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.


In the first two lines, note the distinction between “bring” and “take.” What they undertook to do / They brought to pass. The “unknown instructors” undertook, made an effort. This might be thought less a deed of theirs, as the result feels dependent on something else besides their efforts. Hence, a taking. Still, they receive full credit for their intention: “they brought [it] to pass.”

Can the poem point to a resolution of this tension? If so, it has to indicate how they taught, how their intention of necessity became reality. One might say I’m crazy for insisting on such a strict criterion. After all, the poem is “Gratitude to the Unknown Instructors.” The question is how they moved the speaker himself, how he feels gratitude. It doesn’t seem the speaker’s agency allows us to say they had some magical power, whereby they could create or shape by thought alone.

But they have passed on, giving him no less than a moral imperative. We can infer this from the dew image: perhaps we bear witness to the emergence of the morning dew. If so, I’m tempted to say the first half of the poem is situated in darkness. It was night, it is the past. We shift from “What they undertook to do” to “All things hang,” though, and the image in both cases is one of potential. In the early morning, there is less light than one would like. What has been “brought to pass” is neither fully rational, nor fully developed. (Cf. Heidegger’s essay “Language:” language speaks not what is known about the beings as much as what is unknown.)

“Like,” the poem’s 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.

However, the potential is actual in this case: “all things hang like a drop of dew.” Growth will happen, increasingly cognizant of why it happens. The weight of all things increases. That water of life is not a revelation, but rather upon us as we strive toward. The “unknown instructors” are ones we have every day; their intention always comes to pass, being continually realized.

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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