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William Butler Yeats' "The Indian upon God"

Updated on September 25, 2017
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Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.

William Butler Yeats

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W. B. Yeats' "The Indian upon God"

I passed along the water's edge below the humid trees,
My spirit rocked in evening light, the rushes round my knees,
My spirit rocked in sleep and sighs; and saw the moorfowl pace
All dripping on a grassy slope, and saw them cease to chase
Each other round in circles, and heard the eldest speak:
Who holds the world between His bill and made us strong or weak
Is an undying moorfowl, and He lives beyond the sky.
The rains are from His dripping wing, the moonbeams from His eye.
I passed a little further on and heard a lotus talk:
Who made the world and ruleth it, He hangeth on a stalk,
For I am in His image made, and all this tinkling tide
Is but a sliding drop of rain between His petals wide.
A little way within the gloom a roebuck raised his eyes
Brimful of starlight, and he said: The Stamper of the Skies,
He is a gentle roebuck; for how else, I pray, could He
Conceive a thing so sad and soft, a gentle thing like me?
I passed a little further on and heard a peacock say:
Who made the grass and made the worms and made my feathers gay,
He is a monstrous peacock, and He waveth all the night
His languid tail above us, lit with myriad spots of light.

Reading of Yeats' "The Indian Upon God"

Moorfowl

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Lotus

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Roebuck

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Peacock

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Commentary

Alluding to the Genesis concept of the image of God, the speaker parallels the Eastern spiritual tradition of pantheism to dramatize the full truth of that venerable concept.

William Butler Yeats’ poem, “The Indian upon God” is fashioned into ten riming couplets. The theme of the poem dramatizes the biblical concept that God made man in his own image: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them” (King James Version, Genesis 1:27).

First Movement: “I passed along the water's edge below the humid trees”

The speaker of the poem finds himself by “the water’s edge below the humid trees.” He meditatively muses that his “spirit rocked in the evening light.” He spies some birds pacing about and begins to consider how the moorfowl would elucidate his existence if he could do so in words. He continues to the birds as they are leisurely “pac[ing] / All dripping on a grassy slope.”

Finally, the oldest bird begins to explain: “Who holds the world between His bill and made us strong or weak / Is an undying moorfowl, and He lives beyond the sky. / The rains are from His dripping wing, the moonbeams from His eye.”

The moorfowl visualizes his creator as a glorious version of himself. His Creator possesses a “bill” and a “wing,” and the rains drop from His wings, while the moonbeams shoot from His eye.

Second Movement: “I passed a little further on and heard a lotus talk”

The speaker then moves on a little ways and overhears a “lotus talk.” The lotus also happens to be holding forth about his Creator: “Who made the world and ruleth it, / He hangeth on a stalk, / For I am in His image made, and all this tinkling tide / Is but a sliding drop of rain between His petals wide.

The lotus also describes his Creator as an embellished version of himself. His Creator “hangeth on a stalk,” just as he does, and He also causes the rain to fall. But unlike the moorfowl’s concept that the rain drips from the Supreme Moorfowl’s wings, the lotus’s Creator lets the rain “slide” between His petals.

Third Movement: “A little way within the gloom a roebuck raised his eyes”

The speaker continues on and sees a roebuck, who “raised his eyes / Brimful of starlight.” The speaker hears the roebuck describe his maker: “He is a gentle roebuck; for how else, I pray, could He / Conceive a thing so sad and soft, a gentle thing like me?”

The roebuck concludes that his Creator has to be like himself in order to have been able to fashion his unique characteristics of sadness, softness, and gentleness.

Fourth Movement: “I passed a little further on and heard a peacock say”

The speaker moves farther along and listens as a “peacock say[s]”: “Who made the grass and made the worms and made my feathers gay, / He is a monstrous peacock, and He waveth all the night / His languid tail above us, lit with myriad spots of light.” Again, the animal explains his Creator in terms of his own characteristics.

The peacock, however, verges on the boastful with his description, claiming that the “monstrous peacock,” or more glorious version of himself, also made grass and worms. The peacock implies that his Creator has made these creatures for the sake of the peacock. And the peacock also likens his beautiful tail feathers to stars hanging in the skies.

Made in God's Image

The philosophy portrayed in Yeats’ poem is pantheism, the concept that God is everything. If man correctly discerns that God created human beings in God's image, then God, in fact, created everything else that exists in his image. If all things are reflections of one Creator, then each thing created can rightly aver that it is made in the image of the Divine.

Capitalizing God Pronouns?

The King Jame Version of the Holy Bible does not capitalize the pronouns referring to God; that custom is a 19th century invention.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

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