Identifying the Main Themes of Yeats’ The Wild Swans at Coole, Easter 1916, and The Second Coming
From the poems studied so far, three of Yeats main concerns are change, beliefand pessimism that life and the future does not hold joy. The notion of change ispresent in all three poems, but different kinds of change are examined such aspersonal change (The Wild Swans at Coole), social change (Easter 1916), and globalchange (The Second Coming). The concept of belief is also displayed in all poems -in The Wild Swans at Coole it is the narrator s belief in himself; in Easter 1916 it isthe belief of the revolutionaries; and in The Second Coming it is religious belief.Pessimistic views on life are also exhibited in each poem, because of loss of love inThe Wild Swans at Coole, loss of life in Easter 1916, and the imminent end of theworld in The Second Coming. Many of Yeats poems deal with the concept of change in various forms. The WildSwans at Coole deals with change on a personal level. The narrator is reflecting uponthe changes in his own life in contrast to the constancy of nature. Though Yeats andthe world he knows have changed since he first counted the swans, the unwearied swans continue their lives. Passion or conquest are still essentially theirs becausetheir natures have not changed. They paddle on the lake lover by lover , living bythe instinct of their species, in contrast to Yeats whose heart is sore becausechange has affected him – All s changed since I…trod with a lighter tread .
Theswans All suddenly mount/ And scatter before Yeats is ready, signifying Yeats unwillingness to change. Yeats sees the swans as emblems of the timelessness ofnature and beauty, as they do not perceive change, and though individuals such ashimself come and go, the species remains. This inconstancy in life creates for Yeatsa desire for immortality and a craving to understand the unity of being. Yeats feelsthat it is the changes that are entrenched in his own life that will inevitably causehis own death. Conversely, the swans seem not to change, and as a result, seemalmost immortal. In Easter 1916, the change Yeats addresses is a social change brought on by therevolutionaries, and the changing views people held about them. Initially, Yeatstells us that the revolutionaries were just everyday people that he passed with anod of the head/Or polite meaningless words He is now reflecting on a time whenhe used to pass these people every day and had the chance to talk to them. Nowthey are dead and he wishes he had stopped to talk to them and taken themseriously. He describes the revolutionaries as being enchanted to a stone/ Totrouble the living stream . Nature is forever changing, minute by minute but these hearts with one purpose alone do not change as time passes. This isrepresentative of the revolutionaries utter devotion to their cause as life continuesaround them. Yeats states finally that MacDonagh and MacBride/ And Connollyand Pearse….Are changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born . Yeatsrecognizes that the view that he and the people of Ireland have held of these peoplebefore the revolution has changed simply because they have died for their cause.The phrase All changed, changed utterly is repeated three times during the poem,emphasizing Yeats dismay at the huge change which has taken place. The Second Coming deals with a change which has yet to come that will affect thewhole world.
In it Yeats describes the describes the events and changes which hebelieves will herald the second coming of Christ. There will be chaos in nature,which is opposite to the timeless, unchanging presentation of nature in Yeats otherpoems. The falcon cannot hear the falconer – things become out of control as mere anarchy is loosed upon the world . The troubles Yeats refers to are WorldWar I, the Easter Rising and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, and to him, all ofthese changes in the world could possible be proclaiming the Second Coming sapproach. In the poem Yeats also suggests that the Second Coming will also usherin the rebirth of a pagan era, and the shape with lion body and the head of a man ,like the pagan sphinx, will slouch towards Bethlehem to be born , just as Christ didat the start of the reign of Christianity. This would be a change of enormousproportions on a global scale as, since Christianity is the world s most practicedreligion, the reawakening of paganism would mean a complete transformation ofworld religion. Belief is another concern present in Yeats poetry. In The Wild Swans At Coole, Yeatsdeals with the ideas of personal belief, and belief in self. This poem was writtenshortly after his marriage proposal was rejected by Maud Gonne, and the poet isevidently feeling depressed and low, and is here seen questioning himself and hissurroundings. In the poem, Yeats is examining his belief in himself by contrastinghis situation with that of the swans. He feels incomplete, which is shown throughthe nine-and-fifty swans and the nineteenth summer , both of which areincomplete, one number short of being perfect scores. This feeling ofincompleteness and vulnerability due to the ever-changing surroundings he is incause Yeats to question his belief in himself. Yeats looks at the swans with envy asthey can paddle unwearied still…their hearts have not grown old .
Swans aretraditionally a symbol of strength and fidelity and following his rejection from MaudGonne, he looks to the faithfulness of the swans invidiously. He too used to sharethe belief that mating is for life, but now the person who he had envisaged as beinghis soulmate has again turned him down. This is what provokes him to examiningthe lifestyle of the swan. The revolutionaries represent belief in Easter 1916, as they sacrificed their lives forwhat they believed. Yeats admires this quality in them and refers to them and theirmovement as a stone – stable and unfaltering in their belief while they troublethe living stream as their beliefs are not accepted by society. All manner of othermovement and change occurs within society ( The horse… a shadow of cloud… ahorse-hoof… the long-legged moor hens) as minute by minute they change and minute by minute they live . He then goes on to question whether or not it was allworth it for them to give their lives for their views – Was it needless death after all?
The terrible beauty that is born in the poem is that the bloodshed and death ofthe heroes created an awareness of their belief that Ireland needed independence,and now their belief has subsequently become, through their death, the belief ofthousands of others – We know their dream . The revolutionaries have resignedtheir part in the casual comedy in favour of pursuing their beliefs, which ledultimately to their collective demise. However, the poem itself is anacknowledgment of their conviction, while simultaneously being an articlequestioning the need for bloodshed in such a situation. The Second Coming deals with religious beliefs, especially through the image of thebeast.
Every religion has a belief about an apocalypse and a saviour, and in thepoem Yeats has combined Jewish and Christian views in creating his beast and itssurroundings. The Jewish belief has presented God as merciless and strong warriorwith an intent to punish the evil and misled, but also counteracts with their beliefthat God is a father figure, acting as a guide or shepherd. Evidence of this aspect ofbelief in the poem is the relation between the falcon and falconer – it can beinterpreted that the falconer is God, who usually leads and guides the falcon, whoare the followers of the religion. In the Jewish belief, the messiah comes but thepeople disregard him, just as in the poem The falcon cannot hear the falconer. The Christian belief personifies evil in the shape of a beast, which is possibly whereYeats found the idea of the beast in his poem. It is also responsible for the secondcoming idea which is derived from the Christian belief that Christ will come again.The poem also shows the idea that this event will be such an intense experience forthe believers of these religions that The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity at being confronted with the pinnacle of their belief. A final concern Yeats shows us through his poetry is the pessimistic notion that lifedoes not ultimately bring happiness. In The Wild Swans at Coole, Yeats is feelingdejected and displeased with the world and his life after he was discarded by MaudGonne. The tone of the poem is very melancholy as a result. Yeats says that once,he trod with a lighter tread , implying that now his feet are heavy and weary as hetrudges through his life in discontent. He feels that as he grows older andapproaches the autumn and twilight of his life he is becoming more isolated andeverything which gives him pleasure, even the swans, is moving away from him. Thisis a sudden and unwelcome change for Yeats whose reluctance to change is presentin many of his poems. Yeats heart is sore with thinking about the loss he hasendured by losing Maud, and even the swans all suddenly mount/ And scatter before he is ready. He dreads the time when he would awake some day/ To findthey have flown away as they are representative of what faith he has left in life. The loss of the revolutionaries lives in Easter 1916 causes Yeats to take on onceagain his pessimistic view on life.
The revolutionaries with their vivid faces oncerepresented an optimistic and directed view in life – they were so devoted to theircause and really believed that they could make a difference in the history of Ireland.However, they end up becoming martyred, and do not live to see the changes theyinstigated in their country s advancement. Yeats describes them as throughsummer and winter seem/ Enchanted to a stone/ To trouble the living stream. Even their heroic attempts to change the way of life in their country are seen as trouble by the living stream . The passion they had for their cause induced their needless death , and Yeats wonders if they felt fulfilled and had joy before theirdeath – And what if excess love/ Bewildered them till they died? Yeats pessimisticattitude leads to the line A terrible beauty is born , as while it is in essence apositive occurrence for the aim the revolutionaries had, he cannot see it as anentirely good thing because they had to sacrifice their lives, which is terrible . Yeats even condemns dreaming as worthless in the long run, as they dreamed andare dead . In The Second Coming, Yeats pessimism is as a result of the society in turmoil. Atthe time he wrote the poem, events such as the Easter Rising, World War I and theBolshevik Revolution had been taking place. Yeats felt that this action was typical ofan anarchic age and as a sign that an apocalyptic age was near. He saw thebreaking up of nations as riotous and as a repudiation of all authority, as in thepoem things fall apart; the centre cannot hold . The fact that the falcon cannothear its falconer establishes the sense of anarchy which is sustained throughout thepoem, as the falcon abandons the falconer, who is its master. Yeats is so despairingat the state of the world, and expectant that it heralds the end of the world that herepeats surely and is at hand . Also, Yeats suggests that the second coming thatChristians all look to will in fact not be of Christ but a resurrection of paganism,meaning that the Christian belief system was all falsehood and the dedicatedfollowers of Christianity and all their predecessors would have observed its rulesbaselessly. This is the utmost in Yeats pessimistic view that the future holds nojoy, as believers of Christianity will have wasted their lives for a cheerless end.
In conclusion, three of Yeats main concerns as found in his poems The Wild Swansat Coole, Easter 1916 and The Second Coming are change, belief, and pessimism thatlife and the future ultimately will bring no pleasure. The Wild Swans at Coole showsYeats hesitance to welcome change in his life, his beliefs in love and in himselfbeing subverted and pessimism due to the loss of his great love, Maud Gonne.Easter 1916 explicates society s changing views of the revolutionaries before andafter their deaths, the beliefs adhered to by the activists, and Yeats pessimism thattheir endeavours to better the country have ended in death, and they cannot evenmarvel in the fact that they have begun making a difference. And finally in TheSecond Coming, Yeats explores a religious change on a global scale, the religiousbeliefs which drove him to create the beast and the other images in his poem , andhe is alienated because of the predicament the world is in and that the resurrectionof pagan doctrines will mean the Christians who so faithfully followed their religionfor millennia will have done so needlessly, and thus will receive no final satisfactionfrom their lives.
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