Yeats’s Poetry

by: William Butler Yeats

Study Questions

Further study Study Questions

One of the important themes in Yeats’s writing is his exploration of the relationship between the natural and the artificial, and particularly the relationship between nature and art. With particular reference to the two Byzantium poems, describe how Yeats characterizes this relationship. Does he prefer the natural to art, or art to nature?

Because the artificial is permanent, unfading, impervious to decay, beautiful, and free of the troubles of the human heart, and because the natural is impermanent, fading, destined to decay, frequently ugly, and troubled by pain and longing, Yeats consistently finds himself attracted to the artificial, particularly when it is at its most beautiful. In the Byzantium poems, Yeats glorifies a golden bird that is the apotheosis of the relationship between nature and art: the bird takes its form from nature, but it is not bound to “the fury and the mire of human veins.” It will last forever, and will never forget how to sing; and Yeats longs to become it.

Some of Yeats’s least accessible poems are his works of visionary history, which often incorporate themes from A Vision and seem, on the surface, thematically irrelevant to contemporary readers. How can these poems best be understood—in other words, should they be read today strictly for their magnificent language, or is there a way in which they embrace more universal elements of human experience than their occult, mythological frame of reference might imply? (Think especially about “Leda and the Swan” and “The Second Coming.”)

The language of “Leda” and “The Second Coming” is certainly magnificent, but the poems’ themes are also quite powerful, and remain relevant to the experience of contemporary readers. Putting aside all the mystical jargon from A Vision, “The Second Coming” is a brilliant evocation of chaos and primal energy, and of a kind of eerie premonition: the sphinx “slouching toward Bethlehem” can be interpreted in many ways besides that which Yeats described. And “Leda” is a wonderful document of a violent encounter with the incomprehensible, the alien, the overwhelming, and of a turning point after which nothing will ever be the same.

If you have read John Keats’s great “Ode to a Nightingale,” compare it to Yeats’s equally great “Sailing to Byzantium.” In what ways does the Yeats poem seem designed to refute the Keats poem? How does the singing golden bird differ from Keats’s singing nightingale?

Our first clue that the Yeats poem may be related to the earlier Keats poem occurs in the first stanza, when the speaker calls the birds singing in the trees “dying generations,” a phrase quite similar to one in Keats’s ode— “Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird! / No hungry generations tread thee down.” From that moment on, the poems are as thematically opposite as is possible for two poems glorifying art. Keats’s nightingale (a natural bird) is a symbol of lyric fluidity, expressiveness, change, and union with nature; around the nightingale, Keats thinks that it would be “sweet to die” and “to cease upon the midnight with no pain.” Yeats’s golden bird (an artificial bird) is a symbol of permanence, knowledge, unchangeability, and a liberating separation from nature; Yeats longs to be “gathered into the artifice of eternity” precisely because he does not wish to age and to die.

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