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Yeats’ Escapism Essay, Research Paper

William Butler Yeats.

William Butler Yeats was the major figure in the cultural revolution which developed from the strong nationalistic movement at the end of the 19th century. He dominated the writings of a generation. He established forms and themes which came to be considered as the norms for writers of his generation.

Yeats was a confessional poet – that is to say, that he wrote his poetry directly from his own experiences. He was an idealist, with a purpose. This was to create Art for his own people – the Irish. But in so doing, he experienced considerable frustration and disillusionment. The tension between this ideal, and the reality is the basis of much of his writing. One central theme of his earlier poetry is the contrast between the aims he, and others, such as Lady Gregory, had for their movement, and the reality. He had hoped to provide an alternative to nationalism fuelled mainly by hatred for Britain, through the rebirth and regeneration of an ancient Irish culture, based on myth and legend. Instead, he found that the response of the newly emerging Irish Catholic middle class to their work, varied between indifference and outrage. On the one hand, their indifference was displayed by their refusal to fund a gallery for the Hugh Lane collection of Art, and on the other hand, they rioted in outrage at Synge s Playboy of the Western World.

The tension between Yeats ideal, and the reality is developed in the Fisherman and September 1913. Both these poems deal with Yeats attempts to bring Art to the people of Ireland, and the negative response of Irish society.

September 1913.

Here, Yeats directs his passionate rage against the Irish Catholic middle class. He perceives them as Philistines, whose values are monetary and religious, not artistic. His scorn for their petty money grubbing –

dry the marrow from the bone

and their narrow selfish piety

Prayer to shivering prayer

is set in contrast to his admiration for the heroes of old.

Yet they were of a different kind.

These patriots had loved Ireland with a passion which consumed them, and for which no sacrifice was too great.

For whom the hangman s rope was spun.

But the present materialistic age has no place for such men of courage and idealism. Their age is past. It s

With O Leary in the grave.

Self sacrifice and patriotism are dead. Consequently, he dismisses the Ireland of his day with the contemptuous This

Was it for this that all that blood was shed

For this Edward Fitzgerald died ?

In the final stanza, the poet s mood of anger and bitterness changes to one of acceptance and resignation. He concludes that these petty minded merchants are so locked into their narrow world of self centred survival, that they are incapable of understanding the motivation and self sacrifice of patriotism. Even if the dead heroes could return and confront the merchants with the extent of their sacrifices, they would be unable to understand or appreciate what they had done. Self interest and materialism reign, idealism is dead and buried. He concludes on a weary note of acceptance.

But let them be, they re dead and gone,

They re with O Leary in the grave.

The Fisherman.

This poem is also about Art, and the Irish people s response to it. It is structured around the contrast between the Yeats dream to write for the Irish people, and the reality.

The poem opens on a casual conversational note,

Although I can see him still

introducing us to the Fisherman, a

wise and simple man

who is the symbol of the Irish nation he had hoped to write for.

Yeats has long since accepted that such a man does not exist, but nonetheless he holds on to him as an inspiration to protect himself against the reality.

The reality is depicted in a litany of powerful, clever men, who misuse their abilities for their own personal ends – which are chiefly, the acquisition and maintenance of power. Their goal is public acclaim, cynically acquired through a popularity based on the

Catch cries of the clown

or jokes

aimed at the commonest ear .

Integrity and honour are sacrificed to materialism and self interest.

In this vulgar environment, there is no place for Art.

The beating down of the wise,

And Great Art beaten down.

The poem concludes with Yeats returning to his opening image of the fisherman. He is the symbol of his ambition as an artist, and his inspiration. Although he recognises he is but a dream, he will use him to produce at least one perfect work of art – a blend of reason, – cold- and emotion – passion.

No Second Troy.

His anguish over his failed hopes to cultivate a pride in the Irish people in their own culture, was increased by the fact that the woman he loved, Maud Gonne, did not return his affection. His love for her was so great that he could not bring himself to blame her for this.

Why should I blame her that she filled my days with misery.

Instead, he directs his rage against the revolutionaries she consorts with.

Ignorant men

who are also cowards.

Had they but courage equal to desire.

He salvages his hurt pride by deciding that his rival is a cause, Irish nationalism, and that it is in her nature to follow such causes. She is noble, single-minded, but for these very reasons, she is also predestined for destruction.

The similes used to describe her ,

beauty like a tightened bow

a mind that nobleness made simple as a fire

equate her with destruction. Hence, the title – No Second Troy, which is in answer to the final line of the poem,

Was there another Troy for her to burn?

Yeats believes that while there were heroes ready to die for Helen of Troy, Maud Gonne is out of her age, in an non heroic era. No man will die for her.

Yeats later poems deal with the conflicts he experienced between Art and Life, Body and Soul, Youth and Age.

His poems deal with his search for something permanent in the midst of change.

He was disgusted by his ageing body, and bitterly resented the impermanence of human existence.

Sailing to Byzantium.

Art is also at the heart of this poem. Yeats opens this poem by admitting that as an elderly man he feels out of place in Ireland. He is disgusted at the effects of physical decay upon himself. He is desperate to escape from his life. So, he has already decided to reject human existence, and choose Art instead. Byzantium is used by him s a symbol of an existence devoted to Art, where he will be its voice -

Singing bird.

He chooses Byzantiium because the total integration of art and culture there so attracted Yeats that he made it his symbol of an ideal city.

But although he pretends to choose Art as a preferred form of existence, it is merely a mechanism for staying in existence a bit longer.

He sees his soul as fastened to a dying animal . There is no regard among the young for the maturity of the soul , for

monuments of unageing intellect

An old man is an object of indifference – a tattered coat upon a stick.

But although the poet recognises this, he is still sick with desire for life.

The poem opens with rejection – the poet is rejecting an Ireland which he believes has rejected him. This is an Ireland which is for the young only. It is full of vitality and fertility.

The young in one another s arms, birds in the trees . Their singing birds sing the song of fertility, of generation.

But in the midst of all this procreation, an old man is but a paltry thing – of no use. But , these young people in one another s arms , are themselves dying generations . They too will grow old. Youth and fertility will not endure. What , he asks, will last?

Only man s artistic creativity endures, he concludes. And his symbol for art is a golden singing bird, his image of perfect existence is Byzantium, where, he believes, art and life are integrated. He pleads with the sages of Byzantium to free him from physical desires and longings, and in purifying him, to enable him to leave his body behind, and to become an artistic artefact. The intensity of his physical suffering is vividly expressed in his pleas to the sages :

Consume my heart away; sick with desire

And fastened to a dying animal

It knows not what is it;

He wishes to escape from such physical suffering, to take his bodily form as a beautiful and enduring work of art, a golden bird. He emphasises the word gold as the chosen substance, both for its beauty, but also for its endurance. His choice of form, a bird, is significant, as it sustains the two images of the bird and singing, and it contrasts with the real birds of the first stanza.

And yet, the poem ends on a note of sensual longing. The bird, as an artistic creation, has it origins in the world of human desires. It too will sing of

What is past, or passing, or to come.

The search for permanence appears to be less than satisfactory. The conflict between Art and Nature, Youth and Old Age, and Body and Soul, remain unresolved.

Art is itself but a reflection of human existence. It is not an end in itself.

Among School Children.

This poem is about man s existence, and the various methods used by man to give meaning to life. Man uses various roles to define himself – lover, philosopher, worshipper, parent. Yeats questions the purpose and necessity of such objects. He asks whether they are not destructive of the very life they claim to give meaning to.

The primary conflict in this poem therefore, is between the Body and the Soul – between the needs and demands of the body, and the fulfilment of the soul. Yeats shows us a world in which the body is sacrificed to the demands of the soul.

In a cleverly constructed poem, Yeats draws us with him into a meditation on the purpose of existence, and the function of the various ideals we use to give meaning to this existence.

He opens his poem in a classroom, where he is fulfilling his duty as a senator of the new state. He plays his part in a matter of fact manner, asks the correct questions, but inwardly is taking note of the children, and of the tasks already laid out for them -already they must

Learn to cipher and to sing,

To study reading-books and histories,

To cut and sew, be neat in everything

In the best modern way .

A formidable list of tasks lie before them.

He is aware of how they must perceive him-

A sixty-year old smiling public man .

But behind his public exterior, lies the contrast with his inner self. The presence of the children reminds him of Maud Gonne, and the passionate love he felt for her. A great wave of emotion sweeps over him.

And thereupon my heart is driven wild

She stands before me as a living child.

But the memory of her brings before him her present gaunt image:

Hollow of cheek as though it drank the wind

And took a mess of shadows for its meat.

And age has touched him too, removing his pretty plumage and making him a kind of old scarecrow .

So, the first, personal and subjective section of the poem introduces the themes of youth and age, of the discipline and effort encountered in early childhood, of religion – (the nun),of philosophy, of love and passion, and the passing of youth and beauty, and the effects of ageing.

The second – universal and speculative- section broadens the of application of these elements to consider the part they play in mankind s efforts to give meaning and purpose to life. He questions the whole nature of existence.

We meet the child again – this time as an infant, a shape . Yeats questions whether the youthful mother would consider the labour involved in having a child would be considered worth it if she could see that child as a sixty year old man.

Next, he considers the philosophers, first encountered in the theories of Plato, in the first section. He touches on the various theories they developed to explain the puppies of life. Plato sees nature, or reality as we know it, as a mist, half revealing, half concealing things, so that all we see is a ghostly imitation of the reality behind it all. Aristotle is described as solider, meaning more down to earth. Finally, he considers Pythagoras, who was thought to be divine by man of his followers. He was renowned for his discoveries about the relationship between numbers and music. His approach was to seek truth through Art. Yet, for all their theories, they too grew old and became scarecrows. Yeats dismisses their efforts, as they too had no answers to man s ageing.

He then unites the images of mothers and nuns, as those who worship images , but although the mother worships her living children, and the nun worships inanimate statues, they both lead to the same betrayal – both of these fail to realise the expectations and hopes invested in them. They too cause misery and suffering. They both break hearts . To Yeats, these are symbols of all objects used by man to give meaning to his existence.

Yeats appears to be arguing that man spends his life sacrificing himself in the cause of ideals – whether that of the lover sacrificing himself for the object of his passion, or the mother for her child, or the nun for her religion, or the student battling for wisdom, at the expense of the body- blear eyed wisdom out of midnight oil .

In the final stanza, Yeats questions whether this should be so. He uses two powerful images of unity and harmony – the chestnut tree, and the dancer, to suggest that man should not sacrifice one element of being , to enhance the other. No one aspect of life summarises life. Instead, man should be the sum of all his parts , But he gives no definite statement – he merely questions –

How can we know the dancer from the dance .

He appears to be saying that there is no answer to life, or the living of it. Attempts to impose order or meaning on life are doomed to failure. The only truth in life is the living of it.

Circus Animal s Desertion.

This poem deals with the conflict between man and artist. Yeats opens with a situation where he is labouring for inspiration – |

I sought a theme, and sought for it in vain.

But his inspiration has at last failed him, having been with him a lifetime

Winter and summer till old age began .

He then looks back upon his life s work, and considers what he created.

He is, however, dismissive about his themes, categorising them in the witty metaphor as Circus animals – that is, artificial, stylised, unnatural creations with himself as Ring master, putting them through their paces.

He then embarks on a list of these themes. He claims that the initial inspiration for his writing came from his doomed passion for Maud Gonne –

Themes of the embittered heart . This would seem to imply that he took refuge initially in Art in order to sublimate his unrequited passion for her. But there is a qualification of this on his part – Or so it seems . Even then, he appears to suggest, Art may have meant more to him than life.

But, however it began, art came increasingly to dominate his life –

A counter-truth filled out its play .

As Maud Gonne was increasingly lost to him, in her Fanaticism and hate , so he in turn was lost to art –

And this brought forth a dream and soon enough

This dream itself had all my thought and love.

Although what he wrote of,

“The Fool and Blind Man stole the bread

were Heart mysteries -that is, having their origins in human emotions, he sacrificed the man to the artist:

Players and painted stage took all my love,

And not those things that they were emblems of”.

The joy of creation increasingly absorbed him, not the living of life.

Character isolated by a deed

To engross the present and dominate memory.

These images were masterful – under the Ringmaster s control. And they grew in pure mind -increasingly they were the product of his intellect, not his emotions. But now they have gone – they ve deserted him, or perhaps he has deserted them, seeing them in all their artificiality. So he is left with no option but to return to what he has avoided – the world of feeling, of emotion. His ladder out of that tangled world of human emotion, has gone. He s left at the bottom of the ladder, with his feet on the ground. He uses the powerful metaphor of litter –

old kettles, old bones, old rags

to suggest the ugliness of human feeling. But, he must confront the reality of life and living at last – he must return to the source of all art, the world of human emotion-

The foul rag and boneshop of the heart .

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