Verse > W.B. Yeats > The Wild Swans at Coole

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

35. 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,         5
Despite a dwindling and late risen moon, 
Were distant. An old man cocked his ear. 
AherneWhat made that sound? 
Robartes A rat or water-hen 
Splashed, or an otter slid into the stream.  10
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  15
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  20
What he shall never find. 
AherneWhy 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  25
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 chose to be.  30
AherneSing 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  35
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;  40
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  45
Grows comelier. Eleven pass, and then 
Athenae takes Achilles by the hair, 
Hector is in the dust, Nietzsche is born, 
Because the heroes’ crescent is the twelfth. 
And yet, twice born, twice buried, grow he must,  50
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  55
The soul begins to tremble into stillness, 
To die into the labyrinth of itself. 
AherneSing 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  60
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.  65
AherneAll dreams of the soul 
End in a beautiful man’s or woman’s body. 
Robartes Have you not always known it? 
AherneThe song will have it 
That those that we have loved got their long fingers  70
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.  75
Robartes The lovers’ heart knows that. 
AherneIt 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  80
Are met on the waste hills by country men 
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,  85
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,  90
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,  95
Choosing whatever task’s most difficult 
Among tasks not impossible, it takes 
Upon the body and upon the soul 
The coarseness of the drudge. 
AherneBefore the full 100
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, 105
Cradle upon cradle, and all in flight and all 
Deformed because there is no deformity 
But saves us from a dream. 
AherneAnd what of those 
That the last servile crescent has set free? 110
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 115
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. 120
AherneAnd then? 
Robartes When all the dough has been so kneaded up 
That it can take what form cook Nature fancy 
The first thin crescent is wheeled round once more. 
AherneBut the escape; the song’s not finished yet. 125
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 130
Deformity of body and of mind. 
AherneWere 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 135
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 country man; 
I’d stand and mutter there until he caught 
‘Hunchback and saint and fool,’ and that they came 140
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 145
And circled round him with its squeaky cry, 
The light in the tower window was put out. 



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