'The Two Kings' by William Butler Yeats

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KING EOCHAID came at sundown to a wood
Westward of Tara.Hurrying to his queen
He had outridden his war-wasted men
That with empounded cattle trod the mire,
And where beech-trees had mixed a pale green light
With the ground-ivy's blue, he saw a stag
Whiter than curds, its eyes the tint of the sea.
Because it stood upon his path and seemed
More hands in height than any stag in the world
He sat with tightened rein and loosened mouth
Upon his trembling horse, then drove the spur;
But the stag stooped and ran at him, and passed,
Rending the horse's flank.King Eochaid reeled,
Then drew his sword to hold its levelled point
Against the stag.When horn and steel were met
The horn resounded as though it had been silver,
A sweet, miraculous, terrifying sound.
Horn locked in sword, they tugged and struggled there
As though a stag and unicorn were met
Among the African Mountains of the Moon,
Until at last the double horns, drawn backward,
Butted below the single and so pierced
The entrails of the horse.Dropping his sword
King Eochaid seized the horns in his strong hands
And stared into the sea-green eye, and so
Hither and thither to and fro they trod
Till all the place was beaten into mire.
The strong thigh and the agile thigh were met,
The hands that gathered up the might of the world,
And hoof and horn that had sucked in their speed
Amid the elaborate wilderness of the air.
Through bush they plunged and over ivied root,
And where the stone struck fire, while in the leaves
A squirrel whinnied and a bird screamed out;
But when at last he forced those sinewy flanks
Against a beech-bole, he threw down the beast
And knelt above it with drawn knife.On the instant
It vanished like a shadow, and a cry
So mournful that it seemed the cry of one
Who had lost some unimaginable treasure
Wandered between the blue and the green leaf
And climbed into the air, crumbling away,
Till all had seemed a shadow or a vision
But for the trodden mire, the pool of blood,
The disembowelled horse.
King Eochaid ran
Toward peopled Tara, nor stood to draw his breath
Until he came before the painted wall,
The posts of polished yew, circled with bronze,
Of the great door; but though the hanging lamps
Showed their faint light through the unshuttered
Nor door, nor mouth, nor slipper made a noise,
Nor on the ancient beaten paths, that wound
From well-side or from plough-land, was there noisc;
Nor had there been the noise of living thing
Before him or behind, but that far off
On the horizon edge bellowed the herds.
Knowing that silence brings no good to kings,
And mocks returning victory, he passed
Between the pillars with a beating heart
And saw where in the midst of the great hall
pale-faced, alone upon a bench, Edain
Sat upright with a sword before her feet.
Her hands on either side had gripped the bench.
Her eyes were cold and steady, her lips tight.
Some passion had made her stone.Hearing a foot
She started and then knew whose foot it was;
But when he thought to take her in his arms
She motioned him afar, and rose and spoke:
"I have sent among the fields or to the woods
The fighting-men and servants of this house,
For I would have your judgment upon one
Who is self-accused.If she be innocent
She would not look in any known man's face
Till judgment has been given, and if guilty,
Would never look again on known man's face.'
And at these words hc paled, as she had paled,
Knowing that he should find upon her lips
The meaning of that monstrous day.
Then she:
"You brought me where your brother Ardan sat
Always in his one seat, and bid me care him
Through that strange illness that had fixed him there.
And should he die to heap his burial-mound
And catve his name in Ogham.' Eochaid said,
"He lives?' "He lives and is a healthy man.'
"While I have him and you it matters little
What man you have lost, what evil you have found.'
"I bid them make his bed under this roof
And carried him his food with my own hands,
And so the weeks passed by.But when I said,
""What is this trouble?'' he would answer nothing,
Though always at my words his trouble grew;
And I but asked the more, till he cried out,
Weary of many questions:""There are things
That make the heart akin to the dumb stone.''
Then I replied, ""Although you hide a secret,
Hopeless and dear, or terrible to think on,
Speak it, that I may send through the wide world
Day after day you question me, and I,
Because there is such a storm amid my thoughts
I shall be carried in the gust, command,
Forbid, beseech and waste my breath.'' Then I:
Although the thing that you have hid were evil,
The speaking of it could be no great wrong,
And evil must it be, if done 'twere worse
Than mound and stone that keep all virtue in,
And loosen on us dreams that waste our life,
Shadows and shows that can but turn the brain.''
but finding him still silent I stooped down
And whispering that none but he should hear,
Said, ""If a woman has put this on you,
My men, whether it please her or displease,
And though they have to cross the Loughlan waters
And take her in the middle of armed men,
Shall make her look upon her handiwork,
That she may quench the rick she has fired; and though
She may have worn silk clothes, or worn a crown,
She'II not be proud, knowing within her heart
That our sufficient portion of the world
Is that we give, although it be brief giving,
Happiness to children and to men.''
Then he, driven by his thought beyond his thought,
And speaking what he would not though he would,
Sighed, ""You, even you yourself, could work the
And at those words I rose and I went out
And for nine days he had food from other hands,
And for nine days my mind went whirling round
The one disastrous zodiac, muttering
That the immedicable mound's beyond
Our questioning, beyond our pity even.
But when nine days had gone I stood again
Before his chair and bending down my head
I bade him go when all his household slept
To an old empty woodman's house that's hidden
Westward of Tara, among the hazel-trees --
For hope would give his limbs the power -- and await
A friend that could, he had told her, work his cure
And would be no harsh friend.
When night had deepened,
I groped my way from beech to hazel wood,
Found that old house, a sputtering torch within,
And stretched out sleeping on a pile of skins
Ardan, and though I called to him and tried
To Shake him out of sleep, I could not rouse him.
I waited till the night was on the turn,
Then fearing that some labourer, on his way
To plough or pasture-land, might see me there,
Went out.
Among the ivy-covered rocks,
As on the blue light of a sword, a man
Who had unnatural majesty, and eyes
Like the eyes of some great kite scouring the woods,
Stood on my path.Trembling from head to foot
I gazed at him like grouse upon a kite;
But with a voice that had unnatural music,
""A weary wooing and a long,'' he said,
""Speaking of love through other lips and looking
Under the eyelids of another, for it was my craft
That put a passion in the sleeper there,
And when I had got my will and drawn you here,
Where I may speak to you alone, my craft
Sucked up the passion out of him again
And left mere sleep.He'll wake when the sun
push out his vigorous limbs and rub his eyes,
And wonder what has ailed him these twelve
I cowered back upon the wall in terror,
But that sweet-sounding voice ran on:""Woman,
I was your husband when you rode the air,
Danced in the whirling foam and in the dust,
In days you have not kept in memory,
Being betrayed into a cradle, and I come
That I may claim you as my wife again.''
I was no longer terrified -- his voice
Had half awakened some old memory --
Yet answered him, ""I am King Eochaid's wife
And with him have found every happiness
Women can find.'' With a most masterful voice,
That made the body seem as it were a string
Under a bow, he cried, ""What happiness
Can lovers have that know their happiness
Must end at the dumb stone? But where we build
Our sudden palaces in the still air
pleasure itself can bring no weariness.
Nor can time waste the cheek, nor is there foot
That has grown weary of the wandering dance,
Nor an unlaughing mouth, but mine that mourns,
Among those mouths that sing their sweethearts' praise,
Your empty bed.'' ""How should I love,'' I answered,
""Were it not that when the dawn has lit my bed
And shown my husband sleeping there, I have sighcd,
"Your strength and nobleness will pass away'?
Or how should love be worth its pains were it not
That when he has fallen asleep within my atms,
Being wearied out, I love in man the child?
What can they know of love that do not know
She builds her nest upon a narrow ledge
Above a windy precipice?'' Then he:
""Seeing that when you come to the deathbed
You must return, whether you would or no,
This human life blotted from memory,
Why must I live some thirty, forty years,
Alone with all this useless happiness?''
Thereon he seized me in his arms, but I
Thrust him away with both my hands and cried,
""Never will I believe there is any change
Can blot out of my memory this life
Sweetened by death, but if I could believe,
That were a double hunger in my lips
For what is doubly brief.''
And now the shape
My hands were pressed to vanished suddenly.
I staggered, but a beech-tree stayed my fall,
And clinging to it I could hear the cocks
Crow upon Tara."
King Eochaid bowed his head
And thanked her for her kindness to his brother,
For that she promised, and for that refused.
Thereon the bellowing of the empounded herds
Rose round the walls, and through the bronze-ringed
Jostled and shouted those war-wasted men,
And in the midst King Eochaid's brother stood,
And bade all welcome, being ignorant.

Editor 1 Interpretation

Interpreting the Classic Poetry of William Butler Yeats: The Two Kings

When we think of great poets, one name that immediately comes to mind is William Butler Yeats. His works have stood the test of time and continue to inspire generations of poets and writers. Among his many masterpieces, one poem that stands out is "The Two Kings". This poem is a prime example of Yeats' genius and his ability to weave together the threads of myth and folklore to create a tapestry of beauty and meaning. In this literary criticism and interpretation, we will delve deep into the world of "The Two Kings" and explore its themes, motifs, and symbolism.

The Story

"The Two Kings" is a ballad-style poem that tells the story of two kings who are locked in battle. The first king is the King of Ireland, while the second king is the King of the World. The two kings are evenly matched in strength and skill, and neither can gain the upper hand in the battle. As the fighting continues, the King of Ireland feels himself growing weaker and weaker, while the King of the World remains as strong as ever.

Finally, the King of Ireland realizes that he cannot defeat his opponent through force alone. He calls upon the aid of his four sons, who come to his side and fight alongside him. With their help, the King of Ireland is able to overcome the King of the World and emerge victorious.

The poem ends on a note of triumph, as the King of Ireland is hailed as a hero and his name is celebrated throughout the land. However, the victory is bittersweet, as the King of Ireland knows that he has only won because of his sons' help. He realizes that he is growing old and weak, and that his time as a great warrior is coming to an end.

Themes and Motifs

At its core, "The Two Kings" is a poem about the passage of time and the inevitability of change. The King of Ireland represents the old order, the traditional way of doing things. He is a warrior and a hero, but he knows that his time is coming to an end. The King of the World, on the other hand, represents the new order, the way of the future. He is strong and powerful, and he is not afraid to embrace change.

The battle between the two kings is a metaphor for the struggle between tradition and progress. The King of Ireland represents the past, while the King of the World represents the future. The fact that the two kings are evenly matched is significant, as it suggests that neither way is inherently better than the other.

The sons of the King of Ireland are also an important motif in the poem. They represent the next generation, the future leaders who will take over when the old order has passed. Their assistance in the battle symbolizes the idea that change cannot come about without the help of the younger generation.


"The Two Kings" is rich in symbolism, and each element of the poem carries a deeper meaning. One of the most important symbols in the poem is the idea of the two kings themselves. They represent opposing forces, two sides of the same coin. The King of Ireland represents tradition, while the King of the World represents progress. The fact that they are both kings suggests that they are equally important, and that neither can exist without the other.

The battle between the two kings is also symbolic. It represents the struggle between the old and the new, the past and the future. The fact that the King of Ireland is growing weaker and weaker as the battle goes on symbolizes the idea that the old order is losing its power and influence.

The four sons of the King of Ireland are also symbolic. They represent the next generation, the future leaders who will inherit the world that the two kings are fighting over. Their assistance in the battle symbolizes the idea that change cannot come about without the help of the younger generation.


In conclusion, "The Two Kings" is a masterpiece of poetic storytelling. It weaves together themes of tradition and progress, the old and the new, to create a powerful and resonant narrative. Yeats' use of symbolism and metaphor is masterful, and each element of the poem carries a deeper meaning.

As we read "The Two Kings", we are reminded of the importance of change and the inevitability of time. We are reminded that the old order must eventually give way to the new, and that progress cannot be stopped. But we are also reminded that tradition has value, and that the past should not be forgotten.

"The Two Kings" is a testament to Yeats' genius, and it will continue to inspire and provoke thought for generations to come.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

The Two Kings: A Masterpiece of William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats, the Irish poet, playwright, and Nobel laureate, is known for his profound and complex works that explore the themes of love, death, spirituality, and Irish mythology. Among his many masterpieces, "The Two Kings" stands out as a powerful and enigmatic poem that captures the essence of Yeats's poetic vision and his fascination with the Celtic past.

"The Two Kings" was first published in 1899 in Yeats's second collection of poems, "The Wind Among the Reeds." The poem consists of four stanzas, each with six lines, and follows a strict rhyme scheme of ABABCC. The language is rich and musical, with a mix of archaic and modern words that create a sense of timelessness and mystery.

The poem tells the story of two kings, one of whom is dead and the other alive, who meet in a dream-like landscape and engage in a conversation about the nature of power, love, and death. The dead king, who represents the past, speaks of his glory and his conquests, but also of his regrets and his longing for the living world. The living king, who represents the present, listens attentively and responds with wisdom and compassion, acknowledging the greatness of the past but also the impermanence of all things.

The poem opens with a vivid description of the setting, which is both beautiful and eerie:

"Two Kings in a realm of stone Stood staring at each other; One carved his laws in the marrow-bone Of a shepherd's brother; The other built his laws on sand, Their fortress and their wonder."

The image of two kings standing in a realm of stone suggests a timeless and mythical landscape, where the boundaries between reality and imagination are blurred. The contrast between the two kings is also striking: one is a conqueror who carves his laws in the marrow-bone of a shepherd's brother, suggesting a brutal and primitive form of power; the other is a builder who creates his laws on sand, suggesting a more fluid and adaptable form of power.

The dead king speaks first, addressing the living king with a mixture of pride and regret:

"I have been king of ivory, King of jewelled art, King of the glimmering court, King of the pointed dart, King of the spoken word, But why should I be proud?"

The repetition of "king of" creates a sense of accumulation and grandeur, but the question "why should I be proud?" suggests a deeper sense of emptiness and disillusionment. The dead king acknowledges that his achievements are fleeting and meaningless in the face of death:

"Forgetting that I had One thing, a thing I desired, As I have desired to be king And to forget the wheeling years, The kingdoms given and taken again, The wounds, the fiery tears, The swords-and-yet at last to know This hidden purpose."

The "hidden purpose" that the dead king refers to is the realization that all his power and glory are ultimately futile and that he has missed the true meaning of life. The living king responds with a compassionate and wise voice, acknowledging the greatness of the past but also the impermanence of all things:

"O King of many names, Who have sought so many things, For once in the dim of dawn I have heard the thrush's note, And have answered, and behold Suddenly all the kingdoms passed, The glory and the might, The kingship and the kingly name."

The living king's response is a powerful affirmation of the transience of all things, including power and glory. The image of the thrush's note suggests a moment of awakening and enlightenment, where the living king realizes the true nature of existence. The repetition of "the kingdoms passed, the glory and the might, the kingship and the kingly name" emphasizes the impermanence of all things and the need to embrace the present moment.

The poem ends with a sense of reconciliation and acceptance, as the two kings acknowledge each other's greatness and the inevitability of death:

"O King of many names, We too have spent our lives And we know that the wheel turns round, And that the noonday dies."

The repetition of "O King of many names" creates a sense of unity and equality between the two kings, who are both subject to the same fate. The image of the wheel turning round suggests the cyclical nature of life and the inevitability of death, but also the possibility of renewal and rebirth.

In conclusion, "The Two Kings" is a masterpiece of William Butler Yeats that captures the essence of his poetic vision and his fascination with the Celtic past. The poem explores the themes of power, love, and death through the conversation between two kings, one dead and one alive, who meet in a dream-like landscape. The language is rich and musical, with a mix of archaic and modern words that create a sense of timelessness and mystery. The poem ends with a sense of reconciliation and acceptance, as the two kings acknowledge each other's greatness and the inevitability of death. "The Two Kings" is a powerful and enigmatic poem that invites the reader to reflect on the nature of existence and the meaning of life.

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