A Dream of Death

William Butler Yeats

‘A Dream of Death’ is a poem about one such dream that uses strong imagery to build an image that is touching both with and without its historic context.


William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats was one of the most important poets of the 20th century.

He passed away in January 1939 after a career in prose, drama, and poetry.

For a poet who loves their work, inspiration is, simply put, everywhere. For some, the inspiration of a dream is all that’s required, and for William Butler Yeats, one particular dream is the source of one of his more interesting works of poetry. ‘A Dream of Death is a poem concerning one such dream that uses strong imagery to build an image that is touching both with and without its historic context. In this way, the poem maintains relevance and interest throughout time, right up to the present day. It invites the reader to question the nature and importance of burial, and a different dimension of loss that haunts and puzzles.

A Dream of Death
William Butler Yeats

I dreamed that one had died in a strange placeNear no accustomed hand;And they had nailed the boards above her face,The peasants of that land,Wondering to lay her in that solitude,And raised above her moundA cross they had made out of two bits of WoodAnd planted Cypress round;And left her to the indifferent stars aboveUntil I carved these Words:She was more beautiful than thy first love,But now lies under boards.
A Dream of Death by William Butler Yeats

Detailed Analysis

Lines 1-2

I dreamed that one had died in a strange place

Near no accustomed hand,

The speaker of ‘A Dream of Death’ establishes that this will be the retelling of a dream they’ve experienced. They dream of someone passing away in a “strange place,” and describe that no accustomed hands are nearby. By this, it is likely meant that there are no hands nearby that they are used to, suggesting they are alone in a strange land. They are not given a name, they are simply “one,” suggesting there is little or no personal connection between the deceased person and the narrator. This could be a reflection of the dream landscape, where individuals are often difficult to recognize.

Lines 3-4

And they had nailed the boards above her face,

The peasants of that land,

The next two lines of ‘A Dream of Death’ complete the first rhyming pattern and establish that the unknown person was a woman who died in a foreign land. She is buried there by the strangers who find her; “nail the boards” suggests building a coffin for the individual. Here, the language used is harsh and unpleasant; “nail” and “above her face” in particular are two bits of vocabulary that remind the reader of the unpleasant nature of the necessary burial.

Lines 5-8

Wondering to lay her in that solitude,

And raised above her mound

A cross they had made out of two bits of wood,

And planted cypress round;

As the dream progresses in ‘A Dream of Death,’ the speaker watches as the people who found the body decide to bury it. The first line here suggests that they are hesitant about buying the unknown woman, but it is likely they have no way to identify her, nor return the deceased to her home. So they choose to bury, and above the grave, plant cypress plants and place a cross. The wording here is interesting — the simple language, including the use of the verb “made” and the description “two bits of wood” suggests the action is done quickly or carelessly. “Two bits of wood” does not draw the image of a carefully build cross designed to mark a site for a long time.

Lines 9-12

And left her to the indifferent stars above

Until I carved these words:

{She was more beautiful than thy first love,}

{But now lies under boards.}

After the burial of the one — now revealed to be a woman — the people who buried her leave, and the speaker approaches the site (keeping in mind that they are still dreaming). When they arrive, they carve a message onto the cross, declaring the beauty of the deceased to the world, and lamenting the fact that that beauty no longer matters, is no longer visible, and likely no longer exists.

The idea that physical belongings and characteristics only last a person for so long is an interesting idea; the speaker appears to be lamenting this fact, noting that beneath the boards (again, presumably referring to a coffin), the woman’s beauty will fade, and even if it did not, would never be seen again. It is also interesting that in the dreamscape, the speaker is only able to communicate this idea by carving it on the grave marker of the woman, as though he wants her to know about this message, as well as the rest of the world — or at least, the rest of the foreign world, the one who never knew her at all.

Historical Context

William Butler Yeats lived between 1865 and 1939 and is considered to be one of the foremost poets in Irish and British literature. A great many of his works are commonly read and remembered today, including The Second Coming‘. He is also remembered for having won a Nobel Prize in Literature. He is also known for highly symbolic and imagery-based works that constitute both physical and abstract meanings.

One event that significantly impacted the work of Yeats was his meeting with Maud Gonne, a young woman who became the subject of Yeats’s desires and infatuations. He came to care for her deeply, and she became the inspiration for many of his poems. Although he proposed marriage to her — at least four times — she never married him, saying that she believed a poet could never be happy unless they had unhappiness in their lives to fuel the poetry that gives them solace. She is even cited to have claimed that the world would thank her for never marrying him.

As the subject of a great many of Yeats’ poems, it is possible that the anonymous woman in this poem is meant to be based on Gonne, who traveled a great deal throughout her lifetime. It is possible that Yeats dreamed of what might happen if she were to pass away in a different country, far from her friends, family, and, of course, from him. This also makes sense in the context of the final two lines, praising the beauty of the woman — as Yeats so often did for Gonne in his poems.

Interestingly, Yeats would later revisit and republish this poem. The updated version was published as follows, and alternatively, the title “An Epitaph:”

I dreamed that one had died in a strange place

Near no accustomed hand;

And they had nailed the boards above her face

The peasants of that land,

And, wondering, planted by her solitude

A cypress and a yew:

I came and wrote upon a cross of wood,

Man had no more to do:

“She was more beautiful than thy first love,

This lady by the trees:”

And gazed upon the mournful stars above,

And heard the mournful breeze.

While the content is largely the same, the style is distinctly more akin to the usual work of Yeats, following his more imagery-based and symbolic style — and yet, both poems have reference to the same central line, the epitaph carved for the woman who’s remembrance is tainted by being so far from home.

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Andrew Walker Poetry Expert
Andrew joined the team back in November 2015 and has a passion for poetry. He has an Honours in the Bachelor of Arts, consisting of a Major in Communication, Culture and Information Technology, a Major in Professional Writing and a Minor in Historical Studies.

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