Week 432: Stare’s Nest At My Window, by W.B.Yeats

I think this is one of Yeats’s greatest poems, and that rare thing, an entirely successful political poem. It forms part of a sequence ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’, referring to the Irish civil war in 1922, the effects of which Yeats saw at first hand as it swirled around his tower at Thoor Ballylee. But I am not at all sure I am reading it with a perfect understanding of its symbolism. What, you may ask, have bees building in a wall and a starling’s nest outside his window (‘stare’ is a dialect word for starling) got to do with anything? My reading would be that Yeats, disillusioned with political ideology, is turning to the natural world as a refuge, invoking its uninvolved continuities and consoling himself that these will go on whatever human beings make of the world. The fantasies of the fifth stanza I take to be the fantasies of Irish nationalism, of the heroic and romantic past embodied in such figures as Cuchulain, and of the glorious slaughters of Irish epic that contrast so strongly with the real violence of ‘that dead young soldier in his blood’. The phrase ‘My wall is loosening’ would be an image of the poet’s sense that the certainties he once had are now crumbling, with now ‘no clear fact to be discerned’. That much seems clear, yet I still feel that there is a level of specificity about the imagery here, of bees, grubs, flies and empty house, that may be eluding me. Well, it is the mark of a good poem that it not only makes us think, but keeps us thinking.

Stare’s Nest At My Window

The bees build in the crevices
Of loosening masonry, and there
The mother birds bring grubs and flies.
My wall is loosening; honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

We are closed in, and the key is turned
On our uncertainty; somewhere
A man is killed, or a house burned.
Yet no clear fact to be discerned:
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

A barricade of stone or of wood;
Some fourteen days of civil war:
Last night they trundled down the road
That dead young soldier in his blood:
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare,
More substance in our enmities
Than in our love; O honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

W.B.Yeats

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