Long-Legged Fly by William Butler Yeats


Long Legged Fly - Genus Chrysosom

That civilization may not sink,
Its great battle lost,
Quiet the dog, tether the pony
To a distant post;
Our master Caesar is in the tent
Where the maps are spread,
His eyes fixed upon nothing,
A hand under his head.
(Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.)

That the topless towers be burnt
And men recall that face,
Move most gently if move you must
In this lonely place.
She thinks, part woman, three parts a child,
That nobody looks; her feet
Practise a tinker shuffle
Picked up on a street.
(Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
Her mind moves upon silence.)

That girls at puberty may find
The first Adam in their thought,
Shut the door of the Pope’s chapel,
Keep those children out.
There on that scaffolding reclines
Michael Angelo.
With no more sound than the mice make
His hand moves to and fro.
(Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.)

This is one of my favorite poems.

Vermont poet Patrick Gillespie over at Poem Shape shares many of my own ideas and experiences regarding the poem. He writes:

In each of the stanza, Yeats folds his poetry around the creative spark – the genius of  mind. In the first is Ceasar, in the second Helen, and the third Michelangelo. Interestingly, Yeats doesn’t confine himself to artists – Ceasar wasn’t; neither was Helen. In one sense, Yeats could be celebrating the genius creativity as being more than just the province of the artist. On the other hand, Yeats could also be suggesting that all human endeavors, whether Ceasar’s territorial, empire-building ambition which Yeats frames as “civilization” (perhaps man’s greatest collective accomplishment), or Helen’s physical grace and beauty, are expressions of artistic genius and creativity. The meaning could be either or could be both. Unlike some analysts, I like to think that the goal is not to guess at what Yeats intended,  but to offer the possibilities presented by the poem itself.

The dog and pony are tethered far from Caesar’s hearing. The work of man, and by extension mankind, will not tolerate the presence of animals. Helen, for her part, represents a nexus through which history will move because of her beauty and grace. Without her, history cannot act on human events and cannot inspire Homer, Virgil or Christopher Marlowe to write about them. With this in mind, it may be deliberate that Yeats paraphrases Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus.

FAUSTUS. Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless  towers of Ilium–
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.–
[Kisses her.]
Her lips suck forth my soul:  see, where it flies!–
Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.
Here will I dwell, for heaven is in these lips,
And all is dross that is not Helena.
I will be Paris, and for love of thee,
Instead of Troy, shall Wertenberg be sack’d;
And I will combat with weak Menelaus,
And wear thy colours on my plumed crest;
Yea, I will wound Achilles in the heel,
And then return to Helen for a kiss.
O, thou art fairer than the evening air
Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars;
Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter
When he appear’d to hapless Semele;
More lovely than the monarch of the sky
In wanton Arethusa’s azur’d arms;
And none but thou shalt be my paramour!

Perhaps Yeats is suggesting that it is through her, symbolically a woman’s beauty, that art is made possible – that Marlowe’s lines were made possible. But, like Caesar, that creative act of her self-making, the making of her beauty,  cannot be disturbed – needs quiet, needs silence for her genius to express itself. But perhaps Yeats intends another sense too. Describing her as three-parts child, one part woman, Yeats describes her innocence. She thinks that nobody looks. Her creative act is pure, without guile, without knowledge of the lascivious observer. Like the long legged fly upon the stream, her mind moves upon silence.

The reference to her picking up  a tinker shuffle on the street, could be a reference to the poem itself – a poem based on ballad meter, one  that Yeats could have picked up on the street. In this sense, Yeats could be treating  Helen as the muse of poetry, shaping a simple rhythm into a poetry that will shape history and men’s thoughts. She becomes a sort of patron Saint of poetry.

In the final stanza Yeats suggests Michelangelo’s creation of David. Michelangelo is the indisputably great artist – the only Artist of the three. But Yeats writes about more than Michelangelo. Michelangelo’s art will inspire a sexual awareness such that ” “the girls at puberty may find the first Adam in their thought”. It is, like the creative act of Caesar and Helen, a nexus of through which history will act, through which their will be further creation – procreation of the girls and their lovers – the single most profound and powerful act of creation which mankind is capable of.

So it is that Yeats moves from the creation of civilization through arms, the creation of art in symbolically graceful and beautiful Helen, to the great procreative act – the creation of ourselves. In this guise, perhaps, Yeats might have intended Michelangelo to symbolize God’s own creation of man, or better, man’s own re-creation of himself.

But keep the children out.

Curiously, Yeats must have known there would be no children in the Pope’s Chapel – no girls. I’m inclined to think that, by children, Yeats was referring to the Pope, (along with his attendant Bishops, etc…) This would imply a criticism of religion. The Pope and his attendants, the “children”, would presumably interfere with Michelangelo’s creative genius. That is, Michelangelo’s work was not meant for them, the unimaginative and spiritually naive “children” of the church, but for the pubescent girls – who would immediately, if instinctively, comprehend the meaning (the creative power and genius) of Michelangelo’s work. They, the girls, would understand what the children, the Pope and the Bishops, could not.

The supreme act of creation, the genius of mind, moves outside its own awareness – becomes like the long legged fly that moves upon the stream or the the source of being and mind. It must not be observed lest the mind too, become aware of itself, and so slip from the supple surface of its contemplation. The beautiful metaphor of the fly upon the stream is Yeats’ expression of true genius – the state in which great art is produced.  Though the maps are spread before him, Caesar gazes on nothing.

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