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A play by William Butler Yeats

The Dreaming Of The Bones

Title:     The Dreaming Of The Bones
Author: William Butler Yeats [More Titles by Yeats]

The stage is any bare place in a room close to the wall. A screen with a pattern of mountain and sky can stand against the wall, or a curtain with a like pattern hang upon it, but the pattern must only symbolize or suggest. One musician enters and then two others, the first stands singing while the others take their places. Then all three sit down against the wall by their instruments, which are already there--a drum, a zither, and a flute. Or they unfold a cloth as in 'The Hawk's Well,' while the instruments are carried in.

(or all three musicians, singing)
Why does my heart beat so?
Did not a shadow pass?
It passed but a moment ago.
Who can have trod in the grass?
What rogue is night-wandering?
Have not old writers said
That dizzy dreams can spring
From the dry bones of the dead?
And many a night it seems
That all the valley fills
With those fantastic dreams.
They overflow the hills,
So passionate is a shade,
Like wine that fills to the top
A grey-green cup of jade,
Or maybe an agate cup.
(speaking) The hour before dawn and the moon covered up.
The little village of Abbey is covered up;
The little narrow trodden way that runs
From the white road to the Abbey of Corcomroe
Is covered up; and all about the hills
Are like a circle of Agate or of Jade.
Somewhere among great rocks on the scarce grass
Birds cry, they cry their loneliness.
Even the sunlight can be lonely here,
Even hot noon is lonely. I hear a footfall--
A young man with a lantern comes this way.
He seems an Aran fisher, for he wears
The flannel bawneen and the cow-hide shoe.
He stumbles wearily, and stumbling prays.

(A young man enters, praying in Irish)

Once more the birds cry in their loneliness,
But now they wheel about our heads; and now
They have dropped on the grey stone to the north-east.

(A man and a girl both in the costume of a past time, come in.
They wear heroic masks)

(raising his lantern)

Who is there? I cannot see what you are like,
Come to the light.

But what have you to fear?

And why have you come creeping through the dark.

(The Girl blows out lantern)

The wind has blown my lantern out. Where are you?
I saw a pair of heads against the sky
And lost them after, but you are in the right
I should not be afraid in County Clare;
And should be or should not be have no choice,
I have to put myself into your hands,
Now that my candle's out.

You have fought in Dublin?

I was in the Post Office, and if taken
I shall be put against a wall and shot.

You know some place of refuge, have some plan
Or friend who will come to meet you?

I am to lie
At daybreak on the mountain and keep watch
Until an Aran coracle puts in
At Muckanish or at the rocky shore
Under Finvarra, but would break my neck
If I went stumbling there alone in the dark.

We know the pathways that the sheep tread out,
And all the hiding-places of the hills,
And that they had better hiding-places once.

You'd say they had better before English robbers
Cut down the trees or set them upon fire
For fear their owners might find shelter there.
What is that sound?

An old horse gone astray
He has been wandering on the road all night.

I took him for a man and horse. Police
Are out upon the roads. In the late Rising
I think there was no man of us but hated
To fire at soldiers who but did their duty
And were not of our race, but when a man
Is born in Ireland and of Irish stock
When he takes part against us--

I will put you safe,
No living man shall set his eyes upon you.
I will not answer for the dead.

The dead?

For certain days the stones where you must lie
Have in the hour before the break of day
Been haunted.

But I was not born at midnight.

Many a man born in the full daylight
Can see them plain, will pass them on the high-road
Or in the crowded market-place of the town,
And never know that they have passed.

My Grandam
Would have it they did penance everywhere
Or lived through their old lives again.

In a dream;
And some for an old scruple must hang spitted
Upon the swaying tops of lofty trees;
Some are consumed in fire, some withered up
By hail and sleet out of the wintry North,
And some but live through their old lives again.

Well, let them dream into what shape they please
And fill waste mountains with the invisible tumult
Of the fantastic conscience. I have no dread;
They cannot put me into jail or shoot me,
And seeing that their blood has returned to fields
That have grown red from drinking blood like mine
They would not if they could betray.

This pathway
Runs to the ruined Abbey of Corcomroe;
The Abbey passed, we are soon among the stone
And shall be at the ridge before the cocks
Of Aughanish or Bailevlehan
Or grey Aughtmana shake their wings and cry.

(They go round the stage once)

(speaking) They've passed the shallow well and the flat stone
Fouled by the drinking cattle, the narrow lane
Where mourners for five centuries have carried
Noble or peasant to his burial.
An owl is crying out above their heads.
(singing) Why should the heart take fright
What sets it beating so?
The bitter sweetness of the night
Has made it but a lonely thing.
Red bird of March, begin to crow,
Up with the neck and clap the wing,
Red cock, and crow.

(They go once round the stage. The first musician speaks.)

And now they have climbed through the long grassy field
And passed the ragged thorn trees and the gap
In the ancient hedge; and the tomb-nested owl
At the foot's level beats with a vague wing.
(singing) My head is in a cloud;
I'd let the whole world go.
My rascal heart is proud
Remembering and remembering.
Red bird of March, begin to crow,
Up with the neck and clap the wing
Red cock and crow.

(They go round the stage. The first musician speaks.)

They are among the stones above the ash
Above the briar and thorn and the scarce grass;
Hidden amid the shadow far below them
The cat-headed bird is crying out.
(singing) The dreaming bones cry out
Because the night winds blow
And heaven's a cloudy blot;
Calamity can have its fling.
Red bird of March begin to crow,
Up with the neck and clap the wing
Red cock and crow.

We're almost at the summit and can rest.
The road is a faint shadow there; and there
The abbey lies amid its broken tombs.
In the old days we should have heard a bell
Calling the monks before day broke to pray;
And when the day has broken on the ridge,
The crowing of its cocks.

Is there no house
Famous for sanctity or architectural beauty
In Clare or Kerry, or in all wide Connacht
The enemy has not unroofed?

Close to the altar
Broken by wind and frost and worn by time
Donogh O'Brien has a tomb, a name in Latin.
He wore fine clothes and knew the secrets of women
But he rebelled against the King of Thomond
And died in his youth.

And why should he rebel?
The King of Thomond was his rightful master.
It was men like Donogh who made Ireland weak--
My curse on all that troop, and when I die
I'll leave my body, if I have any choice,
Far from his ivy tod and his owl; have those
Who, if your tale is true, work out a penance
Upon the mountain-top where I am to hide,
Come from the Abbey graveyard?

They have not that luck,
But are more lonely, those that are buried there,
Warred in the heat of the blood; if they were rebels
Some momentary impulse made them rebels
Or the comandment of some petty king
Who hated Thomond. Being but common sinners,
No callers in of the alien from oversea
They and their enemies of Thomond's party
Mix in a brief dream battle above their bones,
Or make one drove or drift in amity,
Or in the hurry of the heavenly round
Forget their earthly names; these are alone
Being accursed.

And if what seems is true
And there are more upon the other side
Than on this side of death, many a ghost
Must meet them face to face and pass the word
Even upon this grey and desolate hill.

Until this hour no ghost or living man
Has spoken though seven centuries have run
Since they, weary of life and of men's eyes,
Flung down their bones in some forgotten place
Being accursed.

I have heard that there are souls
Who, having sinned after a monstrous fashion
Take on them, being dead, a monstrous image
To drive the living, should they meet its face,
Crazy, and be a terror to the dead.

But these
Were comely even in their middle life
And carry, now that they are dead, the image
Of their first youth, for it was in that youth
Their sin began.

I have heard of angry ghosts
Who wander in a wilful solitude.

These have no thought but love; nor joy
But that upon the instant when their penance
Draws to its height and when two hearts are wrung
Nearest to breaking, if hearts of shadows break,
His eyes can mix with hers; nor any pang
That is so bitter as that double glance,
Being accursed.

But what is this strange penance--
That when their eyes have met can wring them most?

Though eyes can meet, their lips can never meet.

And yet it seems they wander side by side.
But doubtless you would say that when lips meet
And have not living nerves, it is no meeting.

Although they have no blood or living nerves
Who once lay warm and live the live-long night
In one another's arms, and know their part
In life, being now but of the people of dreams,
Is a dreams part; although they are but shadows
Hovering between a thorn tree and a stone
Who have heaped up night on winged night; although
No shade however harried and consumed
Would change his own calamity for theirs,
Their manner of life were blessed could their lips
A moment meet; but when he has bent his head
Close to her head or hand would slip in hand
The memory of their crime flows up between
And drives them apart.

The memory of a crime--
He took her from a husband's house it may be,
But does the penance for a passionate sin
Last for so many centuries?

No, no,
The man she chose, the man she was chosen by
Cared little and cares little from whose house
They fled towards dawn amid the flights of arrows
Or that it was a husband's and a king's;
And how if that were all could she lack friends
On crowded roads or on the unpeopled hill?
Helen herself had opened wide the door
Where night by night she dreams herself awake
And gathers to her breast a dreaming man.

What crime can stay so in the memory?
What crime can keep apart the lips of lovers
Wandering and alone?

Her king and lover
Was overthrown in battle by her husband
And for her sake and for his own, being blind
And bitter and bitterly in love, he brought
A foreign army from across the sea.

You speak of Dermot and of Dervorgilla
Who brought the Norman in?

Yes, yes I spoke
Of that most miserable, most accursed pair
Who sold their country into slavery, and yet
They were not wholly miserable and accursed
If somebody of their race at last would say:
'I have forgiven them.'

Oh, never, never
Will Dermot and Dervorgilla be forgiven.

If someone of their race forgave at last
Lip would be pressed on lip.

Oh, never, never
Will Dermot and Dervorgilla be forgiven.
You have told your story well, so well indeed
I could not help but fall into the mood
And for a while believe that it was true
Or half believe, but better push on now.
The horizon to the East is growing bright.

(They go once round stage)

So here we're on the summit. I can see
The Aran Islands, Connemara Hills,
And Galway in the breaking light; there too
The enemy has toppled wall and roof
And torn from ancient walls to boil his pot
The oaken panelling that had been dear
To generations of children and old men.
But for that pair for whom you would have my pardon
It might be now like Bayeux or like Caen
Or little Italian town amid its walls
For though we have neither coal nor iron ore
To make us rich and cover heaven with smoke
Our country, if that crime were uncommitted
Had been most beautiful. Why do you dance?
Why do you gaze and with so passionate eyes
One on the other and then turn away
Covering your eyes and weave it in a dance,
Who are you? what are you? you are not natural.

Seven hundred years our lips have never met.

Why do you look so strangely at one another,
So strangely and so sweetly?

Seven hundred years.

So strangely and so sweetly. All the ruin,
All, all their handiwork is blown away
As though the mountain air had blown it away
Because their eyes have met. They cannot hear,
Being folded up and hidden in their dance.
The dance is changing now. They have dropped their eyes,
They have covered up their eyes as though their hearts
Had suddenly been broken--never, never
Shall Dermot and Dervorgilla be forgiven.
They have drifted in the dance from rock to rock.
They have raised their hands as though to snatch the sleep
That lingers always in the abyss of the sky
Though they can never reach it. A cloud floats up
And covers all the mountain head in a moment.
And now it lifts and they are swept away.
I had almost yielded and forgiven it all--
This is indeed a place of terrible temptation.

(The Musicians begin unfolding and folding a black cloth. The First Musician comes forward to the front of the stage, at the centre. He holds the cloth before him. The other two come one on either side and unfold it. They afterwards fold it up in the same way. While it is unfolded, the Young Man leaves the stage.)



(singing) At the grey round of the hill
Music of a lost kingdom
Runs, runs and is suddenly still.
The winds out of Clare-Galway
Carry it: suddenly it is still.

I have heard in the night air
A wandering airy music;
And moidered in that snare
A man is lost of a sudden,
In that sweet wandering snare.

What finger first began
Music of a lost kingdom.
They dreamed that laughed in the sun.
Dry bones that dream are bitter,
They dream and darken our sun.

Those crazy fingers play
A wandering airy music;
Our luck is withered away,
And wheat in the wheat-ear withered,
And the wind blows it away.


My heart ran wild when it heard
The curlew cry before dawn
And the eddying cat-headed bird;
But now the night is gone.
I have heard from far below
The strong March birds a-crow,
Stretch neck and clap the wing,
Red cocks, and crow.

[The end]
William Butler Yeats's play: The Dreaming Of The Bones