Rare 1930s Audio: W.B. Yeats Reads Four of His Poems

The great Irish poet William But­ler Yeats was born on this day in 1865. To mark the date we bring you a series of record­ings he made for BBC radio in the final decade of his life.

“I’m going to read my poems with great empha­sis upon their rhythm,” says Yeats in the first seg­ment, record­ed in 1932, “and that may seem strange if you are not used to it. I remem­ber the great Eng­lish poet William Mor­ris com­ing in a rage out of some lec­ture hall, where some­body had recit­ed a pas­sage out of his Sig­urd the Vol­sung. ‘It gave me a dev­il of a lot of trou­ble,’ said Mor­ris, ‘to get that thing into verse!’ It gave me a dev­il of a lot of trou­ble to get into verse the poems that I am going to read, and that is why I will not read them as if they were prose.”

Yeats made ten radio broad­casts between 1931 and 1937. In the first read­ing, from 1932, Yeats begins with his famous ear­ly poem, “The Lake Isle of Inn­is­free,” which he once called “my first lyric with any­thing in its rhythm of my own music. ” He recites his verse in a somber tone that con­tem­po­rary poet Sea­mus Heaney once described as an “ele­vat­ed chant”:

The Lake Isle of Inn­is­free

I will arise and go now, and go to Inn­is­free,
And a small cab­in build there, of clay and wat­tles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the hon­ey­bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes drop­ping slow,
Drop­ping from the veils of the morn­ing to where the crick­et sings;
There mid­night’s all a glim­mer, and noon a pur­ple glow,
And evening full of the lin­net’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lap­ping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand by the road­way, or on the pave­ments gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

The next poem was writ­ten in 1889, less than a year after “The Lake Isle of Inn­is­free.” “A cou­ple of miles from Inn­is­free,” says Yeats, “no, four or five miles from Inn­is­free, there’s a great rock called Dooney Rock where I had often pic­nicked when a child. And when in my 24th year I made up a poem about a mer­ry fid­dler I called him ‘The Fid­dler of Dooney’ in com­mem­o­ra­tion of that rock and all of those pic­nics.”

The Fid­dler of Dooney

When I play on my fid­dle in Dooney,
Folk dance like a wave of the sea;
My cousin is priest in Kil­var­net,
My broth­er in Moharabuiee.

I passed my broth­er and cousin:
They read in their books of prayer;
I read in my book of songs
I bought at the Sli­go fair.

When we come at the end of time,
To Peter sit­ting in state,
He will smile on the three old spir­its,
But call me first through the gate;

For the good are always the mer­ry,
Save by an evil chance,
And the mer­ry love the fid­dle,
And the mer­ry love to dance:

And when the folk there spy me,
They will all come up to me,
With ‘Here is the fid­dler of Dooney!’
And dance like a wave of the sea.

The third poem was record­ed in March of 1934. It was first pub­lished in Yeat­s’s 1899 anthol­o­gy, The Wind Among the Reeds, and tells the sto­ry of an old and weary peas­ant woman:

The Song of the Old Moth­er

I rise in the dawn, and I kneel and blow
Till the seed of the fire flick­er and glow;
And then I must scrub and bake and sweep
Till stars are begin­ning to blink and peep;
And the young lie long and dream in their bed
Of the match­ing of rib­bons for bosom and head,
And their day goes over in idle­ness,
And they sigh if the wind but lift up a tress:
While I must work because I am old,
And the seed of the fire gets fee­ble and cold.

The tape ends with a pair of record­ings from 1937: anoth­er read­ing of “The Lake Isle of Inn­is­free,” fol­lowed by two stan­zas from the 1931 poem “Coole and Bal­lylee.” (Find the com­plete six-stan­za poem here.) The poem was inspired by the grace­ful Gal­way estate of Isabel­la Augus­ta, Lady Gre­go­ry, a co-founder of the Abbey The­atre. The poem was first pub­lished as “Coole Park and Bal­lylee” in the 1932 vol­ume Words for Music Per­haps and Oth­er Poems, but was short­ened to “Coole and Bal­lylee” in the 1933 edi­tion of The Wind­ing Stair and Oth­er Poems.

Coole and Bal­lylee (two stan­zas)

Anoth­er emblem there! That stormy white
But seems a con­cen­tra­tion of the sky;
And, like the soul, it sails into the sight
And in the morn­ing’s gone, no man knows why;
And is so love­ly that it sets to right
What knowl­edge or its lack had set awry,
So arro­gant­ly pure, a child might think
It can be mur­dered with a spot of ink.

Sound of a stick upon the floor, a sound
From some­body that toils from chair to chair;
Beloved books that famous hands have bound,
Old Mar­ble heads, old pic­tures every­where;
Great rooms where trav­elled men and chil­dren found
Con­tent or joy; a last inher­i­tor
Where none has reigned that lacked a name and fame
Or out of fol­ly into fol­ly came.

The record­ings will be added to the Poet­ry sec­tion in our Free Audio Books col­lec­tion. You can also lis­ten to a ver­sion of these record­ings on Spo­ti­fy below:

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Comments (9)
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  • Patricia MMRC says:

    Love­ly. Thanks for post­ing these poems on WBY’s birth­day.

  • rita says:

    such a haunt­ing tone.

  • Christopher says:

    This it the begin­ning of rap.

  • Babar says:

    Can­not thank you enough for upload­ing this trea­sure. Greet­ings from Bangladesh.

  • Peter Tucker says:

    I love Yeats — my sec­ond favourite poet (after Eliot).
    But I’m sor­ry, can’t warm to this strange chant­i­ng deliv­ery.
    Nev­er­the­less, quite an inter­pre­tive chal­lenge laid down by the great poet him­self, espe­cial­ly pre­ced­ed by his own acer­bic com­ment about how he thinks verse should be read.

  • pete lazonby says:

    How won­der­ful that we know exact­ly how these poems should be read.

  • Dennis Pollock says:

    I am pas­sion­ate about this. Thank you for the record­ing. What a mar­vel of tech­nol­o­gy to hear Him read the Song of the old Woman. Xx

  • Daniel J McGowan says:

    I read along with him in his chant, amazed at how eas­i­ly my voice picked up the long held syl­la­bles, and it actu­al­ly sound­ed nat­ur­al. When I hear him do this I feel like I have a win­dow into how things were con­duct­ed in the Order of the Gold­en Dawn.

  • Mo says:

    Could you please tell me who owns the copy­right for these tapes of Yeats read­ing.
    I would like to use them in a doc­u­men­tary, but need to get them cleared.

    Many thanks

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