William Butler Yeats, “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” / “84, Charing Cross Road”

Yeats Cloths As promised, here’s my first of four posts about some of my favorite poems by William Butler Yeats and the funny ways that I first learned about them. I think Yeats is quoted more in other literature and popular culture than we realize. “No Country for Old Men”… “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”… etc.

One of my favorite movies about books and book-lovers is 84, Charing Cross Road (1987), based on the 1970 book by Helene Hanff. It tells the true-life story of the 20-year, long-distance friendship  between a New York writer (Hanff) and the buyer at a London antiquarian bookshop (Frank Doel), a connection formed and sustained entirely through letter-writing.

The film adaptation, starring Anne Bancroft as Hanff and Anthony Hopkins as Doel, is just about perfect. And this scene, featuring Hopkins reading Yeats’s “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” (1899, also known as “Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven”), might not exist in the book, but it’s a lovely moment all the same.

This scene sent me in search of a volume of Yeats verse, and that was when I realized that I’d loved a few of his poems before. Here is the text of the poem:

“He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven”

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Image: “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” written on a postcard by Yeats, National Library of Ireland; detail of first-edition cover of 84 Charing Cross Road.

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