Modernism in Symbolism and Imagery as Presented in the Works of W.B. Yeats Analytical Essay

July 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

Updated: Jun 17th, 2019


Modernism is a term that refers to a movement in art and literature that began in the late 19th century and extended through the early days of the 20th century (Coughlan and Davis 5). The proponents of this movement sought to distinguish themselves from traditional and classical artists and writers.

The movement initially emerged as a form of rebellion by artists and scholars to the 19th century standards of artistic and literally practices (Perloff 13). This essay seeks to show how imagery and symbolism as elements of modernistic writing are presented in the works of poet William Butler Yeats.

The main intention is to come up with a paper that can be used for reference purposes when it comes to the subject of modernism in literature. To this end, three of the popular symbols in the writer’s premier works shall be analyzed in consideration to their relationship with modernism. For the purposes of this research various forms of scholarly material including books and journals shall be consulted.

In laying down the foundation of the essay, the key terms that pertain to the discussion shall be briefly discussed. Among the items to be covered in this section includes an explanation of how Yeats managed to escape romanticism to build a name as a modernist. The themes and motifs that guided the poet’s works shall be described here.

After this groundwork, the essay shall delve into the main discussion citing the works of different authors and the poet himself. Finally, a conclusion that wraps up the entire paper will be made alongside recommendations.

The primary aim of this research process is to illustrate that through the embracing of different strategies, Yeats managed to come out as modern poet. This is irrespective of the fact that the strategies were conscious or subconscious.

Characteristics of the modernist movement

Modernism, as presented in literature came with its own style of writing, which mainly required that reality be presented in a creative and indirect way. In modernist literature, different forms of writing could have different interpretation depending on the point of view of the reader (Redman 41). However, the information contained in any piece of writing had to be immediately discernible by the target audiences.

Modernist literature was also subjective in nature and placed emphasis on impressionism. Writers of the time had an apparent shift from objectivity and they introduced an omniscient third-person narrator as well as fixed narrative points of view (Croft 78; Paul 19). In the telling of the story, the writers broke down their narratives into fragments and introduced some element of discontinuity.

Modernism also married the various genres of writing with each other in such a way that poetry appeared like prose and prose assumed the form of poetry (Kenner 157; King 73). Different pieces of writing even by the same writer called for uniqueness. The movement was also characterized by liberalism in both literary and artistic fields. The artists and writers of the time were permitted to experiment with newer styles of writing.

It was also permissible for the writers and artists to merge different styles to come up with unique styles that easily distinguished their works from those of other works (Weinberger 23, 56). Writers who subscribed to this art movement at times deliberately disregarded the established rules of writing to adopt those that met their desired purposes.

In this regard, there was no specific set of rules that writers had to follow in order for their works to be considered modern. Finally, modernism embraced themes based on daily living. The writers who subscribed to the movement addressed the issues that plagued society at the time, as opposed to dwelling on fantasies.

Imagery and symbolism

Imagery and symbolism are both stylistic elements of literature, commonly used in poetry (Guest 14). Imagery is the description of an object or situation with the aim of helping the reader create a visual of the same in his mind. To achieve this, the writer needs to pay attention to vivid description and keenly lay down all the necessary details.

In order to create a clear mental picture, the author has to ensure that the tone he uses is representative of the events happening in the scene. The writer also needs to ensure that the point of view from which the description is being made suits the situation.

A description made from the first person and omniscient narrator points of view will be easy to relate to from the reader’s perspective as compared to one made from the third person point of view. Symbolism on the other hand is the usage of one object or scene to describe something else. For instance, a hare may be used in a piece of writing to represent a very crafty person.

In writing, the author can use anything whose attributes are well known to the prospective readers to describe another. The two elements can be used independently or together with each other to help make the writers work both interesting to read while at the same time conveying the intended message.

Regarding the usage of the two elements of writing in modern work, both were extensively used to give further explanation to the ideas raised by the authors.

Yeats and his break from romanticism to modernism

Yeats is fundamentally considered a modern poet. However, his earlier works contained many elements associated with Romanticism. These include escapism, high imagination, subjectivity, romantic melancholy, interest in myth and folklore (Jeffares 121). A keen evaluation of his ealier poems indicates that he heavily borrowed from Romantic poets Keats and Shelley.

One of Yeats’ most renowned romantic poems was the The lake Isle of Innisfree. In the poem, Yeats lays down the theme subjectively and imaginatively. The isle is his ideal place of romance, with its associated elements of beauty being creations of the poets’ imagination.

The poem titled The Stolen Child is another of Yeats’ works that are laden with features that put in the romanticism era (Vendler 130). Yeats, by his imagination, creates a dreamy world, Sleuth Wood, where people seeking to escape from the troubles of the world seek solace.

The Wild Swans at Coole is another of Yeats’ works that fits in the Romantic generation of writing. In the poem Yeats paints the image of a highly romantic environment, whose beauty is defined by the image of Swans perched on stones.

Speaking of the swans, the poet says, “Their hearts have not grown old; Passion or conquest, wander where they will; Attend upon them still,” (Yeats 91). In these lines, Yeats tries to present the swans as the basic representatives of the high quality life he desires.

In works done after 1910, Yeats borrowed on the influence of Ezra Pound, in regards to the extensive usage of imagery and the conciseness of facts. In this regard, he abandoned the usage of traditional poetic diction and began presenting his themes in a more direct and concise manner.

He also started addressing public themes instead of placing emphasis on the elements of his own imagination. Most of the works that introduced him as modernist were linked to the First World War and the civil turmoil happening in Ireland.

Yeats was against the war and in the poems written towards the end of his life he made sure he presented this view in an explanatory tone.

In The Second Coming, Yeats tries to explain why people have turned against each other saying, “Things fall apart; the entire world cannot hold…The best lack all conviction, while the worst…” (Vendler 170). In these lines Yeats indicates that the world is crumbling because of people’s disregard for respect to each other.

Pessimism is one of the identifiers of modern poetry and it is by extensive usage of the feature in some of his poems that Yeats receives attention as a Modernist.

The end of his relationship with Maud Gonne and his break up with the Irish National Movement led the bitterness that is presented in the poem in Poems such as Adam’s Curse and To a shade (Ryan 19;65). For instance the last two lines of To a shade read, “You had enough of Sorrow before death-Away, away; you are safer in the tomb,” (Vendler 113)

These lines clearly indicate the pessimistic views that Yeats had developed and by presenting them in his poem, he ended up passing as modernist. Poets from the modernist era were fundamentally scientific.

However, there was some elements of mysticism in some of their works, something that was well defined in poems by Yeats. Yeats fronted the idea of spiritual exaltation in the poem titled Sailing to Byzantium (Vendler). This is evidenced in the line that says, “Soul clap its hands and sing,” (Yeats 95).

Another element of poetry that characterized Yeats’ later works as modern was humanism. The grim realities of life under the shadow of the war made Yeats and other poets of his time focus on works that touched on the humanistic side of life. For instance, in the poem Easter 1916, Yeats wrote, “He had done most bitter wrong, To some who are near my heart,” (Finneran 181)

In these two lines, Yeats comes out as a human being who has to deal with the challenges that life bring along on a day to day basis. Yeats inculcation into modernism came gradually and with some resistance, but by the time of his death, he had gotten into the system as has been exemplified above.

In order to fully grasp the usage of various elements of modern writing in Yeats works, it is first important to grasp the themes and motifs that defined his poems. The two elements have been briefly discussed below, with their manifestation in different works by the author given mention.


Politics and art as compatible partners

Yeats started off as an artist. He later ended up in politics, something that greatly influenced the presentation of his poems. Yeats was of the belief that art and politics were inseparable and that is why he used his latter day works to teach his audiences on the politics of the day. As a young poet, Yeats was not impressed by the impact that British rule had placed on his country of birth, Ireland.

According to him, Ireland was a beautiful uncorrupted land which would have remained peaceful had the British not come on to exert their influence. In his early poems, Yeats was committed to praising the beauty and mystery of Ireland. Because of his fascination with the myths, his works continually made references to the mythic figures such as Oisin.

With time, Yeats had completely adopted a political stance, with his poems greatly representing his political views and proposals. Questioned about this approach, Yeats hinted that poems could be used as avenues for making political commentary as well as platforms for educating the masses.


Because of the strong support that Yeats had, his earlier works were grounded on a philosophical structure that placed emphasis on the fact that all events in life happen as a consequence of a series of events.

Yeats shunned Christianity but in dedicating time to understand the elements of spirituality, he ended up founding a new concept of spirituality that was mainly defined by usage of gyres to show the direction that a person’s life would take. Jordan explains that in poems such as Leda and the Swan and The Second Coming Yeats presents a situation that is uniquely determined by fate, and which cannot be avoided (Jordan 145).

Through such concepts, Yeats asserts his belief that history is a component of fate and that it cannot be simply altered.



Growing up in England, Yeats developed a keen interest in poetry and the literature of the occult. This led to him adopting mysticism as definers of his poetic style. For instance, he commonly used gyres to explain the path that the soul takes and the passage of time.

Nationalism and Politics

Having been born in Ireland, Yeats had the interest of the country at heart and this was reflected in the way he incorporated Irish themes in his poems. In most of his works, Yeats made a point to educate the readers on Irish history. This was mainly illustrated in the way he introduced Irish mythical characters in his works. Over time, and as he entered into the political arena, Yeats made sure that his poems were patriotic in nature.

For instance, in the poem An Irish airman foresees his death, Yeats tries to condemn the usage of Irish soldiers to fight for the British, terming the British as hypocritical (Pritchard 73). In the poems The Second Coming and Leda and the Swan Yeats uses images of violence to condemn the chaos and disorder happening around the world as a consequence of the ongoing war.

Symbolism in Yeats’ works

This section shall critically evaluate the usage of three symbols in Yeats’ works. These symbols are: the Gyre (in The Second Coming), the Swan (in Leda and the Swan; The Wild Swans at Coole) and the Great Beast (in The Second Coming).

The beast

The Second Coming is one of Yeats’ visually-symbolic poems of all time. The poet uses a combination of symbols and an emotional element to pass his message across to the reader. In the poem, we are first introduced to imagery representing disaster.

Destruction is happening all around, with everything falling apart. The speaker in the poem exclaims that the second coming is looming. His voice ends up summoning a sphinx-like animal in the desert to emerge from a sleep last two millennia. With the night coming, the creature advances towards Bethlehem.

After vividly describing an apocalyptic end to the world, Yeats presents a unique turn of events, coming in the form of a sphinx, which has been asleep for 2000 years. The lion with a human’s head is a symbolic image that comes from the Bible (in the Book of Revelation). The lion is known for brute strength while the human head represents intellect.

Because of the emotionless gaze in its eyes, the reader is repelled by the creature, which to some extent represents death. And there is pending death on its arrival at its set destination, a symbolization of the destruction of old ideas and the birth of new ones. The work is highly symbolic with conscious creativity and imagery presenting in the style of writing.

In the poem, Yeats makes subtle references to events mentioned in the Bible but because of the creativity employed in getting the message across, everything comes out as creations of his imagination.

For example, the sphinx he makes reference to has previously been mentioned in the Bible, but because he uses it to symbolize the evil that is about to come to an end, it easily passes as his creation. This mix of vivid description and reference to things that have meaning in society allows the poem to fall in the modernist era.

The gyre

The poem title The Second Coming was published immediately after the end of the First World War (Longenbach 25). Having witnessed the chaos, Yeats came to a conclusion that the world was coming to an end. He chose the title the second coming derived from the Christian belief that at when the world comes to an end, Jesus will come through to rule.

However, having been influenced by theories of the occult, Yeats had a different view of how the world would come to an end, which was very different from the Christian version of the apocalypse (Woods 74).

In the poem, Yeats’ paints a scene in which the falcon is spinning in the movement of gyre, with the motion causing it not to hear the falconer. This is presented in the first stanza which reads, “Turning and turning in the widening gyre; The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;” (Yeats 91).

A gyre is a concept in Yeats’ later writing describing a whirling motion that starts at the tip of a cone and moving towards the wide end. At the broad end, the movement changes direction to go the other way, while at the same changes the direction in which the cone spins. Yeats fronted the philosophy that everything in the universe could be described using cycles.

Initially, he explained the different phases of life using the varying phases of the moon, but later he adopted the concept of gyres as a more appropriate base for presening his ideas. The gyres present Yeats’ belief in the fact that fate dictates how life presents as well as his spiritual views towards the growth of the soul.

Yeats tells of a situation in which the falcon cannot hear the call to move to safety and as it wanders around it begins to spiral out of control. Yeats tells that with the sweeping tide of events, the centre of the gyre is weakened immensely. The gyre’s centre is the modern society whose weakening is represented by a laxity in morals. In fourth line, Yeats says that mere anarchy is let loose upon the world (Harper 124).

This anarchy refers to the confusion and chaos currently going on, with the entire world bound to fall to its consequences. In subsequent lines, the poet vividly describes a society that is coming to a tragic end, with “the best becoming bad and the worst becoming good” (Jeffares 59).

Jeffares, in his writing, asserts that in this line Yeats confirms that society has turned upside down, with good morals being shunned in favor of immorality. Unfortunately, this situation is leading the society to self-destruction.

In the development of the plot, this description is used to illustrate to show that the world is falling apart with the evil emerging triumphant. Destruction is happening all around, with everything falling apart. The vivid description Yeats gives helps the reader vividly visualize the damage caused.

The significance of the gyres in the poem has been well studied by various scholars. Richard Finneran in his definitive edition of Yeats’ poems borrows from Yeats’ own saying:

The end of an age, which always receives the revelation of the character of the next age, is represented by the coming of one gyre to its place of greatest expansion and of the other to its place of greatest contraction… The revelation [that] approaches will… take its character from the contrary movement of the interior gyre… (Finneran 493)

In this statement, Finneran asserts that the world’s motion in the gyre of democracy and heterogeneity is breaking apart in the same way that the falcon is on a destabilizing whirl. In essence, Finneran provides a further explanation of the working of gyres, while at the same time tries to give relevance to its application in the poem.

The Swan

The Swans in different poems by Yeats have been taken by different scholars to mean different things. For example, Cleeve indicates that in the poem Ninteen Hundred and Nineteen, the swans are representatives of the subjective person (Cleeve 101). In contrast, Jeffares, speaking of the same symbol syas that it represents the isolated soul (Jeffares 49)

Swans are beautiful and peaceful birds which are commonly used in poetry to describe an ideal situation. In The Wild Swans at Coole Yeats uses the swans to describe a unique and static ideal. Yeats says, “I have looked upon those brilliant creatures, And now my heart is sore,” (Finneran 131).

In these lines, Yeats defines the swans as creatures that bring peace to a person’s heart by just looking at them. In the poem, Swans are used to represent the youth, with their vibrant enthusiasm and excitement.

The poem Leda and the Swan tells the story of Leda, who was raped by the god Zeus. Zeus had taken the form of a swan and after the encounter Leda laid eggs which later hatched to give rise to Clytemnestra, Helen, Castor and Polydeuces (Foster 58). In this poem, Yeats uses the swan to describe a destructive creature, whose actions lead to war and destruction.

Common knowledge has it that swans are harmless water birds, whose gracefulness is traditionally used to symbolize love. The description of the Swan by Yeats as violent and terrifying, instead of graceful and peaceful, ends up manipulating common poetic conventions ultimately ensuring that the poem falls squarely in the modernism era. In the poem, Yeats had set out to define the evils that were affecting Ireland.

At the time a society that had appeared calm and peaceful had turned into one full of chaos and disharmony. It is with this backdrop in mind that Yeats decided to use a swan gone bad to represent the discord. He also shows that the evil landed in the society without prior warning, when he says:

“A sudden blow: the great wings beating still; Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed; By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill, He holds her helpless breast upon his breast,” (Finneran 214).

The swan caught the girl by surprise and went on to take advantage of her because of its overwhelming power. This is much the same way that societal wars came to affect Ireland in the early 20th century. The undesirable traits entered the country without prior warning and when they struck, they struck hard.

The poem presents Yeats as a modern poet by the fact that it seeks to address a serious social issue and not a subject of fantasy as would have been the case had he still been committed to Romanticism. However, the fact that he still sticks to an established poetic arrangement, mildly presents him as a romantic writer. The modernism elements outweigh the features of romanticism.


This study had set out to illustrate how modernism manifests in literature and particularly in poetry. The works of renowned poet William Butler Yeats were used to illustrate how imagery and symbolism, the two key literary elements of the modernism movement, manifest in written work. From the research and subsequent writing, it has been shown that Yeats had mastered the usage of symbolism in his poems.

Three of the symbols presenting in the poet’s premier works had been selected for analysis and were given and in-depth evaluation, particularly in their relation to the current study. Their meanings in the development of the plot of the specific poems in which they appear have been well expounded on, with a linkage provide to their relevance in defining the writer as a modernist.

In this regard, it has been concluded that Yeats was one of very many poets of his day who applied the elements of modernism to their works. It has also been shown that he was one of the most influential and whose poems have been the subject of analysis by many a scholar.

It is worth noting that even though this essay has met the objectives it had initially set out to meet, it is by no means exhaustive. More analysis on the same topic can be done using the works of different poets or other works by Yeats.

Works Cited

Cleeve, Brian. W.B. Yeats and the Designing of Ireland’s Coinage. New York: Dolmen Press, 1972. Print.

Coughlan, Patricia and Alec Davis. Modernism and Ireland: The Poetry of the 1930s. Ireland: Cork University Press, 1995.Print.

Croft, Barbara L. Stylistic Arrangements: A Study of William Butler Yeats’ A Vision, USA: Bucknell University Press, 1987. Print.

Finneran, Richard. The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats Volume I: The Poems: Revised. United Kingdom: Simon and Schuster, 1996. Print.

Foster, Roy. W. B. Yeats: A Life, Vol. II: The Arch-Poet 1915–1939. New York: Oxford UP, 2003. Print.

Guest, Barbara. Herself Defined: The Poet H.D. and Her World. New York: Collins, 1985. Print.

Harper, George Mills.Yeats and the Occult. Canada: Macmillan of Canada and Maclean-Hunter Press, 1975. Print.

Jeffares, Norman. A New Commentary on the Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1984. Print.

Jordan, Anthony J. The Yeats Gonne MacBride Triangle. Connecticut: Westport Books, 200. Print.

Kenner, Hugh. The Pound Era. United Kingdom: Faber & Faber, 1973. Print.

King, Francis. The Magical World of Aleister Crowley. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1978. Print.

Longenbach, James. Stone Cottage: Pound, Yeats, and Modernism. New York: Oxford UP, 1988. Print.

Paul, Catherine. Poetry in the Museums of Modernism: Yeats, Pound, Moore, Stein. Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2002. Print.

Perloff, Marjorie. The Poetics of Indeterminacy. Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1999. Print.

Pritchard, William. W. B. Yeats: A Critical Anthology. UK: Penguin, 1972. Print.

Raine, Kathleen. Yeats, the tarot, and the Golden Dawn. Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1972. Print.

Redman, Tim. Ezra Pound and Italian Fascism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Print.

Ryan, Philip. The Lost Theatres of Dublin. Wiltshire: The Badger Press, 1998. Print.

Vendler, Helen. Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form. Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2007. Print.

Weinberger, Eliot. The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry. New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 2004. Print.

Yeats, William. W.B. Yeats: The Major Work. OUP, 2001. Print.

Woods, Tim. The Poetics of the Limit: Ethics and Politics in Modern and Contemporary American Poetry. NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. Print.

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