Verse > W.B. Yeats > Responsibilities and Other Poems
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W.B. Yeats (1865–1939).  Responsibilities and Other Poems.  1916.

16. The Hour before Dawn


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         5
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,  10
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.  15
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,  20
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,  25
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.  30
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  35
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  40
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.’  45
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,  50
‘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  55
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  60
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;  65
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,  70
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  75
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  80
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  85
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  90
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,  95
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, 100
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 105
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 110
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: 115
‘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. 120


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