'A Nativity' by William Butler Yeats

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WHAT woman hugs her infant there?
Another star has shot an ear.

What made the drapery glisten so?
Not a man but Delacroix.

What made the ceiling waterproof?
Landor's tarpaulin on the roof

What brushes fly and moth aside?
Irving and his plume of pride.

What hurries out the knaye and dolt?
Talma and his thunderbolt.

Why is the woman terror-struck?
Can there be mercy in that look?

Editor 1 Interpretation

Poetry, A Nativity by William Butler Yeats: A Masterpiece of Symbolism and Mysticism

William Butler Yeats is one of the most celebrated poets of the 20th century, and his work continues to inspire and captivate readers around the world. His poem "A Nativity" is a prime example of his masterful use of symbolism and mysticism to explore complex themes and ideas.

At its core, "A Nativity" is a meditation on the birth of Christ and the spiritual significance of this event. However, Yeats takes this familiar story and infuses it with a sense of mystery and wonder, using rich imagery and metaphors to create a deeply symbolic and evocative work of art.

Structure and Form

"A Nativity" is composed of three stanzas, each with six lines. The poem follows a loose rhyme scheme, with the first and third lines of each stanza rhyming with each other, and the second, fourth, fifth, and sixth lines forming a separate rhyming pattern.

The poem's structure is deceptively simple. At first glance, it may appear to be a straightforward retelling of the nativity story. However, upon closer examination, it becomes clear that Yeats has layered the poem with a complex web of symbols and allusions, creating a work that invites multiple interpretations and readings.

Symbolism and Allusion

One of the most striking aspects of "A Nativity" is the way in which Yeats uses symbols and allusions to convey his ideas. Throughout the poem, he employs a wide range of images and metaphors, drawing on both Christian and pagan traditions to create a rich tapestry of meaning.

For example, in the first stanza, Yeats describes the birth of Christ as "a cold coming we had of it," evoking the harsh and inhospitable conditions of winter. This image is then contrasted with the arrival of the three kings, who bring gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These gifts, which were traditionally associated with royalty, priesthood, and death, respectively, serve as powerful symbols of the spiritual significance of Christ's birth.

In the second stanza, Yeats introduces the figure of the "beast" who "slouches towards Bethlehem to be born." This reference to W.B. Yeats's poem "The Second Coming" is a powerful allusion to the idea of the apocalypse and the end of the world. Yeats seems to be suggesting that the birth of Christ represents a turning point in human history, a moment of hope and redemption in the face of impending doom.

Finally, in the third stanza, Yeats turns his attention to the image of the "virgin mother." Here, he draws on the Christian tradition of Mary as the embodiment of purity and innocence, while also evoking the pagan idea of the sacred feminine. The image of the "moon" shining on the "cold snow" creates a sense of otherworldly beauty and mystery, underscoring the idea that the birth of Christ is a moment of transcendence and transformation.

Themes and Ideas

At its core, "A Nativity" is a meditation on the spiritual significance of Christ's birth. However, Yeats uses this familiar story as a jumping off point to explore a wide range of themes and ideas.

One of the most prominent themes in the poem is the idea of transformation. Yeats suggests that the birth of Christ represents a moment of profound change, a turning point in human history that offers the possibility of redemption and renewal. This idea is underscored by the image of the "beast" slouching towards Bethlehem, which serves as a reminder of the darkness and chaos that threatens to engulf the world.

Another key theme in "A Nativity" is the idea of the sacred feminine. Yeats draws on both Christian and pagan traditions to create a complex and multifaceted portrait of the virgin mother. Through her image, he explores the themes of purity and innocence, while also evoking the idea of the divine feminine as a source of strength and power.

Finally, the poem can be read as a meditation on the relationship between the spiritual and the material. Yeats suggests that Christ's birth represents a moment of transcendence, a breaking free from the constraints of the material world. However, he also acknowledges the importance of the material world, as represented by the gifts of the kings. This tension between the spiritual and the material underscores the complexity and richness of Yeats's vision.


In "A Nativity," William Butler Yeats has created a masterpiece of symbolism and mysticism. Through his use of rich imagery, complex metaphors, and allusions to both Christian and pagan traditions, he explores a wide range of themes and ideas, from transformation and redemption to the sacred feminine and the relationship between the spiritual and the material.

While "A Nativity" may initially seem like a straightforward retelling of the nativity story, it quickly becomes clear that Yeats has created a work of art that invites multiple interpretations and readings. Whether viewed as a meditation on the birth of Christ or as a complex exploration of the human condition, this poem stands as a testament to Yeats's genius and his enduring legacy as one of the greatest poets of the 20th century.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Poetry A Nativity: A Masterpiece by William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats, the renowned Irish poet, playwright, and Nobel laureate, is known for his exceptional poetic skills and his ability to capture the essence of life in his works. One of his most celebrated poems, "A Nativity," is a beautiful and evocative piece that explores the themes of birth, death, and rebirth. In this article, we will delve into the poem's meaning, structure, and literary devices, and explore why it is considered a masterpiece of modern poetry.

The poem begins with a description of the birth of Christ, with the speaker describing the "cold in the stable" and the "frosty air." The use of sensory imagery here is powerful, as it allows the reader to visualize the scene and feel the chill of the winter air. The speaker then goes on to describe the animals in the stable, including the "ox and ass and camel" who are present at the birth. This is a nod to the traditional nativity story, where these animals are said to have been present at the birth of Jesus.

As the poem progresses, the speaker shifts his focus to the shepherds who have come to witness the birth. He describes them as "simple men" who are "humble" and "poor." This is a contrast to the grandeur and majesty often associated with the birth of Christ, and it highlights the idea that the true meaning of Christmas lies in humility and simplicity.

The poem then takes a darker turn, as the speaker describes the "slaughter of the innocents" that follows the birth of Christ. This is a reference to the biblical story of King Herod, who ordered the killing of all male infants in Bethlehem in an attempt to eliminate the threat of the newborn king. The use of this imagery is powerful, as it reminds the reader that the birth of Christ was not just a joyous occasion, but also one that was marked by violence and tragedy.

Despite this darkness, the poem ends on a note of hope and renewal. The speaker describes the "new star" that has appeared in the sky, and the "wise men" who have come to follow it. This is a reference to the biblical story of the three wise men who followed a star to find the baby Jesus. The use of this imagery is significant, as it suggests that even in the midst of darkness and tragedy, there is always hope for a brighter future.

In terms of structure, "A Nativity" is a free verse poem that does not follow a strict rhyme scheme or meter. This allows Yeats to experiment with language and imagery, and to create a more natural and organic flow to the poem. The use of enjambment, where lines run on to the next without punctuation, also adds to the poem's sense of fluidity and movement.

One of the most striking aspects of the poem is the use of imagery and symbolism. Yeats employs a range of literary devices, including metaphor, simile, and personification, to create a rich and evocative tapestry of language. For example, the use of the ox and ass as symbols of humility and simplicity is a powerful metaphor that highlights the importance of these qualities in the Christian faith. Similarly, the use of the "new star" as a symbol of hope and renewal is a powerful image that resonates with readers.

Another notable aspect of the poem is the use of repetition. The phrase "cold in the stable" is repeated several times throughout the poem, creating a sense of rhythm and emphasis. This repetition also serves to reinforce the idea that the birth of Christ was a humble and unassuming event, rather than a grand and majestic one.

Overall, "A Nativity" is a masterpiece of modern poetry that explores the themes of birth, death, and rebirth in a powerful and evocative way. Through its use of imagery, symbolism, and repetition, the poem creates a vivid and compelling portrait of the Christmas story, and reminds us of the importance of humility, simplicity, and hope in our lives. As such, it remains a timeless and enduring work of literature that continues to inspire and move readers to this day.

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