‘The Sad Shepherd’ by William Butler Yeats is a twenty-eight-line poem that describes the ways in which one man attempts to relieve some of his unhappiness. The poem is fairly regular in its meter with each line containing approximately ten beats or syllables. There are a large number of repeating end rhymes throughout the poem, as well as half and internal rhymes. For example, the end sound, “-ing” is used seven times.
The poem begins with a description of a deeply sad man who has as his single and most important companion, Sorrow itself. His depression has been made manifest and travels by his side as he walks along the beach. The man looks up at the sky and calls out to the stars to come down and comfort him. They do no such thing and only laugh back.
The man turns to the sea and asks the same thing, that it might hear his “most piteous story!” It sweeps on, ignoring him completely. He flees from the sea, still searching out someone or something to speak to. He attempts to talk to the drops of dew in a gentle valley but the dew does not hear him as it is always listening. It does not register him as being any more significant than anything else it hears.
Finally, the man goes back to the beach and finds a conch shell. He whispers his deepest despair into the shell in the hope of hearing his voice reflected back at him. All that returns is a deep moaning. The shell, just like the sea, stars, and dew, does not care or remember him. His words are immediately forgotten.
Analysis of The Sad Shepherd
There was a man whom Sorrow named his friend,
And he, of his high comrade Sorrow dreaming,
Went walking with slow steps along the gleaming
And humming sands, where windy surges wend:
And he called loudly to the stars to bend
From their pale thrones and comfort him, but they
Among themselves laugh on and sing alway:
And then the man whom Sorrow named his friend
Cried out, Dim sea, hear my most piteous story!
The speaker, who might also be considered the storyteller, begins ‘The Sad Shepherd,’ as one would want, at the beginning of the story. The story starts out with the introduction of the two main characters, “a man,” and his friend, “Sorrow.” This person, who is never fully defined, in his loneliness and depression, becomes close with emotional sorrow. So much so that Sorrow embodied itself as a companion.
This unnamed man is walking with Sorrow at his side. They are on a beach, on the “humming sands.” The man, in his sadness, calls up to the stars and asks them to comfort him, but they ignore him, laughing.
The man then turns to the sea and calls out to it, begging it to hear his story.
The sea swept on and cried her old cry still,
Rolling along in dreams from hill to hill.
He fled the persecution of her glory
And, in a far-off, gentle valley stopping,
Cried all his story to the dewdrops glistening.
But naught they heard, for they are always listening,
The dewdrops, for the sound of their own dropping.
He does not receive the response he is looking for from the sea. It just keeps sweeping onward, showing no regard for his plights. The man is upset by these reactions and flees from the “persecution” of the sea. He makes his way into a “gentle valley.”
It is here that he turns to speak with the “dewdrops” that are glistening. These little specks of liquid do not hear him, because they are “always listening.” His pleading does not register as anything at all significant to them. His voice is the same as every other noise, especially the sounds of “their own dropping,” that they hear day in and day out.
And then the man whom Sorrow named his friend
Sought once again the shore, and found a shell,
And thought, I will my heavy story tell
Till my own words, re-echoing, shall send
Their sadness through a hollow, pearly heart;
And my own tale again for me shall sing,
And my own whispering words be comforting,
And lo! my ancient burden may depart.
Then he sang softly nigh the pearly rim;
The man, discouraged in his attempts to find comfort, went with Sorrow back to the seashore. There he “found a shell,” and decided that it was to this shell that he would tell his whole story. He will speak until his voice echoes back to him from inside and relieves the weight of his burden. He believes he will find comfort in relieving himself of his story and casting it onto another object.
This is what he decides to do, and he “sang softly” into the “pearly rim” of the shell.
But the sad dweller by the sea-ways lone
Changed all he sang to inarticulate moan
Among her wildering whirls, forgetting him.
In the final three lines of ‘The Sad Shepherd,’ the man’s plan goes array once more, although it is not clear whether he realizes it or not. While the man is speaking into the shell, instead of echoing his words back, all that returns is an “inarticulate moan.” This sound, the one which many will be familiar with from conch shells, pays no mind to the man’s problems. It has absorbed and forgotten what he said. The words went into the “whirls” of the shell, and the shell forgot him.
About William Butler Yeats
William Butler Yeats was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1865. As a young man, he was educated in London and Dublin and spent the majority of his free time in western Ireland at a family summer home. Yeats published his first volume of poetry in 1887 and was very active in the Irish literary scene. Less well known than his poetry, Yeats also was a prolific writer of plays. He co-founded the Abbey Theatre that focused mainly on Irish Legends.
In 1922, Yeats was appointed to the Irish Senate during a time in which his poetic and dramatic work was highly experimental and patriotic. Yeats wrote a number of protest poems against the Nationalist movement and he would receive the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1923 for his dramatic works. His best work was still to come as he published the volumes The Wild Swans, The Tower, and Last Poems and Plays, along with a number of others, from 1919 till his death. These volumes solidified his place as one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. William Butler Yeats died on January 28, 1939, in Menton, France.