William Butler Yeats

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What is the Yeats poem "Words" about from the book of poetry The Green Helmet and Other Poems?

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Yeats's "Words" comes from his 1910 collection, The Green Helmet and Other Poems, which marks a departure from his earlier works. At the time of writing, Yeats's great love, Maude Gonne, had recently married someone else, and Yeats was extremely disconsolate over this, a fact which is made clear through many of the poems in the book.

In "Words," Yeats is lamenting the fact that his "darling"—as he realized some time earlier—cannot understand why he does what he does. She does not understand his poetry, or why he spends so much time working on it. The reference to the "bitter land" in which he is writing underlines the fact that both Gonne and Yeats were Irish nationalists, but while Yeats sees his poetry as an act of protectionism and revolution for the Irish cause, Gonne does not see it in the same way. Yeats says that the best work he has done has been in the pursuit of helping his darling to understand the purpose and meaning of his work; it ultimately makes him slightly less "weary" to know that he has tried as hard as he possibly could.

Ultimately, however, Yeats wonders what would have happened—what would have "shaken from the sieve"—if his beloved actually had come to understand the purpose and meaning of his work. He speculates that, possibly, if she had understood him from the beginning, he would not have been so focused on his words at all, but would have been "content to live." He has fixated on the idea of helping her understand his writing; it has become a goal in and of itself. He now wonders what would have happened—where his fixation would have lain—if she had never struggled to comprehend his writing.

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Yeats's "Words" is an extended lament over his failure to make his darling—almost certainly Maude Gonne—understand his poetry. At successive stages in his lengthy literary career, Yeats has shown great mastery over words, both in his poems and in his plays. (And, to a lesser extent, his prose works). This mastery should've made his "darling" understand, and yet it has not. No amount of expert manipulation of words has made Yeats's literary persona completely comprehensible to the woman he has loved more than any other.

As an ardent revolutionary and a political animal to the very depths of her being, Maude Gonne is a woman of action. It is this more than anything else that prevents her from truly understanding Yeats. Though Yeats can make words do just about anything, he's acutely aware all the same that this is nothing like the kind of activity in the so-called real world that Maude so deeply venerates.

Yeats wonders whether all his literary efforts have been worthwhile, if he would've been better off throwing away all his words and being content to live a supposedly normal life. Evidently, Yeats has grown weary of the lack of comprehension and appreciation by the love of his life, not to mention Ireland, the "blind bitter land." No wonder, then, he feels somewhat dejected and starts to question the importance of his enormous contribution to literature.

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William Butler Yeats's poem "Words" is about the relationship, or perhaps more accurately the clash, between life and art. We learn to use words in order to communicate. For many people, it remains the primary purpose of words to convey such messages as "Please pass the marmalade" or "I'll be home late tonight."

Writers, however, want use words to do more than this: to impart something of the human experience and to arrange the words in such a way as to give them beauty and power. The poet, despite his own bitterness, which he thinks his beloved does not understand, has done his best to explain it to her, using the words that are the tools of his trade. If she still does not understand, at least he has done all he can "to make it plain."

In the third stanza, the poet seems most confident in his abilities. He has become a proficient poet. Words obey his call, and so he has made her understand anything by sheer poetical power. However, he finishes by reflecting that, if he had as much power over people as he does over words, he "might have thrown poor words away" and "been content to live."

This is open to interpretation, but it seems to me to mean that the poet has spent his life mastering words at the expense of personal relationships. If his beloved had truly understood and accepted him, he might have lived with her in contentment, instead of continuing to try to express himself through poetry. His use of the word "poor" to describe words would suggest that they are an inadequate substitute for a fulfilled life of understanding with another person.

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Every poem speaks specifically to each reader, but this is how I see the meaning of the poem.

Yeats (or the speaker) is writing about "writing." He recalls a time when his "darling" could not understand why he has chosen to be a writer in a world which he sees so often as "this blind bitter land."

He remembers, too, growing "weary" of the world, especially the sun, which all life depends on. Eventually, however, the speaker comes to his senses and recalls the best work he has done in trying to clarify his view of the world.

He has come to the point that every year he reassures himself that his "darling" understands what his intent is in writing because it makes him strong and he has a way with words: "...words obey my call..."

Silently, on the side, he wonders if she really has come to an understanding. If she has not, he wonders if had he had that knowledge, would it have stopped him—what would have been lost? ("...shaken from the sieve...") Had he listened and changed his course, he realizes that he might have given up ("...thrown poor words away..."), and learned to be satisfied with a life without words. The sense here is that had he done so, it would have been no life at all.

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