Brown Penny by W. B. Yeats

I whispered, ‘I am too young,’
And then, ‘I am old enough’;
Wherefore I threw a penny
To find out if I might love.
‘Go and love, go and love, young man,
If the lady be young and fair.’
Ah, penny, brown penny, brown penny,
I am looped in the loops of her hair.

O love is the crooked thing,
There is nobody wise enough
To find out all that is in it,
For he would be thinking of love
Till the stars had run away
And the shadows eaten the moon.
Ah, penny, brown penny, brown penny,
One cannot begin it too soon.

In ‘Brown Penny’, Yeats explores the question of love; specifically in opening lines of the poem the speaker is pondering whether he is in love with a girl or not. Yeats illustrates the internal conflict of the speaker in the first two lines; ‘I whispered, “I am too young,” / And then, “I am old enough.” These two lines seem to confirm to us that this is a coming-of-age, the speaker questions whether he is ‘old enough’ to be in love, but not just if he can be in love, he also seems to wonder whether or not he has the maturity to appreciate love. He ‘threw a penny’, perhaps flipping the coin, to find the answer to his question of whether he ‘might love.’ The speaker does not have to wait long for an answer to his question of whether he ‘might love’, as the penny seems to speak to him, saying: ‘Go and love, go and love, young man / if the lady be young and fair.’ The speaker’s following proclamation, in stating that he is in ‘looped in the loops of her hair’ instantly after the penny gives him his answer somewhat suggests that he already knew he was in love, and asking whether he was or not is simply ‘head-over-heart’ logic. Alternatively his asking of the penny suggests that he may possibly be the victim of blind faith, he is so in love already that he’ll do anything to have it confirmed to him. He is ‘looped’ in his lover’s hair, suggesting an element of confusion, thus extending the metaphor; the speaker is in fact ‘blinded’ by love.

In the second and final stanza the speaker comes to accept that asking the penny for a prediction of his romantic exploits is ultimately futile, as ‘love is a crooked thing, / there is nobody wise enough / to find out all that is in it.’ He concludes that attempting to predict the future is a waste of time and if we obsess over it, we will waste the rest of our lives and will never find any answers; we ‘would be thinking of love / till the stars had run away / and the shadows eaten the moon’, thus implying the events of the end of the world. The speaker finally addresses the ‘brown penny’ again, claiming that ‘one cannot begin it too soon’, referring of course to the attempts at understanding the ‘crooked’ ways of love. If love would take more than a lifetime (and more time than it would take for the world to end), then age is arguably no object, you can love at any age. The act of finding a penny is widely considered as a good omen or good luck in folklore, and so in using a ‘brown penny’ as a motif in his poem, Yeats perhaps draws a parallel between the connotations of chance in finding a penny or throwing a penny into a fountain / well with the speaker’s risk of throwing himself into love.

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)