A Poem by William Butler Yeats

A man came slowly from the setting sun,
To Forgail’s daughter, Emer, in her dun,
And found her dyeing cloth with subtle care,
And said, casting aside his draggled hair:
” I am Aleel, the swineherd, whom you bid
Go dwell upon the sea cliffs, vapour hid;
But now my years of watching are no more.”

Then Emer cast her web upon the floor,
And stretching her arms, red with the dye,
Parted her lips with a loud sudden cry.

Looking on her, Aleel, the swineherd, said:
” Not any god alive, nor mortal dead,
Has slain so mighty armies, so great kings,
Nor won the gold that now Cuchulain brings.”

” Why do you tremble thus from feet to crown?”

Aleel, the swineherd, wept and cast him down
Upon the web-heaped floor, and thus his word:
” With him is one sweet-throated like a bird.”

” Who bade you tell these things?” and then she cried
To those about, ” Beat him with thongs of hide
And drive him from the door.”
And thus it was:
And where her son, Finmole, on the smooth grass
Was driving cattle, came she with swift feet,
And called out to him, ” Son, it is not meet
That you stay idling here with flocks and herds.”
” I long have waited, mother, for those words:
But wherefore now?”
” There is a man to die;
You have the heaviest arm under the sky.”

” My father dwells among the sea-worn bands
And breaks the ridge of battle with his hands.”

” Nay, you are taller than Cuchulain, son.”

” He is the mightiest man in ship or dun.”

” Nay, he is old and sad with many wars,
And weary of the crash of battle cars.”

” I only ask what way my journey lies,
For God, who made you bitter, made you wise.”

” The Red Branch kings a tireless banquet keep,
Where the sun falls into the Western deep.
Go there, and dwell on the green forest rim;
But tell alone your name and house to him
Whose blade compels, and bid them send you one
Who has a like vow from their triple dun.”

Between the lavish shelter of a wood
And the gray tide, the Red Branch multitude
Feasted, and with them old Cuchulain dwelt,
And his young dear one close beside him knelt,
And gazed upon the wisdom of his eyes,
More mournful than the depth of starry skies,
And pondered on the wonder of his days;
And all around the harp-string told his praise,
And Concobar, the Red Branch king of kings,
With his own fingers touched the brazen strings.
At last Cuchulain spake: ” A young man strays
Driving the deer along the woody ways.
I often hear him singing to and fro,
I often hear the sweet sound of his bow.
Seek out what man he is.”
One went and came.
” He bade me let all know he gives his name
At the sword point, and bade me bring him one
Who had a like vow from our triple dun.”

” I only of the Red Branch hosted now,”
Cuchulain cried, ” have made and keep that vow.”
After short fighting in the leafy shade,
He spake to the young man, ” Is there no maid
Who loves you, no white arms to wrap you round,
Or do you long for the dim sleepy ground,
That you come here to meet this ancient sword?”

” The dooms of men are in God’s hidden hoard.”

” Your head a while seemed like a woman’s head
That I loved once.”
Again the fighting sped,
But now the war rage in Cuchulain woke,
And through the other’s shield his long blade broke,
And pierced him.
” Speak before your breath is done.”

” I am Finmole, mighty Cuchulain’s son.”

” I put you from your pain. I can no more.”

While day its burden on to evening bore,
With head bowed on his knees Cuchulain stayed;
Then Concobar sent that sweet-throated maid,
And she, to win him, his gray hair caressed;
In vain her arms, in vain her soft white breast.
Then Concobar, the subtlest of all men,
Ranking his Druids round him ten by ten,
Spake thus: ” Cuchulain will dwell there and brood,
For three days more in dreadful quietude,
And then arise, and raving slay us all.
Go, cast on him delusions magical,
That he may fight the waves of the loud sea.”
And ten by ten under a quicken tree,
The Druids chaunted, swaying in their hands
Tall wands of alder, and white quicken wands.

In three days’ time, Cuchulain with a moan
Stood up, and came to the long sands alone:
For four days warred he with the bitter tide;
And the waves flowed above him, and he died.

[Analysis of The Death of Cuchulain]