William Butler Yeats
W.b. Yeats – ‘easter 1916’
Contrary to the optimistic nature of the title, “Easter 1916”, Yeats’ poem speaks of death, sacrifice, rebellion and politics. It is not often that Yeats deals with the subject of the Irish Independence movement. The only other expressly political poem he wrote was “September 1913”, which also dealt with the Irish Independence Movement. Thus, the topical rarity of the poem, written by an almost politically disinclined Yeats, simply begs the reader for close analysis.
Firstly, Yeats uses iambic tetrameter and iambic trimester in the poem. The rhyme scheme of the poem alternates rhyming lines in an ABAB form as well. Yeats varies the structure in order to emphasize the importance of the poem’s content and significance. In stanza 1, Yeats uses a mixture of iambic tetrameter and a trimeter rhythm to bring out the subtle discord in the Irish population. The lines, “I have met them at the close of the day /Coming with vivid faces /From counter or desk among grey/ Eighteenth-century houses” (lines 1-4) are written in steady iambic tetrameter as is the most of the stanza. However, certain lines which Yeats slides subtly in the middle such as “Or polite meaningless words” or “To please a companion” and “All changed, changed utterly:” are in trimeter rhythm, breaking the consistency of the stanza and slowing it down a little, making the reader aware of the underlying discord in the supposed normalcy and mundane nature of life that Yeats describes. This, perhaps, is Yeats way of ‘foreshadowing’ the rebellion he discusses in the next few stanzas, hence preparing the reader for a turn of events.
Secondly, the most prominent tool Yeats uses in the poem is the change of tone. In the first stanza, the persona adopts a dismissive, almost mocking tone towards those involved in the Independence cause. When the persona states that “I have passed with a nod of the head/ Or polite meaningless words”, it implies that he does not, in fact, care much for these people that are a insignificant part of his life. In stanza 2, his tone becomes almost mocking when he says, “That woman’s days were spent / In ignorant good-will /Her nights in argument / Until her voice grew shrill”. In those lines, he describes Countess Constance Georgina Markiewicz, a prominent female Irish nationalist that he seems to dislike and mock by calling her ‘ignorant’ and ‘shrill’. His distance from the cause is brought across through the dominant tone in the first two stanzas, but that is subject to change in the next few stanzas.
In the next few stanzas, the persona’s tone changes. It is quite an obvious shift from dismissive and mockery to empathy for those involved in the Independence cause. The poem states, “Was it needless death after all?”, highlighting the shift in the persona’s opinion. Now he seems empathetic to those who gave their lives for the cause. Moreover, he goes on to talk about the heroes who died in the war – “MacDonagh and MacBride /And Connolly and Pearse” – who were nationalists that died in the rebellion as well. Speaking about them specifically glorifies them in the reader’s eyes, making the reader see a definite shift in tone from stanzas one and two. The persona now empathizes with the nationalists and has perhaps even integrated himself with the cause for freedom.
Thirdly, the refrain used also adds another dimension of meaning to the poem. After starting the poem with a very calm, mellow beginning, Yeats abruptly shifts the poem’s almost-soothing nature to a dramatic one in lines 15 and 16 – “All changed, changed utterly/A terrible beauty is born.” These words, repeated in the last stanza, make the reader slightly uncomfortable. It is projected like an ominous prediction of the future, casting a gloomy shadow over the rest of the poem. “A terrible beauty” in this case – I believe – refers to the outcome of the rebellion and what it cost the Irish to achieve a tiny measure of success in their Independence movement. The dramatic nature of the words “changed, changed utterly” and “terrible beauty” in the following line, dramatizes the entire event and makes the reader see just how extensively the persona’s emotions have changed since the first stanza.
Yeats also uses natural imagery to emphasize just how fleeting the changes in Ireland (mostly political) are. In stanza three, the persona seems to be reminiscing with the thought that all life is temporary and fleeting. In the lines “Minute by minute they change;/A shadow of cloud on the stream/Changes minutes by minute” (lines 48-50), an undeniably calm yet quick change is felt by the reader as the images take root in their minds. The reader begins to see Ireland as a political entity with factions that are changing quickly due to discontent amongst the masses. Every second, someone new is being converted to the nationalist cause and the ‘shadow of cloud’ lifts as more people come together for the same cause. The natural imagery of the cloud and stream provides a lever through which Yeats conveys the quick political changes in Ireland.
In the next paragraph, Yeats’ real emotional reaction about the Easter rebellion comes through as he begins to question whether all the death has been in vain. In his words, “Was it needless death after all” (line 67) and “Too long a sacrifice/Can make a stone of the heart/O when may it suffice” (lines 57-59), indicating that he’s reflecting on the deaths and the cause of it. His tone becomes almost thoughtful. Before, he had been dismissive and mocking. As the stanza continues, a very tangible and drastic change occurs. From lines 65 to 66, the thoughtfulness leaks away and his empathy for the dead shines through. He says, “What is it but nightfall?/ No, no, not night but death” (lines 65-66) and “For England may keep faith/For all that is done and said” (line 68), expressing his hope that those dead have not died in vain and Ireland might actually get its independence. Perhaps it also does seem as though the persona’s support might have been won over by the rebellion and the sacrifices made.
The last stanza is a very effective sum-up of the entire poem. It gives the reader a ‘full-circle’ effect. The poem starts out as a calm and soothing one (describing mundane life) and it seems to end that way as well. The last two lines “Are changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born” is a repetition from stanza two. When the lines are repeated, the impact that they had previously is lost and they become a pale imitation of how they were used before. With those closing words, sadness and grief envelops the poem, making the overall vibe of the poem very solemn indeed.
The Duality of Human Nature in “The Two Trees”
William Butler Yeats, the esteemed twentieth-century poet, was in love with the Irish nationalist Maud Gonne; his poem “The Two Trees” was originally written for her. Gonne was very devoted to rather uncompromising ideologies, but in this poem Yeats coaxes her to perceive the world with more grey areas and fewer patches of black-and-white. In “The Two Trees,” Yeats uses Edenic imagery, enjambment, and phonetics to create reconciliation between the two seemingly disjunct stanzas, suggesting that life cannot be divided so starkly and that opposites like “good” and “evil” are actually linked.
Yeats employs Edenic imagery to highlight the duality of life; by comparing the Tree of Life with the Tree of Knowledge, he shows that “good” and “evil” are entwined. The poem starts off with the statement “Beloved, gaze in thine own heart,/The holy tree is growing there;”(1-2) a reference to the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, the tree of ignorance and “inner truth.” He goes on to illustrate this tree as one with “holy branches”(3) starting “[f]rom joy,” and bearing “trembling flowers”(4). Even the “changing colours of its fruit/Have dowered the stars with merry light”(5-6). These images evoke a pleasant mood, but also seem fleeting; the frequent use of verbs ending in -ing gives the impression of constant motion. Nothing is static here, it seems, and this sensation proves true in the second stanza, when the poem drastically shifts in tone and imagery. Here, a “fatal image grows/That the stormy night receives”(25-26) in stark contrast to the “holy tree” of the first stanza. This tree, the Tree of Knowledge, has “[r]oots half hidden under snows,/Broken boughs and blackened leaves”(27-28). The disjunction between these two trees seems apparent from the contrasting descriptions, but the structural parallels between the stanzas–for example, the first stanza is bookended by “Beloved, gaze in thine own heart” while the second stanza is bookended by “Gaze no more in the bitter glass”–ties the elements together. The parallels between the first and second stanza reflect the parallels between the Tree of Life and The Tree of Knowledge. In the Kabbalist view, these two trees are actually the same, and only differ in the perspectives from which they are seen. Through these Edenic images, Yeats is suggesting that nothing is truly purely “good” or purely “evil”; rather, even the most righteous ideals have reverse sides.
Yeats does not use enjambment often, and most lines in this poem are end-stopped; thus, he employs enjambment to inject stress in this poem. This is first seen in lines 5-6 (“The changing colours of its fruit/Have dowered the stars with merry light”), when Yeats employs enjambment to create tension into a poem that otherwise flows very smoothly and pleasantly at this point. The reader is forced to move onto the next line; this tension is heightened by the word “dowered” in line 6. While this word can mean simply “a gift,” it can also be defined as “property allotted to a widow after her husband’s death,” adding an undercurrent of sadness to a charming image that suggests vitality. This use of opposites creates tension in the poem early on. Later on, in the second stanza, Yeats uses enjambment again to avoid overwhelming the reader. Since the second stanza uses much more tense, negative language, enjambment serves to break up lines to avoid burdening a single line with too many undesirable words. For example, in lines 25-26 (“For there a fatal image grows/That the stormy night receives”) the enjambment is used to prevent the language from overwhelming the reader. If the words “fatal” and “stormy” were on the same line, the poem might lapse into melodrama. Thus, enjambment serves the opposite purpose here; instead of injecting more tension into the poem, as it does in the first stanza, it alleviates tension. Since Yeats uses enjambment sparingly throughout, the line structures are similar to each other, connecting the stanzas together. However, by using enjambment for contrasting purposes, he depicts the need for duality between opposites: without any tension, the pleasant first stanza would be too vapid, and without relief, the gloomy second stanza would be too cynical.
Yeats pays attention to the sound of the last word of each line not only to maintain a matching end rhyme, but also to emphasize certain phono-semantics throughout this entire poem in order to connect the stanzas together and offset the divide of the moods between the two. By using a rhyme scheme that matches every other line–for example, “heart” in line 1 rhymes with “start’ in line 3, and “there” in line 2 rhymes with “bear” in line 4–Yeats moves the poem along at a brisk pace. In addition, he creates balance not only between the two stanzas, but between the lines in each stanza as well. This tactic recalls the idea of living a balanced life by reconciling opposites. Furthermore, throughout the first stanza, Yeats ends lines with hard “t” sounds; in contrast, he ends many lines in the second stanza with a soft “s” sound. For example, the last rhyme of the first stanza between “dart” and “heart” is phonetically much harsher than the last rhyme of the second stanza between “alas” and “glass.” Even though the first stanza is more pleasant semantically, it ends on harsher tones. The second stanza is more unpleasant, but it ends on softer tones. This technique is similar to Yeats’s use of enjambment in that it both injects and relieves tension in the first and second stanza, respectively, and prevents the poem from overwhelming readers. It creates balance, reflecting the idea that seemingly contradictory notions may be intricately linked.
In “The Two Trees,” Yeats creates the concept of reconciliation not only with imagery and biblical allusion, but also with structure and sound. He weaves together the lines structurally and phonetically the same way the Kabbalistic Tree is entwined. Through these techniques, he urges readers to find balance in life instead of dividing the world into two.
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.
Molloy, Frank. LIT201 Poetry Anthology. Charles Sturt University, 2010
Molloy, Frank. LIT201 Study Guide. Charles Sturt University, 2010
The Use of Metaphors and Imagery in When You Are Old by William Butler Yeats
William Butler Yeats, “When You are Old”, is a three-stanza poem, that consists of a constant rhyming scheme. Yeats uses of metaphors paired sometimes with sets of poetic imagery. He exercises them well in the poem. They are significant, detailed, and well understood. Yeats illustrates one man’s genuine feelings, for what seems to be younger women. It takes place after; he was without the woman he loves and expressed what was forfeited by her. In the first stanza, it speaks of the future, “When you are old and grey and full of sleep” (Yeats, one)
As this metaphor is very detailed, it is easy to understand that he is talking about her being old, as you grow old you become more tired therefore full of sleep. In addition, Yeats is portraying that, come age, follows wisdom, and she will gain a deeper understanding of what she has forfeited. As Yeats illustrates the future he also illustrates the past within the last two lines of this stanza “And slowly read, and dream of the soft look // Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep” (Yeats, 3-4). In this case, the speaker wants her to feel, as if “what it was. ” In the sense that she used to have soft, beautiful eyes and what their love once depicted. The second stanza, keeping up the rhyme scheme, also has a significant amount of imagery in the stanza. Yeats uses imagery to show greater detail and importance to how the speaker feels. depicted in the past, how loved she was by many, “How many loved your moments of glad grace” (Yeats, 5).
There is significance to this as in lines after he goes on explaining himself, as what he loved was more special and more meaningful than the love others gave her. “But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,” (Yeats, 7), as if the pilgrim soul she had, was something harder to acquire a love for. The speaker was also saying that even though she was losing her beauty, he “loved the sorrows of your changing face” This stanza gives a voice of guilt in a sense, about what she has missed out on in the past. She may have taken the love he had given for granted. Yeats uses his imagery in a wide range. Both perspectives of the speaker or man and the woman. The third stanza speaks of the future in the first person and third person.
At this point in the poem, is where she has finally grown old and withering away somewhere alone. At this point, the first person is relevant, as she is talking to herself about how love has been lost and she comes to realization, that love has fled, and because of her age and the circumstances, is not returning. “Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled” (Yeats, 10) This stanza consists of a significant amount of imagery used along with a metaphor. He utilizes the imagery to set the scene better, as well as give it more significance. “And paced upon the mountains overhead” (Yeats, 11). An excellent example of the imagery Yeats uses to include the extra depth to the poem. As the poem is all about love and how love has fled, there is something that stands out.
The poem’s essential point represents how the love has fled. As I had stated in the introduction. It seems that the man who has shown love for the attractive woman is older. The concluding line of the poem is an exceptional wrap-up. “And hid his face amid a crowd of stars” (Yeats, 12). It’s almost as if Yeats conveys you two images with this one line to end the poem. He shows it’s possible that even though he was hiding his face in sadness, I still feel the love may still be there as once you love someone with so much commitment, it doesn’t just go away. The man is overhead in the stars still watching over her with love even though she’s grown old and grey.
Ambiguity and the Undermining of the Feminine in “Leda and the Swan”
The message of “Leda and the Swan” is often interpreted in drastically different ways due to the ambiguity of the text. Much of this ambiguity can be attributed to intentional contradiction by the author, William Butler Yeats. This contradiction emphasizes the nature of sexism, for sexism is often portrayed as a misdirected view of the victim. Several of the following critics offer differing interpretations of the poem, portraying the ambiguous nature of the text and therefore the larger theme of sexism in the poem’s various supplications of a forced sexual encounter. Johnsen summarizes the poem as such, “Textual/Sexual politics never had a better example than ‘Leda and the Swan’ a sonnet depicting rape as a welcome sign of a better future” (Johnsen 80). Johnsen interprets the poem’s ambiguity as an indication that Leda welcomes the rape as a positive instance. Along similar lines, Mckenna states, “The final form of the poem. . . reaffirms the tragic consequences of Leda’s rape but also affirms her potential for self- awareness” (Mckenna 425).
Like Johnsen, Mckenna agrees that Leda is better from the experience, but Mckenna also argues that the consequences of the rape (the destruction of Troy), are what is tragic. Barnwell argues differently, stating, “Often read as a rape-poem, ‘Leda and the Swan’ offers perhaps the clearest example of the extreme importance of Yeat’s copulation ‘personae’ who act and are acted upon in various ways to learn certain lessons” (Barnwell 63). Barnwell thus argues that the poem’s center on rape and ambiguity of text offers differing possibilities as to who is really the victim. Leda and Zeus could both be victims, or neither. Lastly, Neigh argues, “When I take Yeats’s sonnet personally and pursue my identifications with the text . . . I identify with Leda and her experience of sexist victimization” (146).
Neigh differs drastically from both Barnwell and Johnsen in that she interprets Leda as the sole victim. Empson contributes this to the following, ” Ambiguity occurs when a statement says nothing…so that the reader is forced to invent statements of his own and they are liable to conflict with one another” (Empson 176).Each critic has substantial and convincing evidence for their argument, yet all interpret the poem’s depiction of a forced sexual encounter in quite different ways. Arguably, it is intentional contradiction in “Leda and the Swan” that creates ambiguity, creating a larger theme of sexism because of its undermining of the oppression of the women.
In Yeats’ description of a sexual encounter, there is perhaps an inevitable ambiguity due to the nature of poetry itself, creating a contradictory effort to depict a forced sexual encounter clearly. The result of this ambiguity creates an undermining of the feminine; a theme of sexism. Holden describes the somewhat inevitable undermining as follows, “Poetry which attempts to describe in concrete detail sexual intercourse will usually disappoint and possible offend” (83). As Holden describes, an artist’s effort to depict a sexual encounter without it being interpreted in differing ways is somewhat inevitable. Holden explains that due to sexual encounter being a form of absolute knowledge, even poetry is unequal in approaching it with exaction, instead, it can simply point toward a concept of sexual encounter. (84).
This idea can be seen in “Leda and the Swan,” where an artist’s depictions of a forced sexual encounter becomes muddled because of the inevitable layers found in good poetry. Barnwell notes the following:
“Leda” is in fact a profound and provocative dramatization of the ambiguities of sexual encounter for Yeats, and questions as well as answers the major premise in his scheme of thought: the idea of a perfect order in the universe that supports, guides, and affirms all of man’s endeavors in various ways. (62)
Barnwell argues that sexual encounters are by nature ambiguous, and in “Leda and the Swan,” the ambiguity acts as a question to sexism whether or not men are guided and therefore excused for their actions because of a greater scheme. Scott describes various interpretations of a forced sexual encounter in art as such, “Whether it’s deliberate or not, people can and do fail to see the oppression of women because they fail to see macroscopically and hence fail to see the various elements of the situation as systematically related in larger schemes” (16). In “Leda and Swan” and undermining of the feminine is created through the highly ambiguous nature of the poem, which can be attributed to the contradictory nature of ambiguous poetry and the absoluteness of sexual encounter.
The theme of violence in “Leda and the Swan” is contrasted with the theme of erotica, creating an ambiguity that muddles the oppression of Leda, and so can be interpreted as a larger representation of sexism. The poem depicts a rape scene, and unintentionally or otherwise, allows for a more permissive outlook on the depiction of sexual violence, seen in the poems erotic diction and ambiguity towards victimization. This is seen in lines like the following, “The feathered glory from her loosening thighs” (Yeats 6). There is a sort of paradox discovered in “Leda and the Swan,” where a reader’s effort to understand a possible instance of rape culture– which Scott identifies as, “the myth of an uncontrollable male sex drive serves to ensure male sexual right of access to women by presenting it as a natural need, thus enforcing the expectation of women’s sexual availability”– is mingled with passion and the erotic (340).
Leda’s rape by Zeus depicts this circumstance; Zeus’ attraction to Leda led to his forceful and “indifferent” taking of her in order to fulfill his uncontrollable needs (Yeats 15). This aggression is juxtaposed by images of sexual intercourse that question whether Leda’s rape endows her with some form of power or knowledge. “Did she put on his knowledge with his power?” (14). An idea of misdirection is portrayed in “Leda and the Swan,” where a violent action is heavily contrasted by erotic descriptions. This duality of violence and the erotic creates an ambiguity that represents issues surrounding sexism, where the victim is often marginalized due to misdirection of attention.
The style of the poem, specifically point of view and structure, portrays intentional contradictions that create ambiguity and undermine the feminine. The point of view in “Leda and the Swan” invites ambiguity with its duality of perspective. Neigh states, “The detached third person narrator ironically invites rather than discourages identification, because the narrator gives no direction” (148). Neigh argues that the reader is forced to identify at differing times with both the swan and Leda. This contradiction in perspective undermines the position of Leda and represents a larger theme of sexism.
Additionally, both perspectives, the swan and Leda, shift moods that are contradictory to one another. “A noteworthy point is the changed moods of both Swan and Leda. At the beginning of the poem, Swan was passionate, while Leda was terrified and helpless. At the end of the poem, Leda is caught up in Swan’s passion, while Swan becomes indifferent” (Modern English Literature 11). Furthermore, the poem is breathless in its structure; with the first stanza itself composed of four lines and only one sentence. The first three words of “A sudden blow,” followed by a colon, creates a quickness as all following lines are a supplication, a list, to the statement “a sudden blow”(1). Additionally, commas are interspersed to strengthen the fluidity of the stanza. This breathlessness created by just the first stanza reflects a passion that is contradictory of a rape scene and of Leda’s fear. A sense of indecision is as well created as the following stanza beings a list of rhetorical questions. “How can those terrified vague fingers push/ The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?/ And how can body, laid in that white rush/ But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?”(5-8). As the narrator poses these questions, it creates an ambiguity as towards victimization, and ultimately undermines Leda and her situation.
The passionate and breathless structure of the poem, while depicting a forced sexual encounter, adds to the ambiguity as to what level it is indeed forced. The third stanza, like the first, is one full sentence. This quickness is followed through by the last stanza, which parallels the structure of the second stanza in its listing of rhetorical questions, ultimately ending the poem with a question, “Did she put on his knowledge with his power/ Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?” (14-15). By ending with a question, the entirety of the poem is given an indecisive air. By portraying ambiguity in point of view and structure, the poem creates a larger theme of sexism in its undermining of Leda and her position as a rape victim.
Diction in “Leda and the Swan” contributes to the intentional ambiguity, and the larger theme of sexism, in that the images created are dual and contradictory in meaning. In the text, phrases and words given such as “her thighs caressed/ By the dark webs,” “Breast upon his breast,” “terrified vague fingers” and“burning” offer ambiguity that muddle and undermine the rape (2-3, 4, 5, 10). “Her thighs caressed” offers a romantic, almost tender connotation, but is followed by the following line “By the dark webs” (2-3). This eerie contradiction creates an ambiguity as to the nature of the sexual encounter. “Breast upon his breast,” in its connotation of femininity, seems to suggest the masculine is not present (4). Neigh writes, “The image of ‘breast upon breast’ suggests the possibility of an erasure of the masculine altogether” (148). This image creates additional ambiguity for the text, in its lack of distinction of gender, confusing and even undermining what it is to be feminine. The phrase “terrified vague fingers” creates contradiction with “terrified” and “vague,” with the former suggesting that Leda is, in short, highly afraid, while “vague” suggests a more passive mood on her part (5).
The confusion, like previous phrases, undermines her position as a rape victim. Additionally, the word “burning” is highly ambiguous in that it connotes sexual passion and destruction (10). Neigh argues,”’Burning’ clearly express sexual desire, which thwarts the interpretation of rape in the poem” (148). As with other phrases, the author’s chosen diction and creation of ambiguous images undermines Leda’s situation and creates confusion as to her situation. Zeus’ transformation into a swan depicts a conjunction and contradiction of both the masculine and the feminine, reinforcing the poem’s ambiguity and larger representation of sexism. Neigh argues, “With the swan’s indistinguishable gender, these ambiguities encourage readers to identify both with a raped human and the pleasure of a rapist”(148). With Zeus taking the form of a feminine creature, yet with his actions highly aggressive, there is an ambiguity created as to what is feminine or masculine. The ambiguity in imagery thus portrays a larger theme of sexism in which a rape scene is portrayed as both a rape scene and a positive sexual encounter.
The mythological basis of the poem is contradictory as well in its ambiguity of the long-lasting consequences of Zeus’ rape. Yeats states the following , “A shudder in the loins engenders there/ The broken wall, the burning roof and tower/ And Agamemnon dead” (9-11). This foreshadowing of Leda and Zeus’ posterity is interpreted in differing ways, and reflects whether Zeus’ act is seen as a punishment or as “the idea of a perfect order in the universe that supports, guides, and affirms all of man’s endeavors in various ways” (Barnwell 62). Helen, born by Leda and Zeus, brings destruction and decimation to the land. “This act of violence exerted by god on the human leads to the destruction of Troy” (Rezaei 2). However, mythological history also offers the interpretation that Zeus’s act brought about new beginnings. “Thus Zeus’ act in raping Leda meant the beginning of a new chapter in the history of the Greek. In other words, it is the beginning of a new civilization” (Modern English Literature 11). This ambiguity of consequence undermines Leda’s position as a rape victim in that her suffering is interpreted as being part of a grander scheme, or even as necessary.
The ambiguity of victimization in “Leda and the Swan” reflects a larger theme of sexism in which societal tendencies dismiss objectification of women in favor of erotic imagery, or do not focus on the rape victim and instead turn attention to other aspects of effects. The poem harbours distinct and intentional contradictions that undermine femininity and portray sexism. “For Yeats, Zeus’s violence proves his divinity and Leda’s morality; his freedom, her bondage; violence father Love and War on her. All things are by antithesis” (Johnsen 85). By this use of contradiction and ambiguity, a variety of interpretations can be argued, however, all interpretations serve to show how Leda’s rape, significant in representing sexual violence, can be marginalized through poetry and analysis itself.
- Barnwell, W. C. “The Rapist in” Leda and the Swan”.” South Atlantic Bulletin, vol. 42, no. 1, 1977, pp. 62-68.
- Empson, William. Seven types of ambiguity. Vol. 645. Random House, 2004.
- Holden, Jonathan. “Sex and Poetry.” Harvard Review, no. 9, 1995, pp. 83–87.
- Johnsen, William. “Textual/Sexual Politics in Yeats’s ‘Leda and the Swan.’.” Yeats and Postmodernism, 1991, pp. 80-89.
- McKenna, Bernard. “Violence, Transcendence, and Resistance in the Manuscripts of Yeats’s ” Leda and the Swan”.” Philological Quarterly, vol. 90, no. 4, 2011, pp. 425.
- Neigh, Janet. “Reading from the Drop: Poetics of Identification and Yeats’s ‘Leda and the Swan.’” Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 29, no. 4, 2006, pp. 145–160.
- Rezaei, Hassan, and Mehdi Azari Samani. “A Study of WB Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan” through the Perspective of Halliday’s Systemic Functional Grammar.”
- Scott, Bonnie Kime, et al., eds. Women in Culture: An Intersectional Anthology for Gender and Women’s Studies. John Wiley & Sons, 2016.
- Yeats, W. B. “2. Leda and the Swan.” Modern English Literature, 1935, pp. 8.
- Yeats, William Butler. “Leda and the Swan.” The Literature Network, 2017.
Byzantium: an Illusion of Salvation
William Butler Yeats’ Sailing to Byzantium (1926) is one of the more remarkable poems from The Tower, a celebrated collection of poems published in 1929. The poem is remarkable partly because of its highly suggestive and ambiguous language, which lends itself to a variety of interpretations. For example, many critics of the poem offer radically different readings of the poem’s conclusion. Carol Morgan, a contemporary critic of Yeats, claims that the poem’s form offers insight into the speaker’s fate. She asserts that a comparison of the rhyme scheme in the first and final stanzas reveals that the speaker finds salvation within Byzantium. She argues that the last stanza, unlike the first, employs a set of full triple rhymes in order to suggest order and harmony in Byzantium. According to Morgan, the first stanza’s half-rhymes emphasize the “chaotic” or “natural” state of the country and the restless anxiety of the narrator. In contrast, the use of full triple rhymes in the last stanza implies that such anxiety has been replaced by peaceful contentment (Morgan, Yeats: An Annual of Critical and Textual Studies, 141-142). This essay offers a radically different reading from Morgan’s and grounds its interpretation not only on the form of the poem but also on its language and imagery. Evaluating the speaker’s fate in Byzantium requires one to analyze Yeats’ use of form, language and imagery within individual stanzas and also to compare entire stanzas against each other. The poem’s rhyming couplets, its use of alliteration, repetition, ambiguity and its use of contrasting images all suggest that Byzantium is a pretentious, static and constrictive world that causes the speaker apprehension rather than providing him salvation.
A comparison of the rhyming couplets in the first and last stanzas of the poem exposes the speaker’s apprehensive feelings towards Byzantium. The first two stanzas contain couplets that stand on their own as rhetorical statements. In the first stanza the following couplets express speaker’s scorn for the young who disregard the world of art:
The young in one another’s arms, birds in the trees / Those dying generations—at their song / Caught in that sensual music all neglect / Monuments of unageing intellect
In the second stanza, the speaker declares his interest in leaving the sensual world and entering the intellectual paradise of Byzantium:
An aged man is but a paltry thing, / A tattered coat upon a stick, unless / And therefore I have sailed the seas and come / To the holy city of Byzantium.
The last two stanzas of the poem, which deal exclusively with the world of Byzantium, fail to make such declarations and are not self-contained rhetorical statements. Thus, the poem’s form can be seen as a regression from certainty to uncertainty, which suggest that the speaker feel apprehension in Byzantium and still retains allegiance to his native Ireland.
Furthermore, the speaker’s alienation and apprehension in Byzantium is also conveyed by the third couplet’s ambiguous language and the fourth’s clever inversion of the second couplet’s rhyme scheme. The third stanza ends with this couplet: It knows not what it is; and gather me / Into the artifice of eternity. This couplet’s ambiguity is highlighted by its use of the unspecific pronoun “it” rather than a more concrete word “heart” and invokes the idea of alienation through the statement, “It knows not what it is.” The word “artifice” in the second line of the couplet echoes the words “art” and “artificial” thus suggesting that the artistic and artificial world of Byzantium causes the speaker feelings of alienation. Furthermore, the final couplet in the poem does not leave the reader with a positive impression of the speaker’s fate, but instead reinforces the view of Byzantium as an alienating environment.
Raymond Cowell, a prominent literary critic, argues that the final couplet leaves such an impression by inverting the rhyme scheme of couple two.
“As a particular ironic twist Yeats reverses the final rhymes of stanza two when he reaches the final rhymes of the last stanza. In stanza two the speaker has ‘come to’ Byzantium in a state of triumphant expectation; the couplet proclaims the positive. In stanza four, the order is reversed and the speaker moves beyond the nobility of Byzantium, to the future ‘to come’ which is contained in the bird’s song; the couplet is broken open, with the future left uncertain” (Cowell, Literary Critiques: W.B. Yeats, 144).
The impression of uncertainty echoes the impression of uncertainty and apprehension conveyed by the last lines of couplet three, thus implying that Byzantium can neither alleviate the speaker’s anxiety nor offer him salvation.
Furthermore, the language and imagery of the poem characterizes Byzantium not as an ideal representation of utopia but instead as a static world that lacks energy and freedom. The linguistic vitality of the first stanza in comparison to the monotony of the last stanza reveals how Byzantium lacks the energy and freedom of the speaker’s homeland. The first stanza contains lyrical alliterations like, “fish, flesh or fowl” which convey the enormous energy and vigor of Ireland while the last stanza is characterized by its repetition of words. Furthermore, in the phrase, “set upon the golden bough to sing,” the word “set” is a passive very which contrasts sharply with the assertive, action-oriented verbs of the first stanza. The phrase also evokes an image of the speaker’s helplessness as if he does not possess the energy needed to place himself on the tree limb. Byzantium is not only characterized by its lack of vigor but also by its constraining nature. The phrase, “to keep a drowsy Emperor awake,” implies the speaker’s lack of freedom in Byzantium, as he must constantly attend to the lords and ladies of the land. In contrast, the beginning of the poem evokes numerous images of animals and citizens of Ireland copulating and pursuing their own hedonist desires.
Yeats also uses contrasting images to convey the pretentious nature of Byzantium as the speaker, despite his transformation into a golden bird is not able to create eternal art. Carol Morgan asserts that the speaker’s ability to create art in Byzantium, through his singing, is a critical factor that ultimately validates Byzantium as a destination of salvation (Morgan 144). Other critics of the poem, including T. Sturge Moore, refute Morgan’s contention and instead view Byzantium as a pretentious place that denies the speaker the ability to create lasting art. Moore bases his analysis on the beginning line of the last stanza and the ending line of the poem. He asserts that the speaker cannot sing of “what is past, or passing, or to come” if the speaker is “out of nature”. In other words, how can the speaker create lasting art if he is completely removed from life? According to Moore, “art is dependent on life” (Cowell 102). Yeats contrasts this image of the eternal golden bird singing of “what is past, or passing or to come” with images of birds in the natural world to suggest that only the natural world provides a domain that fosters great art. The birds, in the opening stanza of the poem, sing a sensual yet transient song that is appreciated by young lovers in Ireland. In contrast, the golden bird sings for eternity yet his singing only serves the purpose of keeping the “drowsy Emperor awake.” Ironically, the speaker’s art is not appreciated in a world that represents the pinnacle of classical art, thus implying the pretension of Byzantium.
The poem paints Byzantium, through its use of couplets and its contrasting language and imagery, as a pretentious, constrictive and static place. Seen at close quarters Byzantium is less attractive than at a distance, as it fails to ease the speaker’s anxiety or alienation. Ironically, the speaker retreats from Ireland due to neglect, but finds no consolation or acceptance in Byzantium. This analysis of the poem begs the question: Is this rejection of Byzantium, Yeats’ way of urging the reader to take responsibility for his or her own life and accept his or her inadequacies. If one assumes that the poem implicates the reader in its personal drama, then it seems logical to conclude that it implores the reader to face life rather than retreat into fantasy.
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.
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.
Yeats, W. B., Selected poems: lyrical and narrative (London: Macmillan & Co., 1938).
Baldick, 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).
Gender Politics and Irish Nationalism in Cathleen Ni Houlihan
“I am writing a woman out of legend. I am thinking how new it is – this story. How hard it will be to tell” (Eavan Boland). Much of twentieth-century Irish literature engages in issues relating to gender. Although stereotypical representations of men and women were often core to many narratives, some authors chose to abandon the gender archetypes to which they were culturally confined. In their co-authored play Cathleen Ni Houlihan, authors Lady Gregory and William Butler Yeats present their audience with contrast gender ideologies throughout their respective contributions to the text. While the play in its entirety is political and is therefore a critical piece of Irish nationalism within the genre of Irish literature, diverging political statements are made within.
Within her critical text Ascendancy Nationalism, Feminist Nationalism, and Stagecraft in Lady Gregory’s Revision of Kincora, professor Maureen Hawkins highlights the inferiority complex among gender roles and their relation to Irish nationalism. She notes that although many women “played prominent roles in the political and cultural nationalist movements, they and their efforts were marginalized and sometimes suppressed” (Hawkins, 95). Similarly, within English Radicals and Reformers, authors, Edward Royle and James Walvin, comment upon the “emancipation” of women regarding their position in nationalist movements (Royle & Walvin, 188). Women and their role within politics were greatly undermined.
Although Lady Gregory has been coined as the “woman behind the Irish Renaissance”, this title does not allude to her influential role regarding the establishment of Irish literature. Her contributions were often overshadowed by her fellow – and predominantly male – literary associates, like those of William Butler Yeats and John Millington Synge. However, her work merits extensive recognition for their feminist undertones, as she attempts to reframe gender ideologies and expose the nature of Irish nationalism. Recent scholarship has addressed exactly this situation: “Ireland has, of course, long been gendered – by the political nationalist metanarrative and the cultural nationalism of traditional history and literature – as a women victimized by the colonizing English male. For an equally long time, the lives of actual Irish women were arguably colonized by Irish men, at the same time both genders were colonial subjects of England” (Bradley & Valiulis, 6).
Within twentieth century Irish literature, the Irish woman was generally confined to the limitations of her role as a maiden or an old hag. With little mention of independent thought or action, their characters were often not of great significance. In fact, “In the literature of the emerging nation, women reverted to being a site of contest rather than an agent of her own desire. No nationalism in the world has ever granted women and men the same privileged resources of the nation-state” (Kiberd, 406-7). However, known for her feminist ideals, Lady Gregory plays upon this discrepant allegory by empowering her female characters. In Cathleen Ni Houlihan, mythology is used to dramatize a lost and homeless Ireland that can only be vindicated by acts of heroism. Arrays of symbols evoke the ongoing theme of nationalism, but the most prominent is of Cathleen herself. An elderly woman who can only be revived as young and beautiful upon the sacrifice of young men, Cathleen becomes a personification for Ireland, as she requires these men to take action on her behalf and protect her from external forces:
“Bridget. What was it put you wandering? Old Woman. Too many strangers in the house. Bridget. Indeed you look as if you’d had your share of trouble. Old Woman. I have had trouble indeed. Bridget. What was it put the trouble on you? Old Woman. My land that was taken from me. Peter. Was it much land they look from you? Old Woman. My four beautiful green fields” (Gregory & Yeats, 5).
The reader is immediately able to make connections between Cathleen’s abstract dialogue and their parallels to Irish history, supporting the ideal that she is an embodiment of Ireland. For instance, editor, James Pethica, writes that the “four beautiful green fields” allude to the four provinces of Ireland: Munster, Leinster, Ulster and Connacht. According to Rosalind Clark’s The Great Queens: Irish Goddesses from the Morrigan to Cathleen Ni Houlihan, “To the audience it is clear that her talk has a double meaning, but to the family in the play it sounds perfectly natural at first: the old woman’s situation is only too unusual among Irish beggar women. There is another side of her talk that they cannot understand, but they put that down to the fact that she has had so much trouble that it ‘has put her wits astray’. But these speeches are full of meaning and produce intense emotion in the audience, who are suddenly realizing that this old woman is Cathleen” (Clark, 174). Cathleen claims that she has been wandering because there are “too many strangers in the house” (Gregory & Yeats, 5). The authors are hereby refering to real world conflict by insinuating Great Britain’s reign over Ireland (the British are strangers within the house of Ireland). By adding a realistic aspect to the text, themes of nationalism are legitimized and Lady Gregory and Yeasts’ arguments carry influential depth to their audiences.
Enlisting the help of “friends”, Cathleen entices men to “die for her” with promises of fame and glory. She tells Michael, the son of the Gillanes, about the series of heroes who have sacrificed themselves. Abandoning his betrothed, he becomes eager to do the same.
“Peter [to Patrick, laying on his arm]. Did you see an old woman going down the path? Patrick. I did not, but I saw a young girl, and she had the walk of a queen” (Gregory & Yeats, 9).
This feminine representation reflects an idyllic male image of womanhood. However, as women were often characterized by their docile and nurturing nature, Cathleen’s blood thirst is a shocking contradiction to this traditional female archetype:
“Cathleen Ni Houlihan celebrates death [and] summons men to die for an abstract notion of the four beautiful green fields and idealised concept of Ireland” (Innes, 109).
In her article “Thinking of Her… as… Ireland: Yeats, Pearse and Heaney”, Elizabeth Cullingford examines this depiction of Ireland as a woman and concludes that this representation is neither natural nor stereotypical, but “rhetorically invisible” (Cullingford, 3). Gregory presents her audience with an opposition to the traditional social structure of Ireland, wherein men fight and defend their country on behalf of a woman. By straying from the stereotype in which women served as passive symbols of the nation, Gregory exposes the patriarchal nature of nationalism and uses literature as a means of shattering gender ideologies.
William Butler Yeats was undoubtedly a leader among the Irish Literary Revival whose writing embodied nationalist elements of Irish spirit and culture. In his contribution to Cathleen Ni Houlihan, Yeats contrasts materialistic life with the glory of sacrifice in order to elucidate the need for Irish independence. However, his approach to the play offers a diverging political statement than that of Lady Gregory, shying away from feminine empowerment and underlining instead the importance of nationalism.
“They shall be remembered forever, They shall be alive forever, They shall be speaking forever, The people shall hear them forever” (Gregory & Yeats, 8).
Through Michael’s willingness to fight for Cathleen as a nation, Yeats’ is making personal and political commentary. He presents man as a patriot and an active defender of the female Ireland and uses literature as a means of evoking and representing his own nationalistic pride. Women, however, function solely as metaphors – submissive and empty symbols that ultimately diminish the humanity of man. Through Yeats’ symbolism and the subtle reinforcement of traditional female stereotypes, he reinstates the inferiority complex and legitimizes the patriarchal dominance that Lady Gregory denied.
Returning to Boland’s quotation regarding the writing of a woman out of legend, we begin to understand that literature is personal and often reflects the opinions and biases of the author. In their collaboration, Cathleen Ni Houlihan, Lady Gregory and William Butler Yeats present their audience with a paradox regarding the feminine condition and its relation to Irish nationalism. While Cathleen is depicted as an asexual mother of the nation and a mythical emblem of Irish nationalism, she is also an empty symbol that drives the distortion and marginalization of women. Through Cathleen’s character, Lady Gregory voices political statement, tackles patriarchal power structures and expresses her own frustrations towards the social restrictions of her time. Her text presents a forceful argument for the inclusion of women into the broader political sphere. Yeats, however, undermines these feminist ideologies by hollowing the role of the woman throughout the play. Serving merely as a symbol for the nation, he does not grant women political acknowledgement. Offering their audience diverging political statements, Lady Gregory and William Butler Yeats ultimately unite in their call for Irish nationalism.
Bradley, Anthony and Maryann Gialanella Valiulis. Gender and Sexuality in Modern Ireland. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1997.
Clark, Rosalind. The Great Queens: Irish Goddesses from the Morrigan to Cathleen ni Houlihan. Maryland: Barnes and Noble books, 1990. Print.
Cullingford, Elizabeth B. “Thinking of Her… as… Ireland: Yeats, Pearse and Heaney.” Taylor & Francis Online (2008): n. pag. Web.
Edward Royle and James Walvin, English Radicals and Reformers (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1981), p. 188.
Innes, C.L. Woman and Nation in Irish Literature and Society, 1880-1935. Hertfordshire: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993.
Kiberd, Declan. Inventing Ireland. London: Random House, 1996.
Maureen S.G. Hawkins. Ascendancy Nationalism, Feminist Nationalism, and Stagecraft in Lady Gregory’s Revision of Kincora. 1990.
Ryan, Louise and Margaret Ward, Irish Women and Nationalism, Soldiers, New Women, and Wicked Hags. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2004.
Yeats, William B., and Augusta Gregory. “Cathleen Ni Houlihan.” N.p., n.d. Web.
Depiction of the Apocalypse and The Second Coming in Works of William Blake and William Butler Yeats
Blake and Yeats Vision of the Apocalypse
William Blake and William Butler Yeats both reflected on the apocalypse and the second coming of Christ in their art and poetry. Yeats takes a darker look at the second coming, comparing the Christian age he was in as a “widening gyre” where “the center cannot hold” (lines 1, 3, 1073). The world in “The Second Coming” is falling apart with “anarchy loosed upon the world” and “blood-dimmed tide” (4-5). Yeats believes that the “Second Coming is at hand” and that a “rough beast” (the antichrist or perhaps new saviour) is “slouch[ing] towards Bethlehem to be born” (21-22). Yeats thinks that the apocalypse is near because of the bloodshed (caused by World War I) and injustices going on at that time. Blake, however, was inspired by the Romantic movement of his time that emphasized spirituality, emotions, and the natural world as close to god. Blake writes and paints about a judgement day, yet his version includes salvation through Jesus. In Blake’s painting, sinners are seen plummeting into the fiery lake of Hell, while those who have stood with god are seen on his right side, in Heaven. Both poets were inspired by their respective literary movements, major events happening in their time, and the overall attitude of their audience during the construction of their art.
Some symbols in Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming” are the gyre (a common symbol in Yeats’s poetry), the sphinx, and the Spiritus Mundi. The gyre is a recurrent self-made symbol of Yeats. It symbolizes a historical cycle ending, while another begins (Abrams & Greenblatt, 1073). These two historical cycles are categorized by both order and growth, as well as chaos and decay. Yeats was making an example of the world at his time ending, and making way for a new cycle — the second coming. The sphinx is a “common archetype of royalty” (Winston). The sphinx, which can also be referred to as the “rough beast,” symbolizes the spiritual being that heralds the second coming — one of heavenly (or hellish) royalty (line 22, 1074). The Spiritus Mundi is a “universal subconscious where the human race stores all past memories” (Abrams & Greenblatt, 1074). Yeats uses the Spiritus Mundi to predict the second coming of the “rough beast” (22). These symbols, especially the gyre, were a present concern with those in the early to mid 1900s. The gyre, expected to come to a new beginning/end in less than 100 years, plagued those who believed in its existence. The rough beast (the sphinx), is the creature needed to show those in the modern world their wrongdoings. Many symbols are influenced by the actions of those around Yeats and the beliefs/fears of the time.
Yeats’s “The Second Coming” deals with several themes, including the blurred lines between good and bad, spiritual and Earthly warfare, and lack of salvation. Many lines in “The Second Coming” demonstrate the ambiguity of good and bad, leaving the reader to question what is good and what is bad. In line six, Yeats writes that “the ceremony of innocence is drowned,” meaning that the rituals of the world before the second coming no longer mean anything; ceremonies that made the world “civilized” are now being annihilated. The inclusion of crumbling traditions also go along with a movement sparked by Freud that questions why man has specific roles in society and why do these social constructs exist. In lines seven through eight, Yeats says that “the best lack all conviction, while the worst / are full of passionate intensity” (lines 7-8, 1073). This attitude of good and bad not being absolute was a common theme in modern literature, especially post WWI. People believed that there was really no “good and bad” in regards to war, as many countries were just sending out soldiers to die (Rhee). A symbol in “The Second Coming” that displays the theme of ambiguity is the mysterious “rough beast” — neither a definite good nor bad in the poem. Though posed as menacing at first glance, the “rough beast” is never stated as bad (or good for that matter). He is described as “rough,” which is theorized (as Yeats never stated) that it is because the world will recieve a “rough” awakening (22).
Another theme in “The Second Coming” is spiritual and Earthly warfare. The entire poem is a countdown to the second coming, or as described in Revelations 12:7, “a war in heaven” (New American Standard Bible). The poem describes the Earthly warfare as “twenty centuries of stony sleep” that is “vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle” (lines 19-20, 1074). Yeats is referring to the last gyre (or historical cycle) that appeared at the birth of Christ (2000 years ago) and is now appearing again as the second coming is approaching. Lastly, Yeats takes the position in “The Second Coming” that there will not be salvation during the apocalypse. The first stanza explains that horrors of the apocalyptic world with “things fall[ing] apart,” “anarchy loosed upon the world,” and “blood-dimmed tide loosed” (3-5). The second stanza rhetorically states “surely some revelations at hand / surely the second coming is at hand,” leading the reader to believe that the second coming will be ushered in by a savior in this lost world (9-10). However, the only salvation Yeats refers to is that of the “rough beast” who “slouches towards Bethlehem to be born” (22). Those in Yeats’s time had a grim view of the future. WWI left little hope, and this view is reflected in the themes in “The Second Coming.” Good and bad were blurred at this time; countries who were previously thought as “good” switched to the “bad” through new policies, war tactics, and laws. Along with Earthly fighting, Yeats uses spiritual fighting to mimic the chaotic world. Lastly, the lack of salvation experienced during this second coming copies the despair and hopelessness that was a common belief at this time.
Contrasting to Yeats’s “The Second Coming” is William Blake’s “A Vision of the Last Judgement.” Blake describes his painting as “The Last Judgment when all those are Cast away who trouble Religion with Questions concerning Good & Evil or Eating of the Tree of those Knowledges or Reasonings which hinder the Vision of God turning all into a Consuming fire” (70). Some symbols in Blake’s painting are Jesus on the throne, bloody clouds, and Moses and Abraham. Jesus, the judge in the last judgement, is sitting upon a throne. All of the innocents stand at his right, while all of the wicked stand at his left, with a sea of fire underneath as a punishment to the wicked. Jesus is the one who decides the “good or wicked” nature of men, and whether they will fall into the pit of fire or live in Heaven with him. Blake writes, in his description of the painting, that Abel (the first killer) is “kneel[ing] on a bloody Cloud” (Blake, 80). The cloud symbolizes the churches before the Biblical flood — filled with blood, fire, and smoke. The cloud also symbolizes the eternal states of churches, and even though man does not live forever, the “ States remain for Ever he passes thro them like a traveller who may as well suppose that the places he has passed thro exist no more” (79). moses and Abraham are also symbols in “A Vision of the Last Judgement.” Blake says that Moses and Abraham “are not here meant but the States Signified by those Names the Individuals being representatives or Visions of those States,” meaning that though the Earthly body has passed on, their spirit lives eternally in Heaven. Both Moses and Abraham are standing at the right hand of Jesus, symbolizing their just and god-fearing lives. Abraham is standing above his abundance of children , while Moses stands above two shackled sinners who have perished in the flood. Moses stands above a multitude of others from the flood, who are falling head-first into the pit of fire. Blake’s background in religion helped sculpt the themes present in his painting. He includes many references to biblical characters and events, as well as goes along with some of Christianity’s beliefs: redemption, belief of a god, judgement, and salvation.
Some themes in “A Vision of the Last Judgement” are consequences from good and bad, salvation through love, and the eternal nature of human imagination and identity. Blake defines the consequences for men’s actions through reward or punishment; those who are good go to Heaven and those who are evil are cast to Hell. Blake describes the judgement as separated into two sides, with “The Just arise on his right & the wicked on his Left hand” (76). Among the Just are Abraham, Moses, Adam and Eve, and on the left with the wicked, Blake includes figures such as Cain, those who died in the flood, and other assorted sinners. Blake wants to convey to readers that though his vision of god is that he is a loving creator, he still must set a distinct line between those who live in sin and those who seek forgiveness. Blake clearly states that “they do not Expect Holiness from one another but from God only,” showing that god does not just accept those who are considered “holy,” but those who hold a belief in him — God, to Blake, is loving, kind, fair but tough (93). Blake paints a picture of a creator’s love and the want for his creations to be rewarded with Heaven. He notes that “Forgiveness of Sin is only at the Judgment Seat of Jesus the Saviour,” explaining that Jesus is the only one who can forgive a sin and accept the sinner. In the same sentence he describes that the “Accuser is cast out. not because he Sins but because he torments” (93). The epitome of sin — the devil — is not cast out because god is unforgiving and is vengeful, but because he does not want to be forgiven.
Blake writes that “In Eternity one Thing never Changes into another Thing Each Identity is Eternal” (79). He uses the example of Lot’s wife whose body was turned into a pillar of salt; her mortal body was changed, but her personal identity was left unchanged (79). Blake also writes that “Individuality never dies. but renews by its seed. just as so the Imaginative Image” (69). This eternal individuality and image can be seen as a mirror to the Christian version of a soul. The mortal body may change, but the individual’s identity and imagination are what follows them to judgement. Themes in “A Vision of the Last Judgement” coincide with the beliefs of the Romantic period: imagination, individuality, spirituality, sublime, and emotion.
Blake and Yeats are a product of their environments and literary movements. Their poetry reflects the common idea of the beliefs within their culture because of their time periods and the mindsets of their audiences. Yeats, a modernist and religious-skeptic wrote “The Second Coming” with dark tones and themes because that is what his audience believed at the time due to World War I, decline in spirituality, and traditional societal roles. Blake, a Romantic and religious writer, painted his “A Vision of the Last Judgement” as his readers saw the world coming to an end — Jesus judging and forgiving them on the throne. They lived in two time periods with vastly different ideals on religion, spirituality, and the end of the world.
Yeats’s time period, beliefs and movements helped sculpt the writing of “The Second Coming.” The poem was written during the aftermath of WWI. Historically, debts were high (136% of gross national product), Britain ceased as an economic power, unemployment was at a record high (11.3%), and there was the question of “necessary” war (The National Archives). Many writers wrote in a backlash against WWI and the cruelties that came with it. Novels such as All Quiet on the Western Front and poems such as “Dulce et Decorum Est” condemned war and brought to light the soldier’s plight to the public. Along with this decline in power, money, and economy, Britain began a new literary movement called Modernism. Some values of this movement include faithlessness, skepticism, confused sense of identity, loss of social value meaning, pessimism, alienation, and despair (Kuiper). This seemed to go against the previous movement’s values of restraint, faith, optimism and known identity. The Modernist movement and literature that comes from it shows that “the enormity of the war had undermined humankind’s faith in the foundations of Western society and culture, and postwar Modernist literature reflected a sense of disillusionment and fragmentation” (Kuiper). Yeats’s views in the poem reflect the war-torn period of when he wrote “The Second Coming.”
Blake, although not under an established religion, is spiritual. He grew up Christian and was even baptized on 11 December (Wilson, 2). Later in life, Blake did not agree with most of Christianity’s principles, although still believing in a god, so he created a belief system for himself based off Greek mythology and Christianity (Fry, 11). His Christian background and later belief system gave him a foundation of spirituality in which he made “A Vision of the Last Judgement.”
Although Blake and Yeats both wrote on the same subject, their interpretations are completely different. Blake writes of love of Jesus as the judge and the salvation of those who are worthy (as well as the condemnation of those who are wicked), while Yeats takes the stance of no salvation, with the second coming of an unknown entity. The pessimistic and fear-written nature of the literary movement of Modernism compared with the optimistic and spiritual nature of the Romanticism movement helps explain the different viewpoints of both authors.