Last Poems 1939
Old Age and Resilience in Yeats’ “An Acre of Grass”
William Butler Yeats’ poem “An Acre of Grass” is from his collection called “Last Poems” published posthumously in 1939. In this poem, we find Yeats as a withering septuagenarian bedeviled by the inevitable decay of his body and the desolation that old age brings on its way. This preoccupation with old age is found in his other poems like “The Lamentation of the Old Pensioner”, “When You Are Old” and above all “Sailing to Byzantium” where he writes, “An aged man is but a paltry thing”. On one hand, “An Acre of Grass” graphically depicts the despondency that the poet feels at the loss of his zest and potency with the onset of old age; but on the other, it reflects the poet’s yearning for rejuvenation and reinvigorated passion; in fact, Yeats reportedly underwent an operation called the Steinach operation for “fresh lease of life” prior to writing this poem.
The opening line of the poem, “Picture and book remain” evokes a blissful image of repose and serenity with ‘picture and book’ as conventional companions of an old man. The poet owns ‘’an acre of green grass’’, that he has delimited for “air and exercise”. The word ‘acre’ becomes significant as it implies the inexorable restriction the poet faces due physical debility. ‘Green grass’ (suggestive of freshness and robustness), has been juxtaposed with the idea of Yeats’ waning health- a decline further emphasized in references to “midnight” and an “old house”. The stirring of the mouse in the old house creates the impression of a solitary ambience and thus, the loneliness that the poet grapples with.
The second stanza has a more sombre undertone as the poet paints a bleaker image of old age where his mind has become infirm and has lost the verve of youthful days. His uncoordinated or “loose imagination” now contains dregs and fragments of past memories that he refers to as “rag and bonc” – an image that he uses in another poem called “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”, a poem whose theme resonates with this poem. “Mill of the mind”, an allusion to Blake’s symbol of the mill which stands for the repetitive routine of the machine; shows how much Yeats detested a complacent and uncreative mind. It also shows the poet’s underlying fear of losing his creative imagination. And if so happens, the poet would lose his capability to translate truth into creative verse. Here “truth” perhaps means the real spirit of mind and body, the truth of being.
The last two stanzas reveal a dramatic change in mood where Yeats, who has so far acquiesced in ineptitude, fumes with enthusiasm and explicitly expresses his desire for an unrestrained “old man’s frenzy”. The poet asserts that he must “remake” himself and re-claim his creative cognizance by rising above the limitations that old age has imposed on him. He wants to be infused with hysteria as powerful as the impassioned rage of King Lear and Timon, two famous characters from Shakespeare’s plays. Though Timon and Lear’s rage against the world was ultimately fruitless, Yeats points out that this “rage” becomes useful at some point of time, as in the case of Blake who “Beat upon the wall/Till Truth obeyed his call”. This reference reveals Yeats’ desire to do away with the boundaries of social conventions and prejudices that he has internalized, along with his inner inhibitions. He believes that this madness will grant him visionary power which will help him perceive the truth he seeks .The poet is also greatly inspired by Michelangelo, who continued to create masterpieces even in old age, unvanquished by Time. The poet wants to set his imagination aflame and imbibe the artistic ecstasy that will endow him with the power to “pierce the clouds” and achieve any height it wishes to. He envisions that such mystical insight will instill in him the strength to cast life into the dead and thus “shake the dead in their shrouds”. In the last line, the poet evokes the image of an eagle as he aspires for an “eagle mind”- a mind that can soar high above “an acre of grass”, emblematic of restrictions of old age and transcend corporeal senility. Not only that, it can also devour the “mouse” mentioned in the first stanza, thereby prevailing over all depredations caused by Time. Thus, Yeats desires, not the wings of dove like a Wordsworth or Shelley, but the eyes of an eagle, like Nietzsche.
There is a remarkable change in the tenor of the poem from a sense of impassivity in the beginning to a feverish vigor in the end. The self-disapproving and despairing poet gradually metamorphoses into someone with a more positive outlook towards life; ardently hoping for rejuvenation and affirming his wish to become immortal though his creative works. The dramatic change in the second half of the poem is created by words like “pierce”, “beat”, “frenzy” etc. that induce a sense of profound perseverance or urgency. Thus, in the end we find a new, resilient Yeats with renewed fortitude to live his life, undefeated in spirit.