CELT document E910001-056

The Old Age of Queen Maeve

William Butler Yeats

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    The Old Age of Queen Maeve

  1. Maeve the great queen was pacing to and fro,
    Between the walls covered with beaten bronze,
    In her high house at Cruachan; the long hearth,
    Flickering with ash and hazel, but half showed
    Where the tired horse-boys lay upon the rushes,
    Or on the benches underneath the walls,
    In comfortable sleep; all living slept
    But that great queen, who more than half the night
    Had paced from door to fire and fire to door.
    Though now in her old age, in her young age
    She had been beautiful in that old way
    That's all but gone; for the proud heart is gone,
    And the fool heart of the counting-house fears all
    But soft beauty and indolent desire.  p.52
    She could have called over the rim of the world
    Whatever woman's lover had hit her fancy,
    And yet had been great bodied and great limbed,
    Fashioned to be the mother of strong children;
    And she'd had lucky eyes and a high heart,
    And wisdom that caught fire like the dried flax,
    At need, and made her beautiful and fierce,
    Sudden and laughing.
    <caesura TEIform="caesura"/>O unquiet heart,
    Why do you praise another, praising her,
    As if there were no tale but your own tale
    Worth knitting to a measure of sweet sound?
    Have I not bid you tell of that great queen
    Who has been buried some two thousand years?
  2. When night was at its deepest, a wild goose
    Cried from the porter's lodge, and with long clamour
    Shook the ale horns and shields upon their hooks;
    But the horse-boys slept on, as though some power
    Had filled the house with Druid heaviness;
    And wondering who of the many-changing Sidhe
    Had come as in the old times to counsel her,  p.53
    Maeve walked, yet with slow footfall, being old,
    To that small chamber by the outer gate.
    The porter slept, although he sat upright
    With still and stony limbs and open eyes.
    Maeve waited, and when that ear-piercing noise
    Broke from his parted lips and broke again,
    She laid a hand on either of his shoulders,
    And shook him wide awake, and bid him say
    Who of the wandering many-changing ones
    Had troubled his sleep. But all he had to say
    Was that, the air being heavy and the dogs
    More still than they had been for a good month,
    He had fallen asleep, and, though he had dreamed nothing,
    He could remember when he had had fine dreams.
    It was before the time of the great war
    Over the White-Horned Bull, and the Brown Bull.
  3. She turned away; he turned again to sleep
    That no god troubled now, and, wondering
    What matters were afoot among the Sidhe,
    Maeve walked through that great hall, and with a sigh
    Lifted the curtain of her sleeping-room,
    Remembering that she too had seemed divine  p.54
    To many thousand eyes, and to her own
    One that the generations had long waited
    That work too difficult for mortal hands
    Might be accomplished. Bunching the curtain up
    She saw her husband Ailell sleeping there,
    And thought of days when he'd had a straight body,
    And of that famous Fergus, Nessa's husband,
    Who had been the lover of her middle life.
  4. Suddenly Ailell spoke out of his sleep,
    And not with his own voice or a man's voice,
    But with the burning, live, unshaken voice,
    Of those that it may be can never age.
    He said, "High Queen of Cruachan and Magh Ai,
    A king of the Great Plain would speak with you."
    And with glad voice Maeve answered him, "What king
    Of the far wandering shadows has come to me?
    As in the old days when they would come and go
    About my threshold to counsel and to help."
    The parted lips replied, "I seek your help,
    For I am Aengus, and I am crossed in love."
    "How may a mortal whose life gutters out
    Help them that wander with hand clasping hand,  p.55
    Their haughty images that cannot wither,
    For all their beauty's like a hollow dream,
    Mirrored in streams that neither hail nor rain
    Nor the cold North has troubled?"
    <caesura TEIform="caesura"/> He replied:
    "I am from those rivers and I bid you call
    The children of the Maines out of sleep,
    And set them digging under Bual's hill.
    We shadows, while they uproot his earthy house,
    Will overthrow his shadows and carry off
    Caer, his blue-eyed daughter that I love.
    I helped your fathers when they built these walls,
    And I would have your help in my great need,
    Queen of high Cruachan."
    <caesura TEIform="caesura"/> "I obey your will
    With speedy feet and a most thankful heart:
    For you have been, O Aengus of the birds,
    Our giver of good counsel and good luck."
    And with a groan, as if the mortal breath
    Could but awaken sadly upon lips
    That happier breath had moved, her husband turned
    Face downward, tossing in a troubled sleep;
    But Maeve, and not with a slow feeble foot,
    Came to the threshold of the painted house,
    Where her grandchildren slept, and cried aloud,
    Until the pillared dark began to stir  p.56
    With shouting and the clang of unhooked arms.
    She told them of the many-changing ones;
    And all that night, and all through the next day
    To middle night, they dug into the hill.
    At middle night great cats with silver claws,
    Bodies of shadow and blind eyes like pearls,
    Came up out of the hole, and red-eared hounds
    With long white bodies came out of the air
    Suddenly, and ran at them and harried them.
  5. The Maines' children dropped their spades, and stood
    With quaking joints and terror-strucken faces,
    Till Maeve called out: "These are but common men.
    The Maines' children have not dropped their spades,
    Because Earth, crazy for its broken power,
    Casts up a show and the winds answer it
    With holy shadows." Her high heart was glad,
    And when the uproar ran along the grass
    She followed with light footfall in the midst,
    Till it died out where an old thorn tree stood.
  6. Friend of these many years, you too had stood
    With equal courage in that whirling rout;  p.57
    For you, although you've not her wandering heart,
    Have all that greatness, and not hers alone,
    For there is no high story about queens
    In any ancient book but tells of you;
    And when I've heard how they grew old and died,
    Or fell into unhappiness, I've said:
    "She will grow old and die, and she has wept!"
    And when I'd write it out anew, the words,
    Half crazy with the thought, She too has wept!
    Outrun the measure.
    <caesura TEIform="caesura"/>I'd tell of that great queen
    Who stood amid a silence by the thorn
    Until two lovers came out of the air
    With bodies made out of soft fire. The one,
    About whose face birds wagged their fiery wings,
    Said: "Aengus and his sweetheart give their thanks
    To Maeve and to Maeve's household, owing all
    In owing them the bride-bed that gives peace."
    Then Maeve: "O Aengus, Master of all lovers,
    A thousand years ago you held high talk
    With the first kings of many-pillared Cruachan.  p.58
    O when will you grow weary?"
    <caesura TEIform="caesura"/> They had vanished;
    But out of the dark air over her head there came
    A murmur of soft words and meeting lips.

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Title statement

Title (uniform): The Old Age of Queen Maeve

Author: William Butler Yeats

Responsibility statement

Electronic edition compiled and proof-read by: Beatrix Färber and Rebecca Daly

Funded by: School of History, University College, Cork

Edition statement

1. First draft.

Extent: 1928 words

Publication statement

Publisher: CELT: Corpus of Electronic Texts: a project of University College, Cork

Address: College Road, Cork, Ireland—http://www.ucc.ie/celt

Date: 2014

Distributor: CELT online at University College, Cork, Ireland.

CELT document ID: E910001-056

Availability: The works by W. B. Yeats are in the public domain. This electronic text is available with prior consent of the CELT programme for purposes of private or academic research and teaching.

Notes statement

First published in 1903[?].

Source description

Literature (a small selection)

  1. W. B. Yeats, The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats, consisting of Reveries over childhood and youth, The trembling of the veil, and Dramatis personae (New York 1938).
  2. Richard Ellmann, Yeats: The Man and the Masks. Corrected edition with a new preface (Oxford 1979). [First published New York 1948; reprinted London 1961.]
  3. Peter Allt and Russell K. Alspach, The Variorum Edition of the Poems of W.B. Yeats (New York: Macmillan 1957).
  4. W. B. Yeats, Essays and Introductions (New York: Macmillan 1961).
  5. W. B. Yeats, Explorations: selected by Mrs W. B.Yeats (London/New York: Macmillan 1962).
  6. Richard Ellmann, The Identity of Yeats (New York 1964).
  7. Norman Jeffares, A New Commentary on the Poems of W.B. Yeats (Stanford 1984).
  8. Helen Vendler, Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form (Oxford/New York 2007).
  9. A general bibliography is available online at the official web site of the Nobel Prize. See: http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1923/yeats-bibl.html

The edition used in the digital edition

Yeats, William Butler (1922). ‘The Old Age of Queen Maeve’. In: Later Poems‍. Ed. by William Butler Yeats. London: Macmillan, pp. 51–58.

You can add this reference to your bibliographic database by copying or downloading the following:

  author 	 = {William Butler Yeats},
  title 	 = {The Old Age of Queen Maeve},
  editor 	 = {William Butler Yeats},
  booktitle 	 = {Later Poems},
  publisher 	 = {Macmillan},
  address 	 = {London},
  date 	 = {1922},
  pages 	 = {51–58}


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Project description: CELT: Corpus of Electronic Texts

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The whole poem.

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Date: Range>1903

Language usage

  • The poem is in English. (en)

Keywords: literary; poetry; Irish Sagas; Queen Maeve; W. B. Yeats; 20c

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(Most recent first)

  1. 2014-02-07: File parsed and validated; SGML and HTML files created. (ed. Beatrix Färber)
  2. 2014-02-07: Structural markup applied according to CELT practice. (ed. Rebecca Daly)
  3. 2014-02-03: TEI header created. (ed. Beatrix Färber)
  4. 1996: First proofing. (ed. Students at the CELT Project, UCC)
  5. 1996: Text captured (data capture Donnchadh Ó Corráin)

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