Poems of WB Yeats The Rose
Yeats’ Exploration of the Importance of History in ‘September 1913’
September of 1913 was the height of one of the most important trade union disputes in Irish history and the poem “September 1913” is based around this. Yeats was, at the time, a great supporter of the lower classes and attacks middle-class businessmen and Capitalism in general throughout. The use of the phrases ‘greasy till’ and ‘add the halfpence to the pence’ show how shopkeepers were taking in great sums of money and even so, the smallest amounts were counted. There are a number of instances in which Yeats uses the words ‘pray’, ‘prayer’ or ‘praying’, which is obviously a reference to the Church which was an important part of the revolution and protests in Ireland because some people believed they could change the country by simply praying to God and others were certain that the pressure on the government had to be physical. Yeats was a supporter of the latter and shows the hypocrisy of remaining loyal to the Church who encourage everyone to give more money.Yeats repeats the final two lines of each stanza (with a slight variation on the final stanza) which mention ‘O’Leary in the grave’. This is a reference to John O’Leary, a friend and influence on Yeats after he met him and encouraged him to join the Irish Republican Brotherhood to which O’Leary was a senior member. However, after his arrest and execution for high treason, Yeats believes that with his death comes the end or, at least, a hiatus to his desired reform of the country. This could either be the result of, or the reason for, the previous line which states that ‘Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone’, meaning any idealistic views of Ireland and its culture have been eradicated.Despite his belief that revolutions and change will have to pause until more leaders and heroes, like O’Leary, are found, Yeats writes about extremist revolutions in the second stanza. At first Yeats was pessimistic about the nature of these protests as he believed they would simply result in the government being harsher. However, he came around to the idea of more radical solutions when he saw very little was being achieved from passive protests and this leads him to praise the revolutionaries who have become an irremovable part of society as ‘the names stilled your childish play’. He is as aware as the men who plan and carry out the protests that they are likely to have the ‘hangman’s rope’ waiting for them if they are caught.The third paragraph describes how ‘the wild geese spread’ in reference to the many Irish soldiers who left the country to fight abroad as mercenaries. This is because they either dislike or distrust the Irish government and Yeats claims that this has led to much ‘blood…shed’. It is in this stanza that he uses the names of three historically significant people, the first being Edward Fitzgerald, an English poet who served his country in the army before planning a rebellion in Ireland for which he was arrested and shot. In the next line, he mentions Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone, the latter was the founding member of the United Irishmen’s Organisation which Emmet later joined and rebelled with. After his exile to Europe in 1800, he was able to form alliances with some French factions, who promised to support him with their militaries. However, his plan failed and both Emmet and Tone were captured and executed. Yeats uses these three people, along with O’Leary, to represent the Irish heroes who showed bravery in giving up their lives in an attempt to get what they wanted but achieving little overall.The final stanza explains how Yeats believes that Ireland wishes it could go back and recall ‘those exiles’ back from ‘their loneliness and pain’. The exiles are the heroes Yeats has mentioned previously who have been either exiled or arrested and killed but have sacrificed themselves for their beliefs and their country (‘weighed so lightly what they gave’). This represents how his personal views have changed, as well as those of the public, as he used to resent the protests and revolutions but now he strongly believes that the country needs them in order to achieve home rule. The line ‘some woman’s yellow hair has maddened every mother’s son’ could be a reference to the nationalist ideas which have influenced everyone in some way. The woman with yellow hair is likely to be his lifelong friend Maude Gonne, a nationalist. The final two lines have a slight variation from the previous three stanzas and they answer Yeats’ question as to whether they could bring back the revolutionaries. He decides that he should ‘let them be’ now that they are ‘dead and gone’, either because he sees their hopes of nationalism as gone with them or more likely because he suggests that this is a new start to revolution.
Assessment of Yeats through Three Poems
W.B. Yeats is considered one of the greatest Irish writers due to his eloquent, ‘otherworldly’ early poetry and many of his later dramas and works for which he received the Nobel Prize. Often associated with the Irish Literary Revival, Yeats’ early work can be looked at in a postcolonial sense. The poetry utilises Irish and Celtic folklore to “project a strongly Irish element,” (Lit 201 Study Guide 2010) as seen through an understanding of cultural ideology. Although the majority of the themes in Yeats’ poetry look pastoral and mythical, he is projecting a strong message of promoting the Irish spirit and feeling. Three poems in which the audience can observe this sense are Cuchulain’s Fight with the Sea, The Rose of the World, and Who Goes with Fergus, all written in 1893. The goal of Yeats’ Celtic mythic poetry was to reconstruct the imaginative processes of the life led by his ancestors in Ireland. As a quote from Yeats suggests, his countrymen had stopped following politics and instead were turning to the literary and cultural arts to revive the traditions and society of Ireland: “Everywhere I saw the change taking place, young men turning away from politics altogether, taking to Gaelic, taking to Literature, or remaining in politics that they might substitute for violent speech more violent action. From that national humiliation, from the resolution to destroy all that made the humiliation possible, from that sacrificial victim, I derive all that is living in the imagination of Ireland today (‘Modern Ireland’)” (Yeats, Lit 201 Study Guide 2010).The first poem to be examined is Cuchulain’s Fight with the Sea, and as the footnotes suggest, W.B. Yeats was very interested in this Celtic legendary warrior Cuchulain and wrote about him numerous times (Yeats, Lit 201 Poetry Anthology). The ancient hero Cuchulain was often considered divine because of his God-like abilities and strength. However, when these abilities allow his extreme force to take over his reason, it becomes his downfall when he kills his own son. The story begins with a swineherd being told by his mother that he is too strong to idle his life away and should go find his father. The young man goes into the camp and hears that his father is highly praised there; however, his father sees the man and not knowing him thinks he invaded the camp. Cuchulain fights his son and as he kills him, the swineherd reveals that he is actually Cuchulain’s son. Enraged for killing his own son, he asks the druids to chant and he fights with the sea instead of humans. This can be paralleled in a political sense to the people of Ireland telling the men to be strong and not passive about the British ruling over their land, but their fight ends in vain. The story becomes tragic and pedantic; the outcome is not what was expected. As this poem is an adaptation from a traditional Irish saga, Yeats uses poetry in this way to educate his people about their own history (class notes). Using the epic form is especially significant. Historically, epic poetry is associated with those of the classical tradition such as Homer; Yeats is commenting that Irish tales are just as important and timeless as those classics. He even incorporates some classical themes such as tragic heroism and the Oedipus complex in reverse. The poem also allows the author to challenge the notion that current faith in logic and reason ignored the imagination (class notes). Clearly Cuchulain’s Fight with the Sea allows Yeats creative genius to flourish as it pulls on major themes across politics and cultural identity. Yeats again incorporates differing themes in other early poetry such as The Rose of the World. One of the most obvious themes in this poem is the symbol of the rose as eternal beauty. Once again the reader is reminded of classics through allusions to past beauty. One example is the iconic Helen of Troy in the Iliad: “Troy passed away in one funeral gleam (21)”. Yeats also brings in the Irish mythic as well; the poem can be paralleled with the Irish legend of the beautiful Deidra of sorrows. This is evident by line 5, “And Usna’s children died (21),” referring to Deidra’s husband whom died for her. Yeats was always in love with a woman named Maud Gonne, whom he idolised (class notes). This piece represents the distance between them because she never loved Yeats back and he was forced to admire her from afar. It is fairly likely that he wrote this poem as a response to his unreturned love for her. Yeats also has a subliminal political message in poem that Maude represents the strife of Ireland, and that her beauty is likened to Helen of Troy’s; it becomes a catalyst to a war between nations. The symbol of the beautiful Rose is an excellent example of how Yeats makes a political message. He relies on Irish Mythology as a medium to express how his writing is very separate from the writing in England. English writers would only draw on classical Greek or Roman stories, but by Yeats referencing them as well as Irish folktales his writing becomes truly distinct. The Irish audience would recognise this and it would be well received. This poem is littered with mythological allusions to portray a political message, but not as much as another popular early poem by Yeats: Who Goes with Fergus. As soon as one begins to read Who Goes with Fergus, they could infer that the poem is a subtle call to nationalism. If the reader knew the context and history out of which Yeats was writing this becomes increasingly true. The poem is also more about passive nationalism rather than the vain fighting in Cuchulain’s Fight with the Sea, or the idealized nationalism of The Rose of the World. Yeats is commenting that the Irish population should retreat to its roots of mysticism and legend; it is in this way they can break free of the political turmoil and be allowed to live the Irish tradition. Fergus is synonymous with nature here and Yeats is posing this solution to the younger generation to turn to nature for hope. Fergus gave up his political ambitions in exchange for wisdom from the druids, and this is what Yeats urges his audience to do as well. Yeats clearly is preoccupied with the otherworldly aspects and this theme is followed throughout his poetry. Who Goes with Fergus is Yeats asking his countrymen to contemplate with him and to give up the unnecessary political battles. It is a move to pacifism, and in a simpler sense it states that wisdom is the non-confrontational choice. By placing this importance on Irish culture and folklore, Yeats could effectively fulfil his need for national pride. The very rich tradition of mythical tales and folklore in Ireland allowed Yeats to draw from many great sagas. He also referenced his own personal experiences and the underlying message of Irish nationalism. Yeats was a deeply patriotic individual, but it really is an exceptional case to look at the way he treated nationalism. Rather than a strong call to arms as many Irish nationalists wanted, he instead chose to reflect the rich culture and traditional past of Ireland. Yeats also placed a strong emphasis on the use of the imagination, and allowed his ideas to flourish; he created visions of loveliness and expressed otherworldly notions. Through his use of mythic tales and legends incorporated into his poetry, Yeats was able to capture the hearts of his homelands people, and showed them that in order to be and Irish nationalist one did not have to be violent. He looked toward creating the development of an independent national identity. Although his poetry is Irish at its essence, the themes can be universally admired and recognised, which is why Yeats continues to be one of the greatest writers of the contemporary era. Bibliography Molloy, Frank. LIT201 Poetry Anthology. Charles Sturt University, 2010 Molloy, Frank. LIT201 Study Guide. Charles Sturt University, 2010
Among School Children: A Condemnation of Old Age?
In his poem “Among School Children,” W.B. Yeats describes his feelings upon entering a classroom full of young children as a sixty year old man. The beauty of the children that he encounters in the classroom leads him to question the value of the lives of old individuals like himself. As life appears to grow progressively worse with age, Yeats questions the desirability of living a long life. His visit to the classroom sparks for Yeats a contemplation of love, nature, men and women, philosophy, and finally the relationship between life and an aging body and imagination.In stanza one, Yeats depicts himself as a kind, sixty year old man in a school classroom, making polite inquiries to a nun, the teacher, about the education that the students are receiving. The nun, proud of her school and its modernity, informs Yeats that “The children learn to cipher and to sing, / To study reading books and history, / To cut and sew, be neat in everything…” (3-5). In the classroom, Yeats realizes that because he is many times the age of anyone else present aside from the nun, that he is an object of wonder for the kids. A famous and “public” man, his appearance is a special occasion, as the school likely did not have many visitors. The children quickly lose interest in him however, as they see only an old man who has come to smile at them.In stanza two, Yeats begins to let his mind wander back to the days when he was young and in love. He dreams of his beloved, now as old as he is. He says “I dream of a Ledaean body, bent / Above a sinking fire, a tale that she / Told of a harsh reproof, or trivial event / that changed some childish day to tragedy-…” (9-12). Describing her body as bent, he combines this image with that of a dying fire, implying that she relayed this story to him in her old age. The story, though trivial in nature, was meaningful due to the feelings which it aroused within them. While contemplating this past event they are taken back to their childhood, connecting as they sympathize with her childish plight. They come together in this shared feeling until they are like twins, blended “Into the yolk and white of the one shell” (16). In stanza three, Yeats becomes grieved because he realizes that at one point, he and his beloved were young and beautiful like the children who now surround him. He wonders if his beloved looked like the young girls in the class when she was there age, and if she shared the mannerisms which they now possess. He says “For even daughters of the swan can share / Something of every paddler’s heritage-“(20-21). He is saying that all children share many characteristics, and that just as the beautiful and graceful swan shares several physical traits with other paddling birds, his beloved, when a child, possessed many of the same traits as these children. “She stands before me as a living child” (24), he writes, his heart is driven wild by the thought of his beloved at that age.Yeats is then brought back to the present as an image of her as she appears now floats into his mind. He compares her to quattrocento artistic works, saying that she is “Hollow of cheek as though [she] drank the wing / And took a mass of shadows for [her] meat” (27-28). He then realizes that he, although a hollow-cheeked mass of shadows now, was a beautiful youth at one time too. Though not Ledaean like her, he also had “pretty plumage” once. He then decides that he has dwelt long enough on past appearances, and that now, rather than let his frustration with old age become visible, he should simply return the innocent smiles of the children surrounding him. It is here that he first compares himself to a scarecrow, and he states that it is best for him to show that “There is a comfortable kind of old scarecrow” (32). He decides that he should be a smiling old man, hiding from view the frustration he feels inside.In stanza five, Yeats conjures an image of a Madonna figure, a young mother with a child upon her lap. He speculates as to the way that this mother would react were she able to perceive the future of her young, sleeping, shrieking, and struggling child. “Would [she] think her son, did she but see that shape / With sixty or more winters on its head, / A compensation for the pang of his birth, / Or the uncertainty of his setting forth” (37-40)? He wonders if the young mother would consider it worthwhile for her to experience childbirth and motherhood if she knew that sixty years later the beautiful baby would be an old, ugly scarecrow as he is now. Knowing the anticlimactic ending in store for her baby, perhaps the mother would conclude that raising him was not worth the bother. She may not find the scarecrow result sufficient compensation for the pang of childbirth or the uncertainty involved in sending a child into the world.In stanza six Yeats mentions three great philosophers, each of whom formulated classic theories before, inevitably, becoming old themselves. Yeats says that no matter what one accomplishes during one’s lifetime, the ending is always the same. “What a star sang and careless Muses heard: / Old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird” (47-48). If people are always destined to end their lives as ugly old scarecrows, Yeats wonders what reasons there are for living into old age. Although the theories of these philosophers have been remembered for many generations, Yeats believes that perhaps it would have been best if these men had died before reaching old age. Their lives through middle age were justified, but perhaps if they had died at age fifty, they could have been spared the misery of becoming just three more old scarecrows.In stanza seven Yeats compares mothers and nuns, saying that both create objects of worship to which they dedicate their whole hearts. However, rather than worshipping God in a church lit by candles, a mother worships her child. She places all her hope in the child and dreams of the beautiful, successful person that her child will one day become. As the child ages and eventually becomes an old scarecrow, this “altar” starts to crumble and the mother’s heart is broken. Yeats implies with his poem that the nun’s heart breaks as well, perhaps because she concludes that her connection with God is not quite as strong or as fulfilling as she had originally dreamt it would be: “And yet they too break hearts-O Presences / That passion, piety or affection knows, / And that all heavenly glory symbolize- / O self-born mockers of man’s enterprise” (53-56). As the mothers and nuns realize this inevitable loss, they feel foolish for instilling all of their hopes within these failed realizations.Yeats begins the final stanza contemplating what life would be like if work was effortless: “Labour is blossoming or dancing where / The body is not bruised to pleasure soul, / Nor beauty born out of its own despair, / Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil” (59-60). He says that labour should be painless and should not bruise the body, but it should bring pleasure to the soul. He also says, however, that beauty is born out of despair. This rings true in the world of art, as often the greatest artistic masterpieces are works of emotion conceived in fits of despair. Yeats says that this form of creation, as well as the pursuit of knowledge that leaves one “blear-eyed” from sleep deprivation, should not define the concept of labour. These lines refer to Yeats and other artists, and to philosophers like the three mentioned in stanza six. Yeats and these three philosophers find in their old age that they have put forth a great deal of hard labour pursuing their various enterprises. In the end, however, each is mocked by the image that they have created. The artist is mocked by his artistic creations, each an image of his continuing despair, and the philosophers are mocked by the ruination that their search for wisdom has unleashed upon their bodies. The second half of this final stanza uses the image of a chestnut tree to represent unity and the fact that life is a continuing and unified experience rather than one divided into youth and old age. “O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer, / Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole” (62-63)? The chestnut tree is none of these, but is a combination of all three parts, none of which exist without the other two. Also, a chestnut tree is not belittled in its old age. It lives as it has its entire life, continuing to fulfill its purpose of providing beautiful blossoms and bringing color to the world. Yeats says in the final two lines that people must live their lives in a manner as unified as the tree, recognizing that life is a like a dance. Although the dance of life is performed to the accompaniment of age, it is a continuous set of steps that spans from birth to the end of one’s life. Living within the constraints of time but not governing one’s life according to them, Yeats says that one must see each day as a new opportunity to continue one’s dance of life, choreographing new steps for themselves along the way. Imagination should be the driving force in old age, and as an old chestnut tree never loses its ability to blossom, old people never lose their ability to imagine, and thus to come up with new steps to the dance that is their lives.Yeats’ poem “Among School Children” is driven by his contemplation of old age and its meaning. Although he ponders the question deeply, he does not reach a conclusion. While in the first stanzas Yeats seems to have concluded that the lives of elderly are not worth living, he ends more optimistically. Rather than dwell on the loss of youthful beauty and exuberance, Yeats states one should perceive the end of one’s life as the last steps of a long dance that still may be infused with imagination and novelty. Yeats realizes that although this is not a solution to the decline in abilities attributed to old age, one’s state of mind will make the decline – which after all is the culmination of a long, productive life – more tolerable. Work CitedYeats, W. B. “Among School Children.” The Tower. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2004. 55-60.SourceVendler, Helen. “WB Yeats: Among School Children.” Harvard University. 20 Apr. 2007
Literary Traditions in Yeats’ work
When writers use quotations, allusions, or traditions, they are referring to a piece of work or an event that has occurred prior to the moment of their writing. They use the past to help shape the work that they are crafting in the present. T.S. Eliot, in his landmark essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, makes the point that “the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.” In reflecting on the present by using different traditions and quotations, the writer, perhaps inadvertently, also reflects upon and reshapes the past. Eliot insists that the poet must have a full knowledge of literature dating back to Homer, and that he must use this knowledge when producing a new piece of work. This usage of past works is evident in the writings of W.B. Yeats, who throughout his career made references to the past in order to make sense of the post-war world.In “Leda and the Swan”, Yeats tells the tale of the fall of Troy. This tale takes the form of a sonnet, but feels rather forced at times. In this way, the form reflects the subject, as sonnets are traditionally about love, not rape. The title too is misleading, in that it sounds like a fairy-tale, but actually describes an event in which Leda is raped by the god Zeus in the form of a swan. As a result, Leda bears Clytemnestra, who will become the wife of Agamemnon, and Helen, who is the instigator of the Trojan War. Zeus is described in his “feathered glory”, thus encapsulating the dual image of a bird and a god. Leda, with her “helpless breast”, is the victim of this crime. Interestingly, here it is possible to see the past being altered by the present: Zeus is portrayed as a rapist (an evildoer according to our modern values), but in the past his actions were those of a glorious, all-powerful god. Yeats refers to him as “the brute blood of the air” who has quite clearly taken advantage of a “staggering girl”, thus emphasizing further the extent of his crime.The swan is traditionally a bird of grace and beauty, and the color white often connotes innocence and purity, but these images are subverted in the poem. Furthermore, the fact that copulation occurs between two different species, human and bird, is a perversion of the natural order. For the Greeks, however, this union had a positive result, marking the beginning of one of the most superior civilizations of the ancient world. This exact moment when this great era begins appears to be during Zeus’ climax: “a shudder in the loins”. The shudder is obviously an orgasm, but also speaks to the historical events to come. The poem causes the reader, as well, to shudder in awareness of the impact of this moment. “I imagine the annunciation that founded Greece as made to Leda…and that from one of her eggs came Love and from the other War.” It is interesting to examine Leda’s experience with Zeus in comparison to Mary’s encounter with the Lord. Both incidents can be seen as “annunciations” marking the inception of two different societies. In the Roman Catholic tradition, at least, the annunciation is a feast day on which Catholics are obliged to go to church. The case of Leda, however, is less of an annunciation; it is violation of a woman that ultimately results in a war. In the Bible, it says that God asked Mary for her permission to bear His child, and she consented. Yeats viewed history as occurring in cycles of two thousand years; “Leda and the Swan” thus retells the birth of Greek civilization, while “The Second Coming” foretells the death of Christianity (which itself was the end of Greek civilisation). This is in direct opposition to the Victorian conception of a progressive society in which history is viewed as linear. George Orwell himself saw Yeats’ analysis as fascist: “…the theory that civilization moves in recurring cycles is one way out for people who hate the concept of human equality…It does not matter if the lower orders are getting above themselves, for, after all, we shall soon be returning to as age of tyranny.” “Turning and turning in the widening gyre” gives the image that whatever is turning will fall out soon, that is, the present civilisation will collapse on itself. Stan Smith remarks on this symbiotic relationship in his work on Yeats: “Things fall apart because the centre cannot hold; the centre cannot hold because things fall apart.” Yeats articulated his ideas of history using the traditional symbol of a wheel: “One must bear in mind that the Christian era, like the two thousand years, let us say, that went before it, is an entire wheel.” This idea of the wheel links into the notion of Fortune, which is often portrayed as a turning wheel. This is rather apt considering Yeats’ idea of rotations between barbarism and civilisation. Another indication of this cyclical view of time is in the line “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last.” The word “round” clearly indicates something that is circular, and therefore cyclical, but “come round at last” implies that the event was an inevitable part of the cycle of history.The poem was written in 1919, during which time Yeats had become fearful of a Russian socialist revolution in post-war Europe. He felt that this revolution would bring chaos to the civilised world: “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” He makes scatological claims: “Surely some revelation is at hand; / Surely the Second Coming is at hand.” The repetition of “is at hand” links “the Second Coming” and “revelation”, underscoring his reference to the Book of Revelations. Yeats is expounding upon the tradition of Revelations: the recording of a prophetic vision of the Armageddon. Whereas in the Bible the Second Coming is when Christ will return to earth to defeat Satan, in Yeats’ poem this view is subverted, and the emphasis is on the Antichrist, the “rough beast.” In the Bible, there is a sense of certainty that the victory belongs to God, but Yeats’ poem ends with a question. If the beast is in charge, civilisation will be replaced by barbarism, and the wheel will have made another rotation.Yeats’ work is infused with a definite sense of egotism; it appears he saw himself as a prophet, if not as a messiah figure. In “The Second Coming” he says how “…a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi / Troubles my sight.” He saw this Spiritus Mundi as the universal unconscious into which he was privileged to look. The use of the personal pronouns “my” and “I” (in “but now I know”) show how he viewed himself as a seer, elevated above the common man. This harks back to the Romantic idea of the poet as a prophetic figure, but instead of seeing nature Yeats is using the past to convey ideas about the present shape of the world.Yeats’ sense of self-importance can also be seen in one of his more patriotic poems, “September 1913”, in which he calls for a return to Ireland’s heroic past. This he refers to as “Romantic Ireland” – which is, of course, a utopian ideal, as there was much violence in “Romantic Ireland”. In this way he is using past traditions to reflect on the present, but these images of the past are reshaped and idealised in his mind. Yeats is critical of a society that is moving towards capitalism, trying to make money whenever possible. The line “But fumble in a greasy till” brings to mind the image of a slimy businessman with dirty hands who is more concerned with making an extra halfpence than fighting for Irish freedom. He says that if this continues it will be the death of Ireland’s greatness; all that will be left will be skeletons of what used to be. The nurturing source, “the marrow”, will have been sucked out by capitalism.Past heroic figures of Irish nationalism such as Fitzgerald and Tone have become characters in a “childish play”. This description almost mythologizes them; they have no place in the reality of modernist Ireland except in play-acting. They do, however, permeate the poem in the refrain “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone, / It’s with O’Leary in the grave.” This is repeated three times, and when combined with the adverb “yet” in the last stanza gives the impression that they are not completely gone. At the same time, however, they are not much more than an echo of the past. In the third stanza, Yeats despairs about the present mood in Ireland: “Was it for this… / that all that blood was shed” This is one of Yeats’ earlier poems, written at a time when he was still greatly influenced by Romanticism. Just as Romantics sought a return to nature, Yeats appears to have desired a return to the Romantic past.Unlike other Modernists, Yeats appears to have believed in the possibility of transcendence to a unified spiritual realm. This place, for Yeats, is the ancient civilisation of Byzantium. It is an escape from the chaos and crisis of the modern world not unlike Innisfree, although in the Byzantium poems he goes further, and escapes a time, not just a place. Byzantium is the time and place where the mind is in harmony with its world. These allusions to the ancient world show that Yeats’ mind is not in harmony with the modern world. He regards Byzantium as a great people and culture, but is only able to do this because it is unlike what he is experiencing at present. The people of Byzantium would have faced trials and tribulations just as the people of Ireland faced them in September 1913, or during Easter in 1916. Yeats’ penchant for this ancient society alters how it is viewed by his readers, thus rendering the past even more nostalgic.For Yeats, symbols are a way of reflecting on the present, but they can also be seen as a distraction from it. He has to invent systems of thought and fantasize about other worlds in order to cope with the modern world as he sees it. “For the Modernists…the point of using myth was to be compensate for the dissatisfying fragmentation of the modern world: to create a controlling narrative that could be mapped onto, and make sense of the rapid social changes of modernity.” Fragmentariness was the general sentiment of the Modern period, and this was reflected in the works produced. Byzantium was a place where Yeats felt these fragments could be unified and made sense of, but it often seems as though this too is just another fragment. The past can be modified to comfort or to give reassurance, in contrast to the future, which is still unknown. This is most evident at the end of “The Second Coming”, when the future is questioned. In the Modernist world, reassurance that crises could be resolved and that chaos would cease was needed, hence allusions to a somewhat fantastic past helped writers reflect on and deal with the present.BIBLIOGRAPHYPrimary TextsYeats W.B. “Leda and the Swan”, “The Second Coming”, “September 1913”, “Sailing to Byzantium”, in Abrams M.H. and Greenblatt Stephen, eds. The Norton Anthology of English Literature vol.2. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Co., 2000Secondary TextsChilds Peter. Modernism. London: Routledge, 2000Leitch Vincent B. (ed.) The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Co., 2001Orwell George. “W.B. Yeats”, in W.H. Pritchard (ed.) W.B. Yeats: A Critical Anthology. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972.Smith Stan. The Origins of Modernism: Eliot, Pound, Yeats and the Rhetorics of Renewal. New York and London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1994
An Essay on the Symbolism of W.B. Yeats’ Poetry
W. B. Yeats (1865-1939) was very influenced by the French symbolist movement and he is often regarded as the most important symbolist poet of the twentieth century. Yeats felt ‘metaphors are not profound enough to be moving,’ so his poems heavily incorporate symbols as a means of expressing abstract and mystical ideas. However, through the use of symbolism Yeats’s poems are much more dispersed and fragmented than the work of earlier poets, and therefore may at first appear to be more difficult to understand because there is no direct (one to one) correspondence. Instead symbols become reverberating images that provide a contemplation and rearrangement of material things, where one must complete the meaning by filling in the gaps with different interpretations. ‘The symbolists aimed for a poetry of suggestion rather than direct statement, evoking subjective moods through the use of private symbols, while avoiding the description of external reality or the expression of opinion.’Focusing on the two poems ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ from The Tower (1928) and ‘Byzantium’ from The Winding Stair (1933) we can examine the symbols that Yeats uses to express himself and his ideas. Firstly, the images that appear in the titles of these collections are two very important recurring symbols.The Tower, which is often regarded as Yeats’ masterpiece, became a crucial symbol within his work; as he himself states ‘I declare this tower is my symbol’ (Selected Criticism, 14). In one sense it is a private symbol as it relates directly to him – towards the end of his life he finally withdrew from family, wife and the outside world, retreating into a tower where he spent the remainder of his life existing in a hermit-like fashion. Thus, due to this biographical element, he turns this building and the collection of poems into something that represents an allusive assessment of his life so far. The tower literally becomes an embodiment of his house of fiction, the place in which he works and finds inspiration. It is also a place of peace not only for him but also for others. The symbol of the tower becomes more universal in part five ‘The Road at my Door’, of the poem ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’ where two men on opposing sides arrive at the narrator’s door on different occasions. The men, one a member of the IRA, an ‘Irregular,’ and the other ‘A Brown Lieutenant’ (6) – an officer in the National Army, are symbols of the long and bitter struggle of Irish politics that stretches behind them. However, standing here beside the tower they are just mere men – they become human again and emerge from the uniform into humanity. The tower therefore becomes a still point at the centre of destruction, where dialogue about the ordinary and real (such as ‘cracking jokes’ (3) and talking ‘of the foul weather’ (9) has the possibility to be heard.The image of the winding stair is also very important and appears repeatedly throughout his work. Yeats emphasised its importance when he stated ‘I declare / This winding, gyring, spiring treadmill of a stair is my ancestral stair’ (Selected Criticism, 14). This relates to his Irish ancestry, time and his cyclical theory of history. Yeats had his own philosophical theories which he expanded in ‘The Vision’. He saw history diagrammatically and believed that the world is done and undone in two thousand years where each era is overthrown by some catastrophic change. Thus:He symbolised this in the gyres, alternating series of historical change, a gyre being a conical spiral movement, which begins at a point in history (an annunciation, the birth of Christ etc.) and expands to its fullest circle, whereupon in the middle of this circle occurs a point, the next annunciation, and with it the birth of a new age which will be the reverse of all that has gone before.The winding stair reminds Yeats of a gyre and he believes that his era will come to some catastrophic end due to all the war he has seen.The stairs could also be seen to wind up from the earth to the sky, and symbolise the eternal vacillation of human thought towards permanence and intellectual beauty. This is often a key concern within most of Yeats’s work, his search for immortality and the need to transcend. The tension within most of his poems is the desire to float out of the material world to an infinite and purer space away from the material world. This can be particularly seen within the ‘Byzantium’ poems. Here, in the title of the collection, the winding stairs symbolises a journey away from earth and towards the spiritual, thus highlighting the issue of body and soul (especially in relation to symbolism). This was a topic of great interest for Yeats, as can be seen in his essay ‘The Symbolism of Poetry’ where he describes that ‘the soul moves among symbols and unfolds in symbols’ (Selected Criticism, 51). Therefore, symbolism for Yeats holds a special mysticism and spirituality.In ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ Yeats again presents the reader with a symbolic (although imaginary) journey, where the speaker sails away from a place of decay – the natural world of ‘Fish, flesh of fowl’ (5) to one with the promise of immortality where neither time nor nature can intrude. Byzantium becomes a symbol for this world. However, as no one symbol has one fixed meaning, but instead, can have a variety of associations, ‘Byzantium, then, has a multiple symbolic value.’The city Byzantium (modern Istanbul) ‘was a highly sophisticated city, celebrated for beauty in the visual arts and the drama and mystery of its elaborate religious ritual’ until its capture by the Turks in 1453. Therefore it stands for all aspects of life, especially a place of culture where one can be immortalised. It could also represent a meeting point, where different cultures and different people can stand in the same place without their differences interfering; this is similar to the tower’s significance in ‘The Road at my Door’. ‘The mummy cloth’ (11) in ‘Byzantium’ perhaps represents ‘the Egyptian element in Byzantine art’ (Henn, 229). It could also suggest that Byzantium is a symbol of memory as it links it to Egypt’s ancient and glorious civilisation and tradition, where the people were extremely concerned with the afterlife and being remembered here on earth after they died.It has also been suggested that ‘Byzantium might well symbolise a new Ireland breaking away from its masters so that it might develop, or rather return to, its own philosophical, religious and artistic destiny’ (Henn, 222). This is evident from the fact that he is talking about a civilisation long gone – but one that should be renewed.Birds are also important symbols in both poems. In ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ the ‘birds in the trees’ (2) symbolise the natural whilst the mechanical bird ‘of hammered gold’ (28) symbolises artifice. Usually artifice is criticised and the natural is praised, but Yeats turns this upside down as the persona views the golden mechanical bird as perfect, and therefore it becomes a monument of ‘unageing intellect’ (8), which is what Yeats wanted to establish himself as. (This mechanical bird could be a literary reference to Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’). This element of the poem becomes problematic as it praises art at the expense of life.Song is also important and symbolises the importance of music to the symbolists. ‘They wanted to bring poetry closer to music, believing that sound had mysterious affinities with other senses’ (Baldick, 253). In ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ the birds, the young and the ‘dying generations’ (3) are all ‘at their song’ (3) and therefore united. Yeats believed that ‘Pattern and rhythm are the road to poem symbolism,’ (Selected Criticism, 34) as he stated in ‘A Symbolic Artist’, so by making poetry more musical it was able to speak to more people. However, the song that is being sung does not necessarily have to be actual music, but in the case of the young, on a symbolic level it could be the passion expressed in their love, as in the ‘sensual music’ (7) that is connected with youth, creativity and productivity. The persona, however, is anxious about those caught up in sensuous music, because they belong to the natural world where immortality is neglected. Additionally, the bird’s song when he is ‘set upon a golden bough to sing’ (30) could have a alternative meaning: as the song occurs towards the end of the poem, it could be representative of the swan’s last dying song (which links to another one of Yeats’s most significant symbols, the swan).Animals feature a great deal throughout the two poems, but each represents something different. The ‘mackerel-crowed seas’ (4) could be seen to symbolise vitality and youth, thus suggesting the vigour and plenty of nature. Also, the Salmon in particular was a ‘symbol of strength in Celtic literature’ (Henn, 224). This is juxtaposed with the ‘dying animal’ (22) that stands for the human body and the way in which it decays – again highlighting Yeats’s concern, frustration (and maybe even bitterness) with growing old.When Yeats talks about the ‘Monuments of unageing intellect’ (8) he is not just talking about buildings which are often associated with the cold and the formal but also ‘the rational quality of intellect’ (W.B. Yeats Selected Poems, 77) perhaps suggesting that the monuments might be verse, pictures or any other artistic creation. The buildings may be weatherworn and can change over time but here he suggests that those created out of intellect are beyond time, thus suggesting that these monuments are more magnificent than the works of nature. The ‘Marbles of the dancing floor’ (36) in ‘Byzantium’ could also be viewed similarly, although they could stand for coldness; they also stand for durability and art.The ‘gold mosaic’ (18) of ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ is a symbol of eternity, where a moment in history is frozen and preserved through art and ‘into the artifice of eternity’ (24), (this again reminds us of Keats as its meaning is similar to that of ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’). This symbol aims to remind the reader of the transience of nature and the durability of art. These monuments and works of art that Yeats discusses serve to provide an imagined defence against time. Henn also suggests that the mosaics ‘depict the spiritual experience, stabilized by the knowledge and technique of the artist;’ (Henn, 229) Yeats considers his search for immortality as a spiritual journey.The fire in the poems also relates to the spiritual nature of them. ‘God’s holy fire’ (17) in ‘Sailing to Byzantium and the ‘Flames that no faggot feeds’ (26) of ‘Byzantium’ could represent the flame of eternal life, the fire of Pentecost, inspiration and new life. The imagery of fire suggests that the ‘blood-begotten spirits’ (28) in ‘Byzantium’ must be purged of their sin and must be burnt away by the divine flame in order to be fit for eternal life. This ritual is referred to in many religious traditions – but again this ritual is not a literal but a symbolic one. Through death new life grows ‘death-in-life and life-in-death’ (16). However, it could also be read differently as the ‘flames’ (26) could be spirits who have already been purged.Through Yeats’s use of symbolism he also invokes mythology. For example, ‘Hades’ bobbin’ (11) in ‘Byzantium’ suggests the image of the labyrinth and the Minotaur or the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. The bobbin could be a spirit who leads the dead down ‘the winding path’ (12) towards the underworld (this reminds us of the winding stairs and could be symbolic of the unwinding of lived years). ‘On a symbolic level, it could mean that our earthly lives should be thought of as wound up as a thread is on a spool and that the purging of the self after death is an unwinding’ (W.B. Yeats Selected Poems, 87). Once again this image could allude to the gyre with its spiralling movement.Some critics have said that Yeats uses obscure private codes of meaning which are too private and therefore cannot be fully interpreted, but this is unlikely as his symbols are open to a myriad of interpretations. Subsequently the reader is able to gain a deeper understanding of what is being expressed because of his poetry’s multi-layers. Symbolism in Yeats’s poetry provides new meaning with every reading, it is soul-searching, profound, thought-provoking and emotional; as he himself states, ‘poetry moves us because of its symbolism’ (Selected Criticism, 51). So much more is expressed in what is not said than what is.BibliographyPRIMARY SOURCESYeats, W. B., Selected poems: lyrical and narrative (London: Macmillan & Co., 1938).SECONDARY SOURCESBaldick, Chris, Oxford Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2nd edn., 2001).Henn, T. R., The Lonely Tower: Studies in the Poetry of W. B. Yeats (London: Methuen & Co Ltd. 2nd edn., 1966).Jeffares, A. Norman, W.B. Yeats in the ‘Profiles in Literature’ series (Routledge, 1971).Yeats, W. B., W. B. Yeats Selected Criticism, ed. A. Norman Jeffares (London: Macmillan & Co Ltd, 1964).Yeats, W. B., W.B. Yeats Selected Poems, ed. Victor Lee & Richard Gill (Oxford: Oxford University press, 4th edn., 2001).
The Magic of Device
The iniquitous nature of unrequited love plays man the subservient jester to his indifferent queen. In his poem “The Cap and Bells” W. B. Yeats seeks to convey the message that unrequited love causes a man to give and give of himself until he has nothing left; he makes himself a fool. He accomplishes this objective via the clever means of poetic device. He employs three primary vehicles in his quest: rhyme, personification, and symbolism. By using these devices, Yeats creates an art that causes his reader to think about what he has put forth and thereby better understand his tragic view of love.Without deep analysis, one can note the rhyming nature of this poem. The rhyme scheme (pattern of rhyming words at the end of each line) abcb occurs throughout its nine stanzas. This enhances the overall tone of the poem by keeping it from becoming romanticized and grounding it in reality and anguish. The pattern of rhyme is interrupted by dissimilar sounding words, which produce a jarring effect on the reader. This discordant quality keeps the reader from becoming mislaid in a songlike fairytale by elucidating the dichotomy of the fantastic story being offered literally and the reality of its metaphoric nature. An example of this can be found in the fourth stanza: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. (Yeats 13-16)This line appears to be an amorous gesture that could cause the reader to be ensnared in its romance, which would only be intensified by melodious and constant rhyme. However, the non- rhyming words, her and garment, prevent this. Instead of a singsong impression, we are surprised when we arrive at the third line and find it does not really fit. This is furthered by the resumption of rhyming in line four. This breaks the flow of reading and forces us to consider what we have read, leading us to the conclusion this is not a fairytale.Yeats also consistently uses masculine rhyme. This means that the accented vowel is found in the final syllable of the rhymed words. In the previous example one finds the words more and door to each be of only one syllable and of masculine rhyme by default. In fact, Yeats employs only two cases of multi-syllabic rhymed words; they are found in lines 4 and 8, the words window-sill and footfall. If one should assume that no accidents occur in poetry, word placement is vital. Each emerges as the last word of its respective stanza in stanzas one and two. These two stanzas are the exposition of the poem and are found before the queen rejects the jester. Therefore, they are different from the rest of the poem; perhaps Yeats’s choosing them as the only multi-syllabic rhyming words serves to distinguish this section from the rest of the poem.Finally, in each of these stanzas Yeats writes in a consistent pattern of end- stopped and enjambed lines. End-stopped lines are those ending in punctuation, and enjambed are those ending without punctuation. The pattern found is: end-stopped, end-stopped, enjambed, end-stopped. For example:The jester walked in the garden:The garden had fallen still;He bade his soul rise upwardAnd stand on her window-sill. (1-4)The only place in the poem that he alternates this pattern is in stanzas 7 and 8. In these instances all four lines are end-stopped. Using this technique he alerts the reader to a shift in the poem and, therefore, the need for special attention; this is certainly the case here. The climax of the poem occurs in these two stanzas, lines 25-33. Much like his alterations during the exposition, and his alteration of rhyming and non-rhyming words in general, he jars the reader slightly here with change, causing further scrutiny.Yeats also uses personification in this lyric poem. To use personification is to attribute human characteristics to inanimate objects. In the very first stanza Yeats personifies his soul: “He bade his should rise upward/ And stand on her window-sill” (3-4). He continues this until his soul is rejected. Next he turns to his heart, which, among other things, “sang to her through the door” (16). By creating the heart and soul as human- like, he attributes to them human ability. More specifically, he allows them the capacity for joy and anguish. Furthermore, he paints them distinct personalities; of the soul: “It had grown wise- tongued by thinking” (7). The heart, conversely, is more romantic: ” It has grown sweet-tongued by dreaming” (18). This use of personification helps Yeats take his poem to the next level. It causes the reader to realize there is more at play than simply a literal heart and a literal soul, because neither can literally speak. Additionally, Yeats is able to express how real this rejection is to the jester, because the queen is dismissing his living soul and his living heart.Once Yeats has set a framework, created a tone, and emphasized what he wants us to see as important, the reader is forced to delve farther. Here he meets Yeats’s greatest weapon, symbolism. By placing certain characters and objects into action Yeats makes them symbols and forces his poem to two levels, literal and figurative. In the literal version of the story there is a jester walking in a garden outside a queen’s window. He tells his soul to go to her window- sill; there the queen will not hear him and shuts the window. Next the jester sends his heart to her door, but she dismisses him with a fan. Finally, the jester leaves his cap and bells for her to find. She is delighted and opens her door and window and allows in the heart and soul. This can be blatantly understood. However, it does not convey Yeats’s message about unrequited love, and its power to take all a man has. That is because these are merely symbols, objects with a deeper meaning. It is easiest to start with the most obvious: the two main characters, the queen and the jester. These are simple enough in that one can surmise their meaning by simply knowing, in every day life, what they are. Clearly, a queen is a ruler. She is the head of her kingdom, and everyone else is her subject, obliged to serve her. A jester is often a “fool”; he is hired for the entertainment of the royal court and not to be taken seriously. Therefore, without even knowing anything else, we can surmise that this woman rules this man’s life, does not take him seriously, and, to her, he is mere entertainment. This relationship can also be gathered from his position below her in the garden: “The jester walked in the garden/ He bade his soul rise upward” (1, 3). She is “above” him. The garden can also be viewed as symbolic, perhaps with some license. Gardens, especially elaborate masterpieces surrounding castles, are simply for enjoyment. The fact that the jester is in the queen’s garden solidifies him as her object of amusement.Next is the symbolism of the window and the door. The jester sends his soul to “stand on her window-sill.” (4). Later, when this fails he sends his heart to sing “to her through the door” (16). The window is symbolic of her soul: “The eyes are the windows of the soul.” The door is symbolic of her heart: ” key to my heart.” This begins to make Yeats’s message more lucid: we can now see the foolish man trying diligently to get into the heart and soul of the woman that rules his existence, only to be carelessly dismissed. Yeats even leaves clues in the description of the soul and the heart. He places the soul in a “straight blue garment” (5). This can be interpreted in two ways; conceivably both are applicable. First, blue can be seen as being true, “true blue,” or cool, as in calm and collected. The former is supported by the accompaniment of the word straight, telling us he is sending his soul in a straightforward, honest manner. The latter serves to contrast the heart, which is described as “red and quivering.”(15). Also contrasted through personification, are the “personalities.” The soul is “wise tongued” (7), and the heart is “sweet-tongued” (17). This transformation occurs as the result of time and rejection. In the beginning of the poem the “owls began to call” (6), and by the time the heart makes its attempt, “the owls called out no more” (14). This is symbolic in two ways. First, it implies the passage of time. Owls are creatures of the night; they are present at the beginning, which implies nighttime. However, later they are absent, indicating progression toward day. This can be interpreted partly as the passage of the days of his life and partly as the reality of his situation “dawning” upon him. Either way, it reduces his garment from straight to quivering, until he has nothing left to offer her but all that he is.The man is identified only as the jester. His identity is encapsulated in his cap and bells. When his queen will not let him in via soul or heart, he has nothing left to offer her but his identity. Furthermore, she must take it in her own fashion:”I have a cap and bells,” he pondered,”I will send them to her and die;”And when the morning whitenedHe left them where she went by. (21-24)Here Yeats’s symbolic prowess begins reach its peak. The light has finally dawned on the poor fool; he sees what he is to his queen, who must continue to rule. Even it kills him, he must continue to play the fool, because he can never have her and he can never stop trying. Essentially it is the story of “a young queen who will only accept the jester’s love…after first receiving quite separately its instruments, the cap and bells…”(Kierd 342).Yeats cunningly utilizes poetic device as a vehicle to deliver his message. By using rhyme and personification, he leaves indication of what he wants his reader to discern as important, meaning he highlights for us what he wants noticed. From here, he weaves and intricate tapestry of symbolism, forcing the reader to delve farther and ponder his intentions. Finally, he achieves his goal, and is able to convey his tragic view of unrequited love: it is unfair, and causes man to lose his own identity in its pursuit; he becomes a fool. “He wants the woman, but she wants the desire of the man, an irreconcilable conflict.”(Kiberd 342). Yeats delivers his reader to this message in the most shrewd manner possible; he makes the reader think of it for himself.Works CitedKiberd, Delcan. “Revolt into Style Yeatsian Poetics.” Yeats’s Poetry, Drama, and Prose. Ed. James Pethica. New York: Norton, 2000. 340-346.Yeats, W.B. “The Cap and the Bells.” Yeats’s Poetry, Drama, and Prose. Ed. James Pethica. New York: Norton, 2000. 27-28.
Uniting Body and Soul In Yeats’ “Among School Children”
In William Butler Yeats’ “Among School Children,” the speaker addresses his anxieties about aging. Manipulating traditional rhyme schemes, Yeats articulates the impermanence of youth to examine the need to unify the body and the soul. Although the poem is an Ottava Rima, Yeats incorporates enjambments to illustrate the continual state of meditative wonder throughout the work. Yeats also varies the complexity of each foot as it coincides with subject’s perceptions of youth.The first two lines of the poem foreshadow the speaker’s discomfort with his diminished youth. As he walks “through the long schoolroom questioning” to which a “kind old nun in a white hood replies” (lines 1-2), the less fluid use of spondaic and pyrrhic feet by the aged couple juxtaposes the youthful nursery-rhyme structure that describes the children. In strictly iambic pentameter and end-stopped lines, the nun recites the traditional education of the children “to cipher and sing,/ To study reading-books and history,/ To cut and sew, be neat in everything” (lines 3-5). Line 6, however, interrupts the sing-song structure with an enjambment as the gaze shifts from the children to the speaker: “the children’s eyes/ In momentary wonder stare upon/ A sixty-year-old smiling public man” (lines 6-8). The caesuras that occur in lines 6 and 7 further emphasize the shift in perception and examination of youth. Becoming the object of a youthful gaze further heightens the speaker’s awareness of the impermanence of youth.The speaker adopts the children’s youthful state of “wonder” as he reflects on his idealized image of Maude Gonne (lines 7 and 9). His return to a more simplistic use of iambic pentameter with only slight variations of spondaic and pyrrhic feet echoes the childhood qualities of lines 3-5 in his romanticized depiction of Maude Gonne. In his description of her, he alludes to characters Leda and Helen of Troy in Greek Mythology to fully capture the gloriousness of her essence. The speaker seeks to unite his aged-reflection and his “youthful sympathy” of love “into the yolk and white of the one shell’ (lines 14-16).In the third stanza, the speaker returns his gaze to the school children to compare them to a youthful Maude Gonne. Remaining in a state of wonder, the speaker attempts to imagine a time before Maude Gonne had become so captivating “For even daughters of the swan can share/ Something of every paddler’s heritage” (lines 20-21). It is evident by the similar sing-song pattern that a youthful transformation occurs not only in his image of Maude Gonne but also in himself as he explains: “And thereupon my heart is driven wild:/ She stands before me as a living child” (lines 23-24).As the youthful image of Maude Gonne fades and “her present image floats into the mind” (line 25), the speaker returns to his prior perceptions of an aged man. The speaker describes the appearance of aging by the “hollow of cheek” and the “mess of shadows” that are now Maude Gonne and his earlier days of “pretty plumage” (lines 27-30). Although the persona advises it is “Better to smile on all that smile, and show/ There is a comfortable kind of old scarecrow” (lines 31-32), the accelerated use of spondaic and pyrrhic feet reveals his anxiousness and discomfort with his aging image.Discontent with the impermanence of beauty as a result of aging, the speaker turns to the nature of motherhood and creation. He speculates the value of beauty for the mother during memories of pre-birth and asks is the sight of an aged son “A compensation for the pang of his birth, or the uncertainty of his setting forth?” (lines 39-40).The persona continues this line of questioning in the sixth stanza when he addresses the philosophical teachings of Plato, Aristotle, and Pythagoras. Using a childlike diction in words such as “spume,” “play,” “taws,” “fiddle-stick,” the speaker reduces three centuries of scholars and their theories of the physical world to “old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird” (lines 41-48).Consistent with his speculation in the fifth and sixth stanza, the speaker focuses on the images worshipped by nuns and mothers. He criticizes these images as false replicas that “animate a mother’s reveries” (line 51). Unwilling to depict the natural aging body “but keep a marble or a bronze repose” (line 52), the speaker concludes that these figures are “self-born mockers of man’s enterprise” (line 56).The tone of the poem makes a drastic change in the final stanza. The focus deters from the anxieties of the impermanence of beauty and youth to the interlocutory, inseparable components that create the essence of being. The last lines of the poem represent the speaker’s revelation: “O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,/ How can we know the dancer from the dance?” (lines 63-64). Referencing his earlier allusion to Plato’s parable, the speaker seeks to blend the beauty, wisdom, and spirituality of the self “into the yolk and white of the one shell” (lines 56-60 and 16).Upon examining the poem, the first seven stanzas suggest the speaker’s discontent with aging and fading beauty. Yeats allows his audience to peer into the consciousness of the speaker as he shifts between perceptions and levels of certainty. While these stanzas seem to desperately cling to an idealized youth, his final revelation seeks not only to find resolution in his aging but also to unify the body (physical) and the soul (emotional/mental).
Sailing to Byzantium: Adrift on Perfection
In his poem “Sailing to Byzantium,” Yeats rejects his perceptions of the sensual mortal world and fondly imagines a paradise of intellectual intransience in Byzantium. The impermanence of human life is recounted, for Yeats who himself is a part of the “dying generation” (Yeats ln 3) creates a bittersweet tone underlying the depictions of vitality and youth in the poem. Derisive words indicative of death are strategically placed to cause the literal “music” (Yeats ln 7) of life to be interrupted, and yet the music is described as “sensual” (Yeats ln 7). It is exactly this quality that lures Yeats back to the world of human condition that he himself cannot escape. In purposefully creating this poem into “the artifice of eternity” (Yeats ln 24) that will stand as a monument of his own “unageing intellect” (Yeats ln 8), Yeats attempts to create his own golden future. This is impossible however, for his intellect succumbs to the very appeals of his senses that alienate him from the “young in one another’s arm” (Yeats ln1-2) and the “song” (Yeats ln 3) of the “birds in the trees” (Yeats ln 2). The narrator is not able to deliberately release the unexplained complexities within himself that have kept him “sick with desire” (Yeats ln 21), but instead focuses his attentions on the failure of his own physical body, for he repeatedly fixates on the image of his intellect “fastened to a dying animal” (Yeats ln 22). In this “paltry” (Yeats ln 9) condition, he is now able to project his illusions of perfect yet impossible visions upon this text to illuminate himself in the grandiose context of transformed “magnificence” (Yeats ln 14) — His transcendence into all that makes Byzantium the sacred center of intellectualism.In the first stanza, Yeats depicts a world in which a distance exists between himself and the present reality of his mortal existence. In his “mortal dress” (Yeats ln 12), Yeats exists as a ragged old man who has nothing to offer the corporeal world with his physical body. In an effort to escape to a place of intellectualism that will not restrain him as his earthly “country [not] for old men” (Yeats ln 1) does, the poem physically progresses as Yeats’ journey to Eternity occurs. He is the sole creator of Byzantium, for his experience in this city merely exists in his own imaginings. The reader’s perception of truth is simply a reflection of Yeats’ fabricated truth, and is therefore rendered unreliable. Yeats yearns for the timeless and undying form, and the words he uses to diametrically oppose his two lives the one he has of ephemeral importance and the one he wants of everlasting art and intellect— exist in the very language he uses. The cycle of human life is recorded in words comprised of either one or two syllables. This creates short, choppy phrases that produce a harmony that is staccato in nature. Yeats recounts the song of “dying generations” (Yeats ln 3) and immediately goes on to describe the “Fish, flesh, or fowl [that] commend all summer long” (Yeats ln 5) whereas in describing Eternity he honors his conceptions using polysyllabic vocabulary as can be observed in the line “monuments of unageing intellect” (Yeats ln 8). The sensual tones flow effortlessly across the tongue, whereas in describing the reality of his present state, Yeats joins words in union that create a rough, irregular tone. The disjointed, staccato meter produces an urgency that can only be explained in the “sick… desire” (Yeats ln 21) for Yeats to escape his mortal life. The music is what connects the two very different worlds of intellect and sensory, and through the structure of the poem can the reader sense Yeats’ longing for Eternity. It is this ache that determines his word choice, for it is the sound that is produced from the sustained notes of polysyllabic words of passion and “desire” that resonate throughout the poem— not the author’s depiction of Byzantium itself. Yeats separates himself from the physical world, and yet his soul cannot penetrate the life of Byzantium for which it lusts, for “out of nature” (Yeats ln 25) Yeats must fall and death must occur in order for Eternity to become his reality.Yeats rejects his natural shape, and yet in attaining the form achieved in living in Eternity, his “monument of unageing intellect” becomes undying and his “golden bough to sing” remains fixed and unchanging. Yeats is unable to be transformed by the city, for it is Byzantium’s very charm that prevents him from existing with the human conditions that are responsible for creating the intellect that Yeats now strives to preserve. Only Yeats, in a moment of artistic vision, can speak to his ‘reality’ of Byzantium, for the lack of metaphorical and literal progression would cause the reader, a member of the sensual world, to reject the lifeless “gold mosaic” of unfeeling, dead words. Yeats endeavors to be a “hammered gold and gold enamel[ed]” (Yeats ln 28) bird pleasantly amusing an Emperor, and yet the realities of existing in Eternity are that a drowsy Emperor will forever remain drowsy and not ever be excitable, as will the song Yeats sings be forever unchanging and static. Yeats shuns his mortal world because of the rejection he faces as an ageing man, and yet in Byzantium, Yeats only imagines his paradise to be a place in which he will be able to successfully appeal to the senses of others. The poem culminates in a situation in which Yeats receives attention from the ladies of Byzantium, and yet it is by alluring the senses of these ladies and the lords and the Emperor of Byzantium that Yeats imagines himself to be of a form that is not a “monument of unageing intellect” (Yeats ln 8), but simply a golden, evocative form now physically capable of engaging the sensory appeals of others.Yeats finds himself in fully functioning form, singing in full “golden” tunes not unlike the mortal “young in one another’s arms” (Yeats ln 1-2) presumably making love. In finally receiving the attention he has been alienated from since the very first stanza, Yeats finds himself “coming” (Yeats ln 19) but protected by the “holy fire” (Yeats ln 19). In Byzantium, hiding behind the call for lasting intellectualism, Yeats make his body unnatural relative to his former physical self, for in the human world, Yeats likens his body to that of a “dying animal” (Yeats ln 22). “Once out of nature I shall never take my bodily form from any natural thing” (Yeats ln 25-26) he declares, and so in images of himself in Byzantium does he envision his exterior to be physically hardened by his precious metal enameling. He transforms himself into a bird known for its golden sheen, and thus acquires a type of superficial elegance that is not a part of the intellectual appeal he once claimed to hold as his utmost priority. In this transformation does Yeats’ craving for the decadence of grandeur that appeals to the very physical senses make itself manifest, for he strives to become what as a “tattered” (Yeats ln 12) old man he lacks. Now he is free to compete with the music that the young lovers make, for in Byzantium, Yeats merely reinvents himself and proceeds to envision Eternity as the sensory world he once rejected. His body and soul are interconnected in Byzantium, and he calls to be physically “gathered” (Yeats ln 23) for his mind “knows not what [his body] is” (Yeats ln 23). Like a virgin, his body is at the mercy of the entity that ‘gathers’ him, and he is taken into the sexually charged “artifice of eternity” (Yeats ln 24) where he later “comes” (Yeats ln 32). His own song is now enough to rouse the senses of the Emperor of Byzantium as well as compete with the lovers’ song. Yeats carefully chooses the words which he sings, for in specifying “what is past, or passing or to come” (Yeats ln 32), Yeats uses the words “past” and “passing” to create a lulling effect that can only be countered by the ending staccato pulse of the word “come.” The poem culminates in this very moment, for in Yeats’ literal coming, his future is a symbolic orgasm which secures his ability to be sexually satisfied.It is as a sexually capable being that Yeats is able to secure his place in Eternity, the haven of intellectualism, and yet in gaining this fertility, he figuratively gains reproductive abilities that he is incapable of using. The dead irony of the situation is that while Yeats “sailed the seas” (Yeats ln 15) and quite literally ‘came’ in Byzantium, he is unable to release his manifest ideas that produce the intellect he wishes to preserve. In Byzantium he is set upon becoming an everlasting beauty of great thought, and yet by singing a never changing song, he will forever exist as an archaic machine of past pleasantries. In order to continually “keep a drowsy Emperor awake” (Yeats ln 29), change must persist, and yet change is the very quality that has not only created an aging Yeats, but has also condemned him to the human life cycle. Yeats recounts the mortal life where “whatever is begotten, born and dies” (Yeats ln 6), for it is in Yeats’ mortal life that he has become a part of “those dying generations” (Yeats ln 3). In describing Byzantium in polysyllabic phrases, Yeats creates a long, soothing tone that echoes in the music created and referred to throughout the poem2E He falls victim to this music in the same way the human world he wants to escape from does, for they too are “caught in that sensual music [where] all neglect monuments of unageing intellect” (Yeats ln 7-8). In describing that which he previously heralded as the problem of the human condition, he outlines his own failure in successfully being transformed by Byzantium, for he is unable to reject the very senses he idealizes. He appeals to the “sages standing in God’s holy fire” (Yeats ln 17) as one would call to a muse for inspiration and creativity, and yet despite these sages becoming the “singing-masters of [his] soul” (Yeats ln 20), the thoughts he gains from them can only be contained within his internal flames. This lack of expression causes his thoughts to “consume his heart away” (Yeats ln 21), and yet his mind, pregnant with thought, is still unable to release the complexities that exist within him. Like a “perne in a gyre” (Yeats ln 19) his mind is spinning around and around constantly, yet Yeats is simply a bird of “unnatural” form, producing a harmony that although may be melodious, will forever remain sterile in its ingenuity and vision.In gaining an eternity in time, Yeats is locked mechanically into the “artifice of eternity” (Yeats ln 24), and Byzantium exists more as a physical process of transformation than as a “holy city” (Yeats ln 16) of complete intelligence. Yeats rejects the mortal, fertile world for refusing him the opportunity to symbolically ‘reproduce’ his art, and yet he gains virility in the intellectually sterile city of Byzantium. By the end of the poem, the tension builds between the need for the reproduction of creative expression and its impossibility, and the everlasting sense of time is strictly divided into the “past… passing” (Yeats ln 32) and the implied future. Byzantium cannot eternalize Yeats’ genius, for the reader must envision a city so basic that the very complexities that exist as a mere byproduct of the human condition fail to exist, and it is this very anomaly that reflects in the absurdity of the old man Yeats’ desire in quite literally “Sailing to Byzantium.” Yeats is faced with the biggest paradox, for he wishes to become the form that is essential to perfect art, yet despises the very senses without whose perceptions, perfect art could not exist.Work Cited:Yeats, William Butler. “Sailing to Byzantium”. 1926.
The Paradox of Conflict and Beauty in Yeats’ Poetry
Although the world has evolved in many ways since Yeats was around, his poetry remains significant in the modern era. By simply scrolling through social media, flipping through T.V channels or listening to the radio, we are constantly reminded that we live in a chaotic and corrupted world. Through his poetry, Yeats explores the contradictory existence and nature of beauty within this world as both a catalyst and consequence of conflict. In particular, Yeats explores man’s desire for truth and man’s desire for spiritual transcendence.
In ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ Yeats portrays his personal longing to transcend man’s temporal nature. This poem was written during a time of great melancholy for Yeats. After facing rejection a second time from the woman he loved, he visited an old friend where he observed swans on the lake. Through this poem, Yeats depicts a clear separation between himself and the swans, representing them as “brilliant creatures” whose “hearts have not grown old” and that “passion or conquest… attend upon them still”. This personification depicts an immortality about the swans as they remain youthful and passionate, juxtaposing Yeats’ faded youth. His envy of the swans and longing for eternal youth is emphasised in the irony that his “heart is sore” rather than full after seeing the beauty of the swans. In stanza two, Yeats describes how the swans “suddenly mount and scatter” symbolising how he cannot control change just as he cannot control his mortality nor resist old age. This suggests Yeats’ perspective of beauty as a catalyst for tension as he recognises eternal beauty, yet due to his mortality, can never achieve it.
Similarly, Yeats explores man’s desire for spiritual transcendence through ‘The Second Coming’. Composed in 1919, the poem was closely influenced by the great political and social change following World War One, the Russian Revolution and the Irish War of Independence. Yeats illustrates a world where “the falcon cannot hear the falconer”, suggesting through this metaphor that man has turned away and rejected a higher being. He highlights a longing for a holy revelation through Biblical allusions, saying “Surely some revelation is at hand; Surely the Second Coming is at hand”. But this isn’t the redemptive ‘second coming’ as we know it. Instead, Yeats ironically portrays this revelation as destructive where “darkness drops” and “things fall apart”. This enforces the contradictory nature of beauty, that man can never accomplish it because of the destruction in the world, but also because of man’s imperfect, mortal nature.
Through his poetry, Yeats also explores man’s desire for truth and understanding. However, he suggests that absolute truth can never be achieved, due to the changing world. But if there is no truth, where does that leave our ideologies and convictions? This is exactly what Yeats addresses through his poem ‘Easter 1916’. Written as a response to political and social unrest caused by the Easter uprising, Yeats questions whether it is honourable or foolish to die for one’s convictions. He reflects the paradox of ideologies which create a sense of relative truth yet cause conflict as time shifts. This is clearly depicted through the motif of change, followed by the phrase “A terrible beauty is born” closing the first, second and final stanzas. This oxymoron illustrates the tragedy born out of beliefs, which were inherently good.
Yeats mentions five key characters, four by name, who died in the uprising. By naming them, he mythologises their actions but at the same time critiques them for having “ignorant good will”. This oxymoron reflects Yeats’ ambivalent view of convictions in a changing world. However, naming them in the final stanza saying that “now and in time to be, wherever green is worn,” they “are changed, changed utterly”, Yeats acknowledges their heroic act for Ireland and implies they changed the course of history. This proposes the alternate perspective, that elements of beauty can be created through conflict. ‘The Second Coming’ also presents a desire for truth in a conflicted world. However, this truth is inaccessible, which is represented by the deconstructed form of the poem. Yeats claims that “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”. This paradoxical statement highlights the danger of conviction, reiterating his view that ideologies in this transient world result in catastrophe.
In a world where conflict dominates headlines, it’s so easy to overlook the speckles of beauty. Yeats not only defines a universal relationship between conflict and beauty, but he addresses tensions at the very heart of human existence. This treatment of conflict and beauty has ensured the significance of his poetry throughout time, and continues to engage modern audiences.
To the Rose Upon the Rood of Time: Allusions to the Past, a Message for the Present
In “To the Rose upon the Rood of Time,” the speaker asks the Rose to come near him while he sings of old Irish tales, such as Cuchulain’s fighting the sea, the Druid and Fergus, and the Rose’s own sadness. He again invites the Rose close to him but asks it to keep a certain distance so as to avoid losing sight of the real world. Intending to sing of times past, he addresses the Rose again in the final line. In this poem, William Butler Yeats asserts the importance of finding beauty without deluding oneself; his message is backwards-looking in some of its references and allusions, but is also informed by a timeless yet tempered optimism.
Through the symbol of the Rose, Yeats conveys the beauty of ancient Ireland. He begins the poem proclaiming, “Red Rose, proud Rose, sad Rose of all my days!” (Yeats 1). As a traditional symbol of love and beauty, the Rose evokes Yeats’ nationalistic view of Ireland’s past to associate with his homeland that same beauty that the flower represents. The Roses’ red and proud qualities also express the pride Yeats’ himself carries for Ireland’s history. However, in describing it as “sad,” Yeats also raises the idea of the duality of the rose’s beauty: the flower represents eternal beauty with its symbolic meaning remaining constant and unwavering, yet it also hints at the fleeting nature of its beauty due to the short lives of individual roses. Because of this, the rose thus represents both constancy and impermanence. This conveys Yeats’ view of Irish culture, with its beauty transcending time while its physical existence comes to an end. He therefore celebrates Ireland’s history yet also mourns its passing, speaking of the sadness of ancient Ireland’s ending. The pessimistic view of the present thus displays his disdain for Ireland’s current state in contrast to the perfection of the past.
Yeats links the Rose to Irish mythology to emphasize the role of the symbol in embodying Ireland’s past. He references the legends of the mythological hero Cuchulain, the Druid, and Fergus. The mythological figures allude to Ireland’s history and culture that the speaker wishes to recall. In developing the symbol of the Rose with these allusions, Yeats creates a clear association of ancient Ireland with eternal beauty. This connection demonstrates the power and strength characteristic of Cuchulain and Fergus that Yeats finds in Ireland, but it also recalls their tragic ends that mirror Ireland’s own. Cuchulain accidentally kills his son and, distraught from learning of his mistake, tries in vain to fight the sea; Fergus, having made a deal with his brother’s widow permitting her son to rule for one year in exchange for her hand in marriage, finds himself betrayed and eventually exiled. A reminder of not only the greatness of these figures but also of their demise, the allusions develop a similar duality as that of the Rose: Yeats perceives the greatness of Ireland’s past as well as the tragic state of its present.
Euphony in the phrases associated with the Rose creates a pleasant, lyrical feeling surrounding the Rose. The first line of the poem contains almost entirely soft sounds, particularly with the repeated euphonic consonant r. The only hard consonant comes from “proud,” and still an r immediately follows the p to soften it. This establishes from the beginning the harmonious sounds associated with the Rose. The alliteration in the first stanza further creates euphony, as Yeats describes the “stars… dancing silver-sandalled on the sea” (6-7). Not only are all the words in this phrase euphonious, but the repeated s sound also contributes the overall pleasant sound of the poem. The first stanza also ends with the Rose “wandering on her way” (12). The alliteration in “wandering” and “way” creates euphony through both the consonant w and the vowel sounds in the phrase, thus developing the beauty of the Rose and of ancient Ireland to convey Yeats’ loving tone toward Ireland’s history. Additionally, the structure of the poem, written in heroic couplets with exact rhymes, also creates euphony. The rhythm and rhyme of this structure offer a pleasant regularity that remains consistent throughout the poem. Through euphony, Yeats continues to create a pleasing, even nostalgic, effect in relation to the Rose and Ireland’s past.
Yeats also establishes a level of intimacy with the Rose through personification of the symbol. He continually asks the Rose to approach him, and he describes it “wandering” (12). In ascribing human qualities to the flower, Yeats highlights the realness of its beauty. In this way, he connects the speaker of the poem with the Rose, bringing them closer to reveal the strength of the Rose’s beauty. Personification therefore emphasizes Yeats’ nationalistic perception of the beautiful past of Ireland. Through the motif of time, Yeats creates a prideful yet melancholy tone toward the past. He declares the Rose lasts through “all my days” and that he finds “in all poor foolish things that live a day / Eternal beauty” (1, 11-12). This indicates the enduring significance of the Rose, which serves as a perpetual symbol throughout his life that will continue to hold meaning until the end of his days. These references to such length of time reflect the lasting meaning of the rose as a symbol of beauty to demonstrate Yeats’ constant love for ancient Ireland. The optimistic tone in speaking of the ability to find this type of “eternal beauty” also conveys Yeats’ hopeful tone with regards to the attempt to manifest the past in the present Ireland. He continues to outline Ireland’s “ancient ways,” with the colon pointing to Cuchulain, Fergus, and the Druid (2). This modifies “ancient ways” to denote Ireland’s mythological heroic tradition, which Yeats views with pride, but also with despondency, knowing that he cannot recreate Ireland’s past as he wishes.
The repetition of the phrase “Come here” expresses the speaker’s desire to be close to the Rose. He states it twice in the first stanza, and repetition emphasizes his earlier sentiment to affirm his desire for the Rose’s proximity. In the opening of the second stanza though, he repeats the phrase three times in succession, contrasting to the other repetitions of “come near” that occur in isolation. In this line, the phrase signifies a significant shift in the poem that directly follows, and the repetition of it creates a buildup of intensity in his desire for the Rose, until the dash and the exclamation “Ah” counters the original request, causing that passion to rapidly dissipate. The speaker realizes that he cannot allow such close proximity to the Rose, that he can no longer delude himself with such an idealistic wish of fully immersing himself in the past. This development within the single line reflects the shift in the whole poem from the previous stanza exploring the beauty of the past to the second one examining human mortality. Yeats transitions from a joyful attitude to a more solemn one as he understands that the Rose cannot come too close to him.
Following the realization that the speaker must maintain a distance from the Rose, the motif of time evolves into one of mortality, a reminder of an eventual ending. Yeats offers details of the “weak worm” and “field-mouse,” which represent common, mortal beings, as well as the “heavy mortal hopes that toil and pass” that directly addresses the bleak mortality of human existence that dashes man’s wishes (16-18). All three represent characteristics of the mortal life. In contrast to the triplet to which “ancient ways” refers in the first stanza, they provide only disappointing signs of the mortal reality in contrast to the speaker’s mythological ideals about the past. This creates a disenchanting effect, confronting the speaker with the reality that prevents him from reaching the past.
As the poem ends in a manner nearly identical to its first lines in reverse order, this repetition mirrors the movement to the past the speaker desires to demonstrate the ultimate inability to return to the past. The speaker once again asks the Rose to “come near” (22). This time, however, with the prospect of returning to the past already established as an impossibility, the invitation to approach reflects the importance of appreciating the eternal idea of beauty in the temporarily beautiful. While these last lines continue to celebrate the past, they do so not because of the disheartening appearance of the present, but because of the need to find beauty in the present. The “sad Rose” now expresses the perpetual conflict between yearning for the Rose and the need to relinquish it. Due to the discussion on mortality, “all my days” now evokes the inevitable end to the human life whereas in the first line, it offers a more cheerful outlook on the longevity of human existence. The change in punctuation also furthers this shift, as the first line ends with an exclamation mark while the last line finishes with a period, displaying the contrast between earlier joy and later pensiveness as the speaker accepts that he can never relive the past.
The final line of the poem, as an exact replication of the first excluding punctuation, also demonstrates the speaker’s inability to truly reach his goal, as at the end of the poem, he arrives at the same place he began, only more solemn in his wishes. However, the repetition nevertheless conveys the same love for the Rose present from the beginning. Accepting the limits of reality, the speaker still continues to see the eternal beauty of the Rose. Thus, William Butler Yeats asserts the importance of finding beauty without deluding oneself in “To the Rose upon the Rood of Time.” The poem expresses the need to appreciate the past without seeking to recreate it, to appreciate immortal beauty in the mortal. Warning against the dangers of delusion, Yeats urges one to discover the greatness of all that exists in the world, in spite of what does exist.