Wednesday, October 23

Literary Perspectives: W.B. Yeats and the Queen of Sheba

Western culture is shaped in a variety of ways by the Biblical Scriptures. Although Greco-Roman thought, politics, culture and philosophy also pervades our culture and thinking, the Biblical text has seemingly had more of a profound impact on the literature if nothing else. Poems such as John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” (1667), William Blake’s “Marriage of Heaven and Hell” (1790s), T.S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi” (1930) and others have been heavily influenced by the Biblical narratives. Another example of these poems is found in W.B. Yeats’ (1865-1939) “On Woman”, published in 1919. Yeats’ poem includes a number of Biblical allusions which can be traced directed into the Biblical text, and it is pertinent to discuss whether or not the allusion is properly utilized, to what extent (or for what purpose) this allusion is utilized, whether or not the narrative is properly represented and how much of the narrative that is being alluded to is actually used.

To begin with, it is important to establish which Biblical allusions are made and where these can be found in Scripture itself. It may also be worth noting that the title of the poem is “On Woman” and not “One Women” – perhaps Yeats making a statement regarding the female written about in the poem apart from the Queen of Sheba. According to 1st Kings 10:1-19, “When the queen of Sheba heard about the fame of Solomon and his relationship to the Lord, she came to test Solomon hard questions. Arriving at Jerusalem with a very great caravan – with camels carrying spices, large quantities of gold, and precious stones – she came to Solomon and talked with him about all that she had on her mind. Solomon answered all her questions; nothing was too hard for the king to explain to her. When the queen of Sheba saw all the wisdom of Solomon and the palace he had built, the food on his table, the seating of his officials, the attending servants in their robes, his cupbearers, and the burnt offerings he made at the temple of the Lord, she was overwhelmed. She said to the king, ‘The report I heard in my own country about your achievements and your achievements and your wisdom is true. Indeed, not even half was told me; in wisdom and wealth you have far exceeded the report I heard. How happy your people must be! How happy your officials, who continually stand before you and hear your wisdom! Praise be to the LORD your God, who has delighted in you and placed you on the throne of Israel. Because of the LORD’s eternal love for Israel, he has made you king to maintain justice and righteousness.”

The text continues, “And she gave the king 120 talents of gold, large quantities of spices, and previous stones. Never again were so many spices brought in as those the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon… [who] gave the queen of Sheba all she desired and asked for, besides what he had given her out of his royal bounty. Then she left and returned with her retinue to her own country” (1st Kings 10:10, 13). Understandably, this is a large chunk of text. It is, however, from this portion of Scripture where Yeats draws some of the inspiration from his poem. Lines such as “It’s plain the Bible means / That Solomon grew wise / While talking with his queens” (10-12) and others are clearly influenced by this narrative. However, there is not much of the Bible story brought out in the poem. The only narrative clues we could pull together from the poem is that there exists a man named Solomon in the Bible who had queens (plural), that “Sheba was his lass” (line 16), and that Solomon and Sheba appear to be lovers. The wisdom of Solomon is also hinted at as aforementioned, but this is attributed to essentially gaining wisdom from women.

How accurately is the Biblical text interpreted through this poetic allusion made by Yeats? It appears that Yeats perpetuates the ancient notion that King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba were lovers. This idea is not actually Scriptural although it is the idea that the poem is founded on and the one that permeates the poem. This notion of the Solomonic lovers came into being by the Ethiopians centuries after 1st Kings was written (possibly by the prophet Jeremiah). Legends grew that Solomon and the queen of Sheba had sexual relations and had a son who went on to lead Ethiopia, whose name was Menelik I. These traditions however come about – as noted – centuries after 1st Kings was written, and should be considered non-biblical tradition (from the Kabra Negast). In this way, the relationship between Solomon and Sheba as seen in Yeats’ poem works as an allusion to extra-biblical traditions, not as a Biblical allusion. In this way, the poem does indeed misrepresent the Biblical text. The poem does also allude to Proverbs 31, the chapter of the virtuous woman. According to author Dwight H. Purdy, the additions and detractions from 1st Kings and Proverbs that Yeats makes “does more than fill the silence. He adds and rewrites a text on women beloved of medieval and Renaissance poets before him – Proverbs 31 – the whole book of Proverbs, of course, traditionally ascribed to Solomon.”

With this in mind, it may also be relevant to delve into a bit of background on the poet, Yeats, for further understanding into the poem. William Butler Yeats was born in “Dublin, Ireland, in 1865… [and] was the son of a well-known Irish painter, John Butler Yeats. He spent his childhood in County Sligo… and in London. He returned to Dublin at the age of fifteen to continue his education and study painting, but quickly discovered he preferred poetry” ( Yeats was not necessarily religious, but he “had a life-long interest in mysticism and the occult, which was off-putting to some readers, but he remained uninhibited in advancing his idiosyncratic philosophy, and his poetry continued to grow stronger as he grew older” ( According to Shelly Poehler of CSU University, although Yeats is often portrayed as against women, his writings demonstrate that he is an advocate for woman, particularly because of his occult thinking and bringing a woman to the front.

Lastly, it is important to draw the various threads together to create an image that makes sense. The allusions used by Yeats in his poem are from 1st Kings 10 and Proverbs 31, the first of which is about Solomon and the second of which is ascribed to Solomon. The poem misrepresents the Kings allusion, however, as it draws upon a non-biblical tradition about Solomon and Sheba as lovers. The goal of Yeats in using this allusion for his ends is to praise women for their role in a man’s life. The narrator claims that wisdom was given to Solomon via women, that a woman’s friendship is necessary, and recognizes just how important women are to a man. As noted earlier, Biblical allusions are found all throughout Western literature, particularly in modern and contemporary poetry. Yeats’ poem is merely one example, but it seems that the Bible will continue to have a lasting impact on the literature and will go on to become a source of many allusions.

The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2005. Print.

Poehler, Shelly. "Yeats and the "Woman Question"." Writing @ Colonial State University. Colonial State Univeristy, n.d. Web.

Purdy, Dwight H. Biblical Echo and Allusion in the Poetry of W.B. Yeats: Poetics and the Art of God. 1st ed. Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1994. 71. Print.

“W.B. Yeats.” Web.

Yeats, W.B. “On Woman.” 2012. Webs. 

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