The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“All Souls’ Night” is the last poem in William Butler Yeats’s most important collection of poetry, The Tower (1928). Organized into ten stanzas of ten lines each, it is a meditation, during All Souls’ Night, on several friends who have died. A subtitle indicates that the poem is an epilogue to Yeats’s book A Vision (1925), which is the codification of his theories of magic and history that were given to him by “Unknown Instructors” in the form of automatic writing transcribed by his wife Georgia. As such, the poem is meant to comment on and to celebrate this achievement. The first stanza is primarily descriptive as it sets the scene for the rest of the poem. It is midnight and the “great Christ Church bell” of Oxford University and other lesser bells “sound through the room.” In this special and sacred time, a “ghost may come” to drink of the fumes of the wine that the poem’s speaker has placed there. The ghost is so refined by death that he can only drink the “wine-breath.”

In the next stanza, the speaker explains that he needs a mind that is armed against the “cannon sound” and other intrusions of the world, a mind that “can stay/ Wound in mind’s pondering,/ As mummies in the mummy-cloth are wound.” The description of souls being wound in the “mummy-cloth” comes from another of Yeats’s important poems, “Byzantium.” He needs this special mind or soul because he has “a marvellous thing to say/ a certain marvellous thing/ None but the living mock.” That “marvellous thing” is contained in his book A Vision.

In the third and fourth stanzas, the speaker calls on the spirit of...

(The entire section is 689 words.)