On Yeats’ “Gratitude to the Unknown Instructors”

Gratitude to the Unknown Instructors
William Butler Yeats

What they undertook to do
They brought to pass;
All things hang like a drop of dew
Upon a blade of grass.


The difference between “bring” and “take” that too many teachers have mentioned too many times opens the first half of the poem. The undertaking is that of a deed: the instructors sought nothing for themselves but responsibility. The result is a taking from them; “they brought to pass.” They were successful.

But they have passed on. We can infer this from the dew image: perhaps this is the morning dew. If so, the first half of the poem is situated in darkness. It was night, it is the past. We shift from “What” to “All things,” though, and the image in both cases is one of potential. This is strange; we can compound the problem by imagining the early morning, where it is not quite light out even. Perhaps what has been “brought to pass” is not quite rational. (cf. Heidegger’s essay “Language:” language speaks not what is known about the beings as much as what is unknown.)

“Like” – the use of simile – unfolds the whole. If he had said “All things, a drop of dew” and made the identification of all beings and the “dew” metaphorical, he would have been in a sense incorrect. All things, strictly speaking, are not a drop of dew because drops of dew fall and aid the grass – something else – in growing.

Still, the potential is actual in this case: “all things hang like a drop of dew.” The growth will happen, increasingly cognizant of why it is happening. That water of life is not a revelation, but sitting upon us as we strive toward. The “unknown instructors” are ones we have had every day.

6 responses

  1. There is also the sense of tremulousness – how long can that drop of dew stay on the blade of grass before it drips off? How long will what the instructors tried to teach us actually stay with us?

    Great essay.

  2. Looking again at Yeats’ opening line, it seems to me that we don’t know just what specifically the Unknown Instructors undertook to do.

    So perhaps what they undertook was general or universal potential, the possibility of all things: the nourishing Innocence of Becoming.

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