Detail from Rosetti’s Lilith, whose flowers, hair, pose, and aspect recall those of Yeats’ queen.
In “The Cap and Bells,” Yeats tells the story of a jester who, in wooing a young queen, must give of everything he has, sacrificing himself to her, in order to gain her love. He begins by offering the queen his soul, then his heart, but it is only when he gives her his cap and bells, though he knows that in giving them he will die, that she accepts him. It seems odd for the cap and bells to succeed where heart and soul, the usual tools of romantic prostration, fail, until they are understood as symbols of his complete and utter submission to her. The cap and bells are doubly symbolic: both of his art—and hence his individuality—and of his sexuality. The queen is not interested in the familiar offerings of heart and soul, but in offering his art, he offers his individuality and thereby his whole self to her—including heart and soul.
That his art pervades all that he is is emphasized in the first few stanzas when his soul is described as “wise-tongued” and his heart “sweet-tongued” (7, 17), referencing qualities not actually tied to heart or soul but to his profession as jester and wordsmith, to his art. The context of the poem in the volume also drives home the importance of art, language, and particularly poetry to the process of wooing a woman. In both “A Poet to his Beloved” and “He gives his Beloved certain Rhymes,” which come one after the other and are separated from “The Cap and Bells” by only one other poem, the poet woos his beloved by writing her poems, distilling her beauty and his dreams of her into words and rhyme. The jester’s surrendering of his cap and bells to the queen is the surrendering of his art to her, though it costs him his life, and thus Yeats argues for the importance of art to the self and to love. She recognizes the significance of the gift immediately, receiving it in kind: she absorbs the cap and bells into herself by covering them with her hair and sings to them, greeting art with art.
However, there is also something distinctly sexual about Yeats’ imagery. The cap and bells are inescapably phallic—as is the way in which they are received by the queen, particularly considering the symbolism of the motif of drowning or being covered in hair in the larger context of the Wind Among the Reeds. The synecdochical reduction of the queen to her “red-lips” (27) which sing a love-song specifically to the cap and bells (and not the jester himself) further emphasizes the erotic reading. And when their union causes stars to grow “out of the air” (28), one can either read it as underlining the generative aspect of art¹ or as the moment of sexual climax.
Either way, Yeats is making a case for complete submission to the beloved as the means to achieve union. The queen does not accept the jester until he has given her his self, his manhood, and everything he has, and indeed until he has proven himself willing to sacrifice himself for and to her. Furthermore, she does not accept him until his offerings take the form of submission, rather than intrusion. He bids his soul “rise upward” to “stand on her window-sill” (3-4) in the first stanza, violating her privacy and agency. The action is with him: he sends his soul up to her, to get in by her window, presumably because her door is closed. Whatever his intentions, the image of an unwanted presence outside a window looking in is one of violation. That she feels the offering-up of his soul as an intrusion is plain in her reaction: she shuts the window, barring his soul access to her and her world. When he bids his heart go to her, he tries a new entry point: the door, which is closed, but which his heart still attempts to violate by singing through it.
The cap and bells, however, he does not bid do anything, as he had with the heart and soul, but rather he “left them where she went by” (24), giving her agency and power. In leaving them there, he submits to her, handing her the choice of whether or not to pick them up, rather than attempting to force his way to her, as with the first two offerings. It is only when he has nothing left to give that he achieves the necessary humility to properly offer himself to her.
In arguing the necessity of submission, the poem traces an arc from fragmentation to unity, in the arc of their relationship as well as in the jester’s wooing of the queen and in the description of the queen herself. In wooing her, the jester splits himself into parts: soul, heart, cap and bells. We do not see him, but fragments of him; he does not woo the queen, fragments of him do. Similarly the queen is introduced by her “quiet and light footfall,” her “pale night-gown,” and the “flutter of [her] flower-like hair” (8, 10, 18), none of which allow more than a glimpse of her. The jester does not (or cannot) conceive of her as her whole, but breaks her down, as he breaks himself down, into impressions.
These fragmentary images are resolved when the queen lays the cap and bells on her bosom “under a cloud of her hair” (26) and becomes one with them. The agitated motion of both the earlier description of her hair (“a flutter”) and the heart (“a red and quivering garment” (15)) comes to a stop in the final image of the last stanza wherein the queen’s hair, initially described as “a flutter of flower-like hair” has become “a folded flower” (35). The simile in the first description of her hair contributes to the agitation of “flutter”: like the hair itself, the description is unfixed and fragmented, only capable of telling what she is like rather than what she is. This has changed by the second to last line where her hair becomes “a folded flower,” an image of stillness and completion, emphasized by the directness and certainty of the metaphor. That the fixed image of the ending comes to us through the combination of a stilled flower and her feet filled with “the quiet of love”² (36) takes us back to the first line, where the jester walked in the “still” garden (2), giving the poem a further sense of unity and completion. Thus, in order for a union between a man and a woman to be achieved, complete submission (sexually and/or of the self) must occur, though apparently it need not be reciprocal.
1. Something which is emphasized by the reappearance of his heart and soul in the next stanza, by which he is made once again present in the poem, though he is absent in death, brought back to life and reunified by her song, his art, and by the art of the poem itself.
2. The line regarding her feet recalls the last lines of both “He gives his Beloved certain Rhymes” and “He wishes for the Cloths of Heaven”—all three images call up a humbling of the poet-speaker before the beloved, but only in “The Cap and the Bells” is there a sense of unity in the submission, rather than a one-sided humbling. In “The Cap and the Bells” his submission has been fully without regard for self and she has accepted him for it. He thinks of her feet as full of “quiet love” rather than as treading on his dreams or as being the object of “all men’s lives” because they have reached an equilibrium, while the speakers of the other two poems are still lost in the fragmentary pre-union stage.
The Cap and BellsThe jester walked in the garden:The garden had fallen still;He bade his soul rise upwardAnd stand on her window-sill.|It rose in a straight blue garment,When owls began to call:It had grown wise-tongued by thinkingOf a quiet and light footfall;|But the young queen would not listen;She rose in her pale night-gown; 10She drew in the heavy casementAnd pushed the latches down.|He bade his heart go to her,When the owls called out no more;In a red and quivering garmentIt sang to her through the door.|It had grown sweet-tongued by dreamingOf a flutter of flower-like hair;But she took up her fan from the tableAnd waved it off on the air. 20|‘I have cap and bells,’ he pondered,‘I will send them to her and die’;And when the morning whitenedHe left them where she went by.|She laid them upon her bosom,Under a cloud of her hair,And her red lips sang them a love-songTill stars grew out of the air.|She opened her door and her window,And the heart and the soul came through, 30To her right hand came the red one,To her left hand came the blue.|They set up a noise like crickets,A chattering wise and sweet,And her hair was a folded flowerAnd the quiet of love in her feet.