An Analysis of the Poetry of Yeats

An Analysis of the Poetry of Yeats

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An Analysis of Down by the Salley Gardens  


One of Yeats' poems, Down by the Salley Gardens is a typical story of inexperienced youth in the realm of love. The final two lines hold the key to the theme of the poem:


She bid me take life easy, as the grass grows on the weirs;

But I was young and foolish, and now am full of tears.


The poem is evidently about the relationship between the narrator and the woman with the "little snow-white feet• and the narrator's failure to be able to cope with that relationship. Whilst she wanted to enjoy herself and "take life easy•, he was too "young and foolish• to understand her needs, resulting in them going their separate ways, hence the ?nal line.


Down by the Salley Gardens has a number of problems, probably due to it being written at an early point in Yeats' writing career. It lacks the subtlety of his later poems; there really is very little to analyze in terms of the themes and issues raised within. The language is also far simpler - there are no very memorable lines in this poem, whereas his later works contained lines that would eventually enter most people's collective unconscious, such as some of the first few lines of The Second Coming:


Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,


The repetition used in the last two lines of each stanza is obvious and overstated, and the bouncy, cheerful rhyme scheme does not seem to compliment the rather downbeat and morose tone of the poem. Down by the Salley Gardens simply lacks the power and depth with which he later infused his poems.


The Lake Isle of Innisfree


Written only four years after Down by the Salley Gardens, The Lake Isle of Innisfree is a remarkable advance. This poem is far more sophisticated in all respects. An immediately noticeable difference between it and the previous poem is its maturity; the themes explored and the techniques used to do so are far more complex and detailed than those used in Down by the Salley Gardens.


The central theme is that of exile, and it is portrayed in a somewhat curious way. The narrator longs to live on the island of Innisfree and be closer to nature, hence the lines:

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And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;

Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,

And live alone in the bee-loud glade.


Whilst he is ready to live in self-imposed exile, the irony to his situation is that he is, in a way, already exiled - exiled to live in the city, with the roadways and the pavements grey, away from his idealised Irish rural life.


Very strong pastoral images are used to portray his ideal existence. The world described is almost a paradise, without the interference of man to spoil things - the narrator's presence in this natural world is kept to a minimum, with his small cabin designed to blend in with the surroundings. Almost every line of the poem serves to enrich this image of an ideal life, which makes the penultimate line all the more powerful, as we are left unsure as to whether the narrator will ever reach the life he so desires. The ABAB rhyme structure enforces this feeling of nature, lending a ?owing, soothing rhythm to the poem, as does the alliteration in the second line of the third stanza:


I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;


The successful creation of a de?nite atmosphere for the poem really does show how inferior Down by the Salley Gardens is - it makes one wonder whether Yeats wrote that poem quickly in order to have something to do, whereas The Lake Isle of Innisfree was written carefully, as a fully-?edged piece of literary work.


When You are Old


This is a very sombre, regretful and resigned poem. It has a quiet, dreamlike feeling to it, achieved by an undulating rhyme scheme (ABBA) and use of soft-sounding, uncomplicated words that are nevertheless powerful. The theme is the painful one of unrequited love, which Yeats manipulates in an interesting manner. Instead of focusing upon the present or the past, as is usually the case with this often used theme, Yeats looks to the future, a future in which the two people in the poem are destined to be forever apart.


That the unhappy ending only becomes apparent in the last stanza makes it all the more poignant; the ?rst two stanzas are somewhat ambiguous - it is unclear as to what the situation is regarding the relationship being written about. The ?rst stanza is an introduction, setting the scene and immediately creating a soothing, thoughtful and dreamlike atmosphere. Yeats achieves this by careful word selection in his description of the future. Phrases such as "old and grey•, "full of sleep•, "nodding by the ?re•, "slowly read•, "dream of the soft look• all serve to calm readers, lull them into the same drowsiness that the narrator imagines the subject of his poem will be in so many years' time. The punctuation enforces this feeling, by heavy use of commas to slow the pace of the sentences.


The second stanza is an expression of his love for her, claiming that only he loved her beyond physical attraction. Whereas others "loved your beauty with love false of true,• he loved her "pilgrim soul•; in other words, he loved her ever-changing (hence the word "pilgrim•) personality; he loved her all the time, no matter "the sorrows of your changing face•.


Delivering the main emotional impact of the poem, the last stanza reveals how his love was never returned. The ?nal two lines describe how love evaded them both:


And paced upon the mountains overhead

And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.


This is a very strong image; the night sky is traditionally a very romantic thing, and the idea of love itself ?eeing to hide amongst the stars is a powerful one. The punctuation changes in the ?nal stanza. Whereas the ?rst two are rife with commas, slowing the pace and inducing a dreamlike state of calm, the third omits almost all punctuation - the last three lines are one continuous sentence with no added punctuation. It is as if the narrator has ?nally accepted that his love will always be unrequited, and he stops dreaming about the future; the warm, drifting nature of the poem evolves to become a cold, lingering ending.


The Wild Swans at Coole


Yeats using something of a conceit here, allegorising the narrator's past life with that of the swans'. The narrator seems to enter something of a meditative state for most of the duration of the poem, until the penultimate line, "when I awake some day• and the moment of clear vision ends. During this visionary period, a number of techniques are used to display the narrator's wistful recollection of a happier time.


The ?rst stanza sets up a re?ective atmosphere, depicting a serene woodland scene. At this point it is already suggested that the narrator is near the end of his own life, in his mind at least, as the descriptions emphasise the idea of autumn, when nature closes down for the winter. Anticipation that something is about to happen is created by the mention of the "brimming water• and the swans. The quiet scene is suddenly disturbed by a great ?ock of swans rising into the air, "wheeling in great broken rings• (circling motions are a common image in Yeats' poetry; The Second Coming in particular features circular movement), and triggering the narrator's train of thought, focusing it.


The swans are, at ?rst, just a ?plot device' to enable the narrator to look to the past, remembering when he ?rst sat by the lake and watched the swans. Now his "heat is sore• and he longs for the ?good old days' to return. In the fourth stanza, the swans change from a plot device to a conceit of sorts, as the narrator compares their repetitive existence to his own:


Their hearts have not grown old;

Passion or conquest, wander where they will,

Attend upon them still.


This displays another of the poem's central themes: the antithesis of the permanence of the swans' existence, and the constant mutability of the narrator's life. Whereas the narrator is now alone and without direction, the swans still swim together in the "Companionable steams or climb the air•. Their lives are just as constant as they were 19 years ago. The poem is at its most thoughtful here - as the swans are soaring, so are the narrator's thoughts.


As the swans settle once more onto the water, the vision ends and the narrator comes out of his deep thoughts, returning to where he was at the beginning of the poem (circular movements again cropping up). The ?nal feeling one gets from this poem is that the narrator is stuck in a rut; he is unable to do anything but look to the past, he cannot move forward. This feeling is created by the way the poem comes full circle and effectively returns to the beginning.


The Second Coming


The ?rst six lines of The Second Coming have got to be amongst of the most memorable lines of poetry ever written. The poem itself is also wonderfully written, with a very ambitious, all-encompassing vision of the fall from grace of mankind and the subsequent expected return of Christ, although in an unexpected form.


The opening lines show Yeats' tendency to use circular motion in his poetry:


Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;


The falcon here is mankind; the falconer is Christ. Mankind has moved so far away from its roots it can no longer hear the call of its creators. The sense of distance is enhanced by the repetition of the word "turning•, and the use of the word "gyre• somehow gives a grander impression than ?circle' would have; the words have been carefully chosen to match the wide scope of the poem.


Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,


The literal meanings of these two lines are surprisingly understated and vague. "Things• apparently fall apart, and anarchy is only "mere•. However, the words themselves serve to enrich the vision. The use of the word ?things' enables Yeats to include everything, whilst understating the chaos is balanced by the dramatic structure of the line - "loosed upon the world• is a very powerful set of words.


The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;


Here the melodrama continues, building up a sense of anticipation, tension, excitement. Yeats manages to make this overly dramatic opening thrilling rather than ostentatious by expert manipulation of words, sentence structure, creating some of the most vivid images I've ever read in poetry or elsewhere.


The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.


These last two lines of the ?rst stanza illustrate well how Yeats steers clear of speci?cs - he never speci?es exactly what is happening, or why. Whilst it is unnecessary to do so, it may also be that this was done to avoid affronting anybody; religious types could get very uptight about the subject matter of the poem. The last two lines here are the most ambiguous, though, in that they appear to be accusing somebody of something, but nobody is entirely sure just who is being accused of what. It is almost as if Yeats wanted to direct an insult at certain members of society without committing himself to the insult.


In the second stanza, Yeats once again uses his technique of dropping the narrative into a meditative, visionary state. The focus of the poem shifts, becoming smaller, concentrating on a single image. The "vast image• of a sphinx-like creature crawling across the desert, presumably a portrayal of the Second Coming. The "indignant desert birds• that ?y above possibly represent mankind, echoing the second line with the falcon metaphor. As suddenly as it began, the vision ends - "The darkness drops again• - and the poem returns to its previous path, ending on an extremely ominous note for the future.


The apocalyptic and doom-ridden tone is somewhat oppressive in places; so heavy is the atmosphere Yeats creates one cannot help but wonder whether Yeats did indeed have this vision himself. The ?nal two lines form a question:


And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?


About as thought-provoking as ?nal lines come, The Second Coming's ?nale is as strong as its beginning, and ?nishes on a very unresolved note, leaving the ?nal interpretation up to the reader; this ominously thoughtful ending, which demands to be pondered over for a little while at least, is perhaps what causes this particular poem to be so memorable.


Leda and the Swan


Yeats had a fascination with Greek mythology, as can be seen in Leda and the Swan, which tells the story of Leda, who was raped by Zeus (whilst he was in the form of a swan, no less), an act that led to the birth of Helen of Troy and the twins Castor and Pollux. The birth of Helen resulted indirectly in the death of Agamemnon and the Trojan War. So the story goes.


Leda and the Swan is written in the form of a sonnet, a fourteen-line poem with a ?xed rhyme scheme (ABAB in this case), which is traditionally used for love poems. This is somewhat ironic, considering the violent nature of the narrative. To create a violent tone to the poem, Yeats starts the ?rst stanza with a bang:


A sudden blow: the great wings beating still

Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed


The ?rst three words draw us immediately into the action, the colon increases the pace and harshness of the opening line. The entire opening stanza reads like a row of dominoes falling, one after the other, the commas separating each fall; the falls in this case being the swan's attack on Leda. This confused, frenetic and disjointed structure emphasises the panic Leda would have been feeling, and her futile attempts to ?ght back.


These attempts fail in the second stanza, as the swan overpowers her:


How can those terri?ed vague ?ngers push

The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?


The lack of commas, especially compared to the ?rst stanza, represents Leda's movements, as she gives up all attempts to ?ght back and the swan gains control of the situation. The rhythm of the poem becomes more ?uid here, ?owing with little interruption, re?ecting the events in the story, as the swan begins to rape Leda, with her unable to resist.


At the beginning of the third and ?nal stanza, the trademark Yeats ?vision' crops up yet again. Just as the swan achieves its aims, the narrative breaks off and witnesses the future:


A shudder in the loins engenders there

The broken wall, the burning roof and tower

And Agamemnon dead.


This passage refers obliquely to the Trojan War and directly to Agamemnon's murder, which all occurred because of this one act between Leda and the swan; the creation of Helen is cleverly contrasted with the destruction of Agamemnon and Troy.. Yeats ensures that the rape remains disturbing and does not slip into the realm of love by distancing us from it - "A shudder in the loins• is about as cold and brutal a description of sex as is possible. The vision does not last long, unusually, and the poem ends with the swan releasing Leda. The poem ends on a question, asking whether the swan (Zeus) was aware of the consequences his actions would have in the future.


Leda and the Swan is noticeably different in theme from Yeats' other poems looked at here. Whereas the other all expressed some sort of opinion or image, this poem simply retells a story from Greek mythology; there is none of Yeats' originality here in terms of the subject matter. The language and technique used to describe this story perfectly compliment the action, and is very much Yeats' own work.

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