W.B.Yeats, Internal Silence and Jigsaw Puzzles



That civilisation may not sink, Its great battle lost, Quiet the dog, tether the pony To a distant post; Our master Caesar is in the tent Where the maps are spread, His eyes fixed upon nothing, A hand under his head.


Like a long-legged fly upon the stream His mind moves upon silence.


That the topless towers be burnt

And men recall that face,

Move most gently if move you must

In this lonely place.

She thinks, part woman, three parts a child,

That nobody looks; her feet

Practise a tinker shuffle

Picked up on a street.


Like a long-legged fly upon the stream Her mind moves upon silence.


That girls at puberty may find The first Adam in their thought, Shut the door of the Pope’s chapel, Keep those children out. There on that scaffolding reclines Michael Angelo. With no more sound than the mice make His hand moves to and fro.


Like a long-legged fly upon the stream

His mind moves upon silence.


W.B.Yeats was a major early 20th century Irish poet. Each verse in his poem Long-Legged Fly leans into the life of a great historical or mythological European figure: Julius Caesar, Helen of Troy and Michelangelo.


In this poem Yeats imagined these figures not so much for what they are each distinctively famous, but for something generally overlooked which they share. In just a few brief words, he is able to bring them each alive for us: Julius Caesar, as leader in Roman warfare, now strategising in his tent working out how to save civilisation. Helen of Troy had an incredible beauty which effect toppled cities, but here she is practicing a ‘tinker shuffle / picked up on the street.’ And finally the artist Michelangelo, is imaged at work as artist of the Sistine Chapel; his hands move ‘to and fro’ with no more sound than the mice make. Each verse is a brief description of these figures in action, and between each verse is the refrain: ‘Like a long-legged fly upon the stream his (or her for Helen) mind moves upon silence.’ They share a capacity to touch upon a great deep silence.


Human action which speaks into the world, into history and makes a difference, arises from and rests upon a place of deep meditation. This is an internal space where, like the delicate movement of a small airborne insect touching upon water, thoughts can move quiet, elegant, subtle, exquisitely poised upon a deeper flowing stream of life. 'The long-legged fly upon the stream' is a metaphor for our internal human movement of tapping into a much deeper consciousness of life.


In the past few weeks it’s been apparent how many of us have chosen activities to help our minds reach into and rest upon this quiet stream and move upon silence. By doing this we’ve come home to ourselves; able to touch upon something of deep human value that sustains all our actions. The urge do tasks around the house long overdue, tackle garden needs before winter can require such quiet, solitary concentration. Some of us have experienced a desire to cultivate the more natural and basic activities such as baking bread. There’s also been a resurgence in enjoyment in doing mind puzzles; and in the past week I’ve been helping a friend each day with her jigsaw puzzle.


The word ‘jigsaw,’ I’ve discovered, comes from a ‘jigging’ motion, that up and down movement of a cutting device which is like a saw. It has fine teeth and a small narrow blade that can cut curves in wood, metal or cardboard. It thus creates a puzzle out of an image that was once whole. Invented in the 18th century, cardboard jigsaw puzzles became a popular pastime during the Great Depression. During this time of COVID-19 demand for jigsaw puzzles has again surged. People who do jigsaw puzzles are called ‘dissectologists.’ Which is interesting because it seems to me that what is actually happening is not so much breaking down and dissecting, but putting together to make dissected pieces into a whole.


And over the past week as I have spent time picking up and examining pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, concentrating on their shape and colour. Tiny clues imaged upon one piece tease my mind as to where it may fit into the wider scheme of the picture. I’ve also experienced that deeply quiet, calming sense of concentrated attention, of meditation. My mind finding that place of rest where, like ‘the long-legged fly upon the stream’, I have been able to let my thoughts wander and be creative.


We build jigsaw puzzles on a large table cleared and set apart for this activity. The pieces are then spread out so we can better see them, grouped by similar colours or suggested images. Often people build the border first - easy to pull out those pieces with a smooth line on one side. This satisfies our desire to frame and contain. To boundary. Like Caesar we carefully strategise about where the many pieces might fit. We let our minds wander, sometimes our head in our hands.


The pictures we often put together are of famous paintings. During this period of the pandemic many art galleries have transformed images from their collections into free digital jigsaw puzzles for people to piece together online. We practice our own delicate tinker 'shuffle’ of mind as we find pieces that fit together. Inner contentment grows as the picture also grows, slowly step by step.


It is both a solitary pursuit and a shared one. I’ve found that to enter a home with a jigsaw spread out becomes something of a warm invitation to sit down and join in piecing together this puzzle’s enigma. The very pieces of this puzzle remind me too, that we may think we are alone and a-part, dissected from the whole, but really we so much connected into and depend upon one another. No two pieces of the jigsaw are ever exactly the same. But somehow they all fit together. No two people are ever the same. We too are created to be in right relationship with one another


In order for our lives to be creative, healthy and our own actions worthwhile we need this well time spent in careful silence breaking in to our lives. Otherwise what we do is only ever superficial, prey to thoughtlessness, carelessness, abuse even. Time spent in this way gives much more meaning to all our actions.


As we continue to move on to the next stage into restrictions being lifted, let’s try and not let go of this delicate, subtle, time taking, this prayer time where our minds are able to move 'like a long-legged fly’ upon the stream of silence. For the continuing practice of this movement will nourish us, sustain our own actions and enable us to give something of real value into our world today which we all so badly need.