swans at Coole” where “autumn” and “twilight” allude to the end of life, “midnight” here represents the real end. Both Yeats and Gonne will soon be dead, and the realisation has hit Yeats that he will never be with her; this line conveys the finality of that realisation. The final end-stop only emphasises these themes.
“Broken Dreams” almost entirely concerns Yeats’ unrequited love for Maud Gonne. As she has rejected Yeats’ romantic advances so many times, this poem essentially reveals Yeats’ acceptance of the fact that he will never be with Gonne – at least in this life.
It’s a complex poem that conveys ideas regarding afterlife, death, loss and power. Yeats combines his own fears about death with his essential loss of Gonne. It’s main function, however, is to preserve the Gonne that Yeats remembers from his youth through the form of memories and dreams. Yeats spends a long time reflecting on the beauty of a youthful Gonne, and, in a way, lives in his own memories.