W. B. Yeats Notes and Questions

"I have no speech but symbol" (quoted in Ellmann, "Yeats Without" 29).

"Man can embody truth, but he cannot know it. . . . You can refute Hegel [a philosopher] but not the Saint or the Song of Sixpence" (quoted in Ellmann, Yeats 285).

As you read, keep in mind and try to test some of the generalizations that Richard Ellmann makes about Yeats' poetry: "each Yeats poem is likely to begin in decadence, and to end in renaissance . . . in general, the poems present decadence in order to overcome it" ("Uses" 14). Ellmann says there are two worlds in Yeats' poems, the natural and the "daimonic" world. In the first, "the life that we generally experience . . . is incomplete, but at moments it appears to transcend itself and yield moments of completeness or near-completeness, moments as he says half-humorously in the poem 'There', 'all the barrel-hoops are knit, . . . all the serpent-tails are bit.' In his early work Yeats conceives of the boundary line between the worlds of completeness and incompleteness as twilit, in his later work it is lit by lightning" ("Yeats Without" 26).

Yeats' Two Worlds

life incomplete
life completed in transcendence of time
events occur in time
timeless world
symbols of transit between two worlds:
twilight; lightning

In the later Yeats these two worlds become two opposed aspects of life:
political language
poetic language 
"intellectual hatred"
experience (?)
"radical innocence"
"mire and blood," "foul rag and bone shop"
"images," "emblems," symbols

Many of the later poems try to find a way to reconcile these contradictions in this world, often through images like ceremony, custom, courtesy, dancer and dance.

Ellmann also writes, "Every poem establishes alternatives to indicate only one choice is worth making, and that [is] the agonized, unremunerative one" ("Yeats Without" 29). Finally, he says that Yeats' "poems take one of two directions: either they are visionary, concerned with matters of prophecy, of the relations of the time-world and daimonic timelessness, or with their own secret hopes and ambitions. In the visionary poems such as 'Leda and the Swan' or ‘The Second Coming', Yeats is concerned to intermesh the divine world with the animal, to show the world of time as centaurlike, beautiful and monstrous, aspiring and deformed. In the poems which deal with artists or with heroes or with other men, he wishes also to show how brute fact may be transmogrified, how we can sacrifice ourselves, in the only form of religious practice he sanctions, to our imagined selves which offer far higher standards than anything offered by social convention" ("Yeats Without" 32).

"The Song of the Happy Shepherd" What do you think Yeats means when he says that "Words alone are certain good"? What do you think he means by "Truth" and "sooth"? To help answer these questions, here are some quotes from Yeats: "Because those imaginary people are created out of the deepest instinct of man, to be his measure and his norm, whatever I can imagine those mouths speaking may be the nearest I can go to truth" (Autobiography 77). "Man can embody truth, but he cannot know it. . . . You can refute Hegel [a philosopher] but not the Saint or the Song of Sixpence" (qtd in Ellmann, Yeats 285).

"To the Rose" Rood = Christ's cross. What do you think the Rose symbolizes in this poem? What could the Rood, or cross, symbolize? (See note 2.) What does the poet ask of the Rose in the second stanza? (Note: lest = "so as to prevent the possibility that.")

"Fergus and the Druid" (21) Druid = pagan Irish priest. What does Fergus learn from the "bag of dreams"? Which do you think the poem endorses, dreaming, doing, or neither? Compare this poem of escape with "The Stolen Child" (12).

"The Rose of the World" (25) Relate the first line to the rest of the poem. How could this poem be seen as a gloss (notation, interpretation) of lines 9-12 of "To the Rose"?

"The Lake Isle of Innisfree" About Yeats as a symbolist, Ellmann writes that he can not agree "that even in the early Yeats there is any desire for an autonomous art, separated from life and experience by an impassable gulf. . . . Yeats's early dream was not to live in an ivory tower, but on an Irish island, not in unnature, but in nature, not in a place he had never seen, but in a place he had grown up" ("Yeats Without" 22). What do you think the speaker will do at Innisfree? In what ways do various rhythmic and other sound effects convey the message(s) of the poem? (Try to scan this poem.)

"Who Goes with Fergus?" Fergus gave up his kingship to seek knowledge in the woods. In what ways do you think Fergus could help with "love's bitter mystery"? (In line 9, brazen cars probably refers to war-chariots.)

"The Man Who Dreamed of Fairyland" Why do you suppose the man finds no "ease," "wisdom," or "comfort" in his dreaming? What do you make of the talking fish and worms and of the imagery of "boughs" and leaves?

"Into the Twilight" (43) Eire = Ireland. What could the twilight symbolize?

"The Song of Wandering Aengus" (44) Aengus is a mythological character who helps lovers. He is not so old in the Irish story "The Dream of Oengus." In the story he searches for a woman whom he first sees in a dream, but unlike Yeats' poem, he finds her. When she turns into a swan, he does too, and flies after her and wins her. They are joined together with a golden chain, while the other swan-pairs are joined with silver chains.

"The Song of the Old Mother" (45) Do you see any connections between this poem and other more symbolic poems in The Wind Among the Reeds?

"Mongan Laments the Change . . "(46) Can you relate this poem to the life of the poet? What could the hound and the "boar without bristles" signify?

"Michael Robartes Bids His Beloved" In note 2 (Modern 74), Yeats says the horses represent the onset of winter darkness. What else could they represent? What does the speaker ask for here?

"Michael Robartes Remembers Forgotten Beauty" (47) Comment on the image of women and beauty presented in this poem and "Adam’s Curse."

"The Valley of the Black Pig"(50) cromlech = "a megalithic chamber tomb." Perhaps the fighting forces are ancient Irish deities thought to live in mounds or tombs.

"Aedh Thinks of Those Who Have Spoken Evil" (52) Compare with "No Second Troy." "The Secret Rose" (54) The Irish hero Cuhulain had an affair with Fand and thus lost his wife Emer. The proud dreaming king is Fergus. What does the poet ask for here? Compare with "Mongan Laments the Change . .," "Michael Robartes Bids," "The Valley of the Black Pig," and "The Second Coming." What do you think the Rose represents here?

"The Old Men Admiring Themselves" (62) How is this poem similar or different from earlier poems on beauty?

"The Fascination of What's Difficult" (71) What do you think the horse stands for?

"These Are the Clouds" (73) and "All Things Can Tempt Me" (74) From reading these and other poems, why do you suppose the poet is dissatisfied with his profession?

"Leda and the Swan" Ellmann says that "the generating theme of this poem is a feeling that [Yeats] had from childhood, of the tantalizing imperfection of human life; his own experience told him that power and knowledge could never exist together, that to acquire one was to lose the other. All Yeats's poetry embodies this theme. Leda and the swan are only one of many embodiments of it in his verse" ("Yeats Without" 21).

1. Name some ways in which are the poems in The Green Helmet and Responsibilities differ from Yeats' earlier "symbolist" poems on forgotten beauty, roses, and Irish myths. (Think of themes, images, subject matter, diction (word choice). In what ways are they similar to the earlier poems?

2. How would you characterize Yeats' relationship with Maud Gonne? (See "No Second Troy," "Easter 1916," "Prayer for My Daughter," and "Among School Children.")

"September 1913" What's Yeats got against his fellow-Irishmen? (See also "To a Wealthy Man" [80], "To a Friend" [82], "Paudeen" [83].) Compare to "Easter 1916.

What do you think is Yeats' attitude towards wealth in "A Witch" (93) and "The Peacock"(93)? Compare / contrast with earlier poems dispraising the real world.

"A Coat" In what ways does this poem sum up Yeats' new (?) approach to poetry and life?

"The Wild Swans at Coole" What do you think the swans represent? Why do you think Yeats asks the question at the end of the poem?

"Easter 1916" What has changed, and how? What sort of beauty do you think Yeats is talking about? In what ways can you relate the images of hearts, stone, stream, horse, and moor-hens in stanza three to the rest of the poem?

"The Second Coming" Definitely a "visionary poem." What's his vision? Why do you think Yeats uses the image of the Sphinx as his (Christ?) symbol of a second coming? Compare / contrast the ways in which the words ceremony and innocence are used in "The Second Coming" and "A Prayer for My Daughter."

"Prayer for My Daughter" Do you think Yeats would want his daughter to hold a job or have a career? (If so, what sort?) Why or why not? What do you think Yeats has against an "intellectual hatred" (l. 57)? Why do you think it's the "worst" hatred? What do you think Yeats means by "radical innocence" (l. 66)? [Note: radical = "from the roots, rooted."] Comment on what you think Yeats means by custom and ceremony. (Relate in some way to the images of the horn of plenty and laurel tree.) In what ways might innocence and beauty be born out of these qualities? (give examples). Why do you think it is important to Yeats that beauty be born?

"Sailing to Byzantium" In what ways is this poem like / unlike Yeats’ earlier symbolical poems? (Compare contrasts between world and spirit, young and old, natural and artificial, sensual, dying body and "the artifice of eternity.") Why do you think the old poet wishes to be turned into a golden artifact?

"Among School Children" One of the few poems in which Yeats describes himself. What do you think he says about youth and age? What question is he asking in stanza V? What sorts of scarecrows does Yeats talk about? Contrast the view of how beauty is born with the views in "Adam’s Curse" and "A Prayer for my Daughter." Critics disagree on how to interpret the last stanza: do you think that Yeats’ questions are rhetorical or real ones? What sort of "Labour" do you think Yeats is talking about here?

Notes: Stanza VI: what a star sang--the ancients believed that the stars were encased in spheres around the Earth, and that the movement of these spheres created a heavenly music. Pythagoras thought that mathematical structures underlying music revealed the basic structure of the universe. Stanza VII: images--one could say "symbols" also. But the philosophical systems outlined in stanza VI can also be seen as "images."

"Coole Park and Ballylee" What is important about the places mentioned here? What do you think the swans stand for? (Compare "The Wild Swans at Coole.")

"Byzantium" What do you think this poem says about art and life (the "dome" vs. "fury and mire"; the golden bird vs. "mire or blood")?

"Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop" What do you think of Crazy Jane’s answer to the Bishop? How would you put into different words her thoughts on love? Compare / contrast with Yeats’ earlier views. (Note: rent = "torn.")

"The Circus Animals' Desertion" What do you think Yeats is saying about symbols or "emblems" or "dream" (the "circus animals") in this poem? What might the ladder symbolize? Why do you think Yeats says that his "ladder's gone"? (Note: the till = the cash-drawer or cash register.)

"Under Ben Bulben" Do you think Yeats prays for war in part 3? If so, why? If not, then what do you think he's saying in part 3? Note what sort of directions Yeats gives to poets and sculptors. Which of these directives seem like good ones to follow and which do not? Why? How do you interpret the epitaph at the end of the poem? Compare / contrast how Yeats implies he would like to be remembered here with how W. H. Auden says he will be remembered in "In Memory of W. B. Yeats" (Ellmann 416-418).

Works Cited

Ellmann, Richard. "The Uses of Decadence." a long the riverrun: Selected Essays. New York: R-H-Vintage, 1990. 3-17.

- - -. Yeats: The Man and the Masks. New York: Dutton, 1948.

- - -. "Yeats Without Analogue." a long the riverrun: Selected Essays. New York: R-H- Vintage, 1990. 18-32.

Yeats, W. B. The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats. New York: Macmillan, 1965.