Conflicts in W.B. Yeats’ poetry

August 12, 2022 by Essay Writer

Utilizing multidisciplinary knowledge gained from analysis of critical readings grants the individual the ability to better understand that William Butler Yeats’ thought was profoundly dialectical and that for every truth he found, he embraced a counter truth. This idea aligns, to a significant extent with my own view, and Yeats makes this particularly evident in ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ and ‘Easter 1916’ through his constant unification of the antithetical elements of the mortal and the immortal existence.

In my opinion, Yeats’ begins to contrast the mortal and immortal existences through his questions about aging and the immortal existence. For instance, he makes evident these antithetical elements in ‘Wild Swans’, by contrasting images of the timelessness of the swans against the persona’s mortal existence. Here his age is aligned with the natural cycle of life through the symbolic images of ‘the trees…in their autumn beauty… under the October twilight’. The time of twilight symbolizes his aging and the end of his life, which ultimately provokes his questioning and envy of the swans and their immortal existence. This alignment with the seasons and the day night dichotomy implies the persona is questioning his existence in approaching the end of his mortal life and this is contrasted against the immortal swans who remain ‘unwearied still’.

Yeats further explores these conflicting dualities through his struggle to accept the mortality of his existence. For instance, he metaphorically asserts that his ‘heart is sore’ and all has ‘changed’. His tone of despair here ultimately reflects his struggle in accepting the mortality of his own existence in contrast with the symbolically eternal ‘nine-and-fifty swans’ as ‘their hearts have not grown old’. Rachel Billigheimer reinforces this idea in ‘Passion and Conquest’:“The swans, which in contrast have remained unchanged, are thus a symbol of eternal life…” such that Yeats is envious of this eternal life and is trying to discern if he too will exist in such a realm. The persona resonates the ‘brilliant creatures’ with an energy as they ascend in a symbolic gyral movement in the visual image of ‘them’ as they: ‘scatter wheeling in great broken wings’. This ultimately becomes a catalyst for his counterbalancing of his mortal existence with the possibilities of an immortal existence. Further, the reversal in making the persona the object of ‘autumn’ coming ‘upon him’, suggests a strong sense of life moving forward in a way in which he has no control over. This further reflects his despair towards his mortality and his envy for the immortal swans.

Despite the persona asking these questions about the realm of immortality, there is no sense yet of him having come to a resolution of the two antithetical elements. This is particularly evident in the rhetorical question: ‘when I awake… To find they have flown away?’. The nature of the question implies a curiosity about something that transcends the mortal world as Rachel Billigheimer describes it in ‘Passion and Conquest: “leaving the mortal world, he will be reborn into the realm of … immortal swans”. The question reflects Billigheimer’s statement as it carries a degree of ambiguity but holds an acknowledgement of the opposing mortal and immortal existences. The soft fricatives ‘find…have…flown…’ add to the reflective nature of his final thoughts where he is contemplating his existence in the future. While the mix of long syllables ‘delight…eyes…find…flown…away’ in the final lines seem to prolong the moment of his thought and reflect on his idea of awakening, in a metaphorical sense.

In ‘Easter 1916’ Yeats seeks to find a sense of cohesion amidst the chaos that characterized his world by presenting a paradoxical assessment of the nationalist uprising of 1916. He juxtaposes the rebellion against the order of the natural world with the symbolic image of ‘Hearts with one purpose alone…Enchanted to a stone”. The stone, symbolic of the martyrs, acts as an agent of change ‘in the midst of all’ as it ‘(troubles) the living stream’, foregrounding Yeats’ idea that the martyrs have become powerful in altering Irish history. Jefferson Holdridge asserts in the frivolous eye that when ‘things have collapsed violence is the way to renewal’ which reflects Yeats portrayal of this destruction that leads to a ‘terrible beauty’. He particularly makes this evident through the verbs ‘tumbling’ and ‘slides’ that reveal a gyral movement engendered by the rebels’ actions. The movement from earth to sky, with the rebels occupying both spaces; ‘the horse that comes from the road’ to the ‘birds that range’ foreshadows this beauty that arises from the violence Holdridge describes. Yeats further foreshadows this idea of beauty born out of the violence of these events with a concluding paradoxical statement; ‘a terrible beauty is born’. It references the consequences engendered by this change as is also conveyed in the plosive d sounds; ‘we know their dream; enough to know they dreamed and are dead’ which emphasises the reality of their deaths as a result of their dreams and aspirations.

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