2014 Exam Question on Yeats

Yeats uses evocative language to create poetry that includes both personal reflection and public commentary.

Discuss this statement, supporting your answer with reference to both the themes and language found in the poetry of W.B. Yeats.

W.B. Yeats is one of Ireland’s most cherished poets and is known throughout the literary world for his evocative language and thought provoking poetry, which often acts as a commentary on life in Ireland and in many cases a commentary of his own life. In this essay, I will show how he combines evocative language with both personal reflection and public commentary in the poems, ‘The Wild Swans at Coole,’ ‘Easter 1916,’ ‘September 1913,’ ‘Under Ben Bulben’ and ‘An Irish Airman foresees his death.’

The first poem we will look at is ‘The Wild Swans at Coole, which is full of evocative language and sensuous imagery. Yeats begins the poem with the thought-provoking metaphor of autumn to describe how his life has changed as he realises he is no longer the youthful poet he once was. “The trees are in their autumn beauty,’ is a beautiful image but also evokes the feelings of ageing that Yeats is feeling. The symbolism of the ‘nine and fifty swans’ is thought provoking as we ask ourselves, ‘why is one of the swans by themselves?’ It could simply be the case that the baby swans have yet to mate or it could be a symbol for the loneliness that Yeats feels after being rejected by Maud Gonne for the second time and he now feels alone in the world.

We see Yeats reflecting in the poem when he tells us, ‘I have looked upon those brilliant creatures and now my heart is sore.’ He compares himself to the youthful and energetic swans and realises that he is now entering old age and unlike the swans, he is alone. He tells us that everything has ‘changed’ since he first came to look at the swans nineteen years previously and that back then, he ‘trod with a lighter tread.’ His use of contrast between himself and the swans really captures the essence of the poem. ‘Unwearied still, lover by lover, they paddle in the cold companionable streams.’ The swans are youthful and he puts this down to the companionship he is clearly lacking in his life. The alliterative, ‘cold companionable’ shows the comfort of the swans. The fact that Yeats got married to the much younger, Georgie Hyde-Lees shortly after writing this poem highlights the self reflection that Yeats undertook while writing this poem.

While there is no public commentary in this poem, it has a universal theme, which is a human’s need for companionship. Yeats is clearly frustrated with his life and he’s also worried that like the swans who could disappear, his writing skills could also leave him at any time in the future. Worrying about the future and worrying about loss is a human characteristic and is felt by humans all over the globe regardless of the era. The fact that Yeats did something about his loneliness sends a clear message to the public that if you are unhappy, it is up to you to change that. 

‘Easter 1916’ is probably the most popular of Yeats’ poems as it deals with an key event in the history of Ireland. The Easter Rising in 1916 was the first step towards Irish independence but Yeats’ poem highlights how the visionaries or architects of the rising were often derided by the general public including Yeats. In the first verse he tells us that when he met these people before the rising, he passed himself with ‘polite meaningless words.’ He also tells us that he used to laugh at these characters behind their backs when he was in the comfort of his country club. ‘A mocking tale or a gibe to please a companion around the fire at the club.’ This honest admission by Yeats highlights his belief that the rebels were fools who had no idea what they were doing. The fact that Yeats is now saying ‘All changed, changed utterly,’ shows that he is reflecting on his own beliefs and opinions at the time in relation to Irish nationalism. He is admitting that he was wrong to laugh at them behind their backs and that they did not live ‘where motley is worn.’

Yeats goes on to reflect on the changing attitudes towards the instigators of the rebellion, namely Constance Markiewicz, Padraig Pearse, Thomas McDonagh and John McBride. It is in fact McBride that is the most interesting here as Yeats reflects on how even after hurting ‘some who are near my heart,’ he is now worthy of mention in the poem for what he has done for Ireland. McBride who married Maud Gonne and treated her badly has now been ‘transformed utterly’ by the events of the rising. Yeats’ reflection has caused him to change his opinion on many of the characters he mentions in stanza two of the poem.

The refrain that Yeats uses throughout the poem is both an example of evocative language and public commentary. ‘All changed, changed utterly, a terrible beauty is born,’ is one of the most captivating lines in the poem. The oxymoronic ‘terrible beauty’ highlights the public’s feelings towards the rising as it is terrible that people had to lay down their lives and the bloodshed that war causes but it’s also beautiful that people love their country enough to sacrifice their lives for it.

Yeats continues to explore the sacrifice made by the rebels and asks the uncomfortable questions that may have been on the lips of many Irish citizens. ‘Was it needless death after all?’ Yeats is highlighting that England had promised Ireland Home Rule after the war and that perhaps the rising was ill-judged given that so many lives were lost.  He also highlights the personal cost of Irish nationalism when he says, ‘Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart,’ perhaps alluding to Maud Gonne who was so involved with Independence that she was unable to return his obvious love for her. Again, Yeats is providing a public commentary of the events and the use of rhetorical questions throughout the poem is evidence that he wanted readers to think for themselves.

Just like ‘Easter 1916,’ ‘September 1913’ is another poem where Yeats gives a very public commentary on events in Dublin. The tone of this poem is very different to the tone of ‘Easter 1916’ as Yeats is of the belief that Irish men have been brainwashed by religion and money. 

The poem was written in response to the Dublin Corporation who refused to provide the money to house an art collection offered to the city by Sir Hugh Lane. Because of this, the offer was rescinded and the city did not get the art. Yeats was furious with the people involved in the decision and his poem ‘September 1913’ is a commentary on Irish people and how they have left ‘romantic Ireland’ behind for money and religion.

Yeats opens the poem with the line, ‘what need you, being come to sense, but fumble in a greasy till.’ This highlights his negative view of money with the word ‘greasy.’ He says that all they are interested in is adding ‘the half-pence to the pence and prayer to shivering prayer,’ meaning the devotion to money and God. Yeats’ use of sarcasm in the line, ‘for men were born to pray and save,’ shows his disdain for these people at the time. He finishes the stanza, as he does with stanza two and three with, ‘Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone, it’s with O’Leary in the grave.’

This line uses personification and contrast to highlight how Yeats feels about the road Ireland has taken. He personifies ‘romantic’ Ireland and then says it is dead and with O’Leary in the grave. By mentioning O’Leary, he is alluding to John O’Leary who was a Fenian leader who fought for Irish independence. By mentioning O’Leary, Yeats highlights the contrast between the leaders of our past and those in positions of power at that time. O’Leary may be dead but Yeats wants his attitudes and beliefs to live on but he says they too are in the grave with him. This is an evocative line that makes the reader think about the sacrifices of the past and the greed of the current generation.

He also mentions Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone, two celebrated leaders of Irish Nationalism who, like Yeats, came from an Anglo-Irish background. He tells us that these men had little time to pray and ‘what god help us, could they save?’ highlighting that money did not motivate them. 

He finishes the poem by telling us that if these heroes of the past were able to reappear that they would be laughed at by today’s generation who would not understand the meaning of self-sacrifice. Yeats’ poem is a scathing attack on the Irish people and a public commentary on those in power in Dublin corporation. While there is little self reflection in this poem, Yeats still reflects on Ireland’s past and the path it takes into the future. 

‘Under Ben Bulben,’ was one of Yeats’ final poems and it has all the elements  we have been discussing in this essay. Yeats personally reflects on his life in this poem, while offering another stinging criticism, this time to current generation of poets while he also uses evocative language to capture the reader’s attention.

He begins the poem by publicly addressing the Irish poets, who he wants to send a message. ‘Irish poets, learn your trade, sing whatever is well made.’ He also tells them to stick to the traditional structure of poems and not to try poems, ‘all out of shape from toe to top.’ This means that they lack structure and that this is not how poets should work. When you consider the structure of ‘Easter 1916’ where Yeats used 16 lines in the first and third stanzas to represent the ‘16,’ and 24 lines in the second and fourth stanza to represent the rising beginning on the 24th of April, you can see how important structure is to him.

He tells us that these new poets have ‘unremembering hearts and heads,’ meaning that they are breaking from tradition and forgetting about the past. Yeats then tells his contemporaries what they should be writing about. ‘Sing the peasantry..and the hard riding country gentlemen.’ Here we see the contrast created by Yeats, he is telling them to write about the poor and the rich. He tells them to write about monks and those who drink too much. He tells them to write poems about the men and women who sacrificed their lives in 700 years of heroic battle. He wants these people to be remembered in poems to highlight the fighting spirit of the Irish.  

The sixth verse of the poem sees a change in the tone with Yeats no longer commentating on Irish poets, instead reflecting on his own life and thinking about how he will be remembered when he is dead. He tells us that he wishes to be buried in Drumcliff in Sligo, ‘Under Ben Bulben’s head,’ and that he has a family link to the churchyard as ‘an ancestor was rector there.’

Yeats continues to describe his death and burial by telling us that he doesn’t want a marble headstone or a conventional phrase like ‘Rest in Peace’ on his gravestone. He wants limestone, which can be ‘quarried near the spot.’ He also tells us what he wants to have on his headstone, ‘Cast a cold eye on life, on death, Horseman, pass by.’ This cryptic message tells us to cast a ‘cold eye’ meaning that we should have realistic expectations on life and death, telling us not to be worrying about life or death. The fact that this is exactly the epitaph that was put on Yeats’ grave in Sligo shows that the poet was reflecting on the end of his life in the poem. The fact that the title is ‘from under Ben Bulben,’ highlights that Yeats wanted this poem to read like a message from the grave, a message to poets to stick to tradition and a message to the general public to enjoy life and not to worry about things too much. The mysterious epitaph is certainly evocative as it gets people thinking about their own lives.

It is clear from the examples that I have shown above that Yeats used his poetry for both personal reflection and public commentary as he contemplated the direction of his own life and that of Irish society. His use of evocative language forces readers to question public events and their own mortality in a way that few poets can.


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