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Ever had a song stuck in your head that you just couldn't help but change the lyrics to? Suddenly Jingle bells, jingle all the way becomes Batman smells, Robin laid an egg. It's fun when we get the chance to flex our creative muscles and change a tune to something more familiar to us. Well, W.B. Yeats's ballad "Down by the Salley Gardens" is kind of a poet's way of playing with famous songs and changing them to his own liking.
The story goes that Yeats heard this old Irish folk song one day, and was so tickled by it that he took it upon himself to give it his own spin. His version was first published in 1889. Then, after the poem became famous, other Irish musicians gave Yeats's poem their own spin, and before long, "Down by the Salley Gardens" became one of Ireland's most treasured and performed folk songs. You can hear one rendition here.
We can sense some concerned Shmoopers out there that may be asking themselves, "Wait a minute here. Isn't that called plagiarism?" If Kanye just up and took one of Jay-Z's songs, changed it a bit, and made it his own, wouldn't there be a million lawyers just drooling at the chance for a lawsuit? Remember folks, this was back in 1889, when copyright laws were a bit less sophisticated. Artists were known to borrow here and there, all in the aim of artistic expression. Remember that guy Shakespeare? Well, the most famous playwright of all time was also known to borrow material dating all the way back to ancient Greek texts, so you get the idea.
Well, now that we've answered the copyright infringement experts, let's get back to the poem. The ballad itself is a kind of lesson in love for anyone who's ever been young and foolish (a.k.a. every person in the world). The speaker meets this nice girl who tries to convince him to take love and life easy, but the speaker, being young and foolish, doesn't listen and ends up in tears. Sound familiar? It should, because you've probably heard many older folks—whether in life or in books—try to tell you the same thing. By the end, the ballad reminds us of the common missteps in a young person's life: love, heartbreak, foolishness, and tears. But hey, we all have to start somewhere. If it weren't for those foolish missteps, we wouldn't have grown up to be the streetwise Shmoopers we are today (right?).
Sometimes we have to be reminded that we're not alone when it comes to the patterns of being young and foolish. We might think, "No one understands. The rest of the world is in love while I'm in tears," or "There will never be a better person for me than that girl I met in the sixth grade." In hindsight, these thoughts may seem foolish after realizing that the world is a much bigger place than what we thought in high school. But when we're young and in love, all the reason in the world can't convince us of the fact that we're acting a bit foolish.
W.B. Yeats's "Down by the Salley Gardens" is a kind of comforting blanket for anyone's who's ever visited the world of foolish young love. You might even feel like you're being teleported back to the sixth grade, when the popular kid actually gave you the time of day and made you feel like you were the top banana. Everything in those days had to be all about the here and now, as if the world itself would implode if you didn't marry your high school sweetheart. But, as the story usually goes, you didn't end up with that high school sweetheart. More than likely, you ended up looking a bit like Yeats's speaker: "full of tears."
Did the world implode? Did the stars fall from the sky in a cataclysmic display of empathy? We're guessing no, as we pinch ourselves and discover that we are indeed still alive. The truth is: foolish young love is a very necessary and typical part of growing up. Those tears get us ready for that bigger world, which we need to be part of, while also reminding us that life really does go on—with or without the popular kid on our arms. So fear not, lovesick Shmooper, for Yeats has come to your rescue with this musically inspired ballad for young lovers.
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