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W.B. Yeats: Themes of Love vs. Intellect


Published on December 14th, 2019 at 01:34 am

By Nicholas Arvin

Wisdom, aging, and love are the backbone of the human condition. William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) was a highly-influential Irish poet noted for his strong sense of Irish identify. Yeats came from a family of artists and painters, and he started writing poetry during high school. Yeats’ interest in mysticism, spiritualism and the occult shaped many of his writings, leading to the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature in 1923. Yeats also helped found the Abbey Theatre, and he served as an Irish Senator in his later years. Yeats’ poems Sailing to Byzantium and The Lake Isle of Innisfree reflect his common themes of aging, wisdom, and love in an imperfect natural world.

Firstly, Yeats’ Sailing to Byzantium, 1926, is endlessly interpretable but does show clear themes about aging. Divided into four eight-line stanzas and written in near ottava rima, Sailing to Byzantium is a metaphorical journey about an old man leaving behind the physical, natural world for an artificial world where his mind and soul can live on for eternity. Yeats begins the poem by plaining stating “That is no country for old men” (Yeats 1). Yeats goes on to provide vivid imagery of a youthful, exuberant and sensual world filled with birds and “salmon falls, and mackerel-crowded seas” (Yeats 4). Yeats’ choice to use fish highlights the theme of regeneration and shows a world teeming with life, as fish often live in massive schools and constantly procreate. Yeats uses alliteration to group the inhabitants of Earth together, “fish, flesh, or fowl,” revealing his belief that humans are just another part of this natural song of life (Yeats 5). Everything that is born dies, and more often than not people get caught up in this sensual exuberance, forgetting about the “monuments of unageing intellect” (Yeats 8). Here Yeats alludes to the neglection of the wise, old and experienced at the hands of the youthful masses. Yeats begins the second stanza by diving into this disregard, passionately comparing an aged man to “a tattered coat upon a stick” (Yeats 10). Yeats portrays the cycle of life and death- all the young, despite their seemingly never-ending, jubilant state of love and life and pleasure, will eventually deflate into nothing more than a pathetic, lifeless piece of cloth on a stick. But Yeats is quick to introduce the solution at the very next line: “unless Soul clap its hands and sing… studying Monuments of its own magnificence” (Yeats 11-14). Here, Yeats goes so far as to personify the soul, subtly foreshadowing its inevitable separation from the body. Yeats believes there is still hope for the soul to live on, and that is why he is traveling to Byzantium. Yeats begins the third stanza by imploring the sages of old to purify his soul into eternity and cast his heart away. Yeats believes that, despite his old age, his heart is still sick with desire, presumably for love and sexual gratification, and is “fastened to a dying animal,” showcasing both the heart’s figurative connection to the ignorant youth and a literal, physical connection to an old and decaying body, neglected and soon to be forgotten (Yeats 22). Yeats’ fourth and final stanza is the heart of his message. He uses repetition of “gold” four times, a sturdy but beautiful metal that artists rely on to last for all of perpetuity. Yeats declares that when his soul is free, he will never take a natural form again, instead opting for the enduring metalworks of Grecian goldsmiths, or perhaps a golden bird “set upon a golden bough” (Yeats 30). It can be inferred that Yeats looks down upon the natural world because it forces aimless impulses of love and desire upon human beings, leading to ephemeral and worthless lives. The golden bird relates back to the first stanza, but instead of singing the sensual song of life and love, it will sing of “what is past, or passing, or to come” (Yeats 32). Like a great piece of art, Yeats believes the soul will last for eternity. He believes that intellect and art are the key to battling old age, or at least to reducing its effects. This final line in particular highlights the importance of knowledge and experience, of which the old are so often unrighteously forgotten.

Literary critic Frederick L. Gwynn provides an in depth analyzation of Yeats’ Sailing to Byzantium in his Yeats's Byzantium and its Sources. Gwynn includes insight into Yeats’ previous writings about Byzantium, specifically from A Vision, where Yeats writes, “I think that in early Byzantium, and maybe never before or since in recorded history, religious, aesthetic and practical life were one, and that architect and artificers ... spoke to the multitude and the few alike” (Gwynn). Yeats choice destination of Byzantium is clear now, as Byzantium was a holy city, a mecca where numerous cultures and artistic works across thousands of years overlapped. This fits perfectly with his desire for wisdom at a place where life was not dominated by the youthful masses, but instead by people’s appreciation for art. The first line of the poem, “That is no country for old men,” emphasizes Yeats’ loss of hope from where he came from, and it sets up his certain excitement at journeying to Byzantium.

Literary critic Simon O. Lesser interprets Sailing to Byzantium as a sad and desperate poem in his ‘Sailing to Byzantium’: Another Voyage, Another Reading. Of the old man’s choice of reincarnation, Lesser writes:

The idea of retaining any semblance of his human form, as the sages have, is rejected, perhaps out of the fear that it would stir painful memories of mortality. Beyond this, the old man rejects the idea of living again in any shape or form. In electing to be reincarnated as an inanimate object, a mechanical bird, he is saying, "Aging and facing death are so intolerable I would go to any lengths not to have to endure them again” (Lesser).

Lesser’s interpretation of the final stanza supports the idea that Yeats is so off putted by the human condition that he would rather not have any feelings at all, instead opting to merely exist, observing for all of eternity. In this scenario, it is possible that Yeats sees himself as an outcast, unable to connect with others in a meaningful way, or simply too sick to try. Cleary, though, Yeats is not content with the normal processes of the human life-cycle.

Next, Yeats’ poem The Lake Isle of Innisfree, 1890, portrays Yeats’ desire to go to the secluded and peaceful Lake Innisfree, a real island off the coast of Ireland. Yeats use of a loose iambic hexameter gives the poem a rhythmic flow which serves to further showcase Yeats’ perception of the beautiful Innisfree. For the majority of the poem, Innisfree lulls Yeats into a dreamlike trance, in which he elucidates the natural elements surrounding the idyllic environment. It is not until the penultimate line, however, that Yeats waits to fully juxtapose his reality with Lake Innisfree: “While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray, / I hear it in the deep heart’s core” (Yeats 13-14). Here, Yeats hints that he is in a city-like environment, or at least one touched by man and its artificial creations. Despite this, he is constantly attracted to humans’ roots in the natural world, and longs to back in the rural Irish west. Here Yeats implies that the journey to Lake Innisfree is a spiritual and emotional one, as is evidenced by the urges from deep inside his heart. It is possible Lake Innisfree is just a symbol for spiritual fulfilment and peace, and does not serve as an actual island in the context of this poem. After all, Yeats’ description of Innisfree, “ There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,” impresses upon the reader an otherworldly, mystical place that cannot be physically traveled to but serves as a beacon for the soul’s path to enlightenment (Yeats 9). Clearly, The Lake Isle of Innisfree is open to interpretation and various perspectives.

Literary critic John M. Munro adds additional insight to The Lake Isle of Innisfree in his overview of the poem, The Lake Isle of Innisfree: Overview. Munro writes of Yeats’ autobiography:

In the same passage he states that the idea ``to live some day in a cottage on a little island called Innisfree'' came to him after he had heard his father reading from Thoreau's Walden and thereupon he thought ``that having conquered bodily desire and the inclination of my mind toward women and love, I should live as Thoreau lived, seeking wisdom” (Munro).

Munro’s research recognizes Yeats’ clear inspiration from Thoreau, not only from his obvious beliefs of transcendentalism and nature, but more importantly the intertwinement of themes of wisdom and spirit which can also be found in Yeats’ Sailing to Byzantium, as previously discussed. Munro makes clear Yeats’ spiritual battle to control his sensual desires and unavoidable needs of being a human being in favor of wisdom and understanding. Munro further contextualizes The Lake Isle of Innisfree, revealing how Yeats fell madly in love with the beautiful Maud Gonne prior to publication, and “was to be tormented by her wayward passionate nature until his death” (Munro). In fact, Yeats proposed to Gonne on numerous occasions despite being denied time and time again; his unrequited feelings may be the reason for his fervent opinions criticizing human’s obsession with love. Munro’s critique provides an beneficial insight into Yeats’ impressions, and it gives evidence to the themes of wisdom and love which can be found in both Sailing to Byzantium and The Lake Isle of Innisfree.

William Butler Yeats implemented such themes in many of his poems throughout his life. Yeats meticulously crafted his essays, aware that each word could potentially change the entire meaning of the poem. His life experiences with love and war certainly shaped his strong opinions about youth and vitality. Yeats clearly believes that the most important elements of human being are wisdom and spiritual enlightenment. However, while wisdom and spirit are paramount towards life fulfilment, love is the most important aspect of the human condition. Yeats seems to often group love and sexual gratification together, which are separate entities. Yes, sexual gratification is temporary and empty, and Yeats’ distaste in it is warranted and understandable, but love is as essential to existence as is anything else. While intellect is what makes humans distinctly “human,” “love” is what holds us together.

Works Cited

Gwynn, Frederick L. "Yeats's Byzantium and its Sources." Poetry Criticism, edited by David M. Galens, vol. 51, Gale, 2004. Literature Resource Center, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/H1420053862/LitRC?u=paci91811&sid=LitRC&xid=5fd63dc1. Accessed 13 Nov. 2019. Originally published in Philological Quarterly, vol. 32, no. 1, Jan. 1953, pp. 9-21.

Lesser, Simon O. "'Sailing to Byzantium': Another Voyage, Another Reading." Poetry Criticism, edited by David M. Galens, vol. 51, Gale, 2004. Literature Resource Center, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/H1420053869/LitRC?u=paci91811&sid=LitRC&xid=79b8f973. Accessed 13 Nov. 2019. Originally published in The Whispered Meanings: Selected Essays of Simon O. Lesser, edited by Robert Sprich and Richard W. Noland, University of Massachusetts Press, 1977, pp. 128-148.

Munro, John M. "The Lake Isle of Innisfree: Overview." Reference Guide to English Literature, edited by D. L. Kirkpatrick, 2nd ed., St. James Press, 1991. Literature Resource Center, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/H1420008859/LitRC?u=paci91811&sid=LitRC&xid=40de9ac3. Accessed 13 Nov. 2019.

Yeats, William B. “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” National Observer, 1890.

Yeats, William B. “Sailing to Byzantium.” Macmillan Publishing Company, 1933.

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