He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven is a poem Yeats wrote for Maud Gonne, a woman he loved for most of his life although she did not return his feelings.
It is a relatively simple poem but it contains a few surprises and uncertainties.
The phrase cloths of heaven is sometimes taken refer to the kind of cloths one might imagine being seen in Heaven, but it’s far more likely that Yeats uses the word ‘heavens’ to mean the sky and the natural world around us.
The colours and patterns are the images created by nature in the different seasons and different times of day and night.
If the poet had such cloths, even though they would be so precious, he would place them under the feet of the woman he loves – such is his devotion.
He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven
Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
The final three lines are the ones the poem is best remembered for; they seem straightforward but they raise a few questions.
The poet says he is poor, implying that he cannot afford such cloths; he has only his dreams so he will spread them under his lover’s feet instead of the precious cloths.
But what does the poet mean by the word poor? For no matter how much wealth he had, he couldn’t buy the cloths of heaven – which can only ever be imaginary and unattainable.
Perhaps by poor, Yeats is referring to a fear that he has a poverty of talent, spirit, imagination etc.
Instead, all he has are dreams that he may attain such gifts.
We are always likely to be vulnerable when revealing our hopes and dreams, which is what gives the unforgettable final line such power and resonance.
Listen to the poem being read and discover more about its meaning and background in this video.