‘Brown Penny’ by William Butler Yeats is an expression of the various levels of honest “love” that follow us from birth to death. From the beginning hesitancy to the middle-ground hurt, and on to ending whimsy, “love” is addressed on several layers in ways that mimic the qualities of “love” itself. From start to finish, Yeats uses verbs, personification, and word choices to represent his take on the concept, and the reader is left with a theme of different elements of “love” that make the circumstance something worth diving into early in life.
Analysis of Brown Penny
I WHISPERED, ‘I am too young,’
And then, ‘I am old enough’;
Wherefore I threw a penny
To find out if I might love.
‘Go and love, go and love, young man,
If the lady be young and fair.’
Ah, penny, brown penny, brown penny,
I am looped in the loops of her hair.
There is not a lot of information provided in regard to the setting in this poem, which adds to the level of confusion that dominates the lines. Yeats does not initially explain why he needed to “whisper” or what sparked the questioning about if he was “too young” or “old enough.” Essentially, the reader is placed in a sea of unknowns for three lines before learning that “love” is the topic of the poem. This sets an uncertain tone that is mimicked in the wording since Yeats clearly did not know what to think of “love” or how he could apply it to his life.
This uncertainty was so concrete in the dilemma that Yeats turned to “a penny [t]o find out if [he] might love.” Given that “a penny” is akin to making a wish—as in tossing “a penny” into a well—this proclaims quite plainly that Yeats came to no decision on his own concerning how his age reflected his ability to “love.”
Because of these concepts—the delayed explanation of the topic, the hushed method of speaking, and the presence of a wish-connected factor—the reader feels the very essence of confusion that Yeats experienced through this “love” debate.
In response to his question, this “penny” told him to “go and love” “[i]f the lady be young and fair.” This is personification, clearly, in that “a penny” could not say such things—or anything in this manner—and it boosts the confusing and uncertain aspects of this poem. It is almost as if Yeats is expressing that he came to his own conclusion on the matter since “a penny” cannot say these words like he had these thoughts and attributed them to the “penny.” This highlights a new level of confusion in that Yeats could misinterpret something so basic, which speaks to the level of confusion that “love” itself can bring.
That Yeats agreed so easily to dive into this “love” with the assurance of “a penny” is a commentary on the desperation of “love” as well. The encouragement he felt from the “penny,” though impossible, was enough to cause him to begin elaborating in a heartsick manner about his “love.” Specifically, the beginning of those lines of elaboration is “Ah,” which sounds enthralled and sigh-like, as if Yeats were succumbing to the dream of “love.” In fact, he insisted he was “looped in the loops of her hair.” The repetition of “loop” shows Yeats was trapped within his “love” after he succumbed to it. This is true on two levels—one involving the general repetition of the word, as if he could not step far from it, and the other residing in the circular meaning of the verb, “loop.”
What started as confusing, then, grew wistful, and what was uncertainly entered into became a situation Yeats could not escape. This means that various stages and details of “love” are represented in a rushed format of only eight lines thus far, indicating the quick pace that “love” can take. Overall, this series of lines brings the reader through the beginning elements of “love” until Yeats was fully submerged into it and seemingly content.
O love is the crooked thing,
There is nobody wise enough
To find out all that is in it,
For he would be thinking of love
Till the stars had run away
And the shadows eaten the moon.
Just as quickly as Yeats came to be content with his “love,” he has now come to a place where he has harsh feelings against it. This is a far cry from anything within the first eight lines since the primary criticisms at work within those were regarding his age—if he was “old enough” for “love.” Here, he proclaims that “love is the crooked thing.” There are three elements within this one line that provide meaning for the poem.
For one, “crooked” is a negative manner to address “love” because it describes something that isn’t clear or structured. Rather, it is veering and inelegant, like a shelf that cannot properly hold its contents due to imbalance. As a lack of such structure is not a good quality for a number of things to have, it lessens the presumed quality of “love” in Yeats’s estimation. The notion that it is referred to as a “thing” furthers this detail like it is worth no additional thought beyond the label of a general “thing.”
On the flip side, though—and the third idea worth noting in this phrase—is the article choice before “crooked thing” being the word, “the.” This is very definite like Yeats is presenting one specific “thing” for examination. It would be comparable to saying “the child.” This would hint that there is a specific child being discussed whereas “a child” would be a general idea of some unnamed child. Because of this, “love” is being treated with disregard through “crooked thing,” but as if it is the only thing to describe with “the.” Nothing else can be the recipient of the description, which shows importance, but the description itself is not something kind. It is important then, but offered criticism.
In line Ten, Yeats comes to the conclusion that “[t]here is nobody wise enough [t]o find out all that is in [love],” and this is an indication that he has grown in the concept since the beginning lines. At the beginning of the poem, after all, he was unsure if he was “old enough,” but now he is stating no one, essentially, is ever ready for “love” in its entirety. This, on some level, invalidates the first three lines of the poem where Yeats was asking these questions since they clearly have no meaning, but it could be a further commentary on what Yeats thinks of “love.” To him, it is evolving and variable, and only through experience can Yeats know it fully. Because of this detail, no one is “wise enough” for it because no one can know all that it offers until they are submerged. It is consuming, which is evidenced in the notion that only in these later lines does the reader come to this new information.
Once submerged, though, it is too late to back away from “love” since “he would be thinking of love [t]ill the stars had run away [a]nd the shadows eaten the moon.” This is relatable to the idea in Line 9 when he was trapped in the “loop” that was previously addressed. In this, “love” seemingly progresses and changes so that it makes people “wise,” but it holds so tightly that there is no full escape from its hold.
This is both a romantic concept, noted in the use of “stars” and “moon,” but also unsure and dangerous. Since “the stars had run away [a]nd the shadows [had] eaten the moon,” the beautiful, celestial concepts turn to something harsh and grievous. If “the stars… run away,” someone could be left behind, and if “the shadows [have] eaten the moon,” something has been consumed in a way that reveals total loss. This completes the “loop” of “love” in that loss and heartache have now been addressed to finish the analysis of its effect.
Ah, penny, brown penny, brown penny,
One cannot begin it too soon.
Yeats returns to the sigh-like “Ah” and dream-like quality with “penny, brown penny, brown penny.” This again notes his inability to escape the confines of “love” since “penny” has been repeated three times in this one line, but also addresses a bit of whimsy that can come with “love.” One can compare it to a romantic notion like Juliet continually reciting Romeo’s name on her balcony, though this repetition is directed toward the “penny” that he credited for encouragement in the beginning lines.
This could indicate that the aspect of “love” is more significant than the source of his “love,” meaning he “love[s]” being in “love” rather than a specific person. Otherwise, the source of this gentle repetition would have been an actual person. He is instead enamored with having been encouraged to “love,” for which he notes that “[o]ne cannot begin it too soon.” Again, this indicates that “love” is what Yeats is intrigued with—the concept itself rather than the notion applied to any person.
With this in mind, it would make sense that “[o]ne [could not] begin it too soon” since “love” is ideally around us from the time we are born. In this, we “cannot begin it too soon” because it is already there, waiting to be experienced and embraced. As well, since “love” is a “thing” that makes us “wise” through experience, it is something best embraced early so to be able to understand it to our best extent. Otherwise, we may never understand it fully, but might remain in a whimsical “loop” that does not allow us to advance.
This is the core theme of the poem: that “love” at its truest seemingly has various details and elements, and it is something that can consume us from the moment we are born to the moment we pass on because it contains us in its “loop.” True romantic “love” is beautiful, heartbreaking, confusing, and vulnerable, as is familial “love,” but it is worth embracing as soon as possible.
About William Butler Yeats
Born in Ireland in 1865, William Butler Yeats was known for his writing in a number of applications, such as poetry, short stories, novels, and plays. A number of these works involve his homeland as a key topic. He worked for the Abbey Theatre and won a Nobel Prize before passing away in 1939.