Themes and Meanings

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

In The Words upon the Window-Pane, William Butler Yeats returns to a theme that dominates his poetry and plays: the mysterious layering of the past within the present, specifically as the history of Ireland is embodied in the lives of contemporary men and women. Incorporated in this dominant theme are other significant motifs having to do with Yeats’s own struggle with old age and the poet’s attempt to come to terms with the relationship between reason and passion.

The play’s setting, the mundane Dublin boardinghouse, represents at once commonplace, ordinary life and the absurd and trivial existence of modern Ireland. Several of the characters reinforce this sense of the coarseness of contemporary life: The third-rate horseplayer, Patterson; the slightly crazed evangelist, Johnson; and even Mrs. Henderson, the medium, are inane, petit bourgeois personalities who symbolize the tawdriness of modern humanity. Against this frayed backdrop peopled by unexceptional characters erupts a mystery that bears out Yeats’s belief that moments of “passionate intensity” remain vital past death.

Swift’s tragedy, his denial of the women who loved him and the failure of his ideal commonwealth, contains a reality so powerful that it sweeps aside the spurious appearances which constitute the lives of those attending the séance. However, although the living are deeply moved by the reenactment of that tragedy, they are baffled by it, and leave the séance puzzled, or, like Corbet, they misinterpret what they have seen and heard. For Yeats, this is as it must be; as citizens of the twentieth century, the play’s characters are blind to the spirit which dwells in...

(The entire section is 689 words.)