He wishes for the Cloths of Heaven

10 June 2024 by Jian Zhi Qiu

Quote from Dear Su Yen pp. 30-32

Dear Su Yen

You asked me to write a bit about a poem you had read in Chinese, He wishes for the Cloths of Heaven, because it seems to relate to your dreams. Well, I think your dreams are different to those of the poet, but the plea that these dreams might not be trampled over, whatever they are, will find sympathy in every person.

Since the poet, W. B. Yeats, calls the things he is describing the, 'cloths of heaven,' and since his description seems to suggest a beautiful sunset and twilight, we may suppose that was the source of his inspiration for this poem. He then imagines that these are finely woven and expensive coloured materials that would delight any woman and, thinking of the woman whom he loved, he wishes that he possessed such materials so that he might, as he writes, 'spread the cloths under your feet'. But he is poor and does not possess such cloths; he has only his dreams to spread before her.

If we did not know the story of Yeats' life we could see this poem, as you did when you read it in Chinese, as a very beautiful and happy poem, and think that she did tread softly and, perhaps, gratefully. Knowing the story of Yeats' life, however, it is likely that the person to whom he was expressing this devotion was Maud Gomme, a woman who did indeed often trample on his dreams even though at times she seemed to share some of them at least. Clearly the last two lines speak to you strongly because of those tutors who trampled on your dreams in Taiwan. So a great poet can treat a personal theme in a way that has a wide appeal.

In terms of poetry this poem may be called a 'lyric': that is, an expression of personal and, usually, deeply held feelings. You can compare this with the 'ode' which today is a term used for a poem which praises something: famous odes have been written to, for example, a bird called a skylark, and to a Grecian urn or vase. I suppose Caedmon's song was an ode to God, but because it is to God we call it a hymn.

He wishes for the Cloths of Heaven, by W. B. Yeats (1865-1939).

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.