A Commentary to W. B. Yeats’ Poem "Meditations in Times of Civil War"

DOI: 10.55804/jtsuSPEKALI-16-11


The 1920s proved to be a turning point in W. B. Yeats’s poetic career. In the words of Richard Ellmann, the poet’s eminent critic and biographer, had Yeats died in 1917[i], he would have been remembered as a minor but a remarkable poet [Ellman, 2000]. Indeed, the poems of The Tower (1928) unite some of W. B. Yeats’s most admired and significant poems (including the famous titular poem itself), of which Meditations in Times of Civil War [hereinafter Meditations] – a seven-part poem that extends The Tower’s themes and conjures a compelling picture of Yeatsean imagery and symbols – has been viewed as less satisfactory an achievement, as Harold Bloom once noted [Bloom, 1978]. Such assessment may stem from a number of factors: the poem may seem to focus on personal problems (the interior of W. B. Yeats’s house, his family members) and issues of national significance (Irish civil war), culminating in the poet’s lamentation that his poetry could do no good to mankind. Indeed, W. B. Yeats believed that a poet has a function of a prophet or an oracle and remained rather disappointed when his poetry was not heard and understood as a declaration of some universal truth. Such a practical ambition in a poem is something literary critics do not easily forgive. That said, one cannot ignore the fact that great poetry may always elevate itself even above the strangest of pursuits of its creator. And W. B. Yeats was, in all respects, a strange man with strange ideas, which may explain the fact that his persona is so often (perhaps more often than that of any other poet of his era) identified with his lyrical person. Everything in his poetry is derived from his personal experience and an incredibly subjective interpretation of this experience as well. However, difficult as this may be, once W. B. Yeats’s colossal shadow is detached from his lyrical person, the reader is left with a richer and far more profound world of genuinely unique images of his poetry, which is also true of Meditations. Thus, the article offers a detailed insight into various parts of this very complex seven-part poem; it explains their interconnection, reconciles critical opinions, and highlights the importance of the work.

Meditations is composed of seven parts, which may seem independent of one another and be understood as separate parts of the collection[ii]. Yeats’s commentators [Albright, 1992] usually divide these seven parts in the following order: poems I to IV keep the lyrical person focused on the real and the tangible, while the unreal and imaginary begins to dominate in parts V-VII. This division may be debatable, but I will return to it later.

The first part of Meditations Ancestral Houses – opens with a description of elaborately decorated mansions with marble walls and flowering gardens, where life overflows like a fountain that does not bend to an outward force. In Yeats’s poetry, the fountain is associated with boundless and natural talent [iii]. W. B. Yeats strongly believed that real poetry is effortless and free[iv], as demonstrated by the mention of Homer in the next stanza. The landscape of Ancestral Houses seems deliberately evocative of Arcadia, as the next stanzas reverse this image, and the overflowing basin becomes a symbol of the decrepit age of The Tower, a metaphorical embodiment of the caricatural excess of life for the relentlessly aging, dying vehicle – a recurrent and important theme in W. B. Yeats’s late poetry. Accordingly, this landscape may be viewed as a sick, degrading paradise, which seems to have lost its connection to the present[v] and is doomed for ineluctable death. The theme of the aging world is thus introduced in the first stanza and evolves in the following ones:

“...though now it seems

As if some marvellous empty sea-shell flung

Out of the obscure dark of the rich streams,

And not a fountain, were the symbol which

Shadows the inherited glory of the rich“ [Yeats 1989: 200].

The symbol of the past is therefore not a fountain, but a beautiful and empty shell[vi]. The outward glory of the shell and its inner emptiness make up an apt metaphor for the petrified existence of the garden and the richly decorated houses with walls of marble. Besides, the shell is only an echo of the water that flowed – only il nome della rosa that remains as a remembrance of a once flowering rose. Consequently, the shell, the mechanical shape[vii] contradicts the natural energy of the fountain: the movement of the water and its strife towards the destruction of the fixed shapes do not comply with the rule of necessary immobility and obedience that preserves such a ‘paradise’.

The power behind the construction and creation of the ancestral houses is tragedy and violence – ‘bitter and violent men’[viii]. According to the poem, these are the powers that inspire art: great pain – ‘the forest dark’ – generates a desire for joy and peace that a person has not experienced or that is beyond their reach. In Ancestral Houses, however, this tragic joy, the pain, and the great emotion belong to the times past of which only an echo remains. In W. B. Yeats’s mock garden of paradise – in Ancestral Houses – the great emotions are replaced by immobility and death, while the moving water is replaced by a shell (an echo), and the vision of Eros gives place to that of Thanatos: [ix] they who were living are now dead, those who lived once – the bitter and violent men (ancestors) – are now petrified faces (the portraits in the marble hall in the last stanza of the first part), and only lifeless images remain of once formidable gods (busts of deities in the garden, stanza four). Thus, in this first part of the poem, W. B. Yeats introduces the motif of reflection and echo through the shell and the portraits, which further unfolds in the following parts. It has to be noted here that the shell is the overall image of the static existence of death-in-life, which craves for apocalyptic rebirth.

The next stanza introduces the image of a peacock [x]. Its beauty and emptiness as well as its aimless stray in the ancestral gardens parallel and evoke the images of the marble walls and the shell. The presence of the peacock also highlights the absence of the nightingale of Milton (Il Penseroso) or John Keats – a traditional and ideal image of a poet. The allusion to Keats’s nightingale is further extended by the word ‘urn’: Ode to the Grecian Urn gives a passionate and picturesque description of the arcadian scene depicted on a Grecian urn – the Dionysian feast of mortals and deities, which W. B. Yeats parodies with the emptiness of the peacock and the indifference of the garden deities[xi]. W. B. Yeats frequently used the adjective ‘indifferent’ when referring to divine powers (cf., for example, Leda and the Swan), and this concept of indifference will be discussed later. It is important to mention here that while J. Keats’s Grecian Urn is a melody unheard, eternity captured in a second, which lives forever and is forever experienced anew, the emotion, the tragic joy that fed the beauty of ancestral houses has perished, and it can be no longer re-experienced. A work of art is devoid of its meaning, being reduced to an empty shape. Such emptiness speaks of the disruption of the historical process – of time being out of joint.

It is possible to argue that Ancestral Houses depicts the Tower of the major arcana of the Tarot deck – the outwardly glorious and empty building with a cracked basement. This ‘tower’ of ancestral gardens is then followed by Thoor Ballylee, W. B. Yeats’s home tower, which is the central image of the rest of the poem.

The interior of the tower and its surroundings partially extends the topic of the first part - a work of art alienated from emotions. Part 2 of Meditations – My House  – transfers the focus to the tower – its interior and surroundings. Except for the above-mentioned, My House is made up of images that parallel and contrast those in Ancestral Houses: the flowering garden is replaced by the symbolic rose, the possible unfolding of which is associated with the achievement of poetic perfection since the early poems of W. B. Yeats. The stony surroundings of the tower (from which the rose shall unfold) may suggest a parody of his early poetry, when all things ‘uncomely and broken’ prevented the perception of the symbolic rose and when the obsession with beautification caused him to ruin many verses, as N. Frye comments [Frye, 2012]. The comparison between the blooming garden and the desolate rose growing from the rock highlights the contrast of the external glory of the ancestral houses and the relative simplicity of the tower’s dull environment with a scared waterhen instead of the majestic peacock. The tower’s landscape is more authentic and genuine to the world of Meditations, the civil war, and the upcoming violence, with which the first half of the twentieth century inspired ever apocalyptically-dispositioned W.B. Yeats. The desolate rose, the petals of which symbolise a labyrinth in search of truth and a movement inspired by Eros vision [Frye, 2012], unfolds in the bleak environment and, to a certain extent, symbolises the entire modernist art born out of the dire reality of the twentieth century.

The description of the surroundings of the tower is followed by its interior – the winding stair and the poet’s table. Meditations, overall, unites several moments of shifting a perspective (often the lyrical person himself turns around and turns his back on what he was looking at) – interchange of interior and exterior, which, judging from the poem’s texture, may metaphorically convey alterations of [creative] moods (in the spirit of L’Allegro and Il Penseroso), microcosm and macrocosm, context and event, and, ultimately, – inspiration and creative process. I believe all these meanings are simultaneously present, as Meditations is rooted in the sense of creative crisis and the tragic feeling of divine or human indifference as revealed by the images of the winding stair, Milton’s Platonist, and the written page placed beside the candle.

The winding stair is a major symbol of W. B. Yeats’s poetry and can be roughly understood as a composite symbol of tradition and individual talent (The Winding Stair and Other Poems, 1933). The image of the winding stair is too profound and infinite to be analysed in this modest commentary to a single poem; therefore, here I will confine myself to arguing that this stair parallels hall of portraits of part 1, as the winding stair symbolises the continuity of tradition against the petrified heritage; it also symbolises controlled movement towards the top of the tower – ascension, which may be viewed as part of the Logos vision. At the same time, to a certain extent, the cylindrical shape of the winding stair (cf. W. B. Yeats’s gyre and the poem Second Coming), and the repeated crossing of parallel points, is connected with the symbol of self-renewal, being, as a matter of fact, a vertically unfolding ouroboros – the visual expression of self-devourment / death and rebirth. N. Frye associates this winding stair with sex as well as with the cycle of getting out of the mother’s womb or returning to it [Frye, 2012]. N. Frye’s interpretation is based on the Jungian analysis of the myth of the great mother, of birth, and the hostile (devouring) mother [Jung, 1967]. These interrelated parallels themselves extensively broaden the already infinite symbol of the winding stair. Thus, it is no surprise that the stair is followed by the images of Milton’s Platonist and the candle. The symbol of the candle may also be subject to various interpretations; however, Yeats’s parallel might be associated with his poetic talent, light of wisdom and inspiration and, in a way, parallels the fountain; further, the candle may be the symbol of thunder, which transforms My House into the Tarot’s flaming tower, where the false wisdom of Ancestral Houses shall perish, and the symbolic rose shall unfold. Life or mind of a single man would not suffice for such a process. This idea, I believe, always followed W. B. Yeats, and this is why the symbol of the candle is followed by the discussion on Sato’s sword as an artwork of eternal beauty (Part III) and then of his descendants (Part IV). In this regard, it is interesting that the poet introduces the old owner of the tower (the builder of the Tower) as a warrior, man of action, and the lyrical person – as a man of thought. The age-old contrast between the man of thought and man of action returns here: they, usually, envy one another (cf. Fergus and the Druid) and crave for each other’s identity. Such dualism especially intensifies against the background of war and becomes the central topic of the fifth part, which I shall discuss later.

After My House, the focus shifts to the Tower’s interior – Sato’s sword[xii] is the central image of My Table. It cannot be directly understood as a muse or immediate inspiration. The sword in Yeats’s poetry is more like Keats’s Grecian Urn, immortality moulded into a shape, a vision of divine order or unaging intellect, which is the object of mimesis or object of meditation for the lyrical person:

„Chaucer had not drawn breath[xiii]

When it was forged.  In Sato's house,

Curved like new moon, moon-luminous

It lay five hundred years. [Yeats 1989: 202].

The comparison of Sato’s sword and the new moon, is of course, related to the system of the phases of the moon, which Yeats developed in A Vision (this comparison will be repeated in the seventh part as well). The system of the phases of the moon is rather complex and complicated, the full interpretation of which seems impossible even today, as Yeats himself would not or could not define all of its aspects[xiv]. It would suffice here to say that Sato’s sword, as the new moon (phase 2 to 8), symbolises the beginning of a change or inspiration or is itself an embodiment of Yeats’s system of moon phases – pain gives birth to art, which is shortly described by the following phrase in the same stanza: „Only an aching heart / Conceives a changeless work of art“ [Yeats 1989: 202]; then life imitates art – creates an ideal and then, tired of the ideal, begins to die until another rebirth. Thus, it is notable that My Table ends in the peacock’s scream: “it seemed / Juno’s peacock screamed” [Yeats 1989: 202]. The scream is interesting in many ways, as it functions as a trumpet of apocalypses and calls for the beginning of the destruction of death-in-life – the frozen paradise – glory of old age and empty gardens [xv]. As Yeats himself said, “… civilisation is a struggle to keep self-control... The loss of control over thought comes towards the end; first a sinking in upon the moral being, then the last surrender, the irrational cry, revelation – the scream of Juno's peacock“ [Yeats 2015: 195]; what poet implies, evokes Nietzsche’s view of Dionysian celebration itself[xvi] – the breakdown of principium individuationis and the accompanying emotion of great joy when an individual merges fully with the mother nature [Nietzsche, 1999]. The scream of Juno’s peacock, therefore, may be understood in a similar manner – as the rise of the natural, the primordial cry (which is rather clearly stated in Stare’s Nest and in the seventh part) and, also, as a foreteller of apocalypse.

Thus, the scream of Juno’s peacock closes the third part and, as a matter of fact, introduces the theme of the next one. It is important that the fourth part – My Descendants – repeats the rhythmic pattern of the first, which probably symbolises tradition or continuation of the poetic heritage: this part begins by referring to ancestors (“fathers”) and descendants (“bodily heirs”, as Yeats himself said), and the reference is rather personal. While discussing this poem, Harold Bloom noted the poet’s lifelong fear that his ‘bodily heirs’ would reduce his heritage to common greenness [Bloom, 1978]. However, this part of the poem may not be read only through W. B. Yeats’s personal fears and objections. These personal references may be more important not because of Mrs. Yeats and their children, but to lend greater depth to the motif of heredity, of times past and present, which runs through the entire composition. Besides, it has to be argued here that such continuity may be in itself parodic, as life itself is colourless. The first part of this poem may be associated with the fear of degradation, devaluation of heritage, or even deeper fear that one day his tower – his poetic heritage – will become a symbol as empty as the ancestral houses. This is why the lyrical person pronounces a curse – let all be ruined so that the world that is dead in life – the overaged Sybil – may not prevent the rebirth and renovation, if the tower ever becomes a rich and empty shell in the likeness of the ancestral houses:

“May this laborious stair and this stark tower

Become a roofless ruin that the owl

May build in the cracked masonry and cry

Her desolation to the desolate sky“ [Yeats 1989: 203]


The ruins of the tower and the owl’s cry are central symbols of this part. The destruction of the rooftop is particularly notable, which again takes us back to the Tower of the Tarot deck. Moreover, the ruins of the tower of My Descendants represent – or the poet wants them to represent – such  a monument that shall forever remain against the symbol, which maintains the form and loses the meaning (Ancestral Houses). On the other hand, it is notable that the cry of a bird is a recurrent leitmotif of the poem – in this part, the owl replaces the peacock, which must be a sign of the coming rebirth or apocalypse. W. B. Yeats begins the third stanza by mentioning Primum Mobile, which is the embodiment of energy that breathes life into the substance and generates movement (much of this imagery seem to stem from Dante’s Paradiso). Besides, W. B. Yeats associates Primum Mobile with circular flight of the owl and, consequently, takes the reader back to the system of the gyre [Jeffares, 1968]. Such circular movement of the owl is, of course, a Logos vision, which is another sign of the divine will, the revelation, connected to the images of Juno’s peacock as well as the starling (‘stare’) and bee of the sixth part.

Part 5 – The Road at My Door – discusses the reality of the civil war. As already mentioned above, Yeats’s commentators note the shift of perspective when the lyrical person detaches himself from the physical environment, and the symbols are growing more and more abstract. This assessment has reasonable grounds; however, the focus does not entirely seem to be changing here – the road is part of the tower’s surroundings and may be understood as a metaphor for vague future, as far as Part 5 brings up the contrast of man of thought and man of action once again: the road is the symbol of action and future, while the tower, of course, symbolises the thought.  It has to be mentioned here as well that this part may be alluding to and, also parodying Sonnet VIII by John Milton (When the Assault Was Intended to the City), which is about the intangibility of art and the great power of poetry during the war, which gives place to the feeling of creative crisis in Yeats’s poem. Besides, the mention of Falstaff is also important. W. B. Yeats understood civil war as a theatre performance, and in his later poetry, not only civil war but apocalypse itself became a pageant (e. g., Lapis Lazuli). The dialogue between the participants of this play – man of thought and man of action is superficial and awkward, while the envious lyrical person is left with no choice but to turn to cold snow of a dream, which will be discussed later in Part 7.

Part 6, Stare’s Nest is again related to personal memories[xvii]. As usual, the stare[xviii] and bees may be understood as an elaborate paraphrase of the last lines of Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind. Besides, the stare may be the symbol of the poet as well (as L’Allegro’s lark and Il Penseroso’s nightingale) in whose empty house the bees settle as:


“We are closed in, and the key is turned

On our uncertainty; somewhere“ [Yeats 1989: 204]


Turning of the key and the feeling of confinement, of being ‘closed in’, of course, invokes Dante’s Inferno (Inferno, XXXII Canto, Count Ugolino’s story[xix]) and T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. The story of Count Ugolino is an expression of abject horror and terrible cruelty, of violence against nature, and anger that surpasses death itself. W. B. Yeats’s reminiscence here is of special significance not only because of its meaning, but also because of its place: the feeling of confinement and inability foreshadow the display of the apocalyptic ritual of aggression in the seventh part. These words also further echo the shell and empty walls of the first part as both the civil war and ancestral houses suggest the increasingly unbearable and pervasive presence of death-in-life. It is also interesting here that the refrain about the bees creates a kind of a ritualistic song on its own, and its repetition seems to be a declaration of unconscious or a hitherto undisclosed desire to break free from the bonds or lifeless existence. This desire was illustrated by the bird’s cry in the previous parts, suggesting an interesting teriomorphic metaphor: the action of a bird (inner beast or animal) – irrational cry – depicts unconscious desire for ruin and rebirth. Unconscious becomes conscious and the process of individuation is accomplished [Jung, 1980], which is clear from the very title of Part VII – I See Phantoms of Hatred and of the Heart’s Fullness and of the Coming Emptiness.

Part 7 clearly differs from the previous six ones and constitutes a vision on the whole. As I have already mentioned above, the final three parts of the poem are viewed as an act of deliberate detachment from reality. However, if we take the object of meditation itself as the starting point for analysis, the seventh part, albeit logical a continuation, clearly stands out as something entirely different. Parts I to VI focus on the real, something that is tangible, and the lyrical person concentrates on the object that represent pieces of an enormous mosaic. One has to note here that a simple collection of these pieces would not, of course, make up the whole picture. It is only when part 7 says that the lyrical person begins to generalise the results of his meditation – only then does he attempt to capture the truth of what he has seen and perceived.

Therefore, hatred, fulness of the heart, and coming emptiness is related to the general background of war and may be understood as metaphors for the environment that the previous parts depicted – environment, within which art has to exist. Heart’s fullness as well as cold snow of a dream refer to the absence of inspiration[xx] and tiredness of one’s own imagination [O’Leary, 2016]. Such fullness is necessarily followed by a sense of emptiness, which should give place to new inspiration in accordance with the concepts of eternal movement, Yeats’s gyre, and the symbol of ouroboros. These are thus the central themes of the poem.

The phantasmagoria of Part VII begins from the roof of the tower. The lyrical person is leaning upon the tower top and looks unto the environment.[xxi] The roof of the tower, in a sense, is the ‘starting point’ of this holistic vision, creativity, unity of times, or of destruction and renewal (cf. the Tarot tower). Notably, the physical eye – eyesight – is replaced by a mental vision as the landscape is sunk in a ‘mist like scattered snow’, in which strange and ambiguous, phantasmagorical shapes swim to the ‘mind’s eye’.

Apart from what has been said about the tower, it is also notable that the mist covers the entire landscape – valley, river, elms. In a word, the objects of meditation from all previous parts are sunk in the snow or mist of imagination[xxii]: intentionally and clearly visible and tangible reality of the previous parts is replaced by a world of vision and dream – the boundaries of the conscious are surpassed to reveal the unconscious and the dream-like. The mist, therefore, may be understood as slumber or sleep – weakening of the eyesight or its complete removal – like a border between conscious and unconscious, the real and the imaginary. Such understanding of the mist is also supported by the appearance of the moon, which is a traditional symbol for anima [Jung, 1980]. Interestingly, the moon parallels Sato’s sword (a moon – the indefinite article emphasizes the metaphorical and visionary nature of the moon, and this celestial object acquires a double meaning – that of sword, a work of art, and the moon in the sky), because it embodies the symbol of eternal intellect. It is noteworthy that these meanings of the moon are not controversial and, instead, strengthen one another, suggesting a more profound cause for the connection between Sato’s sword and the moon: according to C. G. Jung, the moon usually serves as one of the most widespread symbols of prima materia in alchemy, and, therefore, the appearance of the moon in a dream or an alchemic ritual would refer to the starting point of transformation [Jung, 1980]. Clearly, such symbolism would not be strange to W. B. Yeats, partly because of Empedocles, and partly because of his lifelong obsession with mystic orders; the theme of alchemic symbols is perhaps too extensive to be discussed here and, therefore, I shall return to the moon’s appearance in the mist, which according to all the above-mentioned, points to metamorphosis. The mist is scattered by the wind, another alchemic symbol, which serves here as a kind of lapis philosophorum, a life-bringer, something that breathes life in dead substance (while in the previous part the wind was devoid of signs of life).[xxiii] Following such a transformation, the mind’s eye is filled with chaotic images, which W. B. Yeats famously called hodos chameliontos. It should be noted here that phantasmagoria was not a simple concept or even a sequence of images to W. B. Yeats – one could assume that it had always been his poetic method. The seventh part indeed sounds like its meaning, and the ritual of hatred and coming emptiness rings both in vocabulary and syntax. W. B. Yeats used similar paradigms in the Byzantium poems (N. Frye [Frye, 2012] and, especially, Helen Vendler [Vendler, 2007] offer detailed analysis of Yeats’s poetic language). It can be argued that the second stanza of part 7 resembles the nocturnal phantasmagoria of Byzantium even in vocabulary:


“Vengeance upon the murderers,' the cry goes up,

'Vengeance for Jacques Molay.' In cloud-pale rags, or in lace,

The rage-driven, rage-tormented, and rage-hungry troop,

Trooper belabouring trooper, biting at arm or at face,

Plunges towards nothing, arms and fingers spreading wide

For the embrace of nothing…“ [Yeats 1989: 205]


The story of the murder of the famous grand master of the Templars[xxiv] logically extends the themes that were introduced by the allusion to count Ugolino: it is the feeling of utter frustration, of inability to take action against the inevitable, and of being ‘closed in’ that wake a beast in a man – a beast that finds its embodiment in the rage of the uncontrollable and violent crowd, as the lyrical person – locked up in the relentlessly aging, decrepit body –  struggles to find a meaning of life. The meaning of this aggression is of special interest within the texture of this phantasmagorial poem. The rage of the crowd and the chaos of hands stretched out towards emptiness may be understood as an echo of the unconscious aggression that emerges from the emptiness and passivity of existence. A life so void is born out of the sheer sterility and futility of the mind (cf., the famous dilemma of the man of thought and man of action), which longs for the appearance of a destructive and powerful wind to breathe new life into the dead substance and petrified deities of the ancestral houses (cf. Shelley’s west wind). C. G. Jung’s suggestion that the unconscious, which remains largely unknown, is usually characterised by a balancing act [Jung, 1964], countering pleasure and comfort with something that is usually termed Angst – fear without object (similar view is developed by S. Freud in his work Civilisation and its Discontent). Therefore, the wind, as described above, is the symbol of life and spirit descending from Heaven – of the Primum Mobile ‘that fashioned us’ (W. B. Yeats used these images in Leda and the Swan and Mother of God).[xxv] The rest of the stanzas do not mention the wind and, instead, ordered movement is introduced – a vision of Logos:


“Their legs long, delicate and slender, aquamarine their eyes,

Magical unicorns bear ladies on their backs.

The ladies close their musing eyes…“ [Yeats 1989: 205]


Indeed, the unicorn and the maiden were very widespread symbols in the middle ages and beyond, and, as usual, embodied pieta, or an angry god appeased by a maiden [Jung, 1980]. In both cases, the unicorn is the image of Christ – of an angry god of Old Testament transformed in the god of love. The visual source of this stanza, according to T. R. Henn [Henn, 1966] is Gustave Moreau’s painting (Ladies and Unicorns); however, in this case the paradigm of the unicorn and the maiden is far more important than the actual painting itself. Appearance of Christ, of course, should be related to salvation or a desire for salvation. The image of the unicorn is then followed by the symbol of a pool. As Albright mentions, this vision may represent images generated in the water, as W. B. Yeats himself, under the influence of Porphyry and Neoplatonist thinkers, wrote in many of his poems [Jeffares 199]. However, the pool here seems somewhat different in its meaning as the focus of the text falls neither on generation nor on reflection: the water of the pool seems to devour light and pain into its own ‘indifference’. The pool is the kind of water, which drowns desire under its own weight. The meaning of the pool, therefore, seems to be the heart’s fullness and coming emptiness, divine indifference towards humanity in the vision of logos (as in Leda and the Swan) or the image of immobility and death of paradise, which is inevitably going to be reduced to ruins.

Fourth stanza further extends this final vision, as the movement of the brazen hawks (the bird of the second coming) replace that of the unicorns. W. B. Yeats’s explanation of the brazen hawks implies that the brazen heart – the brazen birds – embody logic and intellect, and their wings ‘put out the moon’ [Jeffares, 1968], like Hati swallows the moon during Ragnarok. At this time, in accordance with A Vision, intellect dominates and the moon, as the traditional symbol of anima, disappears and the mist of vision is scattered by the introduction of the images of the conscious as represented by noise – the ‘clanging’ wings of the divine hawks (more realistic physical senses like hearing is introduced against the sight that is blurred and fogged by the magic vision). Interestingly, one vision of Logos is replaced by another that is completely devoid of Eros, and the unicorn – the god of love that fails in salvation is naturally replaced by the hawk - the apocalyptic image of a fierce god that looks unto mankind with his indifferent eye.

Notably, the unicorn, the maiden, and the hawk make up a holy trinity, the vision of whom should have brought peace and joy unto mind, just like Dante perceives the presence of God in Paradiso, or as Caedmon was inspired by his friendly stranger from a dream. But this poem is far from granting such revelation. Neverthless, that is not the case in the poem. The vision of the holy trinity foretells about the world that is abandoned by the God and the wind that is deprived of soul. Even the holy trinity becomes an impossible unity as the God no longer heeds the man and his trivial existence.[xxvi]

The poem culminates in the return of the conscious and an anti-climax. The lyrical person turns around once again, shuts the door unto his dreams and visions and laments that he could do no good to mankind. This lamentation is usually understood as an echo of the classical dilemma of the man of thought and man of action. However, it is impossible to ignore that the focus is more on the intellectual sterility and creative crisis, which leaves the lyrical person unable to perceive what he has seen and go under the surface of the symbol. Besides, it is noteworthy that the end of the mosaic (or, more precisely, ‘a heap of broken images’) clearly emphasise the impossibility of the appeasement of the God – the transformation of the indifferent hawk into the God of love, as the civilisation, full of its own sickness, may only long for death.

[i] The period coincided with heavy illness of W. B. Yeats and his wife Georgie, the Spanish flu pandemic, and the Irish Civil War.

[ii] I – Ancestral Houses, II – My House, III – My Table, IV – My Descendants, V – The Road At My Door, VI – Stare’s Nest By My Window, VII – I See Phantoms of Hatred and of the Heart’s Fullness and of the Coming Emptiness.

[iii] Yeats borrowed this comparison from John Milton’s On Shakespeare, which was included in the Second Folio (1632).

[iv] See The Tower (poem) and A. N. Jeffares’s commentary [Jeffares, 1969].

[v]The symbol of ancestral houses is generally understood as depicting the incompatibility between the Anglo-Irish heritage and Ireland’s national present as W. B. Yeats was a passionate supporter of Ireland’s independence, and the poem concerns the civil war. However, as I have already mentioned above, I will not discuss this viewpoint here as not only the problem of Anglo-Irish culture but the civil war itself seems only a superficial theme in the poem. Besides, it is notable that in W. B. Yeats’s late poetry (New Poems), similar emptiness of the richly decorated buildings and the decrepit age begin to stand for diseased, leprotic paradise and the longing for apocalypse. Interestingly, Yeats viewed his own age in a similar manner – as the degradation of the body with the coming of infinite energy and wisdom (cf. The Tower (poem)).


[vi] W. B. Yeats viewed sea shell as a symbol of external glory and internal emptiness since his earliest poems.

[vii] The words - ‘mechanical shape’ – seem to refer and even partly explain the golden bird and ‘country of the young’ of Sailing to Byzantium from the same collection.

[viii] According to A Vision [Yeats, 2015], violence gives birth to greatness.

[ix] It would be interesting here to discuss W. B. Yeats’s views in relation to H. Bergson’s elan vital – the concept that he introduced in his famous Creative Evolution. Further, O. Spengler’s Decline of the West is relevant in this regard, as well as C. G. Jung’s and J. Frazer’s interpretations of the myths of death and rebirth.

[x]  W. B. Yeats seems to have borrowed the images of Juno and peacock from Aesop’s fable with considerable alterations.

[xi] Statues, busts, and sculptures, as the images of petrified and senseless, void works of art followed W. B. Yeats in his later poetry. The poet even presented pieces of his own poetry as lifeless busts and statues in his last poems.

[xii] A Japanese admirer gifted the sword to W. B. Yeats. For details, please see the commentary by A. N. Jeffares (Jeffares, 1968).

[xiii] In relation to this stanza, almost all researchers of W. B. Yeats seem to emphasise the poet’s poor arithmetic or simple ignorance of Chaucer’s date of birth. To a certain extent, Yeats never stood out as an exceptionally well-educated man among his contemporaries, and he might not have known the exact year of Chaucer’s birth. The joy of studying and commenting Yeats partly lies in the series of his strange views, ignorance of things most of his friends knew, and obsessions few others cherished. It is no wonder that commentators are more than eager to mark this. However, the important thing here is that the mention of the father of the English language emphasises  the eternity of such art as Canterbury Tales or Sato’s centuries-old Sword. 


[xv] Cf. the tragic joy inThe Gyres.

[xvi] “…under the mystical, jubilant shout of Dionysos the spell of individuation is broken” [Nietzsche 2007: 76].

[xvii] The introduction of the bees is related to W. B. Yeats’s personal memory [Jeffares, 1968] and, also, the image in The Lake Isle of Innisfree. Desperate longing for towards peace (cf. ‘peace comes dropping slow’ from The Lake Isle of Innisfree) combined with the sight of bees is itself a metaphor for the bloodshed of the civil war.

[xviii] Interestingly, in Carey’s translation of Dante, which W. B. Yeats had read, the whirlpool of those fallen with lust is compared to the flight of starlings in winter. J. F. Cary’s Translation of the Divine Comedy. Harvard Classics, 1991: Canto V: 40-43.

[xix] The allusion to Dante is especially interesting here as the historical Count Ugolino was a participant of another long and famous medieval civil war between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. Archbishop Ruggiero imprisoned him in torre della Muda – the Muda tower – of which Ugolino’s spirit tells Dante. The parallel is important especially considering the fact that upon the engraving of Giovanni Paolo Lasinio (1868) Torre Della Muda very much resembles Thoor Ballylee.

[xx] In W. B. Yeats’s A Vision, the 11th antithetical phase is related to inspiration and contradicts intellect [Yeats, 2015].

[xxi] The parallel here is the lyrical person of the The Tower (poem) who is looking from the battlements.

[xxii] Mist and snow signified false dream or vision to Yeats. Also, D. Albright draws attention to resemblance to an episode from Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra [Albright, 1922].

[xxiii] The symbol of wind may be subject to more profound analysis, which is not possible in this article. More important thing here, perhaps, is that W. B. Yeats must have borrowed the image of the wind as a divine or transforming power (as well as the wind’s absence or insignificance) from P. B. Shelley and S. T. Coleridge.

[xxiv] Elizabeth Cullingford gives a detailed insight into the issue [see Cullingford, 1983].

[xxv] Compare Coleridge’s „intellectual breeze, at once the Soul of one and God of all” (Coleridge S. T.The Eolian Harp)

[xxvi] J. Unterecker’s interpretation is notable here [Unterecker, 1959].




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