The Cap and Bells

William Butler Yeats

‘The Cap and Bells’ highlights that in situations of infatuation and love, one person sacrifices their existence just to be recognized and maybe even loved.


William Butler Yeats

Nationality: Irish

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.

‘The Cap and Bells’ by William Butler Yeats is a nine-stanza poem that holds an abcb rhyme scheme.  This poem is about (as the title obviously gives way) a jester. Throughout the poem, he is continuously trying to woo a young queen. This poem highlights that in situations of infatuation and love (especially in between two separate social and financial groups), sometimes one person sacrifices their existence just to be recognized and maybe even loved by the other.

The Cap and Bells
William Butler Yeats

The jester walked in the garden:The garden had fallen still;He bade his soul rise upwardAnd stand on her window-sill.

It rose in a straight blue garment,When owls began to call:It had grown wise-tongued by thinkingOf a quiet and light footfall;

But the young queen would not listen;She rose in her pale night-gown;She drew in the heavy casementAnd pushed the latches down.

He bade his heart go to her,When the owls called out no more;In a red and quivering garmentIt sang to her through the door.

It had grown sweet-tongued by dreamingOf a flutter of flower-like hair;But she took up her fan from the tableAnd waved it off on the air.

'I have cap and bells,’ he pondered,'I will send them to her and die’;And when the morning whitenedHe left them where she went by.

She laid them upon her bosom,Under a cloud of her hair,And her red lips sang them a love-songTill stars grew out of the air.

She opened her door and her window,And the heart and the soul came through,To her right hand came the red one,To her left hand came the blue.

They set up a noise like crickets,A chattering wise and sweet,And her hair was a folded flowerAnd the quiet of love in her feet.
The Cap and Bells by William Butler Yeats

The Cap and Bells Analysis

First Stanza

The jester walked in the garden:
The garden had fallen still;
He bade his soul rise upward
And stand on her window-sill.

The first stanza of this poem quickly introduces the main character and setting of this poem: the jester and the garden. The story of this poem begins with the jester walking in a still garden. The garden here could easily represent a relationship as it is a beautiful place by nature that holds the potential of growing majestic and attractive things much like a relationship. Having the jester walk into a still garden gives away that he was walking into a relationship that was previously “still” or nonexistent. “He bade his soul” to “stand on her window-sill” is a typical beginning of any lover’s romance. The jester not only presents his soul, his identity to this woman that he is trying to woo, but stands by hoping that his efforts of initiating this relationship are noticed. In line four the “window-sill” of the jester’s love interest is the only way he can reach her, and sending up his soul suggests that she is of high social standing and difficult for her to reach.

Second Stanza

It rose in a straight blue garment,
When owls began to call:
It had grown wise-tongued by thinking
Of a quiet and light footfall;

This stanza begins with the jester revealing to the readers that his soul “rose in a straight blue garment” this is significant because jesters are known for their unpredictability and trickery so by sending something “straight” the jester is bringing to the attention of the reader that he is serious in his attempts to woo this woman and also not to judge him too quickly. Line six mentions owls, which is extremely important because they are a symbol of wisdom whereas a jester was synonymous with a fool. The owls voice out their opinion that the jester had “grown wise-tongued” by choosing to woo this woman in the way that he was: sending up his soul to wait by her window. By having the owls acknowledge his effort at a relationship, Yeats is suggesting that not only are the jesters’ attempts of courtship in the public eye, but those of wisdom don’t see his attempts to be foolish or light.

Third Stanza

But the young queen would not listen;
She rose in her pale night-gown;
She drew in the heavy casement
And pushed the latches down.

The third stanza of ‘The Cap and Bells’ reveals the love interest of the jester; it is a young queen. She is depicted as being stubborn and uninterested by proclaiming she refused to listen. In line ten her attire is described as a pale nightgown; using the colour of her clothing to stress her uninterested attitude. Line eleven elaborates on her attitude by stating that she closed the window. This is important because the reader has already been informed that the jester’s efforts to get her attention are standing by that window. Having the young queen not only close the window but also push “the latches down” (locking it), portrays her complete rejection of the jester’s attentions. This stanza was entirely focusing on the rejection of the jester by the young queen, telling the readers that simple attentions from the jester is not going to help him win her favours.

Fourth Stanza

He bade his heart go to her,
When the owls called out no more;
In a red and quivering garment
It sang to her through the door.

This stanza switches the scene back to the jester. Since presenting his soul, his identity to the young queen did not get her attention, the jester sends up his heart to her. Line fourteen mentions the owls calling out “no more”; this could be for two reasons. Firstly that they had a lot to say about the jester sending up such a cherished part of himself up to a woman who had already rejected his soul, and they finally stopped commenting on it; or secondly it could mean daytime since the owls don’t call out during the day. Where the jester’s soul was blue, the jester’s heart is red and isn’t as stable as his soul as it “quivers”. This also educates the reader on the two colours the jester’s hat must be made of: blue and red. His heart sits by the door and sings to the young queen in hopes of being accepted.

Fifth Stanza

It had grown sweet-tongued by dreaming
Of a flutter of flower-like hair;
But she took up her fan from the table
And waved it off on the air.

Stanza five describes the scene of rejection once again. The jester’s heart had “grown sweet-tongued by dreaming”  is telling the reader that his heart had practiced singing t her so many times that it had become quite fluent in the sweet language of flattering the young queen. Line eighteen illustrates that his heart had been obsessed with every attribute of the queen, including her “flower like hair”.  Nevertheless, the queen is not to give in so easily, it is obvious that she is used to such courtship and attentions. She is described to have literally fanned the heart of the jester away.

Sixth Stanza

‘I have cap and bells,’ he pondered,
‘I will send them to her and die’;
And when the morning whitened
He left them where she went by.

The sixth stanza returns to the jester after having his heart literally returned to him, rejected by the young queen, whose attentions he desperately craved. In this stanza, the jester decides that she is worth everything that he is and more so looks at his cap and bells. The cap and bells are a combination of red and blue, so a combination of his heart and soul. The bells signify his attention he has received as a jester, his image and reputation that is attached to his blue and red cap (soul and heart). He knows that giving up this cap and bells was sacrificing his existence and he was willing to d that. He decided that he would “send them to her and die”. When morning came he placed his cap and bells (heart, soul, and identity) where he knew she would walk by and waited for her to accept his offering.

Seventh Stanza

She laid them upon her bosom,
Under a cloud of her hair,
And her red lips sang them a love-song
Till stars grew out of the air.

In stanza seven, the scene shifts back to the young queen and it is very clear that she finally accepted the jester. In line twenty-six her hair is described as a cloud which is significant because reaching her, and her attention was equivalent to touching the sky for the jester. The next line paints the image of the young queen’s red (the symbolic colour of love and also the colour that represented the jester’s heart) lips singing a “love song” until the sky was full of stars (possibly meaning she sang all day until the dark night sky was covered in stars). The stars could effortlessly symbolize the celebration of the jester finally being accepted by the young queen.

Eighth Stanza

She opened her door and her window,
And the heart and the soul came through,
To her right hand came the red one,
To her left hand came the blue.

Stanza eight does not go back to the jester’s side of the story because Yeats is bringing attention to the fact that he doesn’t exist anymore. He gave up his entire existence to be accepted by her and it was the only way that she would want him.  This stanza continues to stay with the young queen as she returns to her castle or tower and opens “her door and her window” to let in his heart and soul, the heart resting in her right hand and the soul in her left. This also exposes that she had found the body of the jester outside her home and had to rush home to accept his heart and soul. This is quite telling of the queen, that she would only give her attention to the one who was ready o cease to exist just for her attention and “love”.

Ninth Stanza

They set up a noise like crickets,
A chattering wise and sweet,
And her hair was a folded flower
And the quiet of love in her feet.

The final stanza of ‘The Cap and Bells’ also stays with the young queen but speaks only of the jester. Since his body no longer exists, this stanza clarifies how he is existing. Line thirty-three mentions that the heart and soul of the jester created “noise like crickets” meaning that they broke the stillness and silence of the garden. She had accepted the relationship and it lay at her feet.  Depicting in the final line of the poem that she accepted his love as long as he submitted to her completely leaving no trace of himself anywhere else in the world.

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Noor Rehman Poetry Expert
Noor has an Honours in the Bachelor of Arts with a double major in English Literature and History. She teaches elementary and high school English, and loves to help students develop a love for in depth analysis, and writing in general. Because of her interest in History, she also really enjoys reading historical fiction (but nothing beats reading and rereading Harry Potter!). Reading and writing short stories and poetry has been a passion of hers, that she proudly carries from childhood.

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