Sometimes, old ideas are worth repeating in poetry. It’s not as though every poem that’s ever been written has expressed a truly unique, one-of-a-kind idea, but in each case, the idea is expressed in a unique way. For William Butler Yeats, much of his poetry expressed within it the theme of unrequited love — hardly a thought unique to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries of literature! But the way Yeats expresses his passions and desires, in his own unique prose and through his own unique characters makes his poetry stand out. ‘Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven (later retitled with a more generic “he” to replace “Aedh”) is one such poem that still remains one of his most popular short poems today.
Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven William Butler Yeats Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths, Enwrought with golden and silver light, The blue and the dim and the dark cloths Of night and light and the half light, I would spread the cloths under your feet: But I, being poor, have only my dreams; I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
The Title – ‘Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven
The title figure, Aedh, is a theme in Yeats’s work, along with other characters such as Michael Robartes and Red Hanrahan. The Aedh character is typically a weak, pale, and lovesick boy who can serve as a frame for poems such as this one. The use of the character typically associated with the lovelorn poet may be a way to suggest that Keats is using himself as a frame for this poem, or that he’s attempting a commentary on poets in general.
Written entirely as one verse, this poem is simple in structure, preferring powerful imagery as a technique to send its message. It follows an ABABCDCD rhyme pattern — notably, however, each rhyming pair of lines ends on the same word. It gives the poem an almost disjointed feel to it, especially since the syllable count of each line follows no particular pattern either, though each remains between eight and ten syllables long.
Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
Yeats’s highly symbolic style makes itself clear immediately as the poem begins. The use of words such as “embroidered” and “enwrought” suggests a luxurious, lavish tone and the author invokes golden and silver light as a way to describe the simple atmosphere of Aedh’s vision. The cloths of heaven themselves are not described, but describing the light adds a sense of regal power to the description, and helps to make clear the luxury of what the speaker is imagining.
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
Only now does the speaker begin to describe the cloths themselves, and in juxtaposition to the first two lines (made particularly poignant by the use of the same words at the end of each), describes the darkest cloths that contrast the gold and silver lights described previously. There are cloths for light and cloths for darkness, elements of beauty found in each aspect of perfection. There are cloths for night, for light, and for half-light. This suggests that Aedh is someone who finds beauty everywhere he looks and wishes to convey that beauty in their own imaginings of true luxury.
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
The penultimate couple of lines of ‘Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’ bring to light the reason for the speaker’s desires — he imagines himself buying cloths worthy of heavenly light and laying them at the feet of the person they love. At the end of their fantasy, they acknowledge that they are far too poor to make that offering, and in fact can offer their love interest nothing but dreams. This may also be the reason for the slightly awkward repetition of rhyming words — Aedh feels awkward, knowing that the best they can offer someone they truly care for is an abstract concept, an idea not even grounded in the physical world of the living, but one that instead is a dream of heavenly textiles.
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
In a beautifully symbolic finish to the poem, Aedh offers up his dreams anyway. The metaphoric comparison laid out here suggests that Aedh approached the person he cares for and has told them of his feelings, even going so far as to admit that he can offer them very little in return for their affections. He asks they treat him kindly, that they do not reject him, because rejecting him would mean trampling on his dreams. In the same way, a person might give back a gift that did not suitably win them over, saying no to Aedh’s advances would be like returning his dreams to him and making them useless, in the same way, a returned gift has no real use to the giver.
The original themes that form the Aedh character can be traced back to the poetry of John Keats, in particular his ballad ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci.’ The removal of the character’s name from later versions of the poem is an interesting choice by Yeats that may have been used to distance himself from the poem, as the famous subject of his own desires moved further out of his reach.
Maud Gonne was an English-Irish woman with who Yeats spent a great deal of his life being in love. The two of them got along well enough, but for much of his life, Yeats loved her, and it was an unrequited love that became the engine for many of his poems. He proposed to her at least four times and was rejected each time until she finally accepted an offer of marriage from another man. It has been commonly speculated that Yeats saw himself as the Aedh character in this poem, and wrote it for Gonne, who was the subject of his unrequited love. A number of things stood in the way of their love — Yeats did not want to convert to Roman Catholicism, which he would have needed to do to marry her, and she believed that his Irish nationalism was not a match for hers, and was something she believed in very strongly. Most notably, however, was the fact that Gonne believed that poets should not marry and that she would be robbing him of his greatest muse if she were to accept his offer.
Whether or not that is true is impossible to say — but a poem like ‘Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’ is a powerful and interesting take on unrequited love, and it would certainly be an argument in Gonne’s favor today.