I would that we were, my beloved,
white birds on the foam of the sea!
We tire of the flame of the meteor,
before it can fade and flee;
And the flame of the blue star of twilight,
hung low on the rim of the sky,
Has awaked in our hearts, my beloved,
a sadness that may not die.
A weariness comes from those dreamers,
dew-dabbled, the lily and rose;
Ah, dream not of them, my beloved,
the flame of the meteor that goes,
Or the flame of the blue star that lingers
hung low in the fall of the dew:
For I would we were changed to white birds
on the wandering foam: I and you!
I am haunted by numberless islands,
and many a Danaan shore,
Where Time would surely forget us,
and Sorrow come near us no more;
Soon far from the rose and the lily
and fret of the flames would we be,
Were we only white birds, my beloved,
buoyed out on the foam of the sea!
W. B. Yeats
(1865 – 1939)
William Butler Yeats composed “The White Birds” for Maud Gonne in 1892 during a walk along the cliffs of Howth, a seaside village just south of Dublin. Gonne told Yeats that she would rather be a seagull than any other bird, and Yeats sent her this poem three days later.
The “Danaan Shore” refers to Tier-nan-Oge (or Tir na nOg in Gaelic), an imaginary land where mortals live as long as fairies. Yeats interpreted Gonne’s wish to become a seagull as a wish for freedom from sorrow and time. He wishes, in vain, that they could escape the political and social circumstances that keep them apart, whether on an isolated island, in a mythic environment, or by becoming white birds.