Stanza-wise Summary of The Ballad of Father Gilligan by Yeats

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About the poet:

William Butler Yeats was born in Dublin, Ireland on 13th June 1865. He was the son of a well-known Irish painter, John Butler Yeats and also learned painting as a teenager, but soon found that it was poetry that he preferred.

Yeats was involved with the Celtic Revival, a movement against the cultural influences of English rule in Ireland during the Victorian period. This movement sought to promote the spirit of Ireland’s native heritage. Though Yeats never learned Gaelic himself, his writing drew extensively from Irish mythology and folklore. Also, a potent influence on his poetry was the Irish revolutionary Maud Gonne, who was famous for her passionate nationalist politics as well as her beauty.

Yeats shared with his American counterparts, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, a pessimism about the political situation in his country and the rest of Europe, but he never abandoned his strict adherence to traditional verse forms. He was also one of the founders of the famous Abbey Theatre in Dublin. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1923. He died in 1939 at the age of seventy-three.

About The Ballad of Father Gilligan:

The publication details of this poem are unknown. However, what we do know for sure is that it is one of the typically Yeatsian poems. It does not refer to his system of symbols at all. Neither does it hark back to the Irish past. No revolutionary thoughts have gone into this poem. It is a simple story of faith, of believing that God has mercy in His heart for everyone. However, it cannot but please the average reader since it gives a message of hope for everyone in their times of need.

The setting of The Ballad of Father Gilligan:

This poem is largely set within a parish on the British countryside. Father Gilligan is the priest in residence there. His congregation all live nearby and they have been asking for his services very often lately. Father Gilligan falls asleep, and when he wakes up, the setting of the poem changes to the house of a man who has died while he was sleeping. All over the parish and his surroundings, a swarm of moths greets passersby at dusk and at dawn. All in all, the setting is very quaint.

Stanza-wise Summary of The Ballad of Father Gilligan:

The poem consists of 12 stanzas. Each of these stanzas is again made up of 4 lines. Hence, the entire poem consists of 48 lines in total.

1st stanza:

The old priest, Peter Gilligan,
Was weary night and day;
For half his flock were in their beds,
Or under green sods lay.

In this stanza, the poet says that an old priest named Peter Gilligan was feeling tired with the passing of every day and night because most of his congregation were either sick or were already dead and buried.

2nd stanza:

Once, while he nodded on a chair,
At the moth-hour of eve,
Another poor man sent for him,
And he began to grieve.

In this stanza, the poet describes one evening when the swarm of moths had come at the same time they usually do and Father Gilligan was about to fall asleep in his chair. Just at that time, he was called for, and he became greatly distressed.

3rd stanza:

“I have no rest, nor joy, nor peace,
For people die and die”;
And after cried he, “God forgive!
My body spake, not I!”

In this stanza, the poet describes Father Gilligan saying that since people keep dying and since he is expected to be with them in their last hours, he is not getting any rest, he has no reason to feel happy, and he is never peaceful either. However, in the next moment, he regretted railing against his vocation and apologized to God saying that it was his weary body that had spoken, and not he himself.

4th stanza:

He knelt, and leaning on the chair
He prayed and fell asleep,
And the moth-hour went from the fields,
And stars began to peep.

In this stanza, to atone for his unpleasant words, Father Gilligan knelt on the ground putting his folded hands on the chair before him. While praying in that position, he suddenly fell asleep. The evening went by, and a few stars appeared in the sky at nightfall.


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5th stanza:

They slowly into millions grew,
And leaves shook in the wind,
And God covered the world with shade,
And whispered to mankind.

In this stanza, the poet describes that the whole sky was filled with stars and how the wind shook the leaves on the trees. It seemed as if God had decided to envelop the entire world in darkness and that He was whispering words to mankind in the form of the rustling of the leaves.

6th stanza:

Upon the time of sparrow chirp
When the moths come once more,
The old priest, Peter Gilligan,
Stood upright on the floor.

In this stanza, the poet describes what happened early the next morning. Sparrows had begun to chirp, and the swarm of moths had come back once again. Suddenly Father Gilligan woke up and stood bolt upright.

7th stanza:

“Mavrone, mavrone! the man has died,
While I slept on the chair.”
He roused his horse out of its sleep,
And rode with little care.

In this stanza, the poet says that Father Gilligan was shocked at the realization that the man who had called him the previous night must have died while Father Gilligan was sleeping. He then woke his horse up and started riding recklessly.

8th stanza:

He rode now as he never rode,
By rocky lane and fen;
The sick man’s wife opened the door:
“Father! you come again.”

In this stanza, the poet describes how Father Gilligan rode as fast as he could through narrow roads and marshy lands. When he finally reached the sick man’s house, his wife opened the door and was surprised to see Father Gilligan, wondering aloud why he had come again.

9th stanza:

“And is the poor man dead?” he cried.
“He died an hour ago.”
The old priest, Peter Gilligan,
In grief swayed to and fro.

In this stanza, the poet describes Father Gilligan asking the sick man’s wife whether her husband had passed away and the wife answering that he had, in fact, died just an hour ago. Father Gilligan was so distressed to hear this that he could not stand steady and began to sway.

10th stanza:

“When you were gone, he turned and died
As merry as a bird.”
The old priest, Peter Gilligan,
He knelt him at that word.

In this stanza, the poet says that the sick man’s wife told Father Gilligan that after he had left, her husband died a happy death. Hearing this, Father Gilligan knelt on the ground.

11th stanza:

“He who hath made the night of stars
For souls who tire and bleed,
Sent one of His great angels down
To help me in my need.

In this stanza, we hear Father Gilligan speaking. He says that God had created the starry sky to comfort the souls of the sick and the dying, and that same God must have sent one of His to take Father Gilligan’s place at the bedside of the dying man.

12th stanza:

“He who is wrapped in purple robes,
With planets in His care,
Had pity on the least of things
Asleep upon a chair.”

In this stanza, Father Gilligan continues to speak. He says that God is a king in purple robes and all the planets are in his dominion. However, He is so merciful that he even had pity on such a meager creature as Father Gilligan while he was asleep upon his chair.

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