‘Down By the Salley Gardens’ was published in The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems in 1889. When discussing the origins of this poem, Yeats described how he was inspired to write it while trying to remember lines from a song sung by an “old peasant woman in the village of Ballisodare, Sligo” (Source). When Yeats first published the poem it appeared with the title ‘An Old Son Re-Sung’. It was not until 1895 that it received its current title.
Explore Down By the Salley Gardens
The two stanzas of the poem are quite similar in form. Yeats repeats parts of the same lines twice in order to maintain the song-like qualities of the first three lines that he could remember. The speaker’s relationship failed because, despite his love’s urgings, he did not take life or love easy. Perhaps he rushed into things too quickly or made decisions that she didn’t approve of. Either way, it ended in tears.
Yeats engages with several important themes in ‘Down By the Salley Gardens’ such as memory and love/relationships. There is also a great deal of regret underneath these primary themes. The speaker spends the poem looking back at a failed relationship, one that he surely regrets and would like to go back and change. He knows exactly what he did wrong, in fact, his love warned him about it several times and he didn’t listen. This is likely part of what makes the loss so painful, even though a great deal of time has passed.
Structure and Form
‘Down By the Salley Gardens’ by William Butler Yeats is a two stanza ballad. Unlike many ballads, this one does not maintain its metrical pattern all the way through. The majority of the lines are written in iambic trimeter. This means that they contain three sets of two beats, the first of which is unstressed and the second stressed. Line two of the first stanza is a great example.
Yeats chose to make use of a rhyme scheme that sticks to the even-numbered lines. The odd-numbered lines have a few slant rhymes, or imperfect or half-rhymes, but nothing quite as exacting as can be found in the even lines.
Yeats makes use of several literary devices in ‘Down By the Salley Gardens’. These include but are not limited to anaphora, epistrophe, and alliteration. The first of these, anaphora, is seen through the use and reuse of words at the beginning of multiple lines of text. For instance, “She” in stanza one and two. Epistrophe is the oppose of anaphora. It is concerned with the repetition of phrases at the ends of lines. For instance, “salley gardens” at the ends of lines one and three of the first stanza and “young and foolish” at the end of line seven in the first stanza and line seven in the second stanza.
Alliteration is another important formal device that also makes use of repetition. This technique appears when the poet uses multiple words beginning with the same consonant sound close together. For example, “grass grows” in stanza two and “shoulder” and “she” in stanza two.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
Down by the salley gardens
my love and I did meet;
She passed the salley gardens
with little snow-white feet.
She bid me take love easy,
as the leaves grow on the tree;
But I, being young and foolish,
with her would not agree.
In the first stanza of ‘Down By the Salley Gardens,’ the speaker begins by making use of the line that later came to be used as the title of the poem. He describes how there was a place, in the “sally gardens,” where he used to meet his love. The word “salley” may refer to an actual location, perhaps on the banks of the river near Sligo, or it might refer to “sallow,” a kind of tree.
The language in this poem is quite simple and musical. This makes a great deal of sense since Yeats took the lines from his memory of a song sung by an old woman he used to pass.
He describes in the next lines how his love used to pass the “salley gardens / with little snow-white feet”. This is a great use of imagery that depicts his love as someone young, beautiful, and with the addition of “white,” pure. He describes the big mistake he made in regard to his life with his young woman. She told him to “take love easy” but he wasn’t able to do so. He rushed into this relationship and wasn’t as steady as he could’ve been. The man was “young and foolish” and now in his older age, he’s able to look back on his life and realize his mistakes.
In a field by the river
my love and I did stand,
And on my leaning shoulder
she laid her snow-white hand.
She bid me take life easy,
as the grass grows on the weirs;
But I was young and foolish,
and now am full of tears.
The second stanza is very similar in format to the first. There are several examples of repetition. The speaker begins by describing himself standing with his love “In a field by the river” rather than in the “salley garden”. Either way, the setting is natural and likely beautiful. The scene is made even more pleasing by the fact that he was with someone he loved and she was touching his shoulder with her “snow-white hand”. Here, readers should recognize the repetition of “snow-white”. This time rather than describing her feet he’s thinking about her hand. He remembers how she asked him at that moment to “take life easy”. This is almost exactly the same as in the first stanza. But, now it’s revealed that the speaker’s inability to take it “easy” stretches to his life beyond his relationship with this woman.
In the final lines of the poem, the speaker reveals that even in his old age he’s “full of tears”. Things did not go as he wanted them to. The transition into the present tense informs the reader that the impact of this failed relationship (which he knows failed because of him) is long-lasting.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Down By the Salley Gardens’ should also consider readings some of Yeats’ other love-based poems. For instance, ‘He Wishes His Beloved Were Dead’ and ‘Never Give All the Heart’. Other similar poems by other poets about love include ‘How Happy I Was If I Could Forget’ by Emily Dickinson and ‘Love’s Growth’ by John Donne. Readers might also be interested in ‘Memory’ by Christina Rossetti and ‘In Memory of a Happy Day in February’ by Anne Brontë.