W.B. Yeats & Long Legged Fly: Meaning & Meter

Some Good References

I’ve been wanting to study some Yeats.

Many of his greatest poems are written using regular metrical patterns like blank verse, where the metrical pattern doesn’t vary from line to line, but many more aren’t. These poems are like Emily Dickinson’s – poems based on ballad meter. Ireland is famous for its ballads and folk songs and Yeats must have heard them frequently – if only on the evidence of the forms he used. Here is the poem before my own annotations. A scansion of the poem follows later.

That civilization may not sink,
Its great battle lost,
Quiet the dog, tether the pony
To a distant post;
Our master Caesar is in the tent
Where the maps are spread,
His eyes fixed upon nothing,
A hand under his head.
(Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.)

That the topless towers be burnt
And men recall that face,
Move most gently if move you must
In this lonely place.
She thinks, part woman, three parts a child,
That nobody looks; her feet
Practise a tinker shuffle
Picked up on a street.
(Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
Her mind moves upon silence.)

That girls at puberty may find
The first Adam in their thought,
Shut the door of the Pope’s chapel,
Keep those children out.
There on that scaffolding reclines
Michael Angelo.
With no more sound than the mice make
His hand moves to and fro.
(Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.)

I’ve ordered a book by Helen Vendler, Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form,  but haven’t recieved it yet. vendler-on-yeatsI’ll be interested in seeing what she says about Long Legged Fly. Her book has recieved some mixed reviews, some bad, one reviewer finding the book as “dry as chalkdust”, but she’s the only critics, to my knowledge, that has tackled Yeats’ use of form. John Unterecker’s A Reader’s Guide to W.B. Yeats is useless in regard to Yeats’ formal practice. His book is more of a biographical overview of the better poems – their inspiration, meaning and symbolism. A very good book if that’s what you’re looking for (if you can get past the god-awful cover – below left).

So… I’m going to take a stab at the form Yeats used in Long Legged Fly. If reading Vendler persuades me I have missed something or gotten something wrong, I’ll make a note of it.

On the Poem

The poem is written in three stanzas and the metrical form of each Stanza is cut from the same cloth –  though each is more freely varied than would have been acceptable by the generation of poets immediately preceeding Yeats (the Victorians).  While contempories were veering off into free verse, YUnterecker on Yeatseats was content to continue working flexibly within the varied forms he had inherited. It was said that he would sit and hum to himself as he shaped the meter and rhythm of his lines.

In each of the stanza, Yeats folds his poetry around the creative spark – the genius of  mind. In the first is Ceasar, in the second Helen, and the third Michelangelo. Interestingly, Yeats doesn’t confine himself to artists – Ceasar wasn’t; neither was Helen. In one sense, Yeats could be celebrating the genius creativity as being more than just the province of the artist. On the other hand, Yeats could also be suggesting that all human endeavors, whether Ceasar’s territorial, empire-building ambition which Yeats frames as “civilization” (perhaps man’s greatest collective accomplishment), or Helen’s physical grace and beauty, are expressions of artistic genius and creativity. The meaning could be either or could be both. Unlike some analysts, I like to think that the goal is not to guess at what Yeats intended,  but to offer the possibilities presented by the poem itself.

The dog and pony are tethered far from Caesar’s hearing. The work of man, and by extension mankind, will not tolerate the presence of animals. Helen, for her part, represents a nexus through which history will move because of her beauty and grace. Without her, history cannot act on human events and cannot inspire Homer, Virgil or Christopher Marlowe to write about them. With this in mind, it may be deliberate that Yeats paraphrases Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus.

FAUSTUS. Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless  towers of Ilium–
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.–
[Kisses her.]
Her lips suck forth my soul:  see, where it flies!–
Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.
Here will I dwell, for heaven is in these lips,
And all is dross that is not Helena.
I will be Paris, and for love of thee,
Instead of Troy, shall Wertenberg be sack’d;
And I will combat with weak Menelaus,
And wear thy colours on my plumed crest;
Yea, I will wound Achilles in the heel,
And then return to Helen for a kiss.
O, thou art fairer than the evening air
Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars;
Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter
When he appear’d to hapless Semele;
More lovely than the monarch of the sky
In wanton Arethusa’s azur’d arms;
And none but thou shalt be my paramour!

Perhaps Yeats is suggesting that it is through her, symbolically a woman’s beauty, that art is made possible – that Marlowe’s lines were made possible. But, like Caesar, that creative act of her self-making, the making of her beauty,  cannot be disturbed – needs quiet, needs silence for her genius to express itself. But perhaps Yeats intends another sense too. Describing her as three-parts child, one part woman, Yeats describes her innocence. She thinks that nobody looks. Her creative act is pure, without guile, without knowledge of the lascivious observer. Like the long legged fly upon the stream, her mind moves upon silence.

The reference to her picking up  a tinker shuffle on the street, could be a reference to the poem itself – a poem based on ballad meter, one  that Yeats could have picked up on the street. In this sense, Yeats could be treating  Helen as the muse of poetry, shaping a simple rhythm into a poetry that will shape history and men’s thoughts. She becomes a sort of patron Saint of poetry.

In the final stanza Yeats suggests Michelangelo’s creation of David but is a reference to the supine, awakening Adam of the Sistine chapel. Michelangelo is the indisputably great artist – the only Artist of the three. But Yeats writes about more than Michelangelo. Michelangelo’s art will inspire a sexual awareness such that “the girls at puberty may find the first Adam in their thought”. It is, like the creative act of Caesar and Helen, a nexus of through which history will act, through which their will be further creation – procreation of the girls and their lovers – the single most profound and powerful act of creation which mankind is capable of.

So it is that Yeats moves from the creation of civilization through arms, the creation of art in symbolically graceful and beautiful Helen, to the great procreative act – the creation of ourselves. In this guise, perhaps, Yeats might have intended Michelangelo to symbolize God’s own creation of man, or better, man’s own re-creation of himself.

But keep the children out.

Curiously, Yeats must have known there would be no children in the Pope’s Chapel – no girls. I’m inclined to think that, by children, Yeats was referring to the Pope, (along with his attendant Bishops, etc…) This would imply a criticism of religion. The Pope and his attendants, the “children”, would presumably interfere with Michelangelo’s creative genius. That is, Michelangelo’s work was not meant for them, the unimaginative and spiritually naive “children” of the church, but for the pubescent girls – who would immediately, if instinctively, comprehend the meaning (the creative power and genius) of Michelangelo’s work. They, the girls, would understand what the children, the Pope and the Bishops, could not.

The supreme act of creation, the genius of mind, moves outside its own awareness – becomes like the long legged fly that moves upon the stream or the the source of being and mind. It must not be observed lest the mind too, become aware of itself, and so slip from the supple surface of its contemplation. The beautiful metaphor of the fly upon the stream is Yeats’ expression of true genius – the state in which great art is produced.  Though the maps are spread before him, Caesar gazes on nothing.

The Meter of the Poem

To me, the meter of the poem is the most interesting part of it. I love to study how poets vary their lines.

Here is a first scansion. This scansion guesses that Yeats was varying not just metrical feet, but their count within each line.

Anapests are in blue. Trochaic Feet are red. Feminine Endings are Green. Anapestic Feminine Endings (of which there are two) are marked with blue and green. Headless feet are orange. Phyric feet are yellow. (The color coding is my own scheme. As far as  Iknow, I’ m the first to ever try it. I think it helps readers to see how poets varied meter.)

Scansion: Long Legged Fly

Unless there’s some Regular Irish ballad meter I don’t know about (I’m hardly an expert on Irish literature) I would say that the form is Yeats’ own creation (though based on ballad meter). The first four lines are similar to ballad meter (as opposed to Common Meter – see my post on Dickinson). The syllabic count of Common Meter is strict 8/6/8/6 and Iambic . The rhyme scheme is ABAB. Ballad Meter is less strict. Syllables count less. What matters is the number of metrical feet per line 4/3/4/3 – generally Iambic Tetrameter alternating with Iambic Trimeter. Variant feet (anapests) are common in Ballad Meter and the rhyme scheme of Ballad Meter is also looser – ABXB (which is the rhyme scheme Yeats uses).

There are actually some recordings of Yeats reading his own poetry. Here’s one of him reading The Lake Isle of Innesfree.

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a-glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear the water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

And here is Yeats defending his chant-like readings (for which he was sometimes criticized).

To be honest, I don’t know what Yeats intended. It was clear, however, that he took meter very seriously.  What’s hard is discerning, in the case of Long Legged Fly, which meter he was taking seriously. If he was hearing ballad meter (and varying the feet on that basis) then one ought to scan the lines as alternating between Tetrameter and Trimeter (rather than Dimeter) – since the number of metrical feet per line is what matters in Ballad Meter.

That civilization may not sink,
Its | great bat|tle lost,
Quiet the dog, tether the pony
To | a dis|tant post;
Our master Caesar is in the tent
Where |the maps |are spread,
His |eyes fixed |upon no-thing,
A hand |un-der |his head.

(Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.)

This scansion reads the variant lines as having headless lines, rather than anapests. The first foot of the respective lines would be interpreted as iambic feet missing an unstressed syllable (headless). The advantage to this reading is that it retains the underlying metrical alternation (between tetrameter and trimeter) of a recognized ballad meter (at least in the first four lines). The next four lines 4/3/3/3 before the refrain are of Yeats’ own creation. (The whole of it, in fact, is probably a nonce form – meaning that the form was created to suit the poem.) Still, there is an underlying pattern, and regularizing the number of metrical feet is a recognition of it. And there’s also Yeats’ rhyme scheme. The rhyme scheme is typical of ballad meter, so why not the meter? All in all, the second scansion assumes a regular pattern from which Yeats varied. The readings regularizes the number of metrical feet per line. Here is the alternate scansion in whole:

Long Legged Fly - Ballad Meter Scansion

The metrical foot pattern of each stanza (as opposed to the syllabic count) is as follows:


Followed by the Refrain:


Note: I could also read the final line of the refrain as:

His | mind moves | upon si-lence

This, to me, stretches credibility. But then again, listening to Yeats read, it’s possible. He was nothing if not eccentric. It would make the refrain a 5/3 pattern, in keeping with the other Trimeter lines.

That said, the scansion is probably the least important element of this poem. Altering the scansion doesn’t alter the poems’s meaning but does alter the emphasis within the respective lines. Either way, Yeats’ modern sensibility, his willingness to flex regular metrical patterns almost beyond recognition, is apparent. His ear for the elegantly varied metrical line was part and parcel of his unique genius.

Be sure and comment if you found this interesting!

32 responses

  1. I taught this poem to my students earlier this year. This week they took a quiz that asked for an example of a literary work in iambic pentameter. LLF came up as an answer. I am so pleased to find your thoughtful post here. We’ll use it as Exhibit A in our discussion tomorrow!


    • This was an awesome interpretation. Why is it standard to assume Helen instead of Cleopatra? If the first stanza represents Caesar (order out of chaos/civilization/conquest) and the last stanza represents Michelangelo (art), why would the middle stanza represent a character of Greek mythology? If the middle stanza represents love/beauty then why are interpretations consistent with Helen and un-open to Cleopatra?


    • Hi Brandon. Sorry it’s taken me so long to reply. I’ve been going through fitful phases of exhaustion with all things web & Internet. To your question: The reason it is assumed to be Helen is because of this line:

      “That the topless towers be burnt…”

      Yeats is directly quoting Christopher Marlowe. If you look just above, I answered the self-same question asked by another reader. The line is spoken by Faustus while gazing at Helen of Troy.


  2. Pingback: WB Yeats ❧ Sailing to Byzantium « PoemShape

    • But, how can you tell the second verse is about HELEN?

      Yes, I could have made that clearer. Yeats was paraphrasing a very famous line from a play by Christopher Marlowe – a friend and contemporary of Shakespeare (and the second great genius of Elizabethan theater) – his play The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus.

      Here are the lines which Yeats referenced (also in the post above):

      FAUSTUS. Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships,
      And burnt the topless towers of Ilium–
      Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.–

      And here is Yeats’ line:

      That the topless towers be burnt
      And men recall that face,

      The legend of Faustus was eventually retold by Goethe, as you probably know. One of Dr. Faustus’ wishes (which Mephistopheles granted) was that he be able to see Helen of Troy. This is the moment that Marlowe captured and the lines which Yeats references.

      Given the fame of the “topless towers” soliloquy, it’s hard to argue that Yeats was referring to any woman other than Helen of Troy. Many, many poets, including Shakespeare, alluded to the famous speech. Does that answer your question?


  3. This has certainly helped me understand the poem better. Thank you for including the sound clips! I adore Yeats, and I loved reading this – and I’m sure he would have been pleased with it too!


  4. Thank you for a strong effort and good clear sessile commentary. I’ve liked this poem for fifty years and you get it all right while letting varied interpretations live and breathe. The scansion is a thoughtful addition. It’s a shame to forget that half the beauty of a poem is in the sound. Michael Wolfe

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: the bookshelf diaries: jess oliver | books | lip magazine

  6. Hey! I’m struggling translating this poem to my native language (Hungarian) and this article really helped me a lot, I got to understand the whole poem better, so thank you very much!


    • You’re right. That’s clearly a mistake on my part. Looking back, I think what I meant to write is that it suggested “David” but was a reference to the Sistine Chapel. I never finished my thought. Thanks for catching that. :-) Will make the correction.


  7. Absolutely fantastic. Quite an old post now! but great. I wonder if you have read Winifred Nowotny’s ‘The Words Poets Use’. If not, you would love it.


    • It’s an old post, but also current. I often go back and update. I haven’t read Nowotny, but maybe I should? I already have such a backlog of books read and whatnot to write. :-)


  8. Sorry, to be honest I’m not quite sure why I said that ! but it wasn’t intended as a criticism … kind of the reverse – it’s good that people are continuing to respond – and so they should – I really like it and will come back to it. Others have commented on some of the qualities of what you’ve written so I won’t elaborate. Nowottny’s book, the title of which I managed to get wrong / – ; – and now I see I even spelt her name wrong (it has two t’s) was recommended to me by an English Lit. lecturer. It’s a brilliant book and I just suspect it would appeal to you a lot.


  9. The Trojans believed they could see inside the Greek heart and accepted their gift of a horse. That was the last mistake many of them made and why the topless towers were burnt.


  10. I have, for the most part, avoided poetry because I tend to have difficulty extracting meaning from it. This may be a function of my background. However, I’ve been consciously trying of late to increase my exposure to complicated poetry. I’m thus curious about how you go about reading and analyzing hard poems. More generally, I’m wondering if you have any advice for somebody who’s just now starting to pick up poetry.


    • Hi Jim.

      Sorry for the delayed response. Your comment somehow slipped under the radar. The way I go about reading and analyzing hard poems is going to sound pat and cliched, but I simply go word by word. I look up what other writers and close readers have said about a poem, then see if it makes sense to me. As for advice? Start with anthologies from different eras — Elizabethan, Restoration, Romantic, Victorian, Modernist, etc… There are also good anthologies focusing on men and women. You might also consider reading a couple bios?


  11. I don’t know much about Helen of Troy. But here is my take on second stanza, which may be quite wrong. Here is a woman, yet obscure, at practice stage of life, highly ambitious, no one watches, those street level tricks being learnt, but this very woman, then, emerges having the capabilities to burn topless towers, immortalising her in the process. That is why while Caesar and Michael Angelo are named, the obscure woman in second stanza, part woman, three part a child is not named.


    • That the “topless towers” are an allusion to Helen of Troy is beyond doubt. Marlowe’s lines are so famous that anyone with any literary background will recognize them. You’re right though that one doesn’t necessarily need to interpret the young woman as Helen of Troy. In Yeats’ view it’s possible that any young woman of exceptional beauty could be a Helen of Troy (and that would be typical of Yeats) practicing to burn “topless towers” in a metaphorical sense. I think your interpretation works just as well.


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