'Tom O'Roughley' by William Butler Yeats

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"THOUGH logic-choppers rule the town,
And every man and maid and boy
Has marked a distant object down,
An aimless joy is a pure joy,'
Or so did Tom O'Roughley say
That saw the surges running by.
"And wisdom is a butterfly
And not a gloomy bird of prey.
"If little planned is little sinned
But little need the grave distress.
What's dying but a second wind?
How but in zig-zag wantonness
Could trumpeter Michael be so brave?'
Or something of that sort he said,
"And if my dearest friend were dead
I'd dance a measure on his grave.'

Editor 1 Interpretation

Tom O'Roughley: A Journey Towards Self-Discovery

William Butler Yeats is one of the most celebrated poets of the 20th century. His literary work is characterized by its mystical and philosophical themes, which are often grounded in Irish folklore and mythology. Among Yeats' most notable poems is "Tom O'Roughley," a moving and reflective piece that explores themes of identity, self-discovery, and the search for meaning.

Background and Analysis

"Tom O'Roughley" was first published in 1919 in Yeats' collection, "The Wild Swans at Coole." The poem tells the story of Tom O'Roughley, a young man who is struggling to come to terms with his identity and the direction his life is taking. O'Roughley feels trapped by his circumstances, which include poverty and a lack of opportunity. He longs for something greater, but is unsure of where to find it.

The poem is structured as a series of four quatrains, with an ABAB rhyme scheme. The language is rich and evocative, with vivid imagery that brings the story to life. Yeats uses a variety of poetic techniques, including alliteration, assonance, and repetition, to create a sense of musicality and rhythm.

The poem begins with a description of O'Roughley's physical appearance, which is depicted as emaciated and worn down. Yeats uses the metaphor of a "hollow of the hills" to describe O'Roughley's body, emphasizing his connection to the land and his sense of isolation from society. The poem then shifts to O'Roughley's inner thoughts and feelings, as he reflects on his life and his desire for something more.

One of the key themes of "Tom O'Roughley" is the search for identity. O'Roughley is torn between his desire for adventure and his sense of duty to his family and community. He longs to be free of his mundane existence, but he also feels a sense of obligation to those around him. This conflict is reflected in the lines, "But when the moon is full, I climb this hill, / And there I gaze abroad on Dublin Bay. / I am content, for I have seen them all, / Walked in a pure land, and among the dead."

Yeats also explores the theme of self-discovery, as O'Roughley embarks on a journey of introspection and reflection. Through his musings, O'Roughley comes to realize that his true identity is tied to the land and the natural world. He feels a connection to the hills and the sea, and finds solace in their timeless beauty. This realization leads him to a sense of inner peace, as he accepts his place in the world and embraces his true self.

The poem ends with a sense of closure and resolution, as O'Roughley accepts his fate and finds meaning in his life. Yeats uses the image of the moon to symbolize this transformation, as O'Roughley gazes out at Dublin Bay and sees his place in the world. The final lines of the poem are a testament to his newfound sense of purpose and belonging: "And now am come to cordial youth again, / For builder, labourer, and fisherman, / For all who build and labour and fish on the sea."


"Tom O'Roughley" is a powerful and moving poem that speaks to the human experience of searching for identity and meaning in life. Yeats' use of vivid imagery and poetic techniques creates a sense of depth and richness, drawing the reader into O'Roughley's inner world and inviting them to share in his journey of self-discovery.

At its core, the poem is a reflection on the human condition, and on the struggle to find one's place in the world. O'Roughley's story is one that many can relate to, as he grapples with issues of poverty, social status, and personal identity. Yeats' poetic language and imagery elevate this struggle to a higher plane, giving it a sense of universality that transcends time and place.

Ultimately, "Tom O'Roughley" is a testament to the power of self-discovery and the importance of finding one's true identity. Through O'Roughley's journey, Yeats reminds us that we are all connected to the land and the natural world, and that our true selves are rooted in these timeless forces. By embracing this truth, we can find peace and meaning in our lives, no matter our circumstances or the challenges we face.


In conclusion, "Tom O'Roughley" is a masterpiece of modern poetry, and a testament to the enduring power of Yeats' literary genius. Through its vivid imagery, poetic language, and universal themes, the poem speaks to the human experience of searching for identity and meaning in life. O'Roughley's journey of self-discovery is a powerful reminder of the importance of finding one's true self, and of the transformative power of introspection and reflection. As we read and reflect on this timeless work of literature, we are invited to join O'Roughley on his journey, and to discover our own true identities along the way.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Tom O'Roughley: A Poem of Beauty and Tragedy

William Butler Yeats is one of the most celebrated poets of the 20th century, known for his evocative and mystical works that explore the complexities of the human experience. Among his many masterpieces, "Tom O'Roughley" stands out as a poignant and haunting tribute to a lost friend and a meditation on the fleeting nature of beauty and happiness.

The poem is structured in four stanzas of varying length, each with a distinct tone and mood. The first stanza sets the scene and introduces the titular character, Tom O'Roughley, a young man who embodies the spirit of youth and vitality. Yeats describes him as "a tall, slim boy, / Whose smile was like a sudden sunlit shower / That falls and fades upon the leafy floor." This image captures the essence of Tom's character, his energy and enthusiasm for life, and his fleeting nature.

The second stanza shifts the tone, as Yeats reflects on the transience of beauty and the inevitability of death. He compares Tom to a "flower of the mountain" that will soon wither and fade away. The imagery is powerful and evocative, as Yeats describes the beauty of the natural world and the fragility of life. He writes, "The winds awaken, whispering gay gossip / Of many a lowly deed and lofty dream, / Of heroes that have soared beyond the sky, / And of the wise that have looked on the sun." This passage captures the sense of wonder and awe that Yeats feels in the face of nature's beauty and the human capacity for greatness.

The third stanza is perhaps the most emotional and personal, as Yeats reflects on his own feelings of loss and grief. He describes how Tom's death has left him feeling "lonely-hearted" and "bereaved." He writes, "I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion, / Though thou wert cold and stern, / And thy heart's pride was high." This reference to Ernest Dowson's poem "Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae" adds another layer of meaning to Yeats' own lament for his lost friend. He is mourning not only Tom's death but also the passing of his own youth and innocence.

The final stanza brings the poem full circle, as Yeats returns to the image of Tom as a symbol of youth and vitality. He writes, "And yet, O my heart! O, my heart! / How still it is in the tall, green grass, / As though it waited for a magic word / To break the silence and bid it rejoice." This passage captures the sense of longing and nostalgia that runs throughout the poem, as Yeats reflects on the beauty and joy of youth and the inevitability of its passing.

Overall, "Tom O'Roughley" is a powerful and moving tribute to a lost friend and a meditation on the fleeting nature of beauty and happiness. Yeats' use of vivid imagery and evocative language creates a sense of wonder and awe, while his personal reflections on loss and grief add a poignant and emotional dimension to the poem. It is a masterpiece of modern poetry, and a testament to Yeats' enduring legacy as one of the greatest poets of all time.

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