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« The story of a kind of long but exceedingly entertaining poem to which I link (and something about speaking of Doubt on Speaking of Faith) [Jennifer Michael Hecht][ | Main | When Bad Lines Happen to Good Poems [by Laurence Goldstein] »

January 15, 2009


Men never loved women without her beauty.

That is not the moral of the poem. It's that we love each other for those things we find attractive in other people. Sometimes it's yellow hair, sometimes a sense of humor, but without it love is not possible. Thus the idea that you can be unlovable and still be loved is impossible. It is futile to want such a thing-- to make oneself ugly or radically different and expect the feelings of love to remain unchanged.

Either that, or Yeats believed no man every loved a brunette.

I think it is that men will never unconditionally love a woman (save a daughter) - the physical attractiveness, attraction, SEX, always is a factor.

I've seen lost very homely women who are happily married. The only answer is it must be love.

This is not American. Yeats was Irish, always and forever.

True. Our site is devoted not narrowly to American poetry but to great poetry wherever it comes from, and Yeats was "the king of the cats." -- DL

Is "For Anne Gregory" a reply by Yeats to Benedick's lofty declamation (in Much Ado About Nothing, Act 2, Scene 3) that "her hair shall be of what color it please God"?

Doesn't this poem say only that sometimes, not always, some physical quality of a person, not necessarily a woman, is so attractive it's not possible to avoid loving her (or him)? To put it another way, in this particular case, Anne Gregory's "yellow hair" is overpowering, overwhelming - and given the context that Yeats establishes (a "young man" capable of being thrown into despair and a woman of unspecified age) it's reasonable to assume a romantic and sexual attraction. In that sense the poem is almost an apology or a defense of falling love with someone for her (or his) looks, but it also allows an extended meaning: that sometimes we're swept up in love, swamped by love (Updike), in response to particular qualities, not necessarily physical ones, possibly even to qualities of character, such as intelligence or kindness. But the immediate claim of the poem seems to me to justify erotic passion, a subject which claimed much of Yeats' awed attention.

Sam, I think you've nailed it. Attraction precedes love for "a young man" and a young woman (Anne Gregory). Erotic love is a function of youth and a benefit of mortality. To love beauty is human; to love despite ugliness is divine, though the poem is too gallant to put it that way.

Nothing gallant about this poem. It celebrates surface attraction passing as love- the most trifling exterior as the subject of great passion. The contents of the human soul are regarded as of really no importance to anyone but God. The poem relegating God,the creator, sustainer and savior of humankind to a position of ridiculousness as the ridiculous author praises the very thing that is the poison of human relationships- the essentially proud, self-centered and vain nature of merely human love. Ladies, if the man in your life is apaly described by this poem, drop him. God alone is an excellent step up. Sola Dios basta.

That's a very spirited comment, Stephanie. You may be underestimating the poem's genial humor and the effect of lightness obtained by the dialogue form and the rhymes.

Its message isn't just about men, it's that human beings are hopelessly flawed; we're not objective, we have personal tastes and preferences. Each of us judges the outside before anything else, but I don't think Yeats was impugning mankind for its imperfection; I think he was just being matter-of-fact. Only God is perfect, only God can love us for us.

It's about how much better God is than the rest of us as well, I think. Just a lil bit

God. God. God.

You're right, Verity.

I hear a wiser person telling a young girl to beware that her yellow dazzle days will not assure true love, so find someone who loves her for more than her fleeting beauty. Her response is of her youth, she challenges the observation.

I think these responses take the poem too seriously. Very beautiful people often protest that they want to be loved only “for themselves” and not for their beauty. Yeats is gently telling Anne G that isn’t possible. Young men —or even most people—aren’t constituted that way. They can’t help responding to physical beauty, at least at first. Elsewhere Yeats says “Wine comes in at the mouth and love comes in at the eye” or words to that effect. But also elsewhere, In “The Folly of Being Comforted” he dismisses friends who tell him that since his great love Maude Gonne is aging and presumably no longer the beauty she once was, time can “make it easier to be wise.” It’s not true, he says. But yet again, in his prayer for his daughter, he says that someone who has been disappointed in a love based on great beauty later “from a glad kindness cannot take his eyes.”

Thank you, Judy and Mary for your sensible statements. The poem is quite wonderful in its seeming simplicity and its subtle wisdom.

In his poem ‘Among School Children,” Yeats asks if the chestnut tree is its leaves, blossom or truck. He asks how we can know a dancer from the dance. I think that in this poem too, he is trying to point out that it is impossible for us to separate a person’s traits from who they are. If we think about it, how do we define who we are without describing our traits, whether mental or physical?

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman


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