Home  »  The Wild Swans at Coole  »  14. The Sad Shepherd

W.B. Yeats (1865–1939). The Wild Swans at Coole. 1919.

14. The Sad Shepherd

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

Is dead.

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[He sings.]

‘Like the speckled bird that steers

Thousands of leagues oversea,

And runs for a while or a while half-flies

Upon 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 in the lengethening shadows,

Where the sheep are thrown in the pool,

When he vanished from ears and eyes.

I had wished a dear thing on that day

I heard him first, 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.

Goatherd. Indeed

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

Less bitter.

Goatherd. They have brought me from that ridge

Seed-pods and flowers that are not all wild poppy.[Sings.]

‘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.

Jaunting, journeying

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 practice on the shepherd’s flute,

Or on the close-cropped grass

Court his shepherd lass,

Or run where lads reform our daytime

Till that is their long shouting playtime;

Knowledge he shall unwind

Through victories of the mind,

Till, clambering at the cradle side,

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 grieve

May be a quiet thought to wife and mother,

And children when they spring up shoulder high.