Monday, August 3, 2015

Never give all the Heart - William Butler Yeats

Never give all the heart, for love
Will hardly seem worth thinking of
To passionate women if it seem
Certain, and they never dream
That it fades out from kiss to kiss;
For everything that's lovely is
But a brief, dreamy, kind delight.
O never give the heart outright,
For they, for all smooth lips can say,
Have given their hearts up to the play.
And who could play it well enough
If deaf and dumb and blind with love?
He that made this knows all the cost,
For he gave all his heart and lost.

A heartbreaking sonnet from a heartbroken Yeats.  It's appropriate to call this a love sonnet, but more correct to called it a frustrated love sonnet.  Yeats essentially argues here that a love which is given wholly will ultimately be rejected because there is no chance in it.  Something certain quickly grows boring, and boring is seldom a byword for passionate romance.  If you give your whole heart, Yeats says, it will be taken for granted, and the receiver of that heart will never once think that love "fades out from kiss to kiss."  For the heartbroken lover who has given all of their heart, only to find it taken for granted, "everything that's lovely is / but a brief, dreamy, kind delight."

Initially, I reacted with distaste to Yeats' assessment of both love and women, but as I read and pondered it, I became more sympathetic.  Love is not fair, and Yeats knows this.  That much is implicit in the poem being written at all.  But what made that stand out for me are the last two lines, the volta.  "He that made this knows all the cost, / For he gave all his heart and lost."  Yeats, who wrote it, gave his whole heart, made himself entirely vulnerable, and lost his love.  This is a poem from a place of heartbreak, and I think I would be a fool if I expected a heartbroken person to ever be fair in their treatment of love.  To anyone who has ever made themselves vulnerable, only to have their heart, their very self, rejected, this poem calls upon that pain.  Swapping genders would change very little because the raw pain of this sonnet works in any way.  A passionate man rejecting an earnest woman who gave all her heart and lost, or a man walking away from another man's love because of its certainty would result in the same heartbreak.


  1. Funny I stumbled upon this since I am in a position to relate. Thank you for your analysis which made his message clearer. I am certain that Mr. Yates did us all a great service by writing this poem.