Play me the musical version of ‘Down by the Salley Gardens’ and you are guaranteed to see me in tears within seconds. I fell in love with the words of WB Yeats while studying for my A-levels. I couldn’t believe that such effortlessly lyrical combinations could exist. Published in 1898, ‘Down by the Salley Gardens’ is part of Yeats’ early body of work. Tender, romantic and steeped in heartache, the poem tells of two lovers frozen in a moment.
Unlike the powerful, political and angry poetry of Yeats’ later oeuvre, ‘Down by the Salley Gardens’ lays bare a sense of vulnerability and youthfulness. Written to mirror the Irish folk songs which stemmed from the Celtic literary heritage that Yeats so admired, the images which the poem elicits are an homage to the romanticism of the natural environment. Even the speaker’s lover appears at one with the natural world. The image of her “little snow-white feet” encapsulates the fragility of both the girl and the space she inhabits.
Fragility is a constant echo throughout the poem. Yeats’ speaker is somewhat idealistic, drawn to a loud and performative kind of love, one which manifests itself in flourishing gestures and public declarations. Yet, the speaker’s lover is full of eloquent compassion, urging the speaker to “take love easy”.
Once again the connection to the earth is a constant, her ideals of love are mirrored in the new life blooming in the natural environment. It is gradual and circumspect, but no less valid. Hers is a love that is soft, slow and quiet, “as the leaves grow on the tree” or “the grass grows on the weir”.
The love espoused by the speaker is premature, “young and foolish”, reckless, but not in vain. Yeats’ poem, although concluding with a sense of sadness and regret, becomes a love letter to first love. Intense, all-consuming and exhausting, the speaker’s nostalgia for a time when he could love so freely and passionately runs ostensibly throughout the poem.
Yeats’ speaker is universal. The heartache he feels towards the end of the poem and longing for an idealised, fragmented moment is a motif which has been well-worn in romantic poetry. Yet somehow, ‘Down by the Salley Gardens’ stands head and shoulders above the rest.
The simplicity of the language allows for an accessibility not easily found in the romanticism of Wordsworth or Coleridge. His two stanzas flow seamlessly from one to the other, drawing you into the moment with him and allowing you to share in the poem’s cathartic end.
You can read WB Yeats’ ‘Down by the Salley Gardens’ here.
Image: via jasongoroncy.com