William Butler Yeats wasn’t quite successful when it came to love. This didn’t stop him to advise others about their love life. The poem “To a young beauty” is his advise for a young woman.
About “To a young beauty”
Let’s make one thing clear: William Butler Yeats in the last part of the nineteenth century and the first part of the twentieth century (born on 13 June 1865 and died on 28 January 1939). In his time, people – especially women – were supposed to do things differently from today. You might say that the concept ‘dating’ wasn’t something young women should be doing back then.
In this poem Yeats mentions some names, but why? Let’s start with Jack and Jill. These were common names. Because he addresses his fellow artists – who had a higher standard than common people – he compares them to ordinary people when they are involved in ‘every sort of company.’ According to Yeats, it’s best to choose the people you see wisely.
The mentioning of the name Ezekiel needs some explanation. In the sentence, before he advises to be passionate, but not when it comes to the quantity (‘bountiful’). In other words: you can enjoy something, but not everything. The name Ezekiel refers to the bible. Because of the word ‘cherubim’, you can only conclude that he is referring to the biblical creatures. Nowadays they’re also known as cherubs. These cherubs are mentioned 91 times in the bible, including in the Book of Ezekiel. According to the Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament, Ezekiel was a prophet. This prophet mentioned these cherubs more than once. Instead of these carriers of holiness, it’s more than the cherubs Yeats mentioned are sort-off lost their glance. Not like the cherubs the French engraver Jacques Firmin Beauvarlet (1731 – 1797) left us in his art. In other words: time can turn something beautiful into something else; anything but beautiful. You might say that Yeats said beauty is skin deep.
Landor and Donne
The important last names are Landor and Donne. Landor is Walter Savage Landor (1775 — 1864), an English writer, poet and activist. His most famous work is “Imaginary Conversations.” Donne is John Donne (1572 – 1631), an English poet, scholar, and secretary. With both of them, he will dine when his journey has come to an end.
The advice that Yeats has for this young woman is that she must not decide to be with other men, but stick to just one. Interesting is the ‘DEAR fellow-artist’-part. Perhaps Yeats had someone in mind, a woman…
To a young beauty
DEAR fellow-artist, why so free
With every sort of company,
With every Jack and Jill?
Choose your companions from the best;
Who draws a bucket with the rest
Soon topples down the hill.
You may, that mirror for a school,
Be passionate, not bountiful
As common beauties may,
Who were not born to keep in trim
With old Ezekiel’s cherubim
But those of Beauvarlet.
I know what wages beauty gives,
How hard a life her setvant lives,
Yet praise the winters gone:
There is not a fool can call me friend,
And I may dine at journey’s end
With Landor and with Donne.
— William Butler Yeats