He Wishes His Beloved Were Dead is a thirteen line ballad written by the poet William Butler Yeats first published in the Sketch in 1898, under the title “Aodh to Decotra.” The poem’s rhyme scheme remains consistent at the outset, but starts to vary towards the end. It follows the pattern, ABABCBDCEFGEF, combining elements of terza rima, (ABABCB) and then breaking off into a combination of rhymed and unrhymed lines. This choice to carefully format one portion of the poem, while letting the other range closer to free verse is related to Yeats’ choice to turn a traditional ballad subject upside down. Instead of yearning for someone who has died, the speaker is yearning for someone to die.
Summary of “He Wishes His Beloved Were Dead”
“He Wishes His Beloved Were Dead” by William Butler Yeats is a ballad in which one lover yearns for the death of the other so that she might forgive him. The speaker states from the beginning that he desires the death of his lover, that she would, now a spirit, come to him and “bend [her] head,” submitting to his will. She will become the person he wishes she was in life, in death. She will, he hopes, forgive him for the unexplained actions that turned her from him.
He continues to state that in death she would no longer rise and “hasten away” from his touch as she does in life, but would submit to whatever he desired. She had the “will of wild birds in life,” but not in death. Her hair will be contained and bound within the stars and sky. It will not longer flow free, a symbol of female sexual freedom and liberation. He concludes by reiterating his desire, and saying that ideally his “beloved” would be interred beneath the “dock-leaves” in the ground.
Analysis of “He Wishes His Beloved Were Dead”
Were you but lying cold and dead,
And lights were paling out of the West,
You would come hither, and bend your head,
And I would lay my head on your breast;
And you would murmur tender words,
Forgiving me, because you were dead:
Yeats begins this short poem by having his speaker state what seems to be, his greatest wish: the death of his beloved. He immediately intones, if only “you” were “lying cold and dead.”
Although it may seem so at first, this desire is not quite as harsh as it seems. The speaker is selfish but does not, it seems, intend on doing harm to the one he loves. This poem turns a traditional ballad on it’s head, it is common to yearn for love from one that has died, but not to actively wish for a lover to pass on so that one may finally receive the love they believe they deserve.
He continues on to present his full, ideal scenario. He wishes his “beloved were dead” and that the “lights were paling,” or waning/setting, in “the West.” The sun is going down in the western part of this speaker’s world and this symbolizes the simple end of a day, as well as death itself.
If these things were the case, the speaker believes that the spirit of his beloved, no longer turned against him, would come to him and “bend [her] head.” She would submit to his caress as she does not in life. The speaker believes that death will make his “beloved” long for him in a way she does not currently.
If she in death does as he hopes, he would “lay [his] head on [her] breast” as she speaks tenderly to him. Through her words she would convey that she is no longer angry and that she forgives him for whatever unstated action he took.
It is clear from this first set of lines that the speaker is supremely selfish. He would rather condemn his past lover to death, hoping to submit her to his will, than allow her to continue in her own life undamaged.
Nor would you rise and hasten away,
Though you have the will of wild birds,
But know your hair was bound and wound
About the stars and moon and sun:
O would, beloved, that you lay
Under the dock-leaves in the ground,
While lights were paling one by one.
This poem continues with the speaker elaborating on his ideal scenario if his beloved were to die. She would not, as perhaps she has done in the past, “hasten away” from him, rising and escaping from his touch. She would be subdued in death, even though in life she had “the will of wild birds.” This will is gone now, and she is exposed and subservient to her ex-lover’s demands.
At this point he attempts to placate her, and perhaps the reader as well, espousing the fact that her hair will now be “bound and wound” through the moon, stars and sun. But this too speaks to his attempts to control his lover. It is common throughout the world, in classical and modern times, for bound or covered hair to be a symbol of submission. Hair has been understood as an alluring and vulgar part of the female body since the writers of the classical era, such as Hippocrates, espoused hair as having an actual sexual function.
All of the major world religions, Christianity, Judaism and Islam, urge women to keep their hair covered when in public, as men are unable to control their own lasciviousness and might be driven to act on it.
The speaker does not see his thoughts in this same light, he understands her new form, as part of the spirit world, as being something that is beautiful and should be sought after.
The poem concludes with the narrator reiterating his most ardent wish, that only, “beloved…you lay” in the ground beneath the “dock-leaves.” This is a reference to a weed common in Europe that the speaker is imagining growing overtop of the grave in which his lover is interred.
Once more he sees the sun setting in the “West” perhaps on the day, her life, or even his own life as he may intend to join her in death (although that is not made clear in this piece) and on the poem itself as this is the final line of the piece.
About William Butler Yeats
William Butler Yeats was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1865. As a young man he was educated in London and Dublin, and spent the majority of his free time in western Ireland at a family summer home. Yeats published his first volume of poetry in 1887 and was very active in the Irish literary scene. Less well known than his poetry, Yeats also was a prolific writer of plays. He co-founded the Abbey Theatre that focused mainly on Irish Legends.
In 1922, Yeats was appointed to the Irish Senate during a time in which his poetic and dramatic work was highly experimental and patriotic. Yeats wrote a number of protest poems against the Nationalist movement and he would receive the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1923 for his dramatic works. His best work was still to come as he published the volumes The Wild Swans, The Tower, and Last Poems and Plays, along with a number of others, from 1919 till his death. These volumes solidified his place as one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. William Butler Yeats died on January 28, 1939 in Menton, France.