Verse > W.B. Yeats > The Wild Swans at Coole
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W.B. Yeats (1865–1939).  The Wild Swans at Coole.  1919.

14. The Sad Shepherd


ShepherdThat cry’s from the first cuckoo of the year 
I wished before it ceased. 
  
GoatherdNor bird nor beast 
Could make me wish for anything this day, 
Being old, but that the old alone might die,         5
And that would be against God’s Providence. 
Let the young wish. But what has brought you here? 
Never until this moment have we met 
Where my goats browse on the scarce grass or leap 
From stone to stone.  10
  
Shepherd.I am looking for strayed sheep; 
Something has troubled me and in my trouble 
I let them stray. I thought of rhyme alone, 
For rhyme can beat a measure out of trouble 
And make the daylight sweet once more; but when  15
I had driven every rhyme into its place 
The sheep had gone from theirs. 
  
Goatherd.I know right well 
What turned so good a shepherd from his charge. 
  
Shepherd.He that was best in every country sport  20
And every country craft, and of us all 
Most courteous to slow age and hasty youth 
Is dead. 
  
Goatherd.The boy that brings my griddle cake 
Brought the bare news.  25
  
Shepherd.He had thrown the crook away 
And died in the great war beyond the sea. 
  
Goatherd.He had often played his pipes among my hills 
And when he played it was their loneliness, 
The exultation of their stone, that cried  30
Under his fingers. 
  
Shepherd.I had it from his mother, 
And his own flock was browsing at the door. 
  
Goatherd.How does she bear her grief? There is not a shepherd 
But grows more gentle when he speaks her name,  35
Remembering kindness done, and how can I, 
That found when I had neither goat nor grazing 
New welcome and old wisdom at her fire 
Till winter blasts were gone, but speak of her 
Even before his children and his wife.  40
  
Shepherd.She goes about her house erect and calm 
Between the pantry and the linen chest, 
Or else at meadow or at grazing overlooks 
Her labouring men, as though her darling lived, 
But for her grandson now; there is no change  45
But such as I have seen upon her face 
Watching our shepherd sports at harvest-time 
When her son’s turn was over. 
  
Goatherd.Sing your song, 
I too have rhymed my reveries, but youth  50
Is hot to show whatever it has found 
And till that’s done can neither work nor wait. 
Old goatherds and old goats, if in all else 
Youth can excel them in accomplishment, 
Are learned in waiting.  55
  
Shepherd.You cannot but have seen 
That he alone had gathered up no gear, 
Set carpenters to work on no wide table, 
On no long bench nor lofty milking shed 
As others will, when first they take possession,  60
But left the house as in his father’s time 
As though he knew himself, as it were, a cuckoo, 
No settled man. And now that he is gone 
There’s nothing of him left but half a score 
Of sorrowful, austere, sweet, lofty pipe tunes.  65
  
Goatherd.You have put the thought in rhyme. 
  
Shepherd.I worked all day 
And when ’twas done so little had I done 
That maybe ‘I am sorry’ in plain prose 
Had sounded better to your mountain fancy [He sings.]  70
‘Like the speckled bird that steers 
Thousands of leagues oversea, 
And runs for a while or a while half-flies 
Upon his yellow legs through our meadows, 
He stayed for a while; and we  75
Had scarcely accustomed our ears 
To his speech at the break of day, 
Had scarcely accustomed our eyes 
To his shape in the lengethening shadows, 
Where the sheep are thrown in the pool,  80
When he vanished from ears and eyes. 
I had wished a dear thing on that day 
I heard him first, but man is a fool.’ 
  
Goatherd.You sing as always of the natural life, 
And I that made like music in my youth  85
Hearing it now have sighed for that young man 
And certain lost companions of my own. 
  
Shepherd.They say that on your barren mountain ridge 
You have measured out the road that the soul treads 
When it has vanished from our natural eyes;  90
That you have talked with apparitions. 
  
Goatherd.Indeed 
My daily thoughts since the first stupor of youth 
Have found the path my goats’ feet cannot find. 
  
Shepherd.Sing, for it may be that your thoughts have plucked  95
Some medicable herb to make our grief 
Less bitter. 
  
Goatherd.They have brought me from that ridge 
Seed-pods and flowers that are not all wild poppy. [Sings.] 
‘He grows younger every second 100
That were all his birthdays reckoned 
Much too solemn seemed; 
Because of what he had dreamed, 
Or the ambitions that he served, 
Much too solemn and reserved. 105
Jaunting, journeying 
To his own dayspring, 
He unpacks the loaded pern 
Of all ’twas pain or joy to learn, 
Of all that he had made. 110
The outrageous war shall fade; 
At some old winding whitethorn root 
He’ll practice on the shepherd’s flute, 
Or on the close-cropped grass 
Court his shepherd lass, 115
Or run where lads reform our daytime 
Till that is their long shouting playtime; 
Knowledge he shall unwind 
Through victories of the mind, 
Till, clambering at the cradle side, 120
He dreams himself his mother’s pride, 
All knowledge lost in trance 
Of sweeter ignorance.’ 
  
Shepherd.When I have shut these ewes and this old ram 
Into the fold, we’ll to the woods and there 125
Cut out our rhymes on strips of new-torn bark 
But put no name and leave them at her door. 
To know the mountain and the valley grieve 
May be a quiet thought to wife and mother, 
And children when they spring up shoulder high. 130


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