Yeats was born and educated in Dublin, but spent his childhood in County Sligo. He studied poetry in his youth and from an early age was fascinated by both Irish legends and the occult. Those topics feature in the first phase of his work, which lasted roughly until the turn of the 20th century. From 1900, Yeats’ poetry grew more physical and realistic. He largely renounced the transcendental beliefs of his youth, though he remained preoccupied with physical and spiritual masks, as well as with cyclical theories of life. The destruction of the passing of time has become a very commonly expressed topic in poetry. WB Yeats is one of the many poets who have expressed the unstoppable destroying capability and the loss of beauty as the grains of sand slip through the hourglass of time. The Wild Swans at Coole and In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz are two pieces of Yeats’ work that illustrates the ageing process and its consequences that all people choose to avoid. In The Wild Swans at Coole, Yeats doesn’t hold back on his expression of the passing of time.
“The trees are in their autumn beauty, the woodland paths are dry” Yeats is the “autumn” of his life, a time where he feels constantly empty, hurt and broken. The “nineteenth autumn has come upon him” and “upon the brimming water among the stones” are the same “nine and fifty swans” which had been there nineteen years earlier. The mist of time is clouding over. He feels that his dreams have been shattered and the remaining pieces were carried away upon the swans “clamorous wings” as they scattered and took off in flight. His “heart is sore” as he looks upon the swans, he admires the beauty of the swans whilst they evoke a feeling of a sorrowful longing for youth in the pit of Yeats’ stomach.
Nineteen year ago he “trod with a lighter tread” when the loss of innocence and the baggage of life and old age wasn’t weighing him down. He was a happier man then and the human condition was only hibernating in the back of his mind. He comes to the conclusion that he will never be happy and will die as a lonely old man. I really enjoyed studying this poem. It felt like I was experiencing a philosophical journey with Yeats a he battles against the passing of time. It painted a beautiful word picture and created an atmosphere that made my mind wonder and reflect, to look at my own life and how it has changed as time passed. The incongruous detail is mind boggling, but then again the quintessential of a poet isn’t always as stereotypical as it seems.
In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz really plucked at my heart strings. The sorrowful and emotional image of Lisadell House, where the beautiful image of the “two girls in silk kimonos” who grace the scene, are quickly transformed into lifeless shadows like the” raving autumn sheers blossom from the summer’s wreath.” Con Markiewicz “drags out lonely years whilst conspiring in slum attempting to evoke people’s interest in Irish freedom after she was pardoned from condemned death. She was transformed by time into a skeleton of her former self. A heart breaking image floods into my mind of an abandoned, ill elderly woman wandering the streets alone, stopping people and debating Irish freedom. Yeats highlight that Eva, the other beauty became “withered, old and skeleton gaunt.” This image graphically displays the ageing and the decay of beauty that accompanies the passing of time. Yeats is struggling to understand what “all the folly and the fight” is about.
The theme ‘passing of time’ is present in many more of Yeats’ poems but in my opinion these two poems display his concern perfectly as he reflects on life in all its beauty and sadness. He communicates with ghosts of his old, dearly missed friends “dear shadows, now you know it all” it seems that he is asking them for guidance and an explanation for the mystery of life. Yeats comes to the conclusion that “the innocent and the beautiful have no enemy but time” Escapism is another theme I find quite captivating in Yeats’ poems. In the case of The lake Isle of Innisfree, Yeats is yearning for the sanctuary of Innisfree where he finds peace. He wants to leave the city and escape to nature. He feels he has been engulfed by the rat race of city life and as a result has lost his communication with nature. Although, the poem Sailing to Byzantium deals with a completely different sense of escapism. In this case Yeats wants to escape from nature to the holy land of Byzantium. He desires to achieve a permanence which is not possible in reality. To Yeats, Byzantium represents an artistic magnificence and permanence.
When I read The Lake Isle of Innisfree, I develop an image in my head of Yeats walking through crowded city streets, subjecting himself to vehicle fumes, dust, noise and the irritation of rubbing elbows with others made him stop and fantasise about Innisfree, a place where the way of life and the ways of living are completely different. All will have such place in mind. For Yeats it’s the quiet and placid lake isle of Innisfree. Yeats is lying buried under and entangled in the clutches of mad city life. It has become so unbearable and suffocating to him that if it continues to go on so, “he will arise and go to Innisfree” and never return. “nine bean rows will he have there, a hive for the honey bee and live alone in the bee-loud glade” he wants the secluded and self-sufficient life that would be possible if he lived there. He will turn to cultivation of beans, a sustaining, nutritious, easy-to-produce food. And he will place a bee-hive somewhere on the island and collect enough honey. Thus he will lead a satisfied and self-sufficient life there, listening to the humming of bees, and lying alone in that bee-loud glade.
What a contrast to the thick city life in Belfast or London. “And I will have some peace, for peace comes dropping low, dropping from the veils of the morning to where the crickets sing” In Innisfree. Yeats will finally be able to get a little peace. The poet’s conception of peace is quite different from that of others and is strange but lovely. In modern times, peace is an interval between two wars. His idea of peace is based on the usual early morning sights in a rustic island life. The crickets have been singing and shrieking all through the night, the dew of night and the morning mist condensed into peace and the dew drops from the trees leaves above. Although he is still walking the streets of the city, not lolling in the pleasantness of the lake island, he hears in his ears the very sound of “the lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore”. Standing on the roadways and walking the footpaths, he still hears the lake water resounding deep in his heart. I can imagine him standing there on the street, thinking about his paradise, lost in thought, hoping he won’t in hi delirium, jump into the never ending traffic of the city.
In my opinion Sailing to Byzantium has a very intriguing take on the theme escapism. Yeats wants to escape from nature, but in this case, nature represents the nature of humanity, the harsh realities of growing old and the human condition. He believes by sailing to the holy land Byzantium, he can stop the nature of humanity and become immortal by spirituality. He believes Ireland is “no country for old men”, it is brimming in youth, vibrant and energetic “youth in one another’s arm”. Yeats feels out of place and feels like he is part of the “dying generation”. Yeats is starting to realise the importance of spirituality and feels that the young are so “caught in the sensual music” and their materialistic image, that they have forgotten about the most important thing in life, spirituality. Yeats has discovered youth doesn’t last forever, that “whatever is begotten, born and dies.” He feels that he is “but a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick” nature has taken it course and made him feel useless. He has lost the meaning of life and is convinced that he can rejuvenate his youth and meaning in life with the help of spirituality. He has sailed away from nature and started his lifelong search for immortality. My favourite image in this poem is “consume my heart away, sick with desire and fastened to a dying animal, it knows not what it is and gather me into the artifice of eternity” I can really relate to what Yeats is feeling.
It reminded me of a certain point in my life when life felt hopeless and had no meaning. I couldn’t understand the unforgiving nature of humanity and just wanted to run away from it all until I was saved my spirituality. Yeats is searching for something bigger than humanity. He states that “once out of nature I shall never take my bodily form from any natural thing but such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make” he soon dismisses his search for immortality when he realises he will just become an object and life will become even more meaningless. Yeats realizes that intellect is limited by the human condition. Yeats’ poetry also contains a political perspective. He includes the politics of the period he lived in, which he was involved in. This was another quality I admired in his poetry as it gave me a valuable insight into an essential period in Ireland’s development as Yeats was involved with such politics. His view is hence one that will not necessarily provide the right viewpoint of such issues and events, but certainly a somewhat authentic view of the events of the time, which featured conflicting beliefs and ideologies.
In September 1913, which focuses on the 1913 Lockout, I was provided with a viewpoint of Dublin at this time, which featured workers’ strike and lock-out. Yeats here declares his disgust at the general lack of care at the issues of the time. He declares that those who would act for Ireland’s benefit ‘were of a different kind’ and laments that ‘Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone, “It’s with O’ Leary in the grave”. Later, in Easter 1916 Yeats realizes that such a commitment he longed for from the Irish in September 1913 is not all that he wanted it to be. Prior to the uprising Yeats greeted the revolutionaries with the exchange of “polite meaningless words” and even indulged in “a mocking tale or gibe” about their political ambitions. He didn’t realise how serious they were about their causes and thought it was a heartless act of attention seeking. However, his attitude changes when he moves from a feeling of separation between him and the revolutionaries, to a mood of unity by including all the revolutionaries mentioned in the poem in the last line with reference to the change that happened when they were executed.”
All changed, changed utterly, a terrible beauty is born.” Yeats proceeds to describe in much greater detail the key figures involved in the Easter rising without actually naming them by name, which I find quite peculiar. Countess Markievics was described as a woman who spent “her nights in argument until her voice grew shrill” she devoted her life to a cause and lost her “sweet” voice as she spent her days in ignorance and “good-will” Yeats thought she was ignorant and demanding and stated she lost her youth and beauty as a result of her determination for freedom. The man who “had kept a school and rode our winged horse” is a reference to Patrick Pearce. Thomas MacDonnagh, “a helper and friend of Patrick Pearce.” Yeats described him as having a sensitive and kind nature but he was executed. John McBride was a “drunken, vainglorious lout” and had done “most bitter wrong” in Yeats’ eyes. He blamed him for destroying the love his life and beating her, but then he admits to “numbering him in his song” he feels that he should be mentioned because he did step out of his life to fight for his country, which took great bravery and courage. Yeats realised that he deserved some credit to. “he, too, has been changed in his turn” Yeats thinks that if you give ordinary people a cause they will change completely and John is just one example.
Yeats wonders if it’s worth the trouble of “troubling the living stream” if “hearts with one purpose alone” are “enchanted to stone.” He believes that if you follow a cause you will lose your humanity and your heart will become like stone, but you will also be obstructing the positivity of life. He thinks that causes are like “the stone in the midst of it all” and are always causing trouble. “o when may it suffice” it seems like this will never come to an end. Yeats just discards of all his ideas and opinions when it comes to the last few lines. “When sleep at last has come on limbs that had run wild” he just forgets it all and displays these revolutionaries as heroes who paid a terrible price for the people of Ireland. They loved their country so much that they were willing to give their lives and Yeats basically comes the conclusion, can you blame them? September 1913 is a response to the ruthless mercenary employers who locked out their workers in the General Strike in 1913. The poem is also a comment on the refusal of commercial interests to support Yeats’ appeal for money to build an Art Gallery to house the Lane collection.
The poem is a scathing criticism of the mercenary materialism he felt was rampant in Ireland during 1913. The Scrooge image first introduced in “fumble in a greasy till” is a devastating swipe at the captains of industry and commerce. The wooden till has become shiny, greasy with over-use. the word “fumble” suggests the idea of the body being withered in the relentless pursuit of money for its own sake. Yet these people can justify or excuse their materialism through religion. That materialism and life of the spirit cannot be reconciled is tellingly conveyed in “pray and save”. Prayer, love of God, something which is full of warmth and passion, is here described as “shivering”. The barren, shivering hypocrisy of these people is bitterly and sarcastically hammered home. “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone. It’s with O’Leary in the grave.” John O’Leary, emerges as the antithesis of the greedy, sordid, grasping Dublin merchants. O’Leary is a symbol of integrity, idealism and vision.
When John O’Leary reached that independence and freedom was something spiritual, freedom of spirit and the opportunity to turn dreams into reality. The spirit of Romance is gone from the year 1913. No idealism now just greed. The verse is over flowing with sarcasm, a tone of utter revolution, but the tone begins to soften with the mention of O’Leary. There is a dramatic change of rhythm as Yeats surveys that romantic Ireland that is “dead and gone”. Contempt evaporates as he almost whispers in awe and wonder about the idealistic romantic heroes of Irish History who sacrificed all the material things life has to offer, to pursue an ideal, a vision, a dream. Even the target of his attack on the business community which once stood in awe of these heroes, that is, before materialism infected their minds. The idealists of Irish history paid for their visions with their lives, or those lucky to escape were misled and pursued their dream in the armies of France and Austria.
The rhythm changes, as Yeats describes his thesis of the extinction of idealism in Ireland. Fitzgerald, Emmet and Tone were three particular Romantic Irishmen. Yeats turns the sarcastic and cynical remark of the materialistic new Irishmen back on themselves with the use of “weight”. In this case weight refers to materialistic things and “weigh” in the sense of a deep balancing of things in the mind. I cannot fail to see that the noble madness of the brave is so much superior to the cynicism of “Some woman’s yellow hair has maddened every mother’s son”. Yeats is comparing the braveness of the patriots with the selfishness of the merchants. The word “delirium” conveys many thing, madness for example, but also fever and idealism and in this use it contains good and bad aspects, it is well suited to expressing Yeats’ attitude to the heroes. However, this attitude falls more on the edge of praise and criticism, since he ends the description by calling them “the brave”. In general, Yeats wants to maintain a balance in the phrase, recognition of both the sacrifices and the extremism of the heroes.
I want to make mention of the strength of Yeats’ imagery and language. Yeats cleverly sums up the mood of his poetry by using imagery and language to create a world that matches this mood. I liked this feature as it helped my understanding of his poetry, making its mood and thus message clearer. This is seen in September 1913, where Yeats creates a world of despair, helped by depressing images such as “you are drying the marrow from the bone”. Such an image keeps the poem in the realm of the morbid. I find this metaphor very powerful. The merchants and employer have taken all the flesh and meat of the country like hungry lions. In Easter 1916 Yeats creates a natural world in the third stanza of his poem. This world is fast and action-packed, aided with the image of a stream rushing through, with a variety of beings crossing it “the horse that comes from the road, the rider, the birds that range from cloud to tumbling cloud.
”The image of the stream that Changes minute by minute adds to this further. Yeats creates such surroundings as he wants to convey how steadfast the Irish cause is during the 1916 rising. Another image I find quite captivating is “an aged man I but a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon stick” Yeats uses the symbol of a scarecrow to represent the decrepitude of old age. The scarecrow is a repulsive lifeless image symbolising everything that Yeats wants to reject in his mortal existence. The descriptive language Yeats used for this comparison leaves me with the idea that life is useless when you reach old age. There is also a strong image of the poet’s memory of Innisfree. He claims to “hear it in the deep heart’s core”. This is a metaphor because the ear does not really connect to the heart. It is a way of emphasising the deep, spiritual feeling of the poet. The overall image is of memory. His memory gives him a desire to return there again. Overall, WB Yeats is easily my favourite. Several aspects of his poetry appeal to me, the political, his use of nature as a theme and his reflection on old age, the body and the soul.
Although I am at ease in engaging with Yeats themes it is also his unique craft that has an impact on me. Yeats is a poet who uses powerful metaphors and images that have a very memorable quality that in my view makes Yeats the most quotable of all poets. The one thing I love about Yeats’ poetry is its dynamic quality. Yeats sets up dynamic contrasts in every one of his poems which for me, makes his poetry interesting and thought – provoking. I found these traits particularly evident in “Sailing to Byzantium”, “Easter 1916” , “September 1913”, “The Wild swans at Coole”, “Lake Isle Of Inisfree” and “in Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz”. I must say that I really love how Yeats writes political and polemical poems. In my opinion this can be best seen in “September 1913”, a highly structured apostrophe where Yeats launches a powerful attack against the merchant classes. It is a bitter invective against the working classes. Yeats condemns those who “add the half pence to the pence” and “fumble in a greasy till.” Yeats work is in my opinion is also notable for its honesty.
I find his honesty very powerful in “Easter 1916”. Yeats feels that even John McBride who had done him most bitter wrong” should be “numbered in the song”. I was also attracted to Yeats’ treatment of nature. In “Lake Isle of Inisfree” Yeats shares his longing for the calmness and tranquillity of his boyhood haunt Inisfree. However, it is Yeats fabulous use of sound that really appeals to me in this poem. Whenever I read this poem I feel like I can hear the “cricket sing”, smell the “honey-bees” and see “the purple glow”. I love Yeats perspective In “Sailing To Byzantium”, Yeats has a vision that religion, aesthetic and practical life are one. Yeats contrasts “The young in one another’s arms” with “an aged man is but a paltry thing”. I appreciate how he calls on the soul to “sing, and louder sing”. Yeats, in my view, seems to me to be trying to overcome the idea that the soul is “sick with desire” and is “fastened to a dying animal”.
I feel like Yeats is in fact a prisoner in his own body whish he feels has become fastened and wizened. I also love the immensely original and authentic “The Wild Swans at Coole”. Although I love Yeats themes it is also his craft that has a huge impact on me. I am of the view that Yeats poems are well worth the read if only for their rich metaphors and images. There is also a memorable quality to Yeats’ work which I find fascinating. I find that many of his lines and phrases resonate in my head a long time after reading. This is truer of Yeats than any other poet I have ever read. This comes from the sheer economy of his language and the rhythm of his lines.
In fact I find myself constantly reciting lines such as “The innocent and the beautiful have no enemy but time” “Unwearied still, lover by lover they paddle in the cold companionable streams” “An aged man is but a paltry thing” In this context, I guess Yeats haunts my memory. I love the way Yeats is always present in his poems and brings them to life with contrast. Yeats, in my experience, sets up dynamic contrasts in nearly every one of his poems. In “Sailing to Byzantium” Yeats contrasts youth and old age, the body and the soul, time and eternity. These contrasts provide Yeats’ poetry with a unique dynamic quality which gives him a unique voice, a voice which makes me listen.
University/College: University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 19 October 2016
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