Collected Poems, by William Butler Yeats

The Phases of the Moon

An old man cocked his ear upon a bridge;

He and his friend, their faces to the South,

Had trod the uneven road. Their boots were soiled,

Their Connemara cloth worn out of shape;

They had kept a steady pace as though their beds,

Despite a dwindling and late-risen moon,

Were distant still. An old man cocked his ear.

Aherne. What made that Sound?

Robartes. A rat or water-hen

Splashed, or an otter slid into the stream.

We are on the bridge; that shadow is the tower,

And the light proves that he is reading still.

He has found, after the manner of his kind,

Mere images; chosen this place to live in

Because, it may be, of the candle-light

From the far tower where Milton’s Platonist

Sat late, or Shelley’s visionary prince:

The lonely light that Samuel Palmer engraved,

An image of mysterious wisdom won by toil;

And now he seeks in book or manuscript

What he shall never find.

Aherne. Why should not you

Who know it all ring at his door, and speak

Just truth enough to show that his whole life

Will scarcely find for him a broken crust

Of all those truths that are your daily bread;

And when you have spoken take the roads again?

Robartes. He wrote of me in that extravagant style

He had learnt from pater, and to round his tale

Said I was dead; and dead I choose to be.

Aherne. Sing me the changes of the moon once more;

True song, though speech: “mine author sung it me.”

Robartes. Twenty-and-eight the phases of the moon,

The full and the moon’s dark and all the crescents,

Twenty-and-eight, and yet but six-and-twenty

The cradles that a man must needs be rocked in:

For there’s no human life at the full or the dark.

From the first crescent to the half, the dream

But summons to adventure and the man

Is always happy like a bird or a beast;

But while the moon is rounding towards the full

He follows whatever whim’s most difficult

Among whims not impossible, and though scarred.

As with the cat-o’-nine-tails of the mind,

His body moulded from within his body

Grows comelier. Eleven pass, and then

Athene takes Achilles by the hair,

Hector is in the dust, Nietzsche is born,

Because the hero’s crescent is the twelfth.

And yet, twice born, twice buried, grow he must,

Before the full moon, helpless as a worm.

The thirteenth moon but sets the soul at war

In its own being, and when that war’s begun

There is no muscle in the arm; and after,

Under the frenzy of the fourteenth moon,

The soul begins to tremble into stillness,

To die into the labyrinth of itself!

Aherne. Sing out the song; sing to the end, and sing

The strange reward of all that discipline.

Robartes. All thought becomes an image and the soul

Becomes a body: that body and that soul

Too perfect at the full to lie in a cradle,

Too lonely for the traffic of the world:

Body and soul cast out and cast away

Beyond the visible world.

Aherne. All dreams of the soul

End in a beautiful man’s or woman’s body.

Robartes. Have you not always known it?

Aherne. The song will have it

That those that we have loved got their long fingers

From death, and wounds, or on Sinai’s top,

Or from some bloody whip in their own hands.

They ran from cradle to cradle till at last

Their beauty dropped out of the loneliness

Of body and soul.

Robartes. The lover’s heart knows that.

Aherne. It must be that the terror in their eyes

Is memory or foreknowledge of the hour

When all is fed with light and heaven is bare.

Robartes. When the moon’s full those creatures of the

full

Are met on the waste hills by countrymen

Who shudder and hurry by: body and soul

Estranged amid the strangeness of themselves,

Caught up in contemplation, the mind’s eye

Fixed upon images that once were thought;

For separate, perfect, and immovable

Images can break the solitude

Of lovely, satisfied, indifferent eyes.

And thereupon with aged, high-pitched voice

Aherne laughed, thinking of the man within,

His sleepless candle and laborious pen.

Robartes. And after that the crumbling of the moon.

The soul remembering its loneliness

Shudders in many cradles; all is changed,

It would be the world’s servant, and as it serves,

Choosing whatever task’s most difficult

Among tasks not impossible, it takes

Upon the body and upon the soul

The coarseness of the drudge.

Aherne. Before the full

It sought itself and afterwards the world.

Robartes. Because you are forgotten, half out of life,

And never wrote a book, your thought is clear.

Reformer, merchant, statesman, learned man,

Dutiful husband, honest wife by turn,

Cradle upon cradle, and all in flight and all

Deformed because there is no deformity

But saves us from a dream.

Aherne. And what of those

That the last servile crescent has set free?

Robartes. Because all dark, like those that are all light,

They are cast beyond the verge, and in a cloud,

Crying to one another like the bats;

And having no desire they cannot tell

What’s good or bad, or what it is to triumph

At the perfection of one’s own obedience;

And yet they speak what’s blown into the mind;

Deformed beyond deformity, unformed,

Insipid as the dough before it is baked,

They change their bodies at a word.

Aherne. And then?

Robartes. When all the dough has been so kneaded up

That it can take what form cook Nature fancies,

The first thin crescent is wheeled round once more.

Aherne. But the escape; the song’s not finished yet.

Robartes. Hunchback and Saint and Fool are the last

crescents.

The burning bow that once could shoot an arrow

Out of the up and down, the wagon-wheel

Of beauty’s cruelty and wisdom’s chatter —

Out of that raving tide — is drawn betwixt

Deformity of body and of mind.

Aherne. Were not our beds far off I’d ring the bell,

Stand under the rough roof-timbers of the hall

Beside the castle door, where all is stark

Austerity, a place set out for wisdom

That he will never find; I’d play a part;

He would never know me after all these years

But take me for some drunken countryman:

I’d stand and mutter there until he caught

“Hunchback and Saint and Fool,’ and that they came

Under the three last crescents of the moon.

And then I’d stagger out. He’d crack his wits

Day after day, yet never find the meaning.

And then he laughed to think that what seemed hard

Should be so simple — a bat rose from the hazels

And circled round him with its squeaky cry,

The light in the tower window was put out.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 14:50