A Few Words on W.B. Yeats’s “A Coat”

W.B. Yeats is one of the most famous poets to ever write in the English language.  His work straddled the 19th and 20th centuries, and he’s one of the best narrative poets, an Irish national treasure.  Here’s one of his shorter, simpler poems, which reveals the kind of playfulness and delight in that final word:

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The poem works as a conceit, or an extended metaphor.  The song (or poem) that our speaker makes into a coat is actually referencing poetry, which also makes the poem an ars poetica, where the poem discusses its own creation.  So what did our speaker embroider into this coat, this song? Old stories from every part of the body (from head to toe is too much a cliche, so we dance around it with “heel to throat” which is more precise anyway).

We have a shift in the poem after the semi-colon with the word “But.”  But what happened to the coat our speaker made out of their song? The fools caught it! So here the song and coat create  interesting tensions in the different ways the fools can catch them.  Physically, but also figuratively.  And what did the fools do? Wore that coat, that song in the world’s eyes as though it had come from them.  So our speaker here complains that his creation gets commandeered by fools, by idiots, who want to take credit for it.

But rather than get angry with these fools, which seems like my natural impulse, our speaker shows us a different way of reacting to this feeling of being robbed or betrayed: let them take it.  Don’t worry song, don’t worry coat, these people can have you.  Why? Because, and obviously here’s the funny part:  there’s more to be gained in walking naked.  The sentiment seems funny, satisfying the rhyme from “take it,” but it’s also rings to an air of truth.  Sure, what good’s a coat, a song, that’s been yanked away? Better to be raw, exposed, and not wrapped in those old mythologies.  Better not to be in the company of fools.  So let them take it.

Taylor Collier

1 Comment

  1. Richard Leighton

    November 8, 2022 at 3:09 am

    I have to thank you for your explanation. It gives me so much more than I, alone would uncover. I like these short poems they’re easy to carry around with you in your pocket.

    I just love Yeats he was a character. He must have been fun, playful to be around.

    Richard in Canada Tuesday November 8th 2022.


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