1911 photo of William Butler Yeats by George Charles Beresford
Shepherd and Goatherd
by William Butler Yeats
from The Wild Swans at Coole (1919)
Shepherd. That cry’s from the first cuckoo of the year.
I wished before it ceased.
Goatherd. Nor bird nor beast
Could make me wish for anything this day,
Being old, but that the old alone might die,
And that would be against God’s Providence.
Let the young wish. But what has brought you here?
Never until this moment have we met
Where my goats browse on the scarce grass or leap
From stone to stone.
Shepherd. I am looking for strayed sheep;
Something has troubled me and in my trouble
I let them stray. I thought of rhyme alone,
For rhyme can beat a measure out of trouble
And make the daylight sweet once more; but when
I had driven every rhyme into its place
The sheep had gone from theirs.
Goatherd. I know right well
What turned so good a shepherd from his charge.
Shepherd. He that was best in every country sport
And every country craft, and of us all
Most courteous to slow age and hasty youth,
Goatherd. The boy that brings my griddle-cake
Brought the bare news.
Shepherd. He had thrown the crook away
And died in the great war beyond the sea.
Goatherd. He had often played his pipes among my hills,
And when he played it was their loneliness,
The exultation of their stone, that cried
Under his fingers.
Shepherd. I had it from his mother,
And his own flock was browsing at the door.
Goatherd. How does she bear her grief? There is not a shepherd
But grows more gentle when he speaks her name,
Remembering kindness done, and how can I,
That found when I had neither goat nor grazing
New welcome and old wisdom at her fire
Till winter blasts were gone, but speak of her
Even before his children and his wife.
Shepherd. She goes about her house erect and calm
Between the pantry and the linen-chest,
Or else at meadow or at grazing overlooks
Her labouring men, as though her darling lived,
But for her grandson now; there is no change
But such as I have seen upon her face
Watching our shepherd sports at harvest-time
When her son’s turn was over.
Goatherd. Sing your song.
I too have rhymed my reveries, but youth
Is hot to show whatever it has found,
And till that’s done can neither work nor wait.
Old goatherds and old goats, if in all else
Youth can excel them in accomplishment,
Are learned in waiting.
Shepherd. You cannot but have seen
That he alone had gathered up no gear,
Set carpenters to work on no wide table,
On no long bench nor lofty milking shed
As others will, when first they take possession,
But left the house as in his father’s time
As though he knew himself, as it were, a cuckoo,
No settled man. And now that he is gone
There’s nothing of him left but half a score
Of sorrowful, austere, sweet, lofty pipe tunes.
Goatherd. You have put the thought in rhyme.
Shepherd. I worked all day,
And when ’twas done so little had I done
That maybe “I am sorry’ in plain prose
Had sounded better to your mountain fancy.
“Like the speckled bird that steers
Thousands of leagues oversea,
And runs or a while half-flies
On his yellow legs through our meadows,
He stayed for a while; and we
Had scarcely accustomed our ears
To his speech at the break of day,
Had scarcely accustomed our eyes
To his shape at the rinsing-pool
Among the evening shadows,
When he vanished from ears and eyes.
I might have wished on the day
He came, but man is a fool.’
Goatherd. You sing as always of the natural life,
And I that made like music in my youth
Hearing it now have sighed for that young man
And certain lost companions of my own.
Shepherd. They say that on your barren mountain ridge
You have measured out the road that the soul treads
When it has vanished from our natural eyes;
That you have talked with apparitions.
My daily thoughts since the first stupor of youth
Have found the path my goats’ feet cannot find.
Shepherd. Sing, for it may be that your thoughts have plucked
Some medicable herb to make our grief
Goatherd. They have brought me from that ridge
Seed-pods and flowers that are not all wild poppy.
“He grows younger every second
That were all his birthdays reckoned
Much too solemn seemed;
Because of what he had dreamed,
Or the ambitions that he served,
Much too solemn and reserved.
To his own dayspring,
He unpacks the loaded pern
Of all ’twas pain or joy to learn,
Of all that he had made.
The outrageous war shall fade;
At some old winding whitethorn root
He’ll practise on the shepherd’s flute,
Or on the close-cropped grass
Court his shepherd lass,
Or put his heart into some game
Till daytime, playtime seem the same;
Knowledge he shall unwind
Through victories of the mind,
Till, clambering at the cradle-sid
He dreams himself his mother’s pride,
All knowledge lost in trance
Of sweeter ignorance.’
Shepherd. When I have shut these ewes and this old ram
Into the fold, we’ll to the woods and there
Cut out our rhymes on strips of new-torn bark
But put no name and leave them at her door.
To know the mountain and the valley have grieved
May be a quiet thought to wife and mother,
And children when they spring up shoulder-high.
* * * * *
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