William Butler Yeats

Start Free Trial

In "The Ballad of Father Gilligan," what does the line "And the moth-hour went from the fields" mean, and what do moths symbolize?

Quick answer:

In "The Ballad of Father Gilligan," the moth-hour going from the fields refers to the coming of the night. Moths and the moth-hour symbolize a period of transition that brings something new. The light dies and then rises, and the sick man dies but then goes to Heaven in the company of an angel.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In William Butler Yeats's “The Ballad of Father Gilligan,” the old parish priest Peter Gilligan is weary and grieving, for many of his parishioners are dying. It is early evening, the “moth-hour,” when another poor parishioner sends for Father Gilligan. Someone else is dying.

The old priest complains that he has “no rest, nor joy, nor peace, / For people die and die.” Then he feels guilty for saying so; it is his flesh, his human nature, speaking, not his mind or heart. He kneels beside a chair to pray but falls asleep. As he sleeps, the “moth-hour” passes by and the stars come out. It is night.

Father Gilligan wakes up in the early morning, when the sparrows are just beginning to chirp and moths reappear. He panics because a man has likely died during the time he has been sleeping, and he has not been present to comfort the man and his family or provide the last rites. He hurries to the man's home and discovers that he has died just an hour before. Yet the man's wife assures the priest that her husband died “as merry as a bird.” The priest knows that God sent one of His angels to guide the man's soul to Heaven, taking pity on a poor priest who has fallen asleep by his chair.

The moth-hour in this poem represents a time of in between, a period of transition and opportunity. It is an hour in the early evening or early morning when the moths come out and flutter about in the dying or rising light. It thus symbolizes the death and rising to new life of a human being. Father Gilligan receives the news of the dying man at the moth-hour of evening. The man is about to experience a transition. He will leave this life. The light is fading for him. Yet another moth-hour comes early the next morning, and this is an hour of hope. The light is growing. The man may be dying, but his soul is accompanied by an angel, who brings him to Heaven. God has taken pity on His people, and He has given the dying man new life.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial