The Hour Before Dawn

A poem by William Butler Yeats

A one-legged, one-armed, one-eyed man,
A bundle of rags upon a crutch,
Stumbled on windy Cruachan
Cursing the wind. It was as much
As the one sturdy leg could do
To keep him upright while he cursed.
He had counted, where long years ago
Queen Maeve’s nine Maines had been nursed,
A pair of lapwings, one old sheep,
And not a house to the plain’s edge,
When close to his right hand a heap
Of grey stones and a rocky ledge
Reminded him that he could make,
If he but shifted a few stones,
A shelter till the daylight broke.
But while he fumbled with the stones
They toppled over; ‘Were it not
I have a lucky wooden shin
I had been hurt’; and toppling brought
Before his eyes, where stones had been,
A dark deep hole in the rock’s face.
He gave a gasp and thought to run,
Being certain it was no right place
But the Hell Mouth at Cruachan
That’s stuffed with all that’s old and bad,
And yet stood still, because inside
He had seen a red-haired jolly lad
In some outlandish coat beside
A ladle and a tub of beer,
Plainly no phantom by his look.
So with a laugh at his own fear
He crawled into that pleasant nook.
Young Red-head stretched himself to yawn
And murmured, ‘May God curse the night
That’s grown uneasy near the dawn
So that it seems even I sleep light;
And who are you that wakens me?
Has one of Maeve’s nine brawling sons
Grown tired of his own company?
But let him keep his grave for once
I have to find the sleep I have lost.’
And then at last being wide awake,
‘I took you for a brawling ghost,
Say what you please, but from daybreak
I’ll sleep another century.’
The beggar deaf to all but hope
Went down upon a hand and knee
And took the wooden ladle up
And would have dipped it in the beer
But the other pushed his hand aside,
‘Before you have dipped it in the beer
That sacred Goban brewed,’ he cried,
‘I’d have assurance that you are able
To value beer, I will have no fool
Dipping his nose into my ladle
Because he has stumbled on this hole
In the bad hour before the dawn.
If you but drink that beer and say
I will sleep until the winter’s gone,
Or maybe, to Midsummer Day
You will sleep that length; and at the first
I waited so for that or this,
Because the weather was a-cursed
Or I had no woman there to kiss,
And slept for half a year or so;
But year by year I found that less
Gave me such pleasure I’d forgo
Even a half hour’s nothingness,
And when at one year’s end I found
I had not waked a single minute,
I chose this burrow under ground.
I will sleep away all Time within it:
My sleep were now nine centuries
But for those mornings when I find
The lapwing at their foolish cries
And the sheep bleating at the wind
As when I also played the fool.’
The beggar in a rage began
Upon his hunkers in the hole,
‘It’s plain that you are no right man
To mock at everything I love
As if it were not worth the doing.
I’d have a merry life enough
If a good Easter wind were blowing,
And though the winter wind is bad
I should not be too down in the mouth
For anything you did or said
If but this wind were in the south.’
But the other cried, ‘You long for spring
Or that the wind would shift a point
And do not know that you would bring,
If time were suppler in the joint,
Neither the spring nor the south wind
But the hour when you shall pass away
And leave no smoking wick behind,
For all life longs for the Last Day
And there’s no man but cocks his ear
To know when Michael’s trumpet cries
That flesh and bone may disappear,
And souls as if they were but sighs,
And there be nothing but God left;
But I alone being blessed keep
Like some old rabbit to my cleft
And wait Him in a drunken sleep.’

He dipped his ladle in the tub
And drank and yawned and stretched him out.
The other shouted, ‘You would rob
My life of every pleasant thought
And every comfortable thing
And so take that and that.’ Thereon
He gave him a great pummelling,
But might have pummelled at a stone
For all the sleeper knew or cared;
And after heaped the stones again
And cursed and prayed, and prayed and cursed:
‘Oh God if he got loose!’ And then
In fury and in panic fled
From the Hell Mouth at Cruachan
And gave God thanks that overhead
The clouds were brightening with the dawn.

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