In William Butler Yeats's poem "The Fisherman," what does the fisherman symbolize, and how does the symbol relate to three more of Yeats's poems? "The Wild Swans at Coole" "September 1913"...

In William Butler Yeats's poem "The Fisherman," what does the fisherman symbolize, and how does the symbol relate to three more of Yeats's poems?

  • "The Wild Swans at Coole"
  • "September 1913"
  • "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death"
  • "The Stolen Child"

1 Answer

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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The symbolism of the fisherman referred to in William Butler Yeats's poem "The Fisherman" becomes evident in the first stanza. In the first stanza, Yeats describes the fisherman as "This wise and simple man," showing us that he is using the fisherman to represent an ideal man or human being. It especially becomes evident the fisherman symbolizes the ideal man/human being when Yeats starts referring to "living men" he hates and the one and only "dead man" he loves. Since Yeats hates many men and only loved one, these two lines are evidence that he also sees men as flawed, except for the fisherman. We see further evidence Yeats is using the fisherman to symbolize an ideal man when he says of the fisherman in the second stanza, "A man who does not exist, / A man who is but a dream." In other words, if the "wise and simple" fisherman doesn't truly exist, then he is clearly an idealized state because the ideal doesn't truly exist. If we can see that the fisherman symbolizes ideal humanity, then we can also see how Yeats's other poems also reflect on ideal humanity, even if the poems cover completely different subject matters. More specifically, the poem "An Irish Airman foresees his Death" speaks of military upheaval in Ireland, but it is difficult to speak of upheaval without also comparing it to the ideal situation. So even in that poem do we see references to ideal humanity.

There is a great deal of evidence that the poem "An Irish Airman foresees his Death" concerns military conflict or action in Ireland, especially in the title, since the word airman is another name for a pilot in the air force. Other than the title, we see further evidence of military conflict being a theme when the speaker says in the opening two lines that he knows he will "meet [his] fate / Somewhere among the clouds above," which is another way of saying he will die somewhere in the clouds. If he predicts he will die in the clouds, then he is also predicting he will die while in action. In addition, the words "fight" and "guard" refer to the military actions of fighting rebels and guarding citizens. It should also be noted that the poem is very pessimistic with respect to speaking of military action, because the speaker says that military action cannot do anything to bring his countrymen more loss than they already have and that military action cannot do anything to make his countrymen any happier,  as we see in the two lines, "No likely end could bring them loss / Or leave them happier than before." In other words, all action is futile. However, behind the concept of a futile situation will also lie its exact antithesis--the ideal, positive situation, or idealism. Hence, even in this poem, we see him reflecting on what his ideal situation would be like, which also has to do with what his ideal countrymen would be like. His ideal countrymen would be able to be rescued from their situation and rendered happy. A reflection of his ideal countrymen also serves as an example of a reflection of an ideal man, for his countrymen must both be "wise and simple" to achieve this ideal, peaceful, happy political reality, just like the fisherman. While Yeats does not use literal words to describe this ideal state or his ideal countrymen, we see the reflection conceptually hidden beneath the surface of the poem--we see it between the lines.