The Tension Displayed in W.B Yeats’ Poetry
When one hears the name ‘Yeats’, one most likely thinks of the man many consider to be Ireland’s greatest ever poet. However, if you were to ask these poets to discuss their favourite aspects of his poetry, I am sure that the response would amount to little more than some ‘umming’ and ‘errring’ and the occasional ‘his alliteration’ from those who remember their days at school. I must admit, I was the same before I began studying his work. Now, however, I consider myself well versed on the subject of Yeats’ poetry.
I can identify, as many others can, with his longing to escape the pressures of civilisation and with his desire to possess the courage his heroes did. Above all, I can identify with his wish for an ideal world. Quite frankly, Yeats was a bitter, arrogant and cynical man who, despite his riches and comfortable lifestyle, never seemed happy. An Anglo-Irish descendant, he spent part of his childhood in England, before returning to Dublin for the later part of his education. He was greatly influenced by Maud Gonne, his unrequited lover, and Lady Augusta Gregory, an old friend of his.
Yeats spent his life moaning about the problems with the modern world and with his own body. He longed to escape to his ideal world, where he could be young and carefree once again, and be free of the pressures that so irritated him during his life. Many themes are evident throughout Yeats’ work. He displays themes of nature, pacifism and of immortality through art. However, the most visible theme presented in his work is his desire to live in the ideal world. The manner in which his poetry is driven by a tension between the real world in which he lives and his ideal world he imagines is fascinating.
The late great Seamus Heaney (another personal favourite) described Yeats as ‘a dreamer, an idealist’. It is hard to disagree with him. Perhaps the clearest example of Yeats’ ideal world is shown in one of his most well-known poems, ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’. This popular poem is, in comparison to some of his other work, softly written. It is less a condoning of London, where he was based at the time, and more of a tale of the beauty of Innisfree. Yeats chooses to contrast the dull, grey city life with the vibrant life one can obtain by living in isolation on the isle.
He repeats the phrase ‘I will arise and go now’ to great effect in this poem. He wants to go, to escape, to be at one with the world of nature by the lake. He is fed up of London and longs to escape again. There, he can build a small cabin ‘of clay and wattles made’. He will have ‘nine bean rows’ and ‘a hive for the honey bee’. Already, one can see why Yeats desires to live here. What he is describing is beautiful, vibrant, and alive with colour and life. At the same time, he will have ‘some peace there’, which he will have ‘from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings’.
Yeats continues to describe his ideal world when he uses alliteration, assonance, sibilance, onomatopoeia and rhythmic metre in one single line, ‘I hear lake water lapping by the shore’. This is the most descriptive line in the poem. I completely identify with what Yeats is saying here. The imagery he uses is magnificent. This comes in sharp contrast to the ‘roadway’ and ‘pavements grey’ he is currently standing on. He realises he cannot go to his ideal world; he must stay, and like everyone else, deal with the pressures of civilisation. He hates the world he lives in, and loves Innisfree.
The tension is again evident here. In my opinion, Yeats is simply describing the dream of millions in this poem. We all want to escape to this ideal world (I know I do! ) but we can’t. One has to look on a deeper level to find the ideal world in ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’. It is not presented to us in the most orthodox manner, it has to be said. However, through the theme of time passing, we can find Yeats’ ideal world. It is, quite simply, a world where Yeats is young and carefree once again. He stands at the lake edge at Coole Park and counts ‘nine and fifty swans’.
Unfortunately for Yeats, swans travel in pairs. This means that a swan has died; they are no longer the sixty they used to be. Time has passed; age has crept up on Yeats and the swans. Despite the fact that they appear immortal, even the swans have fallen victim to time. If the swans cannot withstand time, what chance has Yeats? It is now ‘the nineteenth autumn since I first made my count’. He admits that ‘all’s changed since I trod with a lighter tread’. He is no longer youthful and energetic; he is getting old and weary. His ideal world would to be one of ‘those brilliant
creatures’ who are ‘unwearied still’. ‘Their hearts have not grown old’, unlike Yeats’. As he gets older, his creativity is also in decline. He worries that ‘the woodland paths are dry’, a metaphor for his concern that his reservoir of literary genius is drying up. Once again, the tension is evident. If only he were young once more, but he is not. He isn’t now and he never will be, and Yeats cannot stand this. For me, I found it difficult to discover the ideal world in ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’. Eventually however, by looking deep into the meaning of the poem, I was able to find this ideal world.
It links strongly to the other two poems I will discuss, ‘September 1913’ and ‘Easter 1916’. It is here that Yeats first outlines his admiration of courage. Through the theme of escapism once again portrayed, Yeats discusses the boldness and determination of Major Robert Gregory, son of Lady Augusta. He fought and died in World War I, however the irony here is that Gregory died a hero’s death in a war he didn’t care for. ‘Those that I fight I do not hate, those that I guard I do not love’. Why, then, did Gregory fight ‘somewhere among the clouds above’?
From my point of view, it is because, to him, ‘the years to come seemed waste of breath’. ‘I balanced all’, he says. ‘I know that I shall meet my fate’, he admits. It is this impulsive decision to escape from the monotony of everyday life that Yeats so admired. Gregory was Yeats’ ideal man living in an ideal world. The ideal world was where one could live their life as they wished. Gregory had the ultimate delight of death in life. WE would all like to escape to a world where we can do as we please. Very few of us have the courage.
Gregory was brave enough to escape, although ultimately it cost him his life. Here lies my issue with Yeats. Once more, he presents the tension between the ideal world he imagines and the real world in which he lives. In my eyes, Yeats is blinded by his admiration for Gregory. He seems to forget that Gregory has paid the ultimate price for his bravery. His suicidal, irrational behaviour is neither brave nor courageous. It is downright stupid, yet Yeats cannot seem to see this through his hatred of the real world. The next poem I shall discuss is my personal favourite of Yeats’.
It is ‘September 1913’. The theme here is obvious for anyone to see; it is the theme of idealism of the past. This is perhaps the clearest poem in which Yeats displays the tension between the real world and his ideal world. ’ In this poem, the poet attacks the materialistic modern day Irishmen and glorifies the heroes of her revolutionary past. He comes across as bitter, cynical and contemptuous in the first verse as he describes the scrooge-like, cowardly modern man, who would ‘fumble in a greasy till and add the half-pence to the pence… until you have dried the marrow from the bone’.
Already one can see how Yeats is debasingly accusing modern Irishmen for their greediness. They are so desperate; they will add any half-pence they can find to their pence. They hide behind their religion by adding ‘prayer to shivering prayer’. They ‘were born to pray and save’, according to Yeats, but one can identify a pun on the word ‘pray’ here. It could be thought of as ‘prey’ and has links to the predator in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s ‘The Eagle’. Either way, Yeats does not like these men. Neither do I after hearing the poet’s description; it is a withering, cynical evaluation of them.
Clearly, they are not like Yeats’ heroes of ‘Romantic Ireland’, ‘Edward Fitzgerald… and Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone’, the men ‘for whom the hangman’s rope was spun’. To Yeats, these men were ideal; they sacrificed their lives for the cause, and displayed courage similar to Major Robert Gregory in ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’, reckless, irrational courage, but courage nonetheless. Tension again is evident here, as these courageous patriots are shown in sharp contrast to the greedy, materialistic men of modern Ireland where Yeats lived.
In ‘Easter 1916’, however, Yeats appears to retract and subsequently alter these views of the modern man. He once again displays the theme of idealism here as he pays tribute to his heroes, however these heroes are actually the greedy, materialistic men he attacked in ‘September 1913’ three years previously. In the first verse, he tells of how he used to view the volunteers. He would offer them only a ‘nod of the head’ if he passed them in the street, and would then proceed to think of ‘a mocking tale or gibe’ about them. They all lived in a country where motley, the joker’s clothes, are worn.
This country is Ireland. Soon however, his opinion is ‘changed utterly’ and Yeats realises that he is, at last, living in his ideal world. In ‘September 1913’, Yeats criticised the modern man for being greedy and self-centred. Now, all has been ‘transformed utterly’. Yeats lists out the heroic republicans who fought and died, each with ‘a stone of the heart’, as he described them. ‘That woman’, Con Markiewicz, ‘this man’, Padraig Pearse, this other ‘Thomas MacDonagh’. All sacrificed their lives and all deserved a mention in Yeats’ poem.
Even ‘this other man… a drunken and vainglorious lout’, Yeats’ mortal enemy and lover of Maud Gonne, John MacBride, ‘has resigned his part… he too has been changed’. Unfortunately, despite his extreme admiration for their courage, Yeats has his reservations. He is not fully converted to the ‘dream… of… Connolly and Pearse’, as he described it. He wonders, despite them being the resolute ‘stone in the midst of it all’, would Ireland have received Home Rule regardless? ‘For England may keep faith for all that is done and said’. In the end, it doesn’t matter; they have allowed Yeats to at least partially live in his ideal world.
The first of the two poems I discussed, ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ and ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ present the ideal world of Yeats as being one where he can be free of the pressures of civilisation, and be young and carefree again. Simply, he wants to be relieved of any pressure. The three other poems, ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’, ‘September 1913’, and ‘Easter 1916’ are closely linked. In the first poem, Yeats depicts the airman as not only brave and admirable but also reckless, impulsive and perhaps even a little crazy.
This echoes his presentation of ‘men in action’ in the other two poems. ‘September 1913’, whilst it praises the courage of past Irish leaders, it suggests there was an element of ‘delirium’ in their extreme willingness to lay down their lives for the cause. Similarly, ‘Easter 1916’ praises the bravery of Pearse and MacDonagh but acknowledges that there was something terrible about their self-sacrifice. In the end however, Yeats admired this reckless courage displayed. As Seamus Heaney said, he truly was an idealist.