What are the major themes of the poem "Broken Dreams," by W. B Yeats, and what are the poem's meanings?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In his poem “Broken Dreams,” W. B. Yeats deals with such standard poetic topics as desire, change, memories, the afterlife, the passing of time, and a woman’s beauty. Yet of course, like all skillful poets, he manages to breathe real life into these familiar themes.

In the opening lines, the speaker addresses a woman bluntly:

There is grey in your hair.

Young men no longer suddenly catch their breath

When you are passing . . .

By speaking so honestly about the passing of the woman’s youthful beauty, the speaker makes his later descriptions of that earlier beauty seem more convincing.  He also suggests that his own love for this woman goes beyond merely physical motivations. He is still enough devoted to her (and to the ideal of beauty that she represents) to write a poem about her, even though her physical loveliness has diminished.

The next lines, meanwhile, imply a good deal about the woman besides her physical attractiveness.  Apparently she is both religious and generous and concerned about others (4-6). Her spiritual and moral beauty enhances her appeal to the speaker. The woman has apparently suffered but has not been defeated by suffering, and so her moral courage, another aspect of her beauty, is implied (7-8). She is attractive, as well, because she helps bring “peace” to others by her mere presence (12).

The now-faded perfect beauty of her youth inspires memories in those who view her now, including the speaker (14-20). Indeed, the whole poem is an exercise of just such memory; it exemplifies the very memory it discusses.  Yet the speaker also becomes a kind of prophet about the future, not simply a recorder of the past. He imagines that the woman, in the afterlife in heaven, will be seen once more in her youthful beauty and indeed that his own vision of her will be renewed after he himself dies (21-36). However, he is still so much in love with every real detail about her that he hopes her unattractive hands will remain unchanged even in heaven. (The fact that he is willing to concede that her “small hands were not beautiful” [29] again implies his honesty.)

In the poem’s final stanza, the speaker emphasizes once more the major themes of change and the passing of time (“The last stroke of midnight dies” [37]), yet one purpose and effect of the poem is paradoxically to stop time and make the beauty of the woman live forever in Yeats’s verse.