- On March 2, 1929, William
Buttler Yeats (1865-1939) wrote to Olivia
- I am writing Twelve poems for music have
done three of them (and two other poems) no (t)
so much that they may be sung as that I may
define their kind of emotion to myself. I want
them to be all emotion and all impersonal. One
of the three I have written is my best lyric for
some years I think. They are the opposite of my
recent work and all praise of joyous life,
though in the best of them it is a dry bone on
the shore that sings the praise?
- This "best lyric" of the three written for
what later became Words for Music Perhaps was
- Ô cruel Death, give thre things
- Sang a bone upon the shore;
- A child found all a child can lack,
- Whether of pleasure or of rest,
- Upon the abundance of my breast:
- A bone wave-whitened and dried in the
- Three dear things that women
- Sang a bone upon the shore;
- A man if I but held him so
- When my body was alive
- Found all the pleasure that life gave:
- A bone wave-whitened and dried in the
- The third thing that I think of
- Sang a bone upon the shore,
- Is that morning when I met
- Face to face my rightful man
- And did after stretch and yawn:
- A bone wave-whitened and dried in the
- Class discussion of this poem usually
centres upon the third' thing. Students (and
teacher) understand that the first stanza is
about the remembered pleasure of nursing a child
and that the second stanza is about the
remembered pleasure of the sexual act. The class
also understands that while the first two
stanzas are about giving pleasure to another the
third is about taking a very personal pleasure
oneself. But beyond this point there is never
agreement about what the third thing is.
- One reading which invariably comes up in
some form may be exemplified by the gloss given
in John Unterecker's useful A Reader's Guide to
William Butler Yeats.
- "Three Things" and "Lullaby" represent
"normal" love. "Three Things" assembles three
kinds of pleasure that woman can get from love:
the satisfaction she gets and gives in offering
a child her breast (stanza I), the satisfaction
she gets and gives in offering a lover her body
(stanza II) and the satisfaction she gets from
deceiving her husband, yawning in his face after
a night with her lover (stanza III)."
- I am glad the Unterecker put " 'normal" in
quotes! However, I think that his interpretation
jars with the tone of both poem and series.
Idnotsaythat Yeats is incapable of cynicism.
Moreover, he is attracted elsewhere to the idea
of changing "loves while wile dancing" and of
laughing "At all who marry in churches."
(Variorum Poems, p. 330). "His Bargain," which
precedes "Three Things," and "Lullaby," which
follows it, both deal with infidelity, though
the former rejects it and the latter raises it
beyond the "normal" to the levels of epic,
romance and myth Helen, Isolde, and Leda.
Nevertheless, I reject Unterecker's reading for
the following reasons: (1) It would make "Three
Things" out of tune with the motif of
love-loyalty which runs through Words for Music
Perhaps; (2) it misinterprets "rightful man," as
we shall see; and (3) it misinterprets
"stretch and yawn." Similarly Morton
Seiden speaks of the woman's "offering a mere
yawn to her deceived husband." Yawns are
not "mere" in Yeats, not, at least, in a sexual
- An opposite misreading to Unterecker's, one
doser to the tone of the poem, is that of the
student for whom stretching and yawning
works as a symbol of utter satisfaction,
rather than of impudence or boredom, and who
finds the "third thing" to be complete
relaxation after a night of consummated sex with
the right man, the man to whom one is bound not
only body to body but "ghost to ghost," the true
lover or even husband (!). This reading is given
support by the gloss in A. Norman Jeffares A
Commentary on The Collected Poems of W. B.
Yeats: "stretch and yawn: stretching and yawning
are symbols of consummated sex."
- This reading feels more nearly right to me
than Unterecker's, and for years I myself have
read the poem that way. Jeffares' gloss,
however, has brought me up short, because I know
that for Yeats "stretch and yawn" does
not stand for consummated sex but for sexual
arousal, usually for as yet unrequited love or
desire. A run-through, in chronological order,
of some of Yeats's uses of the terms "stretch"
and "yawn" will demonstrate.
- "Stretch" and "yawn" are first used together
in "On Woman," composed May 21 or 25, 1914, and
published in February 1916. A careful reading
will show that Solomon and Sheba stretch and
yawn in desire, prior to consummation.
- ...Solomon grew wise
- While talking with his queens,
- Yet never could, although
- They say he counted grass,
- Count all the praises due
- When Sheba was his lass,
- When she the iron wrought, or
- When from the smithy fire
- It shuddered in the water:
- Harshness of their desire
- That made them stretch and yawn,
- Pleasure that comes with sleep,
- Shudder that made them one.
- (Variorum Plays, pp. 345-46).
- The repetition of "shuddered. . . Shudder"
underlines the fact that the lines after "water"
(which is followed by a colon) specify the
stages of the sexual cycle symbolized earlier in
the smithy metaphor: (1) Desire is aroused -
"Harshness of their desire./ That made them
stretch and yawn"; (2) They go to bed together -
"Pleasure that comes with sleep"; (3) They
experience mutual orgasm "Shudder that made them
- The manuscripts of Yeats's The Player Queen,
transcribed and edited with a commentary by the
late Curtis Bradford in a book now in press,
contain Yeats's earliest use of the phrase
"stretch and yawn" in a play. Decima, angry at
her husband's unfaithfulness, determines to
choose a new lover. She lines up the male actors
of her troupe and has them sing and dance in
competition for her love. The fact that they are
in animal masks and costumes, they are to play
the beasts of the ark, allows Yeats to exploit
the idea of a woman coupling with an animal or
bird, as in "Leda and, the Swan" and elsewhere,
to symbolize the end of one historical or
religious cycle and the beginning of
- Bradford has established that it was in the
autumn of 1915, after working on The Player
Queen since 1907, that Yeats reconceived the
play as a "wild comedy, almost a farce, with a
tragic background." In a draft probably of this
date Decima sings a song in which, except for
punctuation, the following lines remain the same
through all the unpublished and published
- Queen Pasiphae chose a bull
- While a passion for a swan
- Made Queen Leda stretch and
- (Cf. Varorium Plays, p. 744).
- Here as e1sewIere the moment of choice is
accompanied with an impulse to stretch and yawn.
Leda has "found her fancy" as Decima is trying
to find hers, but she has not yet consumina.ted
her union with the swan.
- In the same draft Decima rebukes her own
attraction to the actor
- who has a bull's head:
- And I am certain it were folly
- Now that love has been disproved
- To stretch and yawn as when I
- That "when" might seem to imply some
post-coital stretching and yawning in the past.
Therefore Yeats changes the passage in later
- and what a folly it would be now that I
have found love out, t
- o stretch and yawn as if I loved.
- and what a folly now that I have found
- to stretch and yawn as if I
- This is the same as the first published
version in The Dial, November 1922. Collected
Plays (1934) has
- What a folly that I
- should find love nothing, and yet through
- with that voice should stretch and yawn
as if I loved.
- In all of these the stretching and yawning
is associated with the arousal of desire not its
- The line "All the stretched body's laid on
the white rush" appears in the first printings
of "Leda and the Swan" and it could be argued
against me that the moment of sexual union is
referred to here. However, there is a much
different use of the word "stretched" here than
the one we are discussing.
- In "Consolation," first published in The
Winding Stair (1929), the lines
- But stretch that body for a while
- And lay down that head
- Till I have told the sages
- Where man is comforted.
- (Variorum Poems, p. 534).
- are clearly a sexual invitation. The sages
probably get not just a lecture but a
demonstration. The stretching and yawning are a
prelude to the committing of the crime of
conceiving a child.
- There may be a secondary sexual meaning in
"yawns" in "Crazy Jane Reproved," first
published in November 1930, and if so the poem
may support my interpretation.
- All that storm that blots the day
- Can but show that Heaven yawns;
- Great Europa played the fool
- That changed a lover for a bull.
- (Variorum Poems, p. bog).
- Zeus is not a serious lover. It is only in
momentary languor that he turns from his proper
creativity to chase the girls. He turns yawning
from his work to look for a little excitement.
Whether he yawns with weariness or desire, his
momentary impulse causes "those dreadful thunder
stones" and "that storm that blots the
- The storm and night are elsewhere symbolic
of the sexual spasm. See, for example, the
untitled poem beginning
- A woman's beauty is like a white
- Frail bird, like a white sea-bird alone
- At daybreak after stormy night
- Between two furrows upon the ploughed
- A suddent storm, and it was thrown
- Between dark furrows upon the ploughed
- The storm arose and suddenly fell
- Amid the dark before day had
- (Variorum Poems, p. 784).
- Weariness, yawning with desire, and
satisfying that desire on a Europa or a Leda are
all part of the one gesture for Zeus, with whom
to think is to act. It is interesting that
"yawn" occurs here, as in the passage quoted
above from The Player Queen, in connection with
sexual relations between a woman and a bull,
although it is the male here who yawns with
desire. The Player Queen's tone too is mocking:
"Any bird or beast may rest/An empty head upon
my breast." (Variorum Plays, p. 744).
- However, I cannot prove that in this poem
"yawns" relates to arousal of desire rather than
fulfillment. If "yawns" has any sexual meaning
here at all then "that storm that blots the day"
probably does too, in which case I must argue
that with Zeus (or Heaven) desire and fulliment
are almost simultaneous so that the storm
follows hard upon Heaven's yawning with desire.
Actually the primary meaning of "yawns" in this
poem could be simply "nods," "slips up," or
"performs casually or carelessly." The gloss
from Autobiographies (1955) which Jeffares
quotes simply opposes "yawns" to "toils." "Is it
not certain that the Creator yawns in earthquake
and thunder and other popular displays, but
toils in rounding the delicate spiral of a
- A Full Moon in March (1935) gives the
clearest proof that stretching and yawning has
to do with arousal. Here, as in "Three Things,"
there are recognition of the "rightful man" as
indeed "rightful man" and the consequent arousal
- Th. Queen [stretching and yawning].
What man is at the door? Second Attendant.
Nobody, Queen. The Queen. Some man has come,
some terrifying man, For I have yawned and
stretched myself three times. Admit him, Captain
of the Guard ....
- (Variorum Plays, p. 980).
- The manuscripts are even clearer:
- Queen. Some man is coming. I have felt
all day as
- I feel when some lover is coming
- It may [be] that arnan is coming
to whom [I shailbe betrothed?]
[Manuscript breaks off.]
- Q. Captain of the guard what man is at
- A. There is no man at the door
- Q. No lover has come
- But I have felt him in my bones; I
- Because I have yawned and stretched
myself three times
- I [n] the last hour a man is at
- That I shall take for husband (The A
- Admit the man.
- The use of "husband" in this second
manuscript passage accords with the use of
"rightful man" in "Three things."
- I have commented elsewhere on my final
- In "News for the Deiphic Oracle," first
published in March 1939, Plotinus, the
neoplatonic philosopher, has at last reached the
shores of eternity. What does he do about
- Plotinus came and looked about,
- The salt-flakes on his breast,
- And having stretched and yawned awhile
- Lay sighing like the rest.
- (Variorum Poems, pp. 611-12).
- Everyone and everything was sighing in this
- ...The great water sighed for love,
- And the wind sighed too.
- (Variorum Poems, p. 6 11 ).
- They were sighing for love; not sighing
contentedly with love attained in a land "where
all is unison and winning tenderness and
guileless joy" but sighing restlessly with
desire .... That they are all sighing with
desire - that sighing is prelude to the act of
love - is indicated partly by the echoes which
critics have noted of Enobarbus' description of
Cleopatra (Antony and Cleopatra, II, ii,
196-251) .... Perhaps most relevant thematically
is the idea that Cleopatra 'makes hungry / Where
most she satisfies,' for that is what has
happened here. Plotinus has reached the final
goal, eternity, only to find, with Blake, that
eternity is in love with the productions of
time. He lies sighing with animal desire,
sighing to start the whole process of spiritual
evolution all over again from its basest
beginning. The vulgar phrase "man-picker" for
Niamh and the salt-flakes on Plotinus' breast
help establish the tone of earthly rather than
- Having heroically reached his fleshless
goal, Plotinus is now consumed with desire like
the rest, and he stretches and yawns not just
because he is soon bored with resting on his
laurels, but as a token or symptom that this
desirous state is coming over him. The others
have probably stretched and yawned before him.
It will ail end with copulating in the foam.
Here, as in the other poems cited, stretching
and yawning are a prelude to the satisfaction of
- If elsewhere in Yeats "stretch and yawn"
stands for sexual arousal, and usually for as
yet unrequited love or desire, this
interpretation may fit "Three Things" as well.
To me it seems to offer the simplest and
clearest explanation of sequence and
relationship in the poem. The "three things" of
the three stanzas are not haphazardly arranged.
They do not form a discontinuous series. As the
first stanza is concerned with the product of
sexual union, the child, and the second stanza
with the union itself, so the third stanza is
concerned with the prelude to that union, the
first meeting, or first significant meeting,
with the "right" man.
- Actually the situation is not that simple.
Whereas the first two stanzas are concerned with
"A child" and "A man," the third is concerned
with "my rightful man." The first two encounters
are initially physical; the third because of
"rightful," I hold to be initially an encounter
- Perhaps this is the best place to insist
that "my rightful man" does not mean simply
"husband." "Rightful," in the context of Words
for Music Perhaps, must be glossed with
reference to other poems: "Crazy Jane and the
- Jack had my virginity,
- And bids me to the oak, for he
- (All find safety in the tomb.)
- Wanders out into the night
- And there is shelter under it
- (Variorum Poems, pp. 508-09).
- "Crazy Jane and Jack the Journeyman,"
- The skein so bound us ghost to ghost
- (Variorum Poems, p. 511)
- "Crazy Jane on God,"
- I had wild jack for a lovers...
- All things remain in God
- (Variorum Poems, p. 512)
- "Young Man's Song,"
- 'No withered crone I saw Before the world
- (Variorum Poems, p. 516), "His
- What payment were enough
- For undying love?
- (Variorum Poems, p. 518),
- "His Bargain,"
- I made, and may not break it
- When the last thread has run,
- A bargain with that hair
- And all the windings there
- (Variorum Poems, p. 520).
- To go beyond Words for Music Perhaps, her
"rightful man" is the man the woman "loved'. ..
with her soul" as in "The Three Bushes"
(Variorum Poems, p. 571), who shall "rule in his
own right" when the soul, "its body off,/Naked
to naked goes," as in "A Last Confession"
(Variorum Poems, p. 538, italics mine). Here in
"Three Things," where a dried bone speaks, the
claims of the body get full attention and the
meeting with the "rightful man" is valued as a
prelude to satisfaction of both body and soul.
It has made so strong an impression that the
dead woman still feels it in her bones.
- If in her thought the bone upon the shore
moves from child nursing, through sexual union,
to the moment of discovering the man to whom she
will be bound both body to body and "ghost to
ghost," she is following the correct time order
for the meditation of a Yeatsean "Spiritual
Being" or "Celestial Body":
- The conception of [The Dreaming of the
Bones (1919)] is derived from the world-wide
belief that the dead dream back, for a certain
time, through the more personal thoughts and
deeds of life .... The Judwalis distinguish
between the Shade which dreams back through
events in the order of their intensity, becoming
happier as the more painful and, therefore, more
intense wear themselves away, and the Spiritual
Being, which lives back through events in the
order of occurrence, this living back being an
exploration of their moral and intellectual
origin.. . The Shade is said to fade out at
last, but the Spiritual Being does not fade,
passing on to other states of existence after it
has attained a spiritual state, of which the
surroundings and aptitudes of early life are a
correspondence. (Variorum Plays, pp. 777-78,
- It is Spiritual Being that speaks in the
bone, going through the passionate events of
life in reverse chronological order: children,
sexual union, first love. Nearer to the writing
of this poem in March 1929 is the description of
"The Return" in the 1925 A Vision:
- ... During the Waking State alone does he
know that he is no longer living. During this
state whiçh is commonly called the
Teaching he is brought into the presence, as far
as possible, of all sources of the action he
must presently, till he has explored every
consequence, dream throu1i Thia passion for the
source is brought to him from his own Celestial
Body which perpetually, being of the nature of
Fate, dreams the events of his life backward
through time. If the thought of his past life
permit, he will now perceive all those persons
as they now live or as they have lived, who have
influenced him, or whom he has influenced, and
so caused the action..
- The dried bone upon the shore finds the
"source" of her later experience (though
certainly there needs no ghost come from Yeats's
system to tell us this) in her meeting with her
"rightful man." In the 1937 A Vision this
"passion for the source" is put in terms which
may suggest why "Three Things" comes to such a
satisfying rest at the end:
- In the Return... the Spirit must live
through past events in the order of their
occurrence, because it is compelled by the
Celestial Body to trace every passionate event
to its cause until all are related and
understood, turned into knowledge, made a part
of itself. All that keeps the Spirit from its
freedom may be compared to a knot that has to be
untied or to an oscillation or a violence that
must end in a return to equilibrium"
- Such, then, is my reading of "Three Things."
The alert reader, however, will immediately ask
why, if stanza three refers not to consummation
but to a confident arousal of desire after
meeting the "rightful man," is there such
emphasis on the fact that it is "morning"
(presumably after a significant night) and that
it was "after" (after consummation?) that the
woman "did.. . stretch and yawn"?
- My answer is simply that it is "morning,"
not because they have spent a night of love,
which they have not, but to suggest the dawning
of new experience, the beginning of the love
cycle. There is a fictitious particularity here.
The speaker remembers a particular moment of
meeting, and Yeats particularizes it by making
it "that morning," just as in "Crazy Jane and
jack the Journeyman" Jane remembers how
- ... he turned his head
- Passing on the road that night
- (Variorum Plays, p. 511 ).
- "After," in "And did after stretch and
yawn," simply means after meeting the rightful
man, not after a night of love.
- Whether or not the reader accepts my
analysis of "Three Things" based on Yeats's use
in it of the formula "stretch and yawn," he may
wonder how Yeats happened to introduce into his
work in May 1914 this phrase which has,
according to my claim, a special and consistent
meaning for him from then to the end of his
life? One is tempted to look into Yeats's
experience with the opposite sex for an answer,
but fortunately a clear literary source is at
hand. During the winters of 1912/13 and 1913/14
Yeats was closely associated with Ezra Pound in
London. What more natural than that he should
look closely at Pound's The Spirit of Romance
(London, 1910) and read Pound's translation of
"Perhaps the most beautiful of all the surviving
poems of 'the better craftsman,' " Arnault
Daniel's "Doutz brais e critz"? Stanza II
- I was not tortured nor taken with fears when
first I entered into that castle behind its
barriers, there where dwells my lady, of whom I
have great hunger such as never had the nephew
of St William. A thousand times a day l yawn and
stretch because of that fair who surpasseth all
others even as true joy surpasseth ire and fury
- K. L. Goodman in The Influence of Ezra Pound
quotes remarks made by Yeats at a 1914 banquet
given in his honour in Chicago by Poetry
- When I returned to London from Ireland, I
had a young man go over all my work with rue to
eliminate the abstract. This was an American
poet, Ezra Pound.
- What more natural than that Yeats, hunting
down abstractions, should pounce with excitement
on Pound's note on "yawn and stretch":
- I give the most vigorous and perhaps brutal,
though exact equivalent of two words which the
euphuist would render "languish" and To
substitute "yawn and stretch" for "languish" and
"yearn" would indeed delight the poet who
exulted in physiological symbols like
"Great-bladdred Emer" (Variorum Poems, p. 628)
and "bids my hair stand up" (Variorum Poems, p.
499). At any rate, the reading I appro for the
climatic line in "Three Things" - "And did after
stretch and yawn", is "And did after yearn and
languish." What that does to the tone, however,
shows why Yeats preferred the less abstract
language. I invite the reader to go through the
poems cited above substituting "yearn" and
"languish" for "stretch" and "yawn" and seeing
how well they fit. I think the exercise is
particularly helpful in "Crazy Jane Reproved"
when one reads for "Can but show that Heaven
yawns," "Can but show that Heaven
- If Pound is the source for this image of
yawning and stretching in Yeats, then Goodman by
so much overstates his case when he finds little
significant influence of Pound in Yeats's volume
The Wild Swans at Coole.
- For interest, let me close by quoting
Pound's 1920 verse translation of the stanza
from Daniel. A Wild Swan at Coole seems to have
escaped into it, but Yeats perhaps recaptured
saine again in "Leda and the Swan" (composed
- No culs de sacs
- nor false ways me deflected
- When first I pierced her fort within its
- Hers for whom my hungry insistency
- Passes the gnaw whereby was Vivien
- Day-long I stretch, all times, like a
- And yawn for her, who hath o'er others
- As high as true joy is o'er ire and