Although Yeats’ “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” is a very brief poem, it is also imaginatively rich and literally colorful. While the title describes the speaker in the third person (“He”), the poem itself presents him in the first person (“I”). For the first four and a half lines, the speaker is the only person presented; his experiences and perceptions are emphasized.
We can tell from the opening that he is not only imaginative but is also capable of appreciating beauty. In both senses, he is a Romantic, as his detailed word choices suggest. For example, he doesn’t speak merely of “the sky” but rather of “the heavens” (1), a far more imaginative and evocative word. Significantly, however, he does not speak of “heaven” (which would imply a conventional religious sensibility) but rather of “the heavens,” suggesting either a perception of the sky’s beauty or an ability to conceive of a beautiful, imaginary realm.
The speaker’s imaginative ability to perceive beauty is also implied when he mentions the “embroidered cloths” of the heavens, a phrase that could suggest colorful clouds and that later seems to refer to attractive changes of light. Words such as “embroidered” (1) and “Enwrought” (2) make “the heavens” seem the object of some kind of magical or even divine intervention: the beautiful colors are not merely natural phenomena but are the result of a creative process. In line 3, the speaker gives each kind of light separate, distinct emphasis, while in line 4 he combines assonance and alliteration to create a highly musical effect:
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light . . .
Until this point, the speaker’s attention has been focused solely on the beauty he perceives and imagines, but in line 5, another person – the beloved – is suddenly introduced when the speaker says “I would spread the cloths under your feet.” Here the phrasing suggests that she is almost majestic, deserving of the kind of honor shown to royalty, and also deserving what is almost veneration. This is an expression of idealized, Romantic love with a capital “R.”
No sooner does the speaker make this grand gesture, however, than he immediately qualifies it by confessing,
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet . . . (6-7)
Yet the speaker’s confession of literal, financial poverty only helps highlight, by contrast, the richness of his imagination and the abundance of his love. The very lines in which he calls attention to his shortcomings only make him seem even more attractive in his humility and vulnerability. Earlier, in line 5, he had promised that he “would spread” magnificent cloths under her feet; now, in line 7, he says that he has in fact spread his dreams before her by writing this poem. The final line – “Tread softly because you tread on my dreams” – once more implies the speaker’s appealing vulnerability (he is not a smug, proud suitor). Although the speaker’s perceptions are only “dreams,” they are no less valuable, since they reflect the true worth of his spirit and soul.