Brown Penny by WB Yeats is a short poem written in 1910 and deals in a lighthearted way with the serious business of a young man considering falling in love. The young man, perhaps Yeats himself, tosses a coin, the brown penny, to see if he is old enough to love. In an age wrought with superstitions such an action may not have sounded as amusing as it does today. Victorian Britain was a society which took seriously the behavior of ordinary objects, hence all the wedding traditions we are still familiar with, such as dressing in white, wearing a veil, having something borrowed, something blue, etc. The Victorians even had a theory about the type of marriage a couple would enjoy depending on the colour of the bride´s dress, the day of the wedding and even the state of the weather. So Yeats is, perhaps tongue in cheek, borrowing from this culture to determine his own fate.
The coin encourages him to “go and love” especially if the lady “be young and fair.” The last line of the first verse “looped in the loops of the hair” suggests the looping of the coin as it travels through the air as well as drawing on an image favoured by Yeats of being draped in the hair of his loved one, as in “He Bids His Beloved Be At Peace” (line 10: and your hair fall over my breast).
In contrast to the lightheartedness of the first verse, the second introduces a feeling of frustration at the immense power of love and its ability to deceive. “Love is the crooked thing” he says, in other words something that twists and turns, not in lovely loops like a girl´s long hair, but in an unpredictable way that can confuse. “Crooked” of course also implies dishonesty, even illegal activity, so love is very much on the wrong side of the tracks in this verse. Yeats has made it an enemy, testing his wisdom. “There is nobody wise enough to find all that is in it,” is a despairing line, commenting on the immensity of the task facing a young man encountering romance for the first time. Today, love is perhaps a more transient thing, experienced easily and quickly abandoned if it fails, but in Yeats´ time, when propriety mattered and behaviour was governed by religious beliefs, individuals had to think very carefully before entering a relationship, taking into careful consideration not only the possible uncomfortable results of difficult romance, but also what other people thought. Falling in love promised a minefield of adverse social consequences.
But it is not the social environment that concerns Yeats here, it is the enigmatic quality of love that baffles him. The world would end, he says, before anyone, no matter how wise, could understand it. Using the stars and the moon in this context is deliberately invoking the imagery of the romantic poets of an earlier century, but giving it a more morbid twist.
Still, far from putting off the young man, the size of the task before him only encourages him further. “One cannot begin it too soon” brings the poem back to its lighthearted beginning and leaves the reader with a wry smile. This is the fate of all mankind, that no matter how insurmountable the odds of finding true love are, we each of us attempt it, time and time again. Given the unfathomable nature of the exercise, tossing a brown penny has as much chance of bringing us success as anything else.