Study Guide

The Spur

by William Butler Yeats

The Spur Summary

Summary and Analysis

“The Spur,” by the Irish poet W. B. Yeats (1865-1939), is a brief, four-line epigram—an example of a kind (or “genre”) of poetry that emphasizes terse, often witty phrasing and that frequently features a particularly intriguing conclusion.

The speaker of “The Spur” begins by directly addressing an unnamed interlocutor, so that the poem almost immediately adopts a somewhat conversational tone. Yet the tone is also fairly defensive: the speaker seems to be responding to criticism from the other person, who has apparently censured the elderly speaker’s “lust and rage” (1). Since “lust and rage” (as opposed to “love and righteous anger”) are not especially attractive qualities, the first line puts readers in a quandary: should we sympathize with the speaker, or should we support his critic? The fact that the critic considers the speaker’s “lust and rage” to be “horrible” (rather than, say, simply “unfortunate”) suggests that both the speaker and his critic may be emotional extremists, with neither one displaying much moderation. Perhaps, however, the self-defensive speaker is merely exaggerating the depth of his critic’s outrage, or perhaps there is even a touch of humor in the opening line, as if the speaker is responding with mock anger to a friend’s concern.

Line 2 is especially interesting thanks to the unusual phrase “dance attention.” What, exactly, does this term mean? Has the critic implied that the speaker, by displaying “lust and rage,” is deliberately seeking the notice of others and is thus behaving in a fashion that seems embarrassing or foolish in someone who is old and should know better? Or has the critic suggested that the wrong kind of “attention” is merely the unintended consequence of the speaker’s unfortunate, unplanned conduct? In either case, the idea of dancing seems associated with youth and vigor. Should we sympathize with the speaker, who apparently...

(The entire section is 693 words.)