William Butler Yeats is a true artist in every sense of the word – he has the talent to craft works of aesthetic value whilst simultaneously delving into the complexity of human experience. It is both Yeats’ craftsmanship and the nature of his ideas that ensures his poetry endures over time and place.
This unity of form and ideas is illustrated through a close critical study of Yeats’ poems ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ and ‘Easter 1916’. My own personal response to these poems has evolved through a consideration of Yeats’ unique poetic style, the context within which the poems were crafted and academic readings.
My critical study has yielded my assertion that it is Yeats’ ability to craft unified works of art which explore the inherent tensions of the human experience. The most profound tension being that between mortality and immortality.
Yeats was born into a fragmented and chaotic world. Ireland at the cusp of the modern world was a country divided by colonization and consequently was suffering a serious cultural identity crisis. Yeats emerged from this world as ‘Ireland’s Bard’.
On first reading, I thought the poetry of Yeats was whimsical, lyrical and overly sentimental. His poem ‘Wild Swans at Coole’ conjures images of love, regret and loneliness as the speaker who was rejected by his first love, Maud Gonne realises that the swans remain passionate whilst he ages, stating despondently “Unwearied still, lover by lover, they paddle in the cold companionable streams”.
A similar sentimentality was noted in ‘Easter 1916’. This poem functioned as Yeats’ eulogy for the rebels who were killed during the Irish uprising of 1916. Within the poem Yeats creates images of heroism, loss and envy, evident in the pained tone of ‘We know their dream; enough/ To know they dreamed and are dead’.
As indicated earlier, the world Yeats matured in was one marked by rapid political and social change. Having been heavily influenced by the poetry of the Romantics, Yeats developed a deep interest in the human condition, especially the relationship between man, history and the spirit. This manifested itself into his intense interest in the Occult and it is the ideas drawn from this interest, as well as his wide reading of more complex philosophies that Yeats embeds within his poetry.
Yeats stated dramatically: ‘I will hammer my thoughts into a unity”. This longing for unity and a complete system to understand the human experience is reflected in his fascination with immortality, as presented in his two poems ‘Wild Swans at Coole’ and ‘Easter 1916’. Closer consideration of Yeats’ poetry, in light of the context in which he wrote his poems, delves beyond the superficial subjective reading, into these more complex philosophical ideas expressed through his powerful command of the poetic form.
Yeats’ ‘Wild Swans at Coole’ engages with the tension between mortality and immortality as he explores the distinction between the spiritual and the physical world through the symbol of the swan. Contrast is used to great effect in this poem with Yeats contrasting the mortality of man, crying ‘my heart has grown sore’ to the immortality of the swans whose ‘hearts have not grown old’.
An understanding of Yeats’ personal theory of the gyres – the interlocking spirals that represent the cycles of history - as well as knowledge of Porphyry’s Cave of the Nymphs, enhances an appreciation of this poem’s complexity. Yeats paints an image of the swans ‘wheeling in great broken rings’ indicating that they represent the ideal being that can inhabit both the spiritual realm (symbolized by the elements of water and air) as well as the physical realm (symbolized by the elements of earth and fire).
Yeats’ envy of the swans therefore stems not from the fact that they are in love, but rather from the fact that they are immortal. This interpretation of the poem is supported by the writings of critic John Foley who states, Yeats’ poetry is “less about aging than it is about the longing for the divine”.
In a similar vein, Yeats’ personal desire for immortality sets him apart from the rebels in ‘Easter 1916’ for they have been ‘changed, changed utterly’. Symbolism conveys the tension between the now immortal rebels, symbolized as an ‘enchanted stone’ and the mortal poet who lives metaphorically in ‘the living stream’.
The deeply moving refrain ‘a terrible beauty if born’ further reveals the conflict between a longing for immortality and the stark reality of a violent and sudden death. Yeats’ frustration at the swiftness of the movement from common man to hero is captured through contrasting the everyday imagery of ‘vivid faces from counter or desk’ to the later questioning ‘Was it needless death after all?’ As suggested by critic John McGuirk, Yeats’ poem is not a simple eulogy to the dead, rather it is a careful consideration of “universal paradigms of permanence and flux”.
Through close critical study of Yeats’ poems I can conclude that a full appreciation of their beauty and depth can only be gained from an understanding of the man within his world, a detailed analysis and evaluation of his style as well as an exposure to the varied interpretations that critics have to his poetry. My study of his poetry, especially Wild Swans at Coole and Easter 1916 revealed to me that Yeats’ poetry has endured, and will continue to do so, because of his impressive ability to hammer his thoughts into a unity.