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William Butler Yeats' "The Fisherman"

Updated on April 11, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

W. B. Yeats

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "The Fisherman"

William Butler Yeats' poem, "The Fisherman," appears in the poet's The Wild Swans at Coole, which was published in 1919. His collection contains many of the poet’s most widely anthologized poems.

The Fisherman

Although I can see him still,
The freckled man who goes
To a grey place on a hill
In grey Connemara clothes
At dawn to cast his flies,
It’s long since I began
To call up to the eyes
This wise and simple man.
All day I’d looked in the face
What I had hoped ’twould be
To write for my own race
And the reality;
The living men that I hate,
The dead man that I loved,
The craven man in his seat,
The insolent unreproved,
And no knave brought to book
Who has won a drunken cheer,
The witty man and his joke
Aimed at the commonest ear,
The clever man who cries
The catch-cries of the clown,
The beating down of the wise
And great Art beaten down.

Maybe a twelvemonth since
Suddenly I began,
In scorn of this audience,
Imagining a man
And his sun-freckled face,
And grey Connemara cloth,
Climbing up to a place
Where stone is dark under froth,
And the down turn of his wrist
When the flies drop in the stream:
A man who does not exist,
A man who is but a dream;
And cried, ‘Before I am old
I shall have written him one
Poem maybe as cold
And passionate as the dawn.’

Reading of "The Fisherman"

Commentary

The speaker in Yeats' poem is calling for a poetry that will be meaningful to the common folk. He reveals his contempt for charlatans, while encouraging an ideal that he feels must steer culture and art.

First Movement: Remembering an Admired Man

Although I can see him still,
The freckled man who goes
To a grey place on a hill
In grey Connemara clothes
At dawn to cast his flies,
It’s long since I began
To call up to the eyes
This wise and simple man.

The speaker is recalling a man he has admired: "[t]he freckled man" wearing "Connemara clothes." The man has been accustomed to fishing at a "gray place on a hill." The speaker suggests that he can still visualize the man, perhaps the speaker even sees him from time to time in the village, but the speaker has not mused about the man recently.

The speaker likes the man’s simplicity; he calls him "wise and simple." The speaker will continue to muse on those very same qualities in his poem.

Second Movement: Researching History

All day I’d looked in the face
What I had hoped ’twould be
To write for my own race
And the reality;
The living men that I hate,
The dead man that I loved,
The craven man in his seat,
The insolent unreproved,

The speaker has charted his course to "write for my own race / And the reality"; thus he has been researching the history of his country. The speaker insists that he wishes to reveal the reality of his fellow citizens, which will well acquit itself while at the same time reflect the same truths that future generations will likely experience.

The speaker catalogues the men and their qualities who make up the current political landscape. At some of those men, he flings his ire, "[t]he living men that I hate." He emphasizes his hatred by contrasting that deadly emotion with, "[t]he dead man that I loved." He continues in his hatred by naming "[t]he craven man in his seat / The insolent unreproved."

Third Movement: The Guilty Avoiding Justice

And no knave brought to book
Who has won a drunken cheer,
The witty man and his joke
Aimed at the commonest ear,
The clever man who cries
The catch-cries of the clown,
The beating down of the wise
And great Art beaten down.

The speaker continues to reference the rogues and knaves, who have thus far avoided justice though guilty. The speaker reviles those who have "won a drunken cheer," even though they have been undeserving of such honor and celebrity. The speaker avers that it is this whole lot of loathsome characters who besmirch and heap shame on the culture. Think 21st century Robert Bly in poetry, Robert Mapplethorpe in art, and the Clintons and Obamas in politics.

The speaker accuses those scandalous usurpers with nearly destroying the art of the nation: "The beating down of the wise / And great Art beaten down." He laments at what these assassins of culture have perpetrated and therefore is calling attention to their perfidy.

Fourth Movement: Culture Killers

Maybe a twelvemonth since
Suddenly I began,
In scorn of this audience,
Imagining a man
And his sun-freckled face,
And grey Connemara cloth,
Climbing up to a place
Where stone is dark under froth,

The speaker then suggests that for a while he has begun fashioning an uncomplicated, "sun-freckled face," —the man in "Connemara cloth." For his effort, he has received only "scorn" from the ilk of those culture killers and unscrupulous individuals. Still, the speaker presses on, endeavoring to visualize a simple fisherman, the man who "climb[s] up to a place / Where stone is dark with froth."

Fifth Movement: Musing on Simplicity

And the down turn of his wrist
When the flies drop in the stream:
A man who does not exist,
A man who is but a dream;
And cried, ‘Before I am old
I shall have written him one
Poem maybe as cold
And passionate as the dawn.’

The speaker sees in vision the "down turn of his wrist / When the flies drop in the stream." The speaker then reveals that, in fact, this man "does not exist" only that he is "but a dream." The speaker’s keenness, however, to resurrect such a simple, rustic character spurs him on to exclaim loudly: "Before I am old / I shall have written him one / Poem maybe as cold / And passionate as the dawn."

The speaker continues to devote himself to musing on simplicity; he ardently wishes to create a new ideal that will produce meaningful, original poetry—a poetry that will speak with organic originality and will also foretoken the beginning of a new era in poetry. All this the speaker hopes to accomplish despite the crassness and duplicity of all the political phonies whose selfishness is leading to the ruination of their own culture.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

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