W.B. Yeats’ “The Folly of Being Comforted”: A Poem for St. Patrick’s Day

The Irish poet William Butler Yeats is perhaps the greatest English language poet of the 20th century—if he is not in a class by himself, then the class he is in doesn’t take long to call roll.

I present here two versions of Yeats’ “The Folly of Being Comforted.” Yeats was an inveterate reviser of his works and this one benefited substantially from his relentless tinkering. We’ll be spending time with the one on the right but I thought you might get a kick out of seeing the earlier version. Yeats is a terrific example of the kind of artist who drills so deeply into the personal that he discovers the universal. His life-long love of the great Irish beauty and revolutionary Maud Gonne is well known. Too often, though, biographers, critics and readers spend endless amount of time trying to tie every one of Yeats’ poems to some biographical element of his life. But autobiography isn’t poetry and “The Folly of Being Comforted” is poetry. You’ll find in the right margin that I have applied rhyme scheme—designated by capital letters—and a syllable count for each line in parentheses. We can quibble about the syllable count in line 4 of both versions depending on how we pronounce “easier” with two syllables /ez-yer/ or three syllables /e-z-er/. An iambic foot has two syllables and the way you end up with some 11 syllable lines is usually through the use of substitute, 3-syllable feet.

This is a sonnet—but not a traditional one—and Yeats, like a gymnast using the entire mat space in a floor routine, shows amazing creativity inside the rigorous confines of the sonnet form: 14 lines, rhymed, iambic pentameter. Often sonnets will have an octave (8-line segment) and a sestet (6-line segment) or three quatrains (4-line units) and a couplet (2-line wrap-up). Yeats rejects both of those patterns and rearranged the poem on the page in the second version so that line 6 is broken in two—to emphasize the pause and change in speakers; and he separated the last two lines to reinforce the pause and again allow the change in voice to settle in.
Take a read through the 1933 version of the poem (which is below the first version of 1902; you will need to click on the link which I had to do this way to retain the formatting–critical to reading and appreciating this poem):

“The Folly of Being Comforted” (1902)

ONE that is ever kind said yesterday: A (10)
“Your well beloved’s hair has threads of grey, A (10)
And little shadows come about her eyes; B (10)
Time can but make it easier to be wise, B (11)
Though now it’s hard, till trouble is at an end; C (11)
And so be patient, be wise and patient, friend.” C (11)
But heart, there is no comfort, not a grain; D (10)
Time can but make her beauty over again, D (11)
Because of that great nobleness of hers; E (10)
The fire that stirs about her, when she stirs E (10)
Burns but more clearly. O she had not these ways, F (11)
When all the wild Summer was in her gaze. F (10)
O heart! O heart! if she’d but turn her head, G (10)
You’d know the folly of being comforted. G (11)

 

The Folly of Being Comforted

 

One that is ever kind said yesterday:
`Your well-belovéd's hair has threads of grey,
And little shadows come about her eyes;
Time can but make it easier to be wise
Though now it seems impossible, and so
All that you need is patience.'
                             Heart cries, `No,
I have not a crumb of comfort, not a grain.
Time can but make her beauty over again:
Because of that great nobleness of hers
The fire that stirs about her, when she stirs,
Burns but more clearly. O she had not these ways
When all the wild summer was in her gaze.

O heart! O heart! If she'd but turn her head,
You'd know the folly of being comforted.

 

Yeats gets three voices into this brief poem—the long-time friend (the one who is “ever kind” gets lines 2 through the first 7-syllables of line 6 or 48 of the 145 syllables [33%]), the narrator (line 1, syllables 8 and 9 of line 6, and lines 13 and 14 or 31 total syllables [21%]), and the narrator’s heart (last syllable of line 6 through line 12 who gets 64 syllables [44%]). The friend comforts the narrator with a version of the “time heals all wounds” argument. As a syllogism it might read: You fall in love with what is beautiful; your beloved gets older, her hair gets gray, the laugh lines appear; she won’t be as beautiful and so you won’t be so sad.

But look at line 6, a 7-syllable conclusion to the friend’s encouragement and a 3-syllable shift to a new speaker—the narrator’s heart, thereby giving us the 10-syllable line and the proper rhyme of /No/ with /so/. The heart of the narrator “cries” and cries out—“No.” That anguish is extraordinary—the friend’s wisdom is rejected because Time makes her beautiful over and over again with every season of her life. We realize that the narrator never loved her just for her physical beauty but instead he loved her for that “great nobleness” of character and the passion—“the fire that stirs about her”—that she brings to life. Her beauty grows ever greater because it is a mature beauty that has eclipsed the beauty of her youth—“she had not these ways” when she was in the spring of life and the summer and fall of life stretched out before her. Love is not something that can be “reasoned” away or that yields to time—and that is a powerful idea.

There is lots of wonderful sound to the poem but I’d like to point out a tension that Yeats creates that serves the poem well. The use of couplet rhyme usually means that every line has an end-stop. Consider the following:

“Order is Heav’n’s first law; and this confest,
Some are, and must be, greater than the rest.
Or
“Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of Mankind is Man.”
Or
“A little learning is a dang’rous Thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring.”
Or
“True Wit is Nature to Advantage drest,
What oft was Thought, but ne’er so well Exprest.”

All of those couplets are from Alexander Pope. But Yeats creates tension by pitting the couplet rhyme with its end-stops against the use of enjambment—the lack of punctuation that causes one to read through the rhyme to the next line. Lines 4 to 5, 9 to 10, and 11 to 12 all mute the impact of the rhyme giving a conversational tone to a highly constructed form. The break in 6 suspends the rhyme of “so” and “No” to again mute it. So read and listen to the poem one more time, note the change in layout from 1902 to 1933 that helps Yeats reinforce his sense of pace; and let’s think about the movement of time, the true nature of beauty, and the permanence of love.

The Folly of Being Comforted

One that is ever kind said yesterday:
`Your well-belovéd's hair has threads of grey,
And little shadows come about her eyes;
Time can but make it easier to be wise
Though now it seems impossible, and so
All that you need is patience.'
                             Heart cries, `No,
I have not a crumb of comfort, not a grain.
Time can but make her beauty over again:
Because of that great nobleness of hers
The fire that stirs about her, when she stirs,
Burns but more clearly. O she had not these ways
When all the wild summer was in her gaze.

O heart! O heart! If she'd but turn her head,
You'd know the folly of being comforted.
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2 Comments

Filed under books and learning, education, pedagogy, teaching, Uncategorized

2 responses to “W.B. Yeats’ “The Folly of Being Comforted”: A Poem for St. Patrick’s Day

  1. Margaret Cofer

    Can you tell me about “if she would but turn her head.”

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