Category Archives: Yeats settings

The Wild Swans at Coole [demo]

A poem by William Butler Yeats, set to music by that Harley guy. I came back to after a year and felt much more comfortable with this version.

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water,
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?

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The Pilgrim [demo]

The Pilgrim (Yeats-Harley)

Poem by William Butler Yeats, published in New Poems in 1938, the year before he died. Set to music by David Harley, whoever he is. Guitar and vocal put straight down in one take with a little vocal overdubbing on the chorus. CD version probably won’t be much different.

I fasted for some forty days on bread and buttermilk,
For passing round the bottle with girls in rags or silk,
In country shawl or Paris cloak, had put my wits astray,
And what’s the good of women, for all that they can say
Is fol de rol de rolly O.

Round Lough Derg’s holy island I went upon the stones,
I prayed at all the Stations upon my marrow bones,
And there I found an old man, and though, I prayed all day
And that old man beside me, nothing would he say
But fol de rol de rolly O.

All know that all the dead in the world about that place are stuck,
And that should mother seek her son she’d have but little luck
Because the fires of purgatory have ate their shapes away;
I swear to God I questioned them, and all they had to say
Was fol de rol de rolly O.

A great black ragged bird appeared when I was in the boat;
Some twenty feet from tip to tip had it stretched rightly out,
With flopping and with flapping it made a great display,
But I never stopped to question, what could the boatman say
But fol de rol de rolly O.

Now I am in the public-house and lean upon the wall,
So come in rags or come in silk, in cloak or country shawl,
And come with learned lovers or with what men you may,
For I can put the whole lot down, and all I have to say
Is fol de rol de rolly O.

Poem Settings

With one exception, all the settings here right now are of verses from ‘A Shropshire Lad’, by A.E. Housman. Housman can’t really be described as a Shropshire lad himself: he was born near Bromsgrove in 1859, and died in Cambridge in 1936, and it’s often said that he hadn’t actually visited the Shropshire countryside of which he presented his own vision until after he had published the collection (though that doesn’t seem to be the case, although most of the poems were written while living in Highgate, London.) However, his ashes are buried near St. Lawrence’s church, Ludlow, five minutes walk from where I live at the time of writing. Although I lived for the first 19 years of my life in Shrewsbury, none of these settings was composed in Shropshire either. I was living in Berkshire at that time, though the setting to Bredon Hill was composed while I was visiting my parents in Manchester, I think.)

These MP3s are all first-take demo versions, not studio quality. I’ll maybe come back to them properly when the size of my back-catalogue looks a little less daunting. Some day, I might even set some more of Housman’s verse. While much of his work has a somewhat depressive nature that’s often been parodied (there are a couple of good examples quoted here), many of his verse cry out to be sung.

I wouldn’t want to discourage you from reading or even buying the whole cycle, though. The whole of ‘A Shropshire Lad’ is viewable from bartleby.com. There are countless hard-copy volumes of Housman’s verse, of course, but my favourite is the 2009 edition published by Merlin Unwin with local photographs by Gareth B. Thomas (and a handful from the Shropshire Regimental Museum), an introduction by Prof. Christopher Ricks, and a brief biography of Housman by Dr. David Lloyd, a well-known name in Ludlow historical circles.

Here are the links to the MP3s:

Other Housman settings have been composed by real composers like:

Oddly enough, I’m not aware of any other folkies who’ve set any of these, but it’s unlikely that I’m the only one. 🙂

I’ve also set these Yeats poems (there may be more…)

And there’s this instrumental version of the well-known tune to a song indelibly associated with Yeats: Down by the Salley Gardens [demo]

I also set a couple of Causley poems to music, but there may be copyright/IP issues with that. The late Alex Atterson did some excellent settings of Causley, which I believe were/are available on CD. You could try Musicstack, if you’re interested in those.