Who are the falcon and the falconer?

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The critical consensus is that the falconer refers to the old aristocracy, society's natural rulers, and that the falcon refers to the common people—those who've traditionally taken orders from their alleged social superiors.

Falconry is a sport traditionally associated with the nobility, so one can see why Yeats uses it...

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The critical consensus is that the falconer refers to the old aristocracy, society's natural rulers, and that the falcon refers to the common people—those who've traditionally taken orders from their alleged social superiors.

Falconry is a sport traditionally associated with the nobility, so one can see why Yeats uses it as a metaphor for the radical political changes which he can see sweeping over Europe. Yeats was very much a conservative when it came to politics, and he idealized the Protestant aristocracy of his native Ireland—the "falconers," if you will—regarding them as possessed with a certain wisdom that made them the natural leaders of society.

However, as Yeats looked about him, he saw the political position of the Anglo-Irish gentry, and indeed Europe's aristocracy as a whole, being undermined by new-fangled ideologies such as Fascism, Communism, and mass democracy. To Yeats's horror, the lower classes no longer paid any heed to the natural rulers of society. Yeats doesn't say so, but this was largely because it was the crowned heads of Europe who'd brought about the bloody cataclysm of the First World War.

This is what Yeats means when he says that "the falcon cannot hear the falconer." The common folk no longer pay any attention to their supposed social betters, preferring to chart their own political course instead.

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