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Yeats Super-Mega-Best-Ever Guide

Compiled by Jason Rushtrain.

Bits and bobs in Red n Blue by Ryan Codd.

Hot Central-focus-topic-statements.
In resolving his inherent contradictions in an equally ambivalent world, Yeats writes
introspective poetry with universal significance.

In his fundamental search for truth, emotional repose and intellectual fulfillment, Yeats
encounters conflict and quarrels within himself that find release in poetic expression.

Symbols for Yeats were conduits to a world of platonic forms.

Every poem embodies a schematization of his way of living and seeing.

Through his strongly individualized poetry, Yeats sought evidence that an ideal world
existed in an age that was fairly complacent about actuality; he wanted to show that
current faith in reason and logic ignored a far more important human faculty, the

Yeats inculcates an arrant subjectivism in his poetry to convey an invariably iconoclastic


His themes are most clearly the general ones of life and death, love and hate, mans
condition and historys meanings.

In a career that spanned the Victorian and modern worlds, Yeats demonstrated how a
poet can reflect the various concerns of his age while maintaining a distinctive voice

Yeats poetry arises out of an inherent antithesis between skepticism and the need for
belief, between reason and the imagination.

Yeats strived to achieve a poetic system that could unite the real and the ideal.

The oscillation between the ideal world or art, beauty and the spiritual and the opposing
pull of the real world shape Yeats thought and poetry.

Yeats poetry is profoundly concerned with the friction between inner conciousness and
external event.
Recognition of the literary, biographical, intellectual cultural and historical contexts
enriches any reading of Yeats poems.

Identity for Yeats was a question of incessant conflict and re-construction.

Self for Yeats is never merely personal; it always links with wider cultural and political

Yeats poems often build into themselves an awareness that self-quarelling is the
mainspring of poetic creativity.

Self persues its opposite in order to obtain a wholeness that eludes it.

Yeats dwells on a convergence of opposites.

Yeats speaks across time, culture, space, gender and beliefs: it contains and expresses
timeless truths which are valued by human beings universally.

Poems set for Study

Wild Swans at Coole


Themes/Concerns: Mortality/mutability. (Alls changed since I first made my count.)

Preoccupations: Time and change, Love, Old Age.

Main ideas: The persona contrasts himself with 58 swans, who give the illusion of
immortality. (their hearts have not grown old.)

Tone: Weary, despondent and disillusioned. Heart is sore.

Point of View: First person. (I and my etc.) Contributes to the solemn, solitary tone.

Symbolism: Swans are symbols of power, grace, beauty, tranquility and immortality.

Yeats Philosophies: Gyres. Wheeling in great broken rings. Yeats is the primary gyre
of mortality, juxtaposed with the anthetical gyre of immortality and timelessness created
by the swans.

Poetic Techniques: Repetition: Prolongs imagery and emphasises ideas. Repitition of

ing prolongs wheeling image, while repititon of still emphasises a balance between
calmness and eternity.
Biographical Reading.

No author, but biographical critics include Ellman, Jeffares.

Explanation: This poem was written in October 1916. Yeats is rememvering the first
time he visited Lady Gregory and stayed at COole Parke in 1897. At this time he was
grieving over the fact that Maude Gonne had refused his proposal of marriage. He wrote
at that period: I was involved in a miserable love affair My health was giving way, my
nerves had been wrecked. (Dramatis Personae, 1935)
19 years later, back at COole park, he was again at a point of crisis in his
relationship with Maude. Her (estranged) husband, John MacBride had just been
executed in May by the British Military for his part in the eaester 1916 Irish rebellion.
Now that Macbride was dead, Maude could remarry. She refused Yeats proposal. Yeats
even turned his intentions to her adult daughter, Iseult. Everything about the swans
contrasts with Yeats own situation.

Values implied in this type of reading: Poetry is a medium for personal confession and

- Poem of contemplation, reminiscence and preparation

- STANZA ONE: Trees are in their autumn beauty Indicating promise, but
awareness of death and cycle of life: spring, summer, AUTUMN, winter
- STANZA TWO: I have looked upon those brilliant creatures, and now my heart
is sore Yeats has visited the area 19 times now; before this visit, it was a
source of rejuvenating fruition for him just by watching him, but now everything
has changed
- STANZA THREE: Alls changed since I, hearing at twilightthe bell-beat of
their wings Yeats had a different reaction to the splendour of the swans, but
with age and sorrow ailing him, he can no longer emulate his youthful delights.
- STANZA FOUR: Lover by lovercompanionable streamspassion or
conquest, wander where they will Yeats highlights the graceful qualities of
the swans, which have left him the piece was written after Maud Gonne rejected
WB for the second time; therefore, Yeats both juxtaposes and relates.
- The swans are gyrating in this poem, with Yeats allowing himself to diminish
emotionally and physically: when I wake some day to find they have flown


at Coole and the swan image of Yeats): A poem that can be read on many levels:
a) aesthetically pleasing, or b) technically interesting
- 1 structure is found in antithesis between the swans and their beholder, and
between the beholder at present and 19 years ago
- 2 a pattern is built in contrast between moods: since only man feels such
contrasts, the found antithesis is between transient man and eternity
- 3 the contrast between masculine and feminine line endings hard and soft,
respectively two pairs of half-rhymes, and rhythm of unanalysable lines add to a
technically brilliant poem
- 4 contrasting ideas of WANDERING and PERMANANCE
- 5 for Yeats, watching/hearing the swans is a process of self-maturing; the swans
do not change their clamorous qualities, or paddling/climbing unlike Yeats,
passion and conquest serve the creatures, rather than driven characteristics
- 6 anything in Yeatss work takes on more significance if his views beyond the
text are known
- 7 wheeling in great broken rings, Yeats brings back his adoration of the gyre
to focus introspectively
Easter 1916

Main Ideas: Illuminates Yeats inner turmoil as he presents a paradoxical assessment of

the nationalist uprising of 1916 and its consequences.

Preoccupations: Time and change, Love.

Point of View: First person. Speaks directly to reader. Intensely personal and intimate.

Poetic Techniques: Oxymoron (terrible beauty) Establishes amibuity.

Anonymity of the victims in the second stanza.

Form: Elegy. Establishes a solemn tone and reverence for the victims.

Symbolism: Hearts with one purpose alone are described as enchanted to a stone to
trouble the living stream

Type of Reading, Author.


Values implied in this type of reading.

Type of Reading, Author.


Values implied in this type of reading.

The Second Coming

Main Ideas: Describes anarchy and chaos of the modern age, and surmises that the
second coming of a new messiah is about to come about.

Preoccupations: Time and change, Pessimism, The gyres and the great wheel.

Poetic Techniques: Almost non existent. Contributes to the nihilistic tone and sense of
chaos suggested in the first two lines.

Point of View: First person. There is no intermediary persona. Yeats takes on the role of
a visionary/prophet, one who is Sure that some revelation is at hand.

Tone: Gloom/Foreboding vast image out of spiritus mundi troubles my sight.

Language: Ominous, Negative: nightmare, darkness, reel.

Imagery: blood dimmed tide, rough beast.

Philosophical system: Gyres. Turning and turning in the widening gyre. 2000 year
cycles of history.

Romantic, Bloom.

Explanation: Direct relation to Blake and Shelley as an overtly defining element in its
meaning. The title is a misleading and illegitimate device for conferring upon the poem
a range of reference and imaginative power it does not possess and cannot sustain.
Associating the poem with Christs prophecy of his second coming and with revelations
account of the antichrist, is a portentuous association. Remains a poem about the
second birth of the antithetical divinity or spirit.
Sphinx imagery was inspired by Shelleys ozymandias. Also likens his beast to Urizen
from the the book of Urizen by Blake.
Christianity is largely irrelevant to the poem dragged into its vortex by Yeats title.
The poet says surely revelation, the uncovering of apocalypse, is at hand, but what in
the poem justifies this surely?
There is imagistic desperation in Yeats closing rhetorical lunge.

Values implied in this type of reading: Defence of 19th century romantic critics. Belief
in a reality beyond the human senses.
Christian, Jeffarres.

Explanation: The Falcon represents man, present civilization, becoming out of touch
with Christ, whose birth as the revelation which marked the beginning of the two
thousand years of Christianity. The new era looked likely to be one of irrational

Values: Christian Values

New Historicist, John Harrison


Values: Nietzschean.

The poem reflects, prophesies and lambastes the nature of humanity in the modern era,
and the shit from Christianity to a new breed (second coming) of the pagan, with the
repudiation of all authority. Written in a period of international and internal
conflict/uprisings (WW1, Bolsheviks, Easter Irish), the poem is in itself an indictment of
the modern age.

- STANZA ONE: Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world; Yeats diminishes the
horror of anarchy by calling it mere, because worse is to come mere sneers at
it in both sense and sound. The blood-dimmed tide is loosedis drowned;
Yeats believes the results of anarchy are catastrophic; everything is and will be
destroyed. The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate
intensity; Yeats doesnt acquit the rules and aristocrats from responsibility by
best, he also means artists, thinkers, academics.
- STANZA TWO: Surely some revelation is at hand; Yeats reflects the Christian
teaching that breaking of nations would herald the end of the world, the
apocalypse but the second coming envisaged is distinctly pagan, not Christian.
Somewhere in the sandsindignant desert birds. the vision is of a troubling
world spirit whose purpose is to bring a new age the image is of an Egyptian
sphinx, traditional pagan symbol. The darkness drops againslouches toward
Bethlehem; horrifying yet brief: the new pagan-anarchic world is the result of
2000 years of Christian suppression of the pagan, confirming his view of the
waning and waxing of the natural and supernatural in individuals and
Dream): The increasing anarchy of 20th century life is most forcibly expressed in
The Second Coming Yeats draws upon metaphors of control to underline the
futility of mans attempts to exercise mastery over his own twin creations
society and himself.
- The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.
Remains true of current day, the best, being civilized, have learned that their own
desires must be sublimated, while the world are so by a natural process of
- Yeatss opposition of best and worst should be understood within a context in
which a confrontation of enlightened order and ignorant barbarism was being
engineered by socio-political evolution.

Sailing to Byzantium


Main ideas: Dichotomy established between Yeats aging body and his still useful

Preoccupations: Aging, The Gyre and the great wheel, Afterlife.

Tone: Wistful. Yeats who is estranged and alienated from sensual music longs to be
gathered into the artifice of eternity.

Symbolism: Byzantium is a holy city a world of artistic magnificence and permanence,

where once at the peak of the Christian cycle, harmony was established between
religious, aesthetic and practical life.

The golden bird represents immortality and intellectual fulfillment.

Language: Displays superiority of immortality and art compared to the transient nature
of human life. All words used to denote mortal life are monosylabbic (fish, flesh or
fowl while the permanence of intellect is given credence with polysyllabic language
(monuments of unaging intellect or of hammered gold and gold enameling.)

Poetic Technique: Use of Iambic pentameter.

Critical Reading: Practical Criticism, New Criticism.

Author: Nobody in particular, but famous Practical/New critics were TS Eliot, FR
Leavis and IA Richards.

Division into four sections separated by Roman Numerals elucidates that the
poem is a search for and a representation of balance, order and unity.
Clarity and strength of iambic pentameter underlines the ultimate achievement of
unity that takes place within the poem.
Yeats is concerned with valuing the ability of art to overcome human mortality.
The use of first person singular underlines Yeats structural coherence as he moves
away from generalities toward the specific objective of his crusade by the centre
of the poem.
The insubstantiality of mans temporal existence is developed through the crisp,
dry tsounds which dominate the line A tattered coat upon a stick.
The balance that Yeats seeks in the form of the bird is mirrored in the almost
perfect auditory balance present in Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
Yeats achieves a state of equilibrium and balance in leaving the sensual world
behind and arriving in Byzantium through the image of the golden bird. The
development of the image of the fowl of section 1 through to its full artistic
realization in the final section demonstrates the control Yeats has not only over his
poetic reality, but also the powerfully unified vision that is the poem itself.

Values implied in this type of reading: Focus on the technical details of poetry.
Liberal humanist values. There is an explicit focus on keeping what occurs within
the poem within the explicit boundaries of that poem.

Type of Reading: Post Structuralist/Deconstructive

Author: Nobody in particular. Famous deconstructive critics were Jaques Derrida

and Roland Barthes.

Explanation: Sailing to Byzantium is based on oppositions. The first two stanzas see a
warring between youth and age and the sensual and intellectual. The poet is presented as
age/intellectual, while the population is presented as youth/sensual, thus creating a
conflict which sees the poet resolving to sail to Byzantium.
Once there, the oppositions become the physical/emotional and art/life. They set
up as exclusive oppositions. What emerges here is the rejection of life for pure art. This
solution is the result of an artificially constructed series of oppositions causing choices to
be made. The construction of these oppositions prevents reconciliation and diversity.
As we see in Byzantium Yeats attempts to symbolically reconcile these apparent

Values Implied: Theoretical analysis may reveal patterns in a work that are completely
beyond the intention of the author. The task of the post structuralist critic is to show us
the world as disorder, fragmentation and indeterminate. Such a reading tries to show the
impossibility of rendering an ultimately unknowable world into anything resembling
order. It fundamentally attacks and subverts the ideologically driven textual strategies of
dominant interpretive methodologies.


Main Ideas: Clarifies a desire to leave behind the unpurged the complexities of mire
and blood. Yeats imagines disappearing of sensuous and sensual.

Preoccupations: Aging, The Afterlife.

Symbolism: Byzantium is portrayed as a place of harmony between religious, aesthetic

and practical life: The emperor who employs golden smithies is also attended by a
drunken soldiery.

Tone: Surreal, Dream-like.

Oppositions: Miracles, bird, or golden handiwork and Complexities of mire or


Imagery: Daylight revelry fades away leaving the austere silence of a deserted pavement
and a dome towering against the stars.

Language: Structured around words and their cognates complexity, fury, images,

Occultist, Graham Hough from Mystery Religion of WB Yeats

Explanation: Hough sees this poem as a vacillation between sense and spirit. Yeats
aims to redeem bodily and sensuous experience and give it a place in the world of spirit,
where it becomes eternal. The soul frees itself of all complexities, the fury and mire of
human veins. Yeats presents a vision of spirit life that is crowded, packed with imagery,
so dense and complex it defies exposition

Values implied in this type of reading.

Romantic, Harold Bloom.

Explanation: A critics business is to show the releveance to Byzantium to human

experience, but I fear that Byzantium simply is not overwhelmingly relevant.
The given of the poem is this phantasmagoria; either we grant it to Yeats, or the poem
cannot be coherent.

Values implied in this type of reading.

Psychoanalytical, Barbara Webster.

Explanation: The images of an anvil, bird and pavement are associated with the
masochistic fears of battering, castration and death.
Bird and dome are hardened forms of male and female bodies or of the organs of
The disdainful dome brings us back to a key fact of Yeats childhood, his mothers cold
The objectivity with which Yeats presents the afterlife, the relative lack of sentiment, he
comes close to embodying his mothers coldness in his style.
Regarding the afterlife as an extension of poetic activity undoubtedly makes death easier
to accept
In the last stanza, Yeats continues his effort to master the fear of death by portraying it
as an extension of the creative process and, at the same time, turns away from death
altogether towards fantasies of sexual and pre-sexual union with the mother
The marble floor that breaks bitter furies of complexity is a brutal yet creative
instrument actively wielded by the poet. With this image, Yeats masters what is
essentially a rape fantasy.
Yeats tries throughout Byzantium to come to terms with the idea of death by perceiving
it as actively as possible. With the image of dolphins carrying the dead to paradise, Yeats
extends his effort to make death acceptable by invoking earlier images of a place of joy to
which the hero is carried.

When you are Old

Preoccupations: Old Age. Love.

Preoccupations: Old Age, pessimism, Love.

Poetic Techniques: ABBA Rhyme scheme. 3 quatrains. Enhances tone of stoic

acceptance of loss and sadness.

Neither Speaker or subject are named, objectifying the intense emotion and
universalizing it.

Onomatopeia in the 3rd last line.

Repitition of love in the second stanza, four times.

Personification of love hiding his face.

Tone: Sombre. Encompasses sadness and assertion. Sadness at the loss of the womans
beauty, and regret at the passing of love. Assertion of the constancy of the personas love
and continuing worth of the beloveds pilgrim soul.

Imagery: Glowing bars of fire.

Feminist Reading, No Author.

Explanation: Espousing a gendered interpretation of this poem, one can see how Yeats
values the dominant gender construct by his augmentation of a traditional representation
of women that is both complicit and subservient to patriarchal structures.
The addressee of the poem is objectified, becoming both subject and muse.
Compounds a stereotypical view of women by ascribing supposedly inherent
characteristics such as soft gaze and glad grace.
The ABBA rhyme scheme in each of the three quatrains implies the inferiority of women,
and the male embrace of control and constraint.
The construction of the masculine persona as a dominating, creative figure in the poem,
further reducing the role of the women to that of passive observer, is also evident in the
poems relatively unintrusive self-reflexivity.

Values implied in this type of reading.

Type of Reading, Author.


Values implied in this type of reading.

Written in October 1891, based around themes of beauty, peace and sadness reflection
on Mauds part of the love Yeats felt, but which were left unwarranted. The poem is
useful in extrapolating Yeatss profound yet unwarranted love for the enigmatic Maud

- STANZA ONE: When you are old and grey and full of sleepand dream of the
soft look monosyllabic description of MG, almost mimicking the
movements of an elderly woman; passive entry, soft, warm enhanced by imagery
of warm heart and relaxed atmosphere
- STANZA TWO: How many loved your moments of glad grace; but one
man loved the pilgrim soul in you Yeats distinguishes himself from the
group of MGs admirers by saying he loved the impart attributes on the inside;
poet gradually involves himself with each stanza
- STANZA THREE: Murmurhow lovehid his face amid a crown of stars.
Yeats personifies his love and has it leaving the menial world, where it can stay
forever in the peaceful cosmos it will never cease
- If only MG had looked inward and discovered her own heart MG once said I
never indulged in self-analysisWillie Yeats tried to make me introspective
she would have uncovered his love, like a rose.

Notes by Andrew deej Dennett

William Butler Yeats

Critical Study of Texts: Poetry

Hot Central-focus-topic-statements- Sample Introduction to a

Module B Essay
We human beings are inherently argumentative. We argue with others and we argue with
ourselves. It is the quarrel within ourselves that is the driving force behind Yeats
poetry. In other words, the friction between inner consciousness and external event -
the belief that external event leads to an internal critical analysis, is an inherent
characteristic of Yeats poetry. His poetry, then, stands as almost a philosophical essay, an
exploration of his critical thoughts and opinions and, more broadly, it represents a perfect
world, a utopia. Yeats yearning to transcend the limitations of the mortal realm, a desire
shared by philosophers of Ancient Greece such as Socrates and Plato is explored
through his notion of Byzantium, a fictional place separated from mortality. It is a direct
representation of Platos forms: the transcendental world of fundamental and pure forms.
Positioning himself politically, culturally and indeed, artistically, through his poetry,
Yeats has provoked a significant number of diversified critical responses a testament,
perhaps, to Yeats belief that we take external events and quarrel about them within
ourselves. The critical response is just that a quarrel within ourselves. It is through
Yeats philosophizing his poetry that he manages to become a monument of unaging
intellect. It is his dream to be the singing artifice, the immortal statue, the propagator
of ideas.

Background information to W.B Yeats

William Butler Yeats was born in Dublin in 1865. He spent his childhood between
London and Dublin, spending many holidays in the West of Ireland in Country Sligo, the
ancestral place of his mother. His maternal grandparents, the Polixfens, were wealthy
merchants. In his early years of school Yeats struggled to learn to read and write. Yeats
was of a dreamy disposition and although his reading and writing were poor, and he was
not physically strong, his imagination was robust. In 1880 the Yeats family moved to
London and the poet commenced school ad the Godolphin school, Hammersmith, in
1881. Yeats was unhappy at school, missing Ireland dreadfully and hating London
passionately so the visits to Sligo grew increasingly important to him. When Yeats was 15
the family returned to Dublin and Yeats completed his school initially at the Erasmus
Smith High School and finally, fearing his results would not enable him to proceed to
university, the Metropolitan School of Art. He completed his formal schooling in 1886. In
the last years at art school Yeats had begun to write poetry and in 1885 two poems had
been published. A poets life had begun

About this module

Throughout his life, Yeats could be described variously as a political activist, a politician,
an orator, a theosophist, a philosopher, a public figure, the last of the romantic poets. The
Module Critical Study of Texts requires you to understand the distinctive qualities of
each poem (BOS Prescriptions document 2004 2005 P 19). As a starting point in this
module, you need knowledge of
The issues in the prescribed poems and
Yeats style, and poetic techniques

More than this however, you need to reflect upon the different ways Yeats poems can be
read. You need to develop an appreciation of the values that are suggested in different
readings of poetry. How de people from different times and place read these poems
differently. In 2004, can Yeats be read as post-modern? What do you make about the
divided self he often portrays? In 2004 can Yeats be read from a postcolonial perspective?
What do you think Yeats was trying to say about national identity? Do you see any
tension in the poetry that is inherent in his Anglo-Irish background? How does Yeats
represent women in the poems set for study? Do you think When You are Old is rather
sexist and outdate? It is certainly interesting to explore how contemporary rock musicians
have drawn on Yeats poetry for inspiration these musicians include U2 and Van
Most importantly in this module: how do you read these poems? What meaning do you
make of the poems? What aspects of his work do you recognise as more valuable or
significant or true when you adopt a particular interpretation? What analysis of the poetry
do you offer (its language forms and features) to support your reading of it?

When you are Old

When you are Old was written to Maud Gonne in 1891. Yeats fell in love with Maud
Gonne when he was 23 years of age. A strikingly beautiful woman, Maud Gonne was the
daughter of an English colonel. She later became a revolutionary whose sole purpose in
life was to see the establishment of the Irish nation. Yeats proposed to her but she married
John MacBride (referred to in Easter 1916), a member of the Irish Republican
Brotherhood. Maud Gonne legally separated from MacBride a few years later.

From the definite opening use of the word When, this polemical lyric warns Maud
Gonne about the consequences of her rejection of Yeats. Projecting into the future when
Maud Gonne will be old and grey and full of sleep he cautions her that she will miss the
love she is forfeiting through her political single-mindedness. The speaker (Yeats) uses
the imperative voice, albeit gently, through instructions take down this book, dream of
the soft look and murmur. Maud Gonne is acclaimed for her great beauty in the
references to the soft look of her eyes and their shadows deep.

In the second stanza Yeats continues his warnings regarding the sacrifice of love for
political gain. He depicts Maud Gonne as beautiful and vivacious (glad grace). He
asserts that the many who have loved Maud Gonne may have loved her with love
false or true and then juxtaposes the many who have loved her with the emphatic
one man (who) loved (her) pilgrim soul. The image of the pilgrim suggests that the
poet admires her zealotry and commitment, and that he alone understand the sorrows of
(her) changing face. Here Yeats argues the superiority of his position by cautioning
Maud Gonne that she has rejected the one man who truly understands indeed her quest.

The last stanza returns to the imagined world of an ageing Maud Gonne. The image of
this woman bending down towards the fire and murmuring sadly about how love has
fled is wishful thinking on Yeats part. The image of love pacing upon mountains
overhead and hiding his face among the stars ends the poem with a dire warning about
the regret he believes she will feel. Love will be out of reach for Maud Gonne.
Personified as pacing, with its connotations of impatience at her dilatory response, and
as hiding his face amid a crowd of stars, Yeats makes it plain that her rejection of him
will leave her lonely and loveless. The references to mountains and stars may be read in
different ways. Perhaps the refer to the heights which Maud Gonne has aspired in her
quest for an Irish free state and the consequent sacrifice she is making for this quest
love. The crowd of stars may refer to the numbers of high profile leaders, her fellow
revolutionaries, and the fact that amongst these she no longer recognises Yeats his face
is hidden. It is interesting to note the use of the male possessive pronoun his in the last

The poem presents an argument. Its stanzaic structure and regular rhythm enhance the
persuasive and cautionary tone adopted by the poet. The repeated use of and (an
anaphora) builds the intensity of the poem as the pressure of Yeats arguments
accumulated. The lifting rhythm of the poem is created through the use of sounds
devices. Consider the soft sibilance of slowly read, and dream of the soft look/ Your
eyes had once, and of their shadows deep; Yeats uses this to enhance the romantic
tone. In the third stanza he breaks this with the harsher plosive b alliteration in bending
down beside the glowing bars signalling an upshift of intensity as he moves towards his
concluding warning.

The Wild Swans at Coole

Yeats poems are interrelated. This poem was written in the autumn of 1916 at the same
time Yeats was writing Easter 1916. Yeats had become friends with Lady Augusta
Gregory and throughout his life spent much of his time at her estate Coole Park. Together
they had worked on the establishment of an Irish National Theatre. Yeats was aged 51 at
the time of writing this poem and he was depressed having once again proposed to Maud
Gonne and been rejected. Swans are an enduring symbol in Yeats poetry and in the poem
there are nine and fifty swans paddling lover by lover. The odd number presumably
reflects the single status of Yeats himself. In this poem Yeats reflects on the connections
made between the swans and his own life and in so doing, sees his own self as infinitely
more divided and tortured than the swans.

The poem begins with highly specific references to time. It is autumn, October, neither
summer no winter. The stanza is dominated by a series of divisions. The paths are dry in
contrast to the water of the lake; it is twilight the division of day and night. The image
of the swans habitat Under the October twilight the water/ Mirrors a still sky depicts
the reflection of the sky in the lake, showing a sense of connectedness in the swans
natural habitat. The swans inhabit both elements creating a sense of unity and freedom
and strength. Man, Yeats, is separate to this. The land he inhabits is dry in contrast to the
swans for whom the water (a symbol of life) if the lake is brimming.

Yeats preoccupation with counting both the years he has visited the swans and the swans
themselves reinforces the notion of the passage of time (Stanza 2). The poet is bound by
time (note the force of it comes upon) and is preoccupied with its passing, unlike the
swans who are examples of immortality breaking into circles of flight long before Yeats
can conclude his count. The use of the short lines in the stanzaic structure of this poem is
important. Here All suddenly mount signals a quick and jarring change in the
atmosphere as the swans wheel in great broken rings/ Upon their clamorous wings.
There is a juxtaposition of tranquillity and aggression, one and many. What is important
to remember is that the opposing elements grow out of each other and are, therefore,
preconditions for the existence of each other. The hints at what we might call post-
modern today: the notion of a sense of self that is constructed, fluid and changeable,
contradictory and, at times, unstable.

Stanza three is essentially a recollection of earlier times, of the past, when the movement
of the swans is presented in a tenderer, romantic light. He remembers the brilliant
creatures from a time when he trod with a lighter tread by the lake. Again he defines
himself through a comparison to the swans. Unlike the swans, he must deal with change
alls changed, his heart is sore. The startled tone of the previous stanza is replaced
here by a mood of depressed resignation.

The fourth stanza focuses on the sense of mortality that accompanies ageing. The
representation of the swans is a stark silhouette to the poet whose hear has grown old.
The inverted word order of the opening line with the emphatic Unwearied still
establishes the contrast. The swans, lover by lover remain unchallenged by mortality.
The alternative oxymoron of cold/companionable streams highlights the strength and
command of these creatures. Both in the cold streams of the lake and in the air, they
demonstrate the power of their life-force passion or conquest attend them still,
unlike the ageing poet. Their energy is in stark contrast to his passivity.

The concluding stanza is a contrast to the earlier stanzas and poses a complex question.
Returning to the present, Yeats contemplates the future of the swans. In the third line the
poet reflects on the procreation of the swans: among what rushes will they build and
the enduring quality of their life cycle as they continue to delight mens eyes. The
swans will continue in their pattern after Yeats has died, after for him, though death, they
have flown away. Here lies a potential connection for the poet: like the swans, the
cycle of man survives, and in this way the poet can conceive of a future without the
swans. The swans are allowed to delight other mens eyes. This shows the interrelated
nature of life and death, cycles of permanence and change. This stanza of the poem was
revised by Yeats in 1919 and there is some speculation that the last stanza was finalised
after his marriage to his wife and it reflects, at least partially, his acceptance of and
recovery from the failed relationship with Maud Gonne.

Easter 1916
On April 24th the Irish Volunteers of the Irish Republican Brotherhood proclaimed an
Irish Republic and occupied the centre of Dublin. They held out for five days. Fifteen of
its leaders were subsequently executed from May 3rd May 12th 1916. The poem lists
some of its leaders including:
Constance Markiwiecz (worked to free Ireland from English rule; worked with the
Padraic Pearse (Headmaster, scholar, orator)
Thomas MacDonagh (poet and academic)
John MacBride (married Maud Gonne)

This poem is a political poem. Earlier Yeats had been invited to write a poem about the
political poems in Ireland and had refused to do so, so the existence and longevity of this
poem is significant. The poem is a paean for those who lost their life during the Easter
Arising but at the same time he asks the core question: what excess of love/ Bewildered
them till they died? It is too simplistic to see this poem as a veneration of the heroes.
One of the great oxymorons of English literature was penned in this poem in the line at
terrible beauty is born.

The opening stanza of the poem focuses on the ordinariness of the background of the
heroes of the Arising and establishes the poets alienation from them (note the use of
them in the opening line. These heroes are nameless). These are ordinary people from
ordinary working lives. Yeats does, however, set them apart from the grey eighteenth
century houses with their vivid animated faces. The social exchange he describes as
they pass in the street suggests superficiality and ignorance, indeed a world of comedy.
The repetition if polite meaningless words in particular and the social chitchat of the
club suggests the complacency that preceded the shock of the Arising for Yeats. The
connotation of motley develops this sense of shock. It refers to the multicoloured dress
of a jester. The poet was certain that I but lived where motley is worn: an Ireland
that would be free from the kind of civil unrest that the Arising sifnified, a light-hearted
Ireland of anecdote and amusement. The final two lines of this stanza form an incantatory
refrain that is repeated throughout the poem. The force of this and the refrain lies in the
emphatic all, the repetition of the verb changed, the alliteration and internal rhyme of
terrible, beauty and born and the oxymoron terrible beauty. The terrible beauty
of those heroes lies in their act of sacrifice for a cause. Terrible: because of death and
violence, but also a thing of beauty, courage and commitment.
The second stanza recalls four leaders of the Arising. The first leader that woman is
Constance Markiwiecz whom Yeats remembers as beautiful and sweet-voiced until her
voice grew shrill in argument. There is a stark contrast between his memory of her as a
young woman elegant, young, hunting (harriers) and his depiction of her supporting
the cause. He portrays her as being in ignorant goodwill. Yeats imagery of the two men
that follow is kinder. Padraic Pearse is first to be remembered. As mentioned above he
was a headmaster, but more importantly, he trained the students in Celtic traditions. The
allusion to our winged horse refers to Pegasus who in Greek mythology was known for
his poetic genius. This other his helper and friend refers to Thomas MacDonagh, an
upcoming poet who Yeats felt would have won fame in the end. The last leader that
Yeats mentions is John MacBride, a drunken vainglorious lout, scarcely hiding his
contempt for him because of the most bitter wrong he had done Yeats in marrying
Maud Gonne. Despite even such a momentous betrayal, despite Yeats own person loss,
he is compelled to name him in his paean. The imagery associated with drama playing
parts and casual comedy contrasts the triviality of everyday life with the heroic deeds
of these leaders and the laconic term resigned highlights this contrast again.

The third stanza relies on metaphor and imagery to make sense of the deeds of the heroes
in this poem. Yeats portrays the imperviousness of these men and women to the world
around them. Hearts with one purpose alone illustrates the obsession with which the
rebels hold on to their quest. The images of movement and change in the third stanza are
set against their steadfastness. The image of the living steam is redolent of the flux in
life but the symbolism of the stone illustrates their immovability: The stones in the
midst of all. And all is moving. Yeats references to the natural movement are
characterised by a life force. The use of finite verbs (range, change, dive, call)
create this sense of movement, the repetition of minute-by-minute creates a feeling of
change. The enjambment of the lines range/from cloud and stream/ changes, the
onomatopoeic plashes and the use of assonance create a moving, evocative atmosphere
in the stanza until the last line where the stone remains resolute. The metonymous use of
the word stone in the opening line Too much sacrifice can make a stone of the heart
builds on the image of the stone from the previous stanza but strengthens it through the
bluntness of its tone. The opening lines of the fourth stanza bring into focus the core
concern of the poem. What do these deaths mean for Irish national identity? How to
rationalise or accept or understand or internalise the hardline commitment of the rebels?
The poetic voice in this stanza is characterised itself by grief and bewilderment as
indicated in the rhetorical question: O when may it suffice? and the musings of his
mind as he seeks to make sense of the situation. Yeats recoils from passing judgement on
the rebels. Instead, using the gentle image of motherhood, he asserts that it is Irelands
duty to remember these rebels as a mother names her child/when sleep at last has
come/on limbs that had run wild. The image of the mother is only partly satisfying for
the poet because indeed these children will not wake again. It is death, not nightfall.
Rejecting this image he considers that their deaths may be futile, because England may
indeed keep faith.

The final lines of the poem almost render these questions irrelevant. It finally doesnt
matter whether their deaths had purpose. Yeats answers his own questions in the final
lines of the poem, in the naming the rebels, in the symbolic giving of identity to the
anonymous them of the opening line. They have become intrinsically part of national
fabric in the elegiac conclusion to the poem and the final repetition of the refrain.

The Second Coming

The Second Coming is a highly visual and haunting poem. Its pessimistic tone and use
of the religious imagery of consequence create a sense of foreboding. It was written in
January 1919, after the Easter Arising and towards the end of Word War I and is a poem
about historical change. The title of the poem refers to the Christian belief in the second
coming of Christ (Matthew 24) but its substance draws on the apocalyptic vision of the
Book of Revelation. It is essentially a prophecy.

One of the symbols Yeats uses in this poem is the gyre. A gyre can be best visualised as
two interlocking, spiral-shaped cones on a horizontal plane with the widest parts of each
cone at each end. The point of each cone is the middle of its opposing cone they sit within
each other and they expand. Yeats used the symbol of a gyre to represent historical
change. At the time of writing he believed that the gyre of the twentieth century had
almost reached its widest point, that the Christian ear would become extinct.

The poem begins with a bleak and terrifying representation of the world. The present
continuous tense Turning and turning suggests the inevitability of the vision that
follows. The symbol of the falcon is interesting. Perhaps the falcon symbolises the soul
and the falconer God, suggesting that chaos is hear. Or, perhaps it symbolises the
intellectual mind and the falconer is the soul. Or it may have a political interpretation
representing a loss of social control. The falcon like the gyre spirals. Lines 3 6 present a
bleak picture of our world, chaos and anarchy, in the blunt tone used: Things fall apart
the centre cannot hold. The force of the oxymoron mere anarchy conveys a sense of
disgust. The repetition of the verb loosed highlights the random disorder of the blood-
dimmed tide. The concept of ceremony of innocence here refers to the social order of
peace that is drowned, perhaps a reference to the Irish Civil War. The final two lines of
the stanza condemn the political process at work in Ireland criticising the leaders for their
lack of conviction (in regard to England) and the rebels for their all-consuming passion.
The opening stanza has built steadily to a climax of chaos and pessimism.

The second stanza begins with the repetition of Surely. The person seeks a notion of
hope and reassurance but this is quickly rejected. The second coming that is at hand is not
the second coming of Christ but rather the monstrous and anti-Christ from Revelation.
Again the rhythm of inevitability returns with the force of the predominantly single-
syllable words of lines 14 17. This image from the spiritus mundi (a kind of
collective memory of humanity) is one of a horror future. Note the barren landscape of
the desert and the highly visual description of the sphinx-like beats. Yeats describes its
shape, its eyes, its head, its movement, stressing its brutality through the use of the simile
a gaze blank and pitiless as the sun. The verbs moving and reels convey intensity
and inevitability. The best is inexorable, beyond the paradigm of good and evil on which
Christian civilisation has been predicated.

Images of darkness permeate the last six lines of the poem: shadows, darkness,
stony sleep, nightmare depict Christianity as having given birth to an epoch of
nightmare and darkness. The cradle that is rocked is not the cradle of the Christ-child but
the anti-Christ. The best that slouches towards Bethlehem menaces the birthplace of

Yeats regarded this poem as one of his most important. He was indeed vexed by the
growing violence and anarchy of the world.

Sailing to Byzantium
The city of Byzantium was a central symbol for two of Yeats most important poems:
Sailing to Byzantium. The site of Byzantium today would be Istanbul. Its former name
was Constantinople and prior to this it was Byzantium. It was invaded and destroyed by
the Turks at the end of the Middle Ages and it is now a symbol of an unearthly, spiritual
place. Byzantium had been part of the Roman Empire, rather like Ireland was part of the
British Empire. Much has been written about what Byzantium symbolised in Yeats
poetry. Yeats wrote in A Vision (this is often quoted in discussions of his poetry):

I think that in early Byzantium, maybe never before or since in recorded history,
religious, aesthetic and practical life were one, that architect and artificers though not, it
may be, poets, for language had been the instrument of controversy and must have grown
abstract spoke to a multitude and the few alike. The painted, the mosaic worker, the
worker in gold and silver, the illuminator of sacred books, were almost impersonal,
almost perhaps without the consciousness of individual design, absorbed in their subject
matter and that the vision of a whole people.

The modern would have left Yeats feeling despondent and he believed that through art
there could be a unity of all aspects of life. The Byzantium poems were written when
Yeats was ageing and in them he presents images that will counter the degeneration that
time brings, seeking immortality and solace in his artistic achievement.

The opening stanza begins with an abrupt tone of rejection. Yeats feels out of step with
the world around him, the pressure of ageing immediately evident. Ireland is no country
for old men. He proceeds to outline why through the use of romantic imagery, birds in
the trees, The young in one anothers arms. The imagery also emphasises the
fecundity of nature, the salmon spawn and the sea are mackerel-crowded. His bitterness
and sense of separation shows in the references to the essential mortality of nature: the
dying generations. Yeats acknowledges the power of sensuality and the fact that man is
caught in it and, as such, is inclined to neglect monuments of ageing intellect, such as
poetic achievement.

The second stanza begins with one of the most memorable lines of twentieth century
poetry. The scarecrow image a tattered coat upon a stick satirises his own decaying
condition. Old age is indeed paltry unless increasingly soul clap its hands and sing. In
this stanza Yeats seeks immortality through his art, through the compensation of poetic
achievement and so he sails to Byzantium. The image of the singing school, developed
in the next stanza, relates to his earlier days and his involvement in the Rhymers Club
with its quest for poetic perfection. In the third stanza Yeats begins with an apostrophe
O, invoking the sages of the holy fire to burn away the dross of his soul. The
mortality suggested in the last lines of this stanza sick with desire, fastened to a dying
animal build on the images of ageing from the earlier stanzas. This invocation summons
the sages to deliver immortality to the artist.

The opening lines of the final stanza present the poet in his imagined immortal form. The
image of the enamelled, artificial bird shows the poet as defying nature and its decay. The
bird symbolises the soul. He wishes his soul to be immortal, beyond the tyranny of time.
The verb sing in the second line creates as visionary role for this bird. On his golden
bough, he will sing of what is past, or passing, or to come- a sage-like creature, indeed,
beyond the flux of life. The tone of the poem has shifted from one of despair to on of
transcendence. The poem that follows presents quite a different conclusion.
The poem is divided into five stanzas: the city background and its violence, death and the
past, the permanence of art, the mosaics that portray spiritual life and lastly, triumph over
the human body.

In the opening stanza Yeats depicts Byzantium. What are these daytime images that he
dismisses at the outset of the poem? The images of ordinary life that make up the
physical world are portrayed as diminishing in the first line with the long stressed
recede emphasising this. The overtones of contempt in the description of the soldiers of
the Empire as drunken and night-walkers highlight the paradox of the Great Empire.
In line 4 Yeats refers to the great cathedral gong sounding out over the starlit or
moonlit dome. The gong represents the meeting of eastern and western religions and the
dome, traditionally a representation of a haven, symbolises Byzantine achievement. This
artefact has an enduring quality that the physical being of man lacks. The fury and mire
of human veins is in stark contrast to the starlit of moonlit dome. The verb disdains
again highlights the superiority and permanence of art in contrast to there mere
complexities of man.

The second stanza is an incantation. Yeats calls upon the dead to uncover their wisdom.
Through the references to shades and Hades bobbin the poet seeks to unravel the
paradox and mystery of the last line and death-in-life and life-in-death. Hades bobbin
refers to the soul which comes from the underworld and returns there until its rebirth.
Life in this way is in fact an imprisonment of the soul. Yeats statement that breathless
mouths (poets) may summon a mouth that has no moisture and no breath refers to the
poets quest for understanding of the paradoxical relationship between the physical and
spiritual domains of man. The third stanza transports the reader to the world or art that is
also superhuman life death-in-life and life-in-death. It is depicted through the starlit
golden bough, a tree made of hold and bronze that stood in the court of the first stanza.
What is the place of this art? The symbol of the Cocks of Hades refers to the use of the
image of the cock on Roman tombstones. The cock greets the new day and is a symbol or
eternal reincarnation, rebirth. It transcends life. Is this what Yeats art represents? Or is it
the common bird of the second last line of this stanza? It sings of the ongoing cycle of
life and death the complexities of mire and blood mentioned in the first stanza. Can his
art enable him to escape?

The fourth stanza returns to the streets of the city and the mosaics on the pavements.
There mosaics are born out of a spiritual fire. The fire is not fuelled by wood (faggots
or steel) but by flames begotten by flames- by spiritual intensity. The reference to
complexities and fury yet again shows these being expiated in the dance ritual of the
last lines. What are these first but the fires of the imagination? These fires are however
unable to single a single sleeve because they are not the fires of action. The fires of the
imagination burn and do not burn. In the final stanza of the poem, however, Yeats does
not reflect on the transcendent quality of his art, rather on the real world. The sea
symbolises the physical world and sexuality. Yeats had been torn throughout his life
between the world of action and the world of art and imagination. The dolphins that come
to rescue man are symbolic of a love-beast. This stanza synthesise the threads of the
poem. Art and life, often seen as opposing forces, are here interwoven. The smithies
break the flood and the marbles of the mosaic reflect the bitter furies of complexity.
The poets artistic life does not defend him from the decay of old age, from fading
sexuality or the tyranny of religion.

Essay Question with Outlines Answer

A great poet can transcend time and place
Discuss this statement and analyse its veracity with regard to the poetry of Yeats.

Introduction: you will probably agree with this statement and define the quotation. You
will be focusing what he says and how he creates meaning.
In your body you should make detailed references to his poems. You could begin with an
analysis of his themes/concerns and how they are universal because they deal with the
human condition: ageing, passion, belief and the angst of artistic endeavour.
Draw on your study of all his set poems but concentrate on two or three. Remember that
in the HSC you only have forty minutes and cannot analyse every poem in detail.
Examine how his poetic techniques help to create meaning but also make his work
You should consider different readings of his work and how more modern perspectives
find relevance in his work.
In your conclusion synthesise these elements and explain how his work is relevant in
other contexts. You may wish to reinforce your view of his status as a great poet.

Other Practice Essay Questions

1. Write the text of a debate between two critics of Yeats poems. They should argue
from two different perspectives about his relevance and his worth in a post modernist
2. Write a monologue, from your teachers point of view, regarding the relevance of
Yeats work for students studying his work for the HSC
3. Analyse the qualities that make Yeats poems distinctive

HSC Hint
Yes, you do need to know all the poems. The examination board may well ask you to
write about specific poems. It is important to reflect on values implied in different
readings of his poetry but you must not neglect issues and style. How Yeats creates
meaning is the key to a comprehensive understanding of his work. Make sure that you
make detailed reference to his poems- and that includes quotations.

Supplementary notes

The Wild Swans of Coole

With the trees "in their autumn beauty," the speaker walks down the dry woodland paths
to the water, which mirrors the still October twilight of the sky. Upon the water float
"nine-and-fifty swans." The speaker says that nineteen years have passed since he first
came to the water and counted the swans; that first time, before he had "well finished," he
saw the swans mount up into the sky and scatter, "wheeling in great broken rings / Upon
their clamorous wings." The speaker says that his heart is sore, for after nineteen autumns
of watching and being cheered by the swans, he finds that everything in his life has
changed. The swans, though, are still unwearied, and they paddle by in the water or fly by
in the air in pairs, "lover by lover." Their hearts, the speaker says, "Have not grown cold,"
and wherever they go they are attended by "passion or conquest." But now, as they drift
over the still water, they are "Mysterious, beautiful," and the speaker wonders where they
will build their nests, and by what lake's edge or pool they will "delight men's eyes,"
when he awakes one morning to find that they have flown away.

"The Wild Swans at Coole" is written in a very regular stanza form: five six-line stanzas,
each written in a roughly iambic meter, with the first and third lines in tetrameter, the
second, fourth, and sixth lines in trimeter, and the fifth line in pentameter, so that the
pattern of stressed syllables in each stanza is 434353. The rhyme scheme in each stanza is

One of the most unusual features of Yeats poetic career is the fact that the poet came into
his greatest powers only as he neared old age; whereas many poets fade after the first
burst of youth, Yeats continued to grow more confident and more innovative with his
writing until almost the day he died. Though he was a famous and successful writer in his
youth, his poetic reputation today is founded almost solely on poems written after he was
fifty. He is thus the great poet of old age, writing honestly and with astonishing force
about the pain of time's passage and feeling that the ageless heart was "fastened to a
dying animal," as he wrote in "Sailing to Byzantium." The great struggle that enlivens
many of Yeats best poems is the struggle to uphold the integrity of the soul, and to
preserve the mind's connection to the "deep heart's core," despite physical decay and the
pain of memory.

The Wild Swans at Coole," part of the 1919 collection of the same name, is one of Yeats
earliest and most moving testaments to the heart-ache of living in a time when "all's
changed." (And when Yeats says "All's changed, changed utterly" in the fifteen years
since he first saw the swans, he means it--the First World War and the Irish civil war both
occurred during these years.) The simple narrative of the poem, recounting the poet's trips
to the lake at Augusta Gregory's Coole Park residence to count the swans on the water, is
given its solemn serenity by the beautiful nature imagery of the early stanzas, the
plaintive tone of the poet, and the carefully constructed poetic stanza--the two trimeter
lines, which give the poet an opportunity to utter short, heartfelt statements before a long
silence ensured by the short line ("Their hearts have not grown old..."). The speaker,
caught up in the gentle pain of personal memory, contrasts sharply with the swans, which
are treated as symbols of the essential: their hearts have not grown old; they are still
attended by passion and conquest.
The Second Coming
The speaker describes a nightmarish scene: the falcon, turning in a widening "gyre"
(spiral), cannot hear the falconer; "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold"; anarchy is
loosed upon the world; "The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The
ceremony of innocence is drowned." The best people, the speaker says, lack all
conviction, but the worst "are full of passionate intensity."

Surely, the speaker asserts, the world is near a revelation; "Surely the Second Coming is
at hand." No sooner does he think of "the Second Coming," then he is troubled by "a vast
image of the Spiritus Mundi, or the collective spirit of mankind: somewhere in the desert,
a giant sphinx ("A shape with lion body and the head of a man, / A gaze as blank and
pitiless as the sun") is moving, while the shadows of desert birds reel about it. The
darkness drops again over the speaker's sight, but he knows that the sphinx's twenty
centuries of "stony sleep" have been made a nightmare by the motions of "a rocking
cradle." And what "rough beast," he wonders, "its hour come round at last, / Slouches
towards Bethlehem to be born?"

"The Second Coming" is written in a very rough iambic pentameter, but the meter is so
loose, and the exceptions so frequent, that it actually seems closer to free verse with
frequent heavy stresses. The rhymes are likewise haphazard; apart from the two couplets
with which the poem opens, there are only coincidental rhymes in the poem, such as
"man" and "sun."
Because of its stunning, violent imagery and terrifying ritualistic language, "The Second
Coming" is one of Yeats' most famous and most anthologized poems; it is also one of the
most thematically obscure and difficult to understand. (It is safe to say that very few
people who love this poem could paraphrase its meaning to satisfaction.) Structurally, the
poem is quite simple--the first stanza describes the conditions present in the world (things
falling apart, anarchy, etc.), and the second surmises from those conditions that a
monstrous Second Coming is about to take place, not of the Jesus we first knew, but of a
new messiah, a "rough beast," the slouching sphinx rousing itself in the desert and
lumbering toward Bethlehem. This brief exposition, though intriguingly blasphemous, is
not terribly complicated; but the question of what it should signify to a reader is another
story entirely.
Yeats spent years crafting an elaborate, mystical theory of the universe that he described
in his book A Vision. This theory issued in part from Yeats lifelong fascination with the
occult and mystical, and in part from the sense of responsibility Yeats felt to order his
experience within a structured belief system. The system is extremely complicated and
not of any lasting importance--except for the effect that it had on his poetry, which is of
extraordinary lasting importance. The theory of history Yeats articulated in A Vision
centres on a diagram made of two conical spirals, one inside the other, so that the widest
part of one of the spirals rings around the narrowest part of the other spiral, and vice
versa. Yeats believed that this image (he called the spirals "gyres") captured the contrary
motions inherent within the historical process, and he divided each gyre into specific
regions that represented particular kinds of historical periods (and could also represent
the psychological phases of an individual's development).
"The Second Coming" was intended by Yeats to describe the current historical moment
(the poem appeared in 1921) in terms of these gyres. Yeats believed that the world was on
the threshold of an apocalyptic revelation, as history reached the end of the outer gyre (to
speak roughly) and began moving along the inner gyre. In his definitive edition of Yeats'
poems, Richard J. Finneran quotes Yeats' own notes:
The end of an age, which always receives the revelation of the character of the next age,
is represented by the coming of one gyre to its place of greatest expansion and of the
other to its place of greatest contraction... The revelation [that] approaches will... take its
character from the contrary movement of the interior gyre...
In other words, the world's trajectory along the gyre of science, democracy, and
heterogeneity is now coming apart, like the frantically widening flight-path of the falcon
that has lost contact with the falconer; the next age will take its character not from the
gyre of science, democracy, and speed, but from the contrary inner gyre--which,
presumably, opposes mysticism, primal power, and slowness to the science and
democracy of the outer gyre. The "rough beast" slouching toward Bethlehem is the
symbol of this new age; the speaker's vision of the rising sphinx is his vision of the
character of the new world.
This seems quite silly as philosophy or prophecy (particularly in light of the fact that it
has not come true as yet). But as poetry, and understood more broadly than as a simple
reiteration of the mystic theory of A Vision, "The Second Coming" is a magnificent
statement about the contrary forces at work in history, and about the conflict between the
modern world and the ancient world. The poem may not have the thematic relevance of
Yeats' best work, and may not be a poem with which many people can personally
identify; but the aesthetic experience of its passionate language is powerful enough to
ensure its value and its importance in Yeats' work as a whole.

Sailing to Byzantium
The speaker, referring to the country that he has left, says that it is "no country for old
men": it is full of youth and life, with the young lying in one another's arms, birds singing
in the trees, and fish swimming in the waters. There, "all summer long" the world rings
with the "sensual music" that makes the young neglect the old, whom the speaker
describes as "Monuments of unageing intellect."

An old man, the speaker says, is a "paltry thing," merely a tattered coat upon a stick,
unless his soul can clap its hands and sing; and the only way for the soul to learn how to
sing is to study "monuments of its own magnificence." Therefore, the speaker has "sailed
the seas and come / To the holy city of Byzantium." The speaker addresses the sages
"standing in God's holy fire / As in the gold mosaic of a wall," and asks them to be his
soul's "singing-masters." He hopes they will consume his heart away, for his heart
"knows not what it is"--it is "sick with desire / And fastened to a dying animal," and the
speaker wishes to be gathered "Into the artifice of eternity."
The speaker says that once he has been taken out of the natural world, he will no longer
take his "bodily form" from any "natural thing," but rather will fashion himself as a
singing bird made of hammered gold, such as Grecian goldsmiths make "To keep a
drowsy Emperor awake," or set upon a tree of gold "to sing / To lords and ladies of
Byzantium / Or what is past, or passing, or to come."
The four eight-line stanzas of "Sailing to Byzantium" take a very old verse form: they are
metered in iambic pentameter, and rhymed ABABABCC, two trios of alternating rhyme
followed by a couplet.

"Sailing to Byzantium" is one of Yeats's most inspired works, and one of the greatest
poems of the twentieth century. Written in 1926 and included in Yeats's greatest single
collection, 1928's The Tower, "Sailing to Byzantium" is Yeats's definitive statement about
the agony of old age and the imaginative and spiritual work required to remain a vital
individual even when the heart is "fastened to a dying animal" (the body). Yeats's solution
is to leave the country of the young and travel to Byzantium, where the sages in the city's
famous gold mosaics (completed mainly during the sixth and seventh centuries) could
become the "singing-masters" of his soul. He hopes the sages will appear in fire and take
him away from his body into an existence outside time, where, like a great work of art, he
could exist in "the artifice of eternity." In the astonishing final stanza of the poem, he
declares that once he is out of his body he will never again appear in the form of a natural
thing; rather, he will become a golden bird, sitting on a golden tree, singing of the past
("what is past"), the present (that which is "passing"), and the future (that which is "to
A fascination with the artificial as superior to the natural is one of Yeats's most prevalent
themes. In a much earlier poem, 1899's "The Lover Tells of the Rose in His Heart," the
speaker expresses a longing to re-make the world "in a casket of gold" and thereby
eliminate its ugliness and imperfection. Later, in 1914's "The Dolls," the speaker writes
of a group of dolls on a shelf, disgusted by the sight of a human baby. In each case, the
artificial (the golden casket, the beautiful doll, the golden bird) is seen as perfect and
unchanging, while the natural (the world, the human baby, the speaker's body) is prone to
ugliness and decay. What is more, the speaker sees deep spiritual truth (rather than simply
aesthetic escape) in his assumption of artificiality; he wishes his soul to learn to sing, and
transforming into a golden bird is the way to make it capable of doing so.
"Sailing to Byzantium" is an endlessly interpretable poem, and suggests endlessly
fascinating comparisons with other important poems--poems of travel, poems of age,
poems of nature, poems featuring birds as symbols. (One of the most interesting is surely
Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale," to which this poem is in many ways a rebuttal: Keats
writes of his nightingale, "Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird! / No hungry
generations tread thee down"; Yeats, in the first stanza of "Sailing to Byzantium," refers
to "birds in the trees" as "those dying generations.") It is important to note that the poem
is not autobiographical; Yeats did not travel to Byzantium (which was renamed
Constantinople in the fourth century A.D., and later renamed Istanbul), but he did argue
that, in the sixth century, it offered the ideal environment for the artist. The poem is about
an imaginative journey, not an actual one.
At night in the city of Byzantium, "The unpurged images of day recede." The drunken
soldiers of the Emperor are asleep, and the song of night-walkers fades after the great
cathedral gong. The "starlit" or "moonlit dome," the speaker says, disdains all that is
human--"All mere complexities, / The fury and the mire of human veins." The speaker
says that before him floats an image--a man or a shade, but more a shade than a man, and
still more simply "an image." The speaker hails this "superhuman" image, calling it
"death-in-life and life-in-death." A golden bird sits on a golden tree, which the speaker
says is a "miracle"; it sings aloud, and scorns the "common bird or petal / And all
complexities of mire or blood."

At midnight, the speaker says, the images of flames flit across the Emperor's pavement,
though they are not fed by wood or steel, nor disturbed by storms. Here, "blood-begotten
spirits come," and die "into a dance, / An agony of trance, / An agony of flame that cannot
singe a sleeve," leaving behind all the complexities and furies of life. Riding the backs of
dolphins, spirit after spirit arrives, the flood broken on "the golden smithies of the
Emperor." The marbles of the dancing floor break the "bitter furies of complexity," the
storms of images that beget more images, "That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea."

The pronounced differences in Byzantiums line lengths make its stanzas appear very
haphazard; however, they are actually quite regular: each stanza constitutes eight lines,
and each rhymes AABBCDDC. Metrically, each is quite complicated; the lines are
loosely iambic, with the first, second, third, fifth, and eighth lines in pentameter, the
fourth line in tetrameter, and the sixth and seventh line in trimeter, so that the pattern of
line-stresses in each stanza is 55545335.
We have read Yeats account of "Sailing to Byzantium"; now he has arrived at the city
itself, and is able to describe it. In "Sailing to Byzantium" the speaker stated his desire to
be "out of nature" and to assume the form of a golden bird; in "Byzantium," the bird
appears, and scores of dead spirits arrive on the backs of dolphins, to be forged into "the
artifice of eternity"--ghostlike images with no physical presence ("a flame that cannot
singe a sleeve"). The narrative and imagistic arrangement of this poem is highly
ambiguous and complicated; it is unclear whether Yeats intends the poem to be a register
of symbols or an actual mythological statement. (In classical mythology, dolphins often
carry the dead to their final resting-place.)
In any event, we see here the same preference for the artificial above the actual that
appeared in "Sailing to Byzantium"; only now the speaker has encountered actual
creatures that exist "in the artifice of eternity"--most notably the golden bird of stanza
three. But the preference is now tinged with ambiguity: the bird looks down upon
"common bird or petal," but it does so not out of existential necessity, but rather because
it has been coerced into doing so, as it were--"by the moon embittered." The speaker's
demonstrated preoccupation with "fresh images" has led some critics to conclude that the
poem is really an allegory of the process by which fantasies are rendered into art, images
arriving from the "dolphin-torn, the gong-tormented sea," then being made into
permanent artifacts by "the golden smithies of the Emperor." It is impossible to say
whether this is all or part of Yeats intention, and it is difficult to see how the prevalent
symbols of the afterlife connect thematically to the topic of images (how could images be
dead?). For all its difficulty and almost unfixed quality of meaning--the poem is difficult
to place even within the context of A Vision--the intriguing imagery and sensual language
of the poem are tokens of its power; simply as the evocation is a fascinating imaginary
scene, "Byzantium" is unmatched in all of Yeats.