W. B. Yeats

This night has been so strange that it seemed                   
As if the hair stood up on my head.
From going-down of the sun I have dreamed
That women laughing, or timid or wild,
In rustle of lace or silken stuff,
Climbed up my creaking stair.  They had read
All I had rhymed of that monstrous thing
Returned and yet unrequited love.
They stood in the door and stood between
My great wood lectern and the fire
Till I could hear their hearts beating:
One is a harlot, and one a child
That never looked upon man with desire.
And one, it may be, a queen.


“Presences” deals with the gothic tradition of the fame fatale. The evening is alive with strange presences. Since nightfall the narrator had dreamed of women climbing up his “creaking stair,” laughing and rustling in their silks and lace. They had read all that he “had rhymed of that monstrous thing / Returned and yet unrequited love,” and are perhaps the ghosts or the reified memories of past loves; or perhaps they are emanations of unsettled conscience. The phrase “that monstrous thing returned” has the propensity to slip in its meaning. Picking up on the slightly sexual image of “lace and silken stuff,” it momentarily attaches itself to the women and lend them the faint air of chamber-haunting succubae. The women array themselves between the “great wood lectern and the fire: till the narrator can “hear their hearts beating.” The flurry of imagery is resonant with meanings. The concatenation of wood and fire conveys the hint of conflagration, while the women’s obtrusion between lectern and fire suggests the foiling of the light, the demand for attention, the disruption of Yeats’s work. Could it be that the women, having been mere emblems of “returned yet unrequited love,” appear to demand that their own beating hearts be heard? The beating hearts of the women anticipates Christ’s beating heart in The Resurrection.

The poem ends with a symbolic turn by which it seems suddenly to evade its own unease. The three women – one a harlot, one a child, one a queen – shed whatever individuality is suggested by their laughter, their timidity, and their wilderness, and become eternal types – emblems – of lust, innocence, and pride. Despite their universal turn, the figures clearly have autobiographical correspondences. The child who never looked upon man with desire suggests Iseult Gonne, to whom Yeats proposed in both August 1916 and August 1917.  The queen inevitably suggests Maud Gonne, whom Yeats figures as Helen in poems like “No Second Troy,” “Peace,” and “A Woman Homer Sung.” “The Harlot” may reflect the need of Yeats’s symbolic scheme rather than any particular experience or person. A. Norman Jeffars plausibly conjectures that the allusion is to Mabel Dickinson, with whom Yeats had an affair from 1908 to 1913.

The poem offers a nightmare vision of female threat. It evokes the supernatural to suggest his terror before the power and strangeness of sexuality, which strikes deep into the self, its violence and destructiveness guarantees of its importance. The categories for the female principle, summed up in the archetypes ‘harlot’, ‘child’ and ‘queen’, can all be combined in the same woman, who can be ‘laughing, or timid or wild’ by turns. The seductive ‘rustle of lace or silken stuff’ evokes a contradictory femaleness over which the speaker has no rights and which can move rapidly from vulnerable to ruthless, even turning that very vulnerability into a disturbing power over him.

But the poem remains ambiguous about the ‘supernatural’ dimension. ‘This night has been so strange’, he says, that ‘it seemed / As if the hair stood up on my head’. The last line carries the cautious qualification ‘it may be’. But here and elsewhere, Yeats repeatedly uses the hint of the supernatural to explain that mysterious, terrifying power which certain women exercise. 

“Presences” is Yeats’s only poem set identifiably at Woburn Buildings. Robert Gregory designed the “great wood lecturn.”

Yeats has given the structure of the poem in a sonnet form. It is in iambic pentametre. There is no regular rhyme scheme present in this poem. Hence, it is also a blank verse. The rhythm that flows in this poem is balanced perfectly. However the diction is colloquial. The words are figurative in sense; uses of metaphor can be seen and understood.

Last modified: Saturday, 3 February 2018, 12:52 PM