The poetry of W.B. Yeats is certainly filled with evocative language, exploring themes and ideas both personal and public. Thematically, he does not write on startlingly unusual topics but his manner of discussing his subject matter, the clever way in which he explores poignant ideas, is what makes his poetry so special. He is often intensely personal and writes with a barefaced honesty, discussing such themes as death and aging, his unreserved opinions of Irish society, the sensitive twin issues of patriotism and national heroes, and his ongoing struggle to accept reality when so consumed by ideals. Symbols and images, presented alongside evocative language, aid in his expression of these themes.
Death, aging and immortality
The combined themes of death, aging and immortality, and Yeats’ obvious obsession with all three, dominate across much of his poetry. The simplest example, perhaps, of this topic, is seen in the poem, ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death,’ written following the death of his friend’s son, Major Robert Gregory, shot down in the First World War when fighting for the British troops. The poem is interesting. Yeats does not make a hero of the now-dead airman, nor does he launch into a great tirade about the futility of war. Instead, he engages on a very personal level with the pilot, his reasoning and rationalising. No “law, nor duty bade [him] fight, nor public men, nor cheering crowds.” Instead, some mysterious, secret thrill, “a lonely impulse of delight,” led him to where he now sat, preparing to die in a “tumult in the clouds.” This idea of death, so light and simple, of death not amplified nor heroised but chosen out of some sort of mystical rapture, is profound and yet, so real. Yeats demonstrates here his ability to aptly perceive human nature and presents this with evocative language: “I balanced all, brought all to mind, the years to come seemed waste of breath, a waste of breath the years behind, in balance with this life, this death.”
Similarly, death is also discussed in his alluring, enchanting poem, ‘The Wild Swans at Coole.’ Furthermore, his preoccupation with aging, which we witness too in poems such as ‘Sailing to Byzantium,’ is at the forefront of this poem. He knows the exact many years that have passed since he “first made [his] count” of the swans “upon the brimming water.” Then, he “trod with a lighter tread”, young and agile and carefree, but now “all’s changed” and he, facing the realities of time, of the world, of aging, marvels at the seemingly undying youth of the swans; “their hearts have not grown old.” The swans, as symbols of energy and permanence impress him greatly. To him, these swans have remained unchanging, an immortal fixture in his life and he dreads the day when he awakes “to find they have flown away” because then this last semblance of permanence in his life will disappear.
‘Sailing to Byzantium’ is another poem that explores the issues of death, aging and elusive immortality. In contrast to the previous two poems, this is very much a fantastical piece of writing, wherein we are thrust from reality into Yeats’ idealistic world. The first stanza describes the youth abounding all around him; “birds in the tress…the salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas.” “The young in one another’s arms” are blissfully unaware of the horror that will soon capture them: aging, that concept which preoccupies him so. Old age is negatively portrayed; it is like “a tattered coat upon a stick,” no sustenance or life, “a paltry thing.” His personal longing to escape this is evident. He calls out to the “sages standing in God’s holy fire,” and asks them to “gather [him] into the artifice of eternity.” His frail, human body is like “a dying animal,” but “once out of nature” he will take the form of something golden, something royal and glorious and powerful, but most importantly something that will never rot or decay. He will be immortal and never again be plagued by the harsh realities of aging. Yet, despite all this, despite his efforts and plans to transcend frail humanity, the poem’s last line shows no resolution; “what is past, or passing, or to come.” Time continues to elude him and will still govern the world; be it natural or imagined.
"Yeats does not make a hero of the now-dead airman, nor does he launch into a great tirade about the futility of war."
Patriotism and Nationalism
Immortality is discussed also within the context of patriotism; the immortality of national heroes. It is evident from his work that Yeats has rather pointed, at times cutting, opinions of Irish society. ‘September 1913’ is in essence a personal outburst from Yeats, revealing, in a critical and scathing tone, his disgust at what Irish society has become – materialistic and cynical. The soul of the country is gone, according to Yeats. There is no adventurous, nationalist spirit, “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone” and Ireland functions on this belief; that “men were born to pray and save,” a snide reference to the miserly, wealth-orientated lives of many of the new emerging Catholic middle class. Yeats contrasts this greedy, avaricious middle class to the selfless heroes of Ireland’s past. With a condemnatory voice, he reflects his repulsion that this is what Ireland has become; a country without heroism, creativity, passion or vibrancy; a country without a culture. Angrily, he points to the martyrs of Irish history and asks: “Was it for this…Edward Fitzgerald died, and Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone, all that delirium of the brave?” The extreme passion of these courageous heroes was known by all, they were “the names that stilled your childish plays” and yet their ideals are not being fostered, their deaths given no meaning, and now his refrain rings true: “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone, it’s with O’Leary in the grave.” ‘Was it “for this that all that blood was shed”?’ asks Yeats, and it’s a rhetorical question really because we know what he believes from the rest of the poem; that these great heroes, martyrs of the land, did not give up their lives “so lightly” just for Ireland to become money-obsessed and losing its cultural roots; for this middle class to become some shallow nouveau riche, losing their heritage and national pride. Even worse, Yeats claims that, “could we turn the years again” and bring back these martyrs, the new Ireland society wouldn’t even appreciate these heroes – they’d be labelled as mad, delirious and not miserly enough to fit in with what Ireland had become. This is an extremely cutting poem, blatantly critical and openly accuses Irish society of having a limited life view with no nationalism or true love of culture and country.
There is a definite change in tone in his next poem, ‘Easter 1916’, where he now pays tribute to the very people he had derided in ‘September 1913’ for their lack of passion. These people have now died for a cause, and that cause was Ireland. Just like the martyrs of the previous poem, they too now gave up their lives for their country. However, Yeats seems to have changed his stance also regarding this idea of nationalism and martyrdom, asking poignant questions to reflect this: “Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart. O when may it suffice?...Was it needless death after all?...And what if excess of love bewildered them till they died?” And Ireland is “changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.” This is no celebratory poem, extolling the boldness and bravery of the rebels. Yeats points out, not exactly the futility of violence, but the difficulty that lies in ‘the cause.’ “Hearts with one purpose alone,” rebels with a single-mindedness that led them to this blood sacrifice, have managed to uproot his arguments from ‘September 1913,’ and have proven now of their love for their country, indeed of their “excess of love.”
Despite this, Yeats does pay tribute to these new heroes, venerating them “in the song.” Padraig Pearse, who “kept a school and rode our winged horse,” a fellow poet and now a national hero. MacDonagh, another writer, “who was coming into his force; he might have won fame in the end, so sensitive his nature seemed, so daring and sweet his thought.” He is less complimentary of John MacBride, having believed him “a drunken, vainglorious lout,” but names him too, as he also “has resigned his part in the casual comedy.”
“We know their dream; enough to know they dreamed and are dead.” Patriotism, it seems, is no longer such a meaningful thing. Yeats is not calling their efforts pointless, but he seems to accredit them much less purpose than he did those of ‘September 1913.’ Whether this is because these new heroes come from the Catholic middle class which he continues to regard as socially inferior, or having come to a fresh realisation of patriotism and nationalism, it is unclear. What is clear however, is Yeats’ realisation that these people have now made their mark on Irish history and they will be remembered “wherever green is worn.” They have demonstrated their love for their nation, though this sacrifice is questioned, and Irish society has, once again, been “changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.”
These poems are in sharp contrast to ‘An Irish Airman Forsees His Death,’ wherein the speaker is not ‘meeting his fate’ out of duty or love of nation. He is not even fighting for his own people. His “countrymen [are] Kiltartan’s poor,” and he has no illusions of his death having a great impact on them; “no likely end could bring them loss or leave them happier than before.” Unlike ‘September 1913’ and ‘Easter 1916’ wherein men were heroised because of their patriotism, where they died out of nationalism, here the elusive reasoning for sacrifice is simply “a lonely impulse of delight.”
Yeats offers great scope on the subject of patriotism in his poetry, much of it public commentary though his personal opinions are evident also. True national heroes, it seems, belong back in the past – Robert Emmett, Wolfe Tone, Edward Fitzgerald, and John O’Leary. Those who emerged from the Catholic middle class are questioned for their “excess of love” and the potential futility of their actions and their sacrifices. The lonely airman of the final poem is unlike the rest; he is not a hero nor a martyr. He searches for his death, driven by a mysterious rapture and the “balance” of “this life, this death” is now, for him, fulfilled.
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Some of the national heroes venerated in Yeats' poetry
As seems to be typical of most poets, Yeats draws on the beauty of nature around him for much of his poetic inspiration. Typically, these exhibit a more personal, contemplative aspect. Poems such as ‘The Lake Isle of Inisfree,’ ‘The Wild Swans at Coole,’ and ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ reflect this best. In the last poem, Yeats employs parallelism, listing both living creatures (“fish, flesh, or fowl”) and their stages of life (“begotten, born, and dies.”) This contributes to the overall sense of the poem that, to the speaker, nature, be it temporarily glorious and lovely, is overshadowed by the certainty of death and decay. Death is the dark underbelly of all the delightful life surrounding him.
Conversely, the simple three-stanza poem, ‘The Lake Isle of Inisfree’ celebrates nature as it is, not questioning its brevity and ephemerality, instead simply praising its uncomplicated beauty. An iambic poem that creates a definite sense of place, ‘The Lake Isle of Inisfree’ has been admired by many critics for the simplistic, peaceful images it conjures and the evident longing of the speaker to escape and retreat to nature. The powerful imagery; “there midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,” aids in this. Sound is aptly created also; “lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore” and “where the cricket sings.” The speaker’s yearning to “arise and go now” to this wonderful, peaceful place is realised in the final lines; “always night and day…I hear it in the deep heart’s core.” This poem is also further evidence of Yeats’ ongoing clashes between the real and the ideal. That which he so desperately longs for; to escape to this quiet retreat where “peace comes dropping slow,” is in conflict with reality; cityscapes and “pavements grey.”
Finally, ‘The Wild Swans at Coole” displays the theme of nature also. The title itself refers to both the swans out in the wild and to the place where they reside: Coole Park, in Co. Sligo. The descriptive opening conjures beautiful nature imagery; “the trees are in their autumnal beauty, the woodland paths are dry.” Nature here, is something both beautiful and powerful, something that does not age, much like the swans; “their hearts have not grown old.” The beauty of these swans, both on the “brimming water” and when they “mount and scatter wheeling in great broken rings upon their clamorous wings” is clearly admired by the speaker, as is their seemingly undying “passion or conquest.” The imagery of this poem is truly majestic, yet it retains a humble, understated quality. The concepts are simple, really, swans that “drift on the still water, mysterious, beautiful.” Aesthetic use of language aptly depicts the scene and contributes to the resounding peace and beauty of this poem.
"Nature here, is something both beautiful and powerful."
William Butler Yeats uses evocative language to create poetry that includes both personal reflection and public commentary. He discusses themes as broad as immortality, death, nationalism and nature, using intricate imagery and clever word choice to express his opinions to us. His poems are, in essence, personal reflections posing as public commentary; intimate opinions made public. It is precisely this, careful, individual quality that makes his poetry so special.
ruth on January 10, 2016:
helped me a lot thank you