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December 27, 2009

Yeats' Handling of Myth, Philosophy and History


The Remoteness, heroism and mystery of myth have always fascinated writers. Yeats too, was greatly enthused by the charm of myth and used it in numerous poems to reveal his complex philosophical understandings.  Yeats was keen to replace traditional Greek and Roman mythological figures with figures from Irish folk lore. He moulded his philosophy after Berkley, Locke, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Bertrand Russell’s philosophical implications. The juxtaposition of the Greek and the Irish myths, and his enthusiasm for old and modern philosophy has distinguished his poems from his cotemporaries. The following discussion hinges round Yeats’ handling of myth,philosophy, and history along with a critical inquiry into some of his major poems:

Leda and the Swan

Myth is used in In Leda and the Swan to express Yeats’ view of history. The legend of the girl Leda being ravished by the Greek God Zeus in the guise of a swan is interpreted by Yeats to illustrate his view of history. The mating of Zeus with Leda gave rise to the Greco-Roman civilisation with the birth of Helen.  Helen was responsible for the Trojan War and Troy’s destruction as well as Agamemnon’s downfall. Agamemnon was the King of Argos and as the comandar of Greek army he went to Troy to recover Helen. Agamemnon was murdered by his wife Clytemnestra, as he returned home after Trojan victory. At the end of the poem the poet questions whether Leda was fully aware of the significance of the forced mating. In other words, the incident either simply refers that man are merely instrument of impersonal forces, or he has a portion of divine intelligence himself.

The Wild Swans at Coole

Yeats’ philosophical understanding is present in The Wild Swans at Coole. It is another poem where Yeats uses the swans as the symbol of immortality. In this poem the old poet is staring at the familiar scene of fifty nine swans moving together in loving pairs flying upon noisy wings, and thinking of the change time has brought over him. The birds of course are untouched by time. They almost give rise to an illusion of immortality. As the nightingale in Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale, so are the swans in Yeats’ poem. The poem, thus, presents us with an image of personal dejection that uses the permanent glory of the swans to stress the transience of human beings.

No Second Troy

Myth is used in No Second Troy to highlight the true nature of Maud Gonne. The title makes it clear that he equates her with Helen, the destructive force of Troy. Yeats says that Maud Gonne was capable of making man so violent that she could stir up masses against aristocracy. But this is not her fault. With her usual nature, she cannot be peaceful, because she has a mind full of nobleness and simplicity and her beauty is like a tightened bow, high and solitary and most stern, a phenomenon which is hard to find in the present age. He concludes that, if there was another Troy for her to burn, she could be responsible for burning it just in the same way Helen was responsible for burning of the city of the Troy.

Sailing to Byzantium

Sailing to Byzantium reveals Yeats use myth and philosophical understanding. In the poem Byzantium symbolises some transcendental country, a place out of time and nature, a world of art and philosophy. Here the poet rejects the natural world of biological activity and decides to take refuge in the timeless world of art with a view to retreat from the process of ageing and decaying. The poem is a transition from sensual art to intellectual art. The poet feels that an old man is disgraceful unless his soul can enjoy works of art and literature which are immortal products of the human spirit. The weaker a man grows in body, the greater should be his joy in the works of art. Appreciation of art and understanding of art can be achieved only by studying magnificent and immortal works of art, the poet decided to go to Byzantium to devote himself to the study of its treasures.

The Second Coming

Yeats often uses geometrical symbols of cone or gyre to express his quasi-mystical philosophy of historical change. The concept considers that the process of history is a cyclic one which repeats itself in different appearances. The movement of history, in Yeats’ philosophy is symbolised by two interlocking gyres spinning rapidly. Their circumference widens as they rotate and ultimately disintegration sets in. History like an individual passes through different phases along with gyres. Each phase covers a rise, growth and decline of civilisation. The end of an age occurs when disintegration begins at the circumference of the gyres and an antithetical gyre is born. In the poem The Second Coming the poet describes the current historical moment in terms of his concept of gyre. Yeats opines that the present wheel of history has come to full circle and out of its ruin a new age in human history seemed to be taking birth. He envisions that mankind is moving from a period of Christianity to Paganism. Furthermore, this poem is not a ringing in of the apocalypse, there is no mention that the world is ending, only entering another phase of history. The poet qualifies this idea when he says, towards the end of the poem that there is no need to be worried by the advent of Paganism, since it existed just like now even 2000 millennia ago when Christ came. So rebirth of paganism is the cyclical process of history.

Easter 1916

Easter 1916 deals with the contemporary political history of Ireland. The poem is a reaction to the Irish insurgence in 1916. In this poem Yeats gives an account of some of the insurgents who were personally known to him. Yeats tells that all these acquaintances were the members of this same comic world and played their own roles here. But now they have resigned from their roles, since they are deceased. Their heroic sacrifice transformed them utterly. But what is ultimately born out of this eternal transformation is a kind of terrible beauty, since this beauty can only provide us with the picture of a number of graves. These people’s hearts were united by having one purpose alone. But now they are all lying in their graves. They are all deceased and beyond recall. But still, to hinder the life’s natural course they have taken refuge permanently inside the hearts of every Irishman like a stone. Time passes, huge changes take place in nature, but still no changes occur around this stone. In the midst of all living activity it stays like a great burden. The insurgence that they made proved an utter failure but still these martyrs owe us an admiration for their self-sacrifice, since their intention was noble.

Other Poems

One of Yeats’ concerns was old age which is seen as a symbol of the tyranny of time. Rage against the limitations of age and society upon an old man occurs frequently in his poetry. A powerful expression of Yeats’ agony facing old age appears at the beginning of Among School Children. In this poem he considers himself a comfortable kind of old scarecrow, again recalling the “tattered coat upon a stick” of Sailing to Byzantium. He asks if it is worthwhile for a woman to undergo all the pain and pangs of childbirth when the baby is only to look like a scarecrow at the age of sixty odd years. No one, even the great philosophers, are nothing more than “old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird”. The Tower is a passionately honest statement of Yeats’ frustration at the approach of old age. Thus in this poem he echoes the “tattered coat upon a stick” of Sailing to Byzantium. The leading motif in this poem is feeling that the poet is becoming physically weak everyday but his passions, both political and personal are getting stronger in everyday.
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