mystery of yawning
Le bâillement, du réflexe à la pathologie
Le bâillement : de l'éthologie à la médecine clinique
Le bâillement : phylogenèse, éthologie, nosogénie
 Le bâillement : un comportement universel
La parakinésie brachiale oscitante
Yawning: its cycle, its role
Warum gähnen wir ?
Fetal yawning assessed by 3D and 4D sonography
Le bâillement foetal
Le bâillement, du réflexe à la pathologie
Le bâillement : de l'éthologie à la médecine clinique
Le bâillement : phylogenèse, éthologie, nosogénie
 Le bâillement : un comportement universel
La parakinésie brachiale oscitante
Yawning: its cycle, its role
Warum gähnen wir ?
Fetal yawning assessed by 3D and 4D sonography
Le bâillement foetal

mise à jour du
26 décembre 2011
The Malahat Review
Stretching and Yawning with Yeats and Pound
David R. Clark
Vers d'autres littératures
Le bâillement vu par les peintres


On March 2, 1929, William Buttler Yeats (1865-1939) wrote to Olivia Shakespeare
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 "Three Thip":
Ô cruel Death, give thre things back,
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 wind.
Three dear things that women know,
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 wind.
The third thing that I think of yet,
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 wind.
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 context.
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 one."
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 another.
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 versions:
Queen Pasiphae chose a bull
While a passion for a swan
Made Queen Leda stretch and yawn.
(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 loved.
That "when" might seem to imply some post-coital stretching and yawning in the past. Therefore Yeats changes the passage in later drafts:
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 out love
to stretch and yawn as if I loved.
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 sympathy
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 satisfaction.
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 day."
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 land:
A suddent storm, and it was thrown
Between dark furrows upon the ploughed land.
The storm arose and suddenly fell
Amid the dark before day had broken.
(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 shell.""
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 of desire:
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 the door
A. There is no man at the door
Q. No lover has come
But I have felt him in my bones; I thought
Because I have yawned and stretched myself three times
I [n] the last hour a man is at [the] door
That I shall take for husband (The A nods)
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 example:
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 it?
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 place.
...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 heavenly love.
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 aroused desire.
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 of psyches.
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 Bishop,"
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 was made'
(Variorum Poems, p. 516), "His Confidence,"
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, italics mine).
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 reads:
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 [rampa]
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 magazine:
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 languishes."
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 September 5923):
No culs de sacs
nor false ways me deflected
When first I pierced her fort within its dykes,
Hers for whom my hungry insistency
Passes the gnaw whereby was Vivien wracked;
Day-long I stretch, all times, like a bird preening,
And yawn for her, who hath o'er others thrust her
As high as true joy is o'er ire and rages.