Skip to main content

William Butler Yeats' "The Fisherman"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats

Introduction and Text of "The Fisherman"

William Butler Yeats' poem, "The Fisherman," appears in the poet's The Wild Swans at Coole, which was published in 1919. His collection contains many of the poet’s most widely anthologized poems.

In "The Fisherman," Yeats creates a speaker who is calling for a genuine art for the common folk, one that holds all the beauty and truth inherent in all great art. He also decries the cultural suicide that is being perpetrated by charlatans, frauds, and power mad politicians. Every nation at every point in time suffers these same issues, as history has revealed.

The poets often speak up, naming names and calling for reform. William Butler Yeats, as an accomplished world poet and former Irish senator, possessed the acumen to address these issues of culture, politics, and art, and he has left a number of intense poems that do just that; "The Fisherman" is one of the most colorful and culturally relevant poems of its era.

The Fisherman

Although I can see him still,
The freckled man who goes
To a grey place on a hill
In grey Connemara clothes
At dawn to cast his flies,
It’s long since I began
To call up to the eyes
This wise and simple man.
All day I’d looked in the face
What I had hoped ’twould be
To write for my own race
And the reality;
The living men that I hate,
The dead man that I loved,
The craven man in his seat,
The insolent unreproved,
And no knave brought to book
Who has won a drunken cheer,
The witty man and his joke
Aimed at the commonest ear,
The clever man who cries
The catch-cries of the clown,
The beating down of the wise
And great Art beaten down.

Maybe a twelvemonth since
Suddenly I began,
In scorn of this audience,
Imagining a man
And his sun-freckled face,
And grey Connemara cloth,
Climbing up to a place
Where stone is dark under froth,
And the down turn of his wrist
When the flies drop in the stream:
A man who does not exist,
A man who is but a dream;
And cried, "Before I am old
I shall have written him one
Poem maybe as cold
And passionate as the dawn."

Reading of "The Fisherman"


The speaker in William Butler Yeats' poem is calling for a poetry that will be meaningful to the common folk. He reveals his contempt for charlatans, while encouraging an ideal that he feels must steer culture and art. Yeats promoted the arts that he felt most closely played to the culture of the Irish.

First Movement: Remembering an Admired Man

The speaker is recalling a man he has admired: "[t]he freckled man" wearing "Connemara clothes." The man has been accustomed to fishing at a "gray place on a hill." The speaker suggests that he can still visualize the man, perhaps the speaker even sees him from time to time in the village, but the speaker has not mused about the man recently.

The speaker likes the man’s simplicity; he calls him "wise and simple." The speaker will continue to muse on those very same qualities in his poem. The speaker wishes to extoll the virtues of simplicity and wisdom of observing those folks who are doing everyday, simple tasks.

Second Movement: Researching History

The speaker has charted his course to "write for my own race / And the reality"; thus, he has been researching the history of his country. The speaker insists that he wishes to reveal the reality of his fellow citizens, a reality, which will well acquit itself while at the same time reflect the same truths that future generations hence will likely experience.

The speaker catalogues the men and their qualities who make up the current political landscape. At some of those men, he flings his ire, "[t]he living men that I hate." He emphasizes his hatred by contrasting that deadly emotion with, "[t]he dead man that I loved."

The speaker continues in his hatred by naming "[t]he craven man in his seat / The insolent unreproved." The speaker feels that by contrasting good and evil, he can arrive at a staid virtue upon which to found a better art and poetry that will reflect the Irish culture more truly.

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Owlcation

Third Movement: The Guilty Avoiding Justice

The speaker continues to reference the rogues and knaves, who have thus far avoided justice though guilty. The speaker reviles those who have "won a drunken cheer," even though they have been undeserving of such honor and celebrity.

The speaker avers that it is this whole lot of loathsome characters who besmirch and heap shame on the culture. The speaker accuses those scandalous usurpers with nearly destroying the art of the nation. They continue to denigrate "the wise" as they destroy the "great Art" that they had inherited.

The speaker laments what these assassins of culture have perpetrated and therefore is calling attention to their perfidy. He is calling for change in focus and improvement in values—not censorship of the scoundrels.

Fourth Movement: Culture Killers

The speaker then suggests that for a while he has begun fashioning an uncomplicated, "sun-freckled face," —the man in "Connemara cloth." For his effort, he has received only "scorn" from the ilk of those culture killers and unscrupulous individuals.

Still, the speaker presses on, endeavoring to visualize a simple fisherman, the man who "climb[s] up to a place / Where stone is dark with froth," a natural piece of landscape that remains pristine and yet alluring.

The speaker is creating a symbolic presence that he can describe and to which he can assign the qualities that he feels must become part of the natural art that belongs to the people of his locale.

Fifth Movement: Musing on Simplicity

The speaker sees in vision the fisherman’s wrist movement as he casts his line into the water, and he admits that this man does not yet exist, while he is "but a dream."

The speaker’s keenness, however, to resurrect such a simple, rustic character spurs him on to exclaim that while he, the poet, remains young enough to imagine, he shall take to the task of writing this fisherman into existence and to write the man a poem, "as cold / And passionate as the dawn."

The speaker continues to devote himself to musing on simplicity; he ardently wishes to create a new ideal that will produce meaningful, original poetry—a poetry that will speak with organic originality and will also foretoken the beginning of a new era in poetry.

All this the speaker hopes to accomplish despite the crassness and duplicity of too many of the political phonies whose selfishness is leading to the ruination of their own culture.


© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

Related Articles