Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1278
In “An Acre of Grass,” by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), an elderly speaker, modeled on Yeats himself in the last few years of his life, contemplates the limits of his current existence even as he yearns for renewed energy and inspiration.
The poem’s opening line, “Picture and book remain,” can seem puzzling at first, especially if one is unfamiliar with the details of Yeats’s own final period. Yeats had recently moved into a much smaller house than the one he had occupied for years, but he took some comfort when paintings from the older house were mounted in the new one. Most readers, of course, could not have been expected to know this, especially when the poem was first published, and so the opening line can initially catch us off guard and make us wonder about its meaning.
Pictures (that is, paintings) and books are both ways of preserving experience. The fact that Yeats’s speaker refers to only one picture and only one book implies already, then, a constriction of experience. (The effect would have been significantly different if the speaker had referred to multiple “pictures and books.”) Pictures and books preserve the past; they can be secondary substitutes for fresh, original, personal experience in the present. The speaker’s use of the verb remain implies that he is currently thinking as much of the past as of the present; he is thinking not only of what he now possesses but also of what has been lost. Even if we have no knowledge of Yeats’s own life, then, we can interpret the opening line as already implying a speaker who is contemplating the past while experiencing a present that seems confining and constricted.
The fact that the speaker possesses an “acre of green grass” is also ambiguous on first reading. Is the reference to an acre meant to suggest much or little? For many people living in crowded cities (cities of the sort that already existed in Yeats’s day), an acre of green grass would have seemed a sizably pleasant space. However, the fact that this item comes third in a list whose first two items had already implied constriction suggests that this acre also strikes the speaker as confining. The acre of grass is available to provide “air and exercise,” but this cheering idea is immediately qualified by the very next line, which mentions that “Now strength of body goes” (4). Thus the greenness of the grass (suggesting life and vigor) is juxtaposed with the speaker’s own physical decline—a decline immediately and symbolically emphasized in the references to “midnight” in an “old” house (5). In that house, “nothing stirs but a mouse” (6), a detail that suggests the speaker’s relative isolation from other people. All in all, the opening stanza thus emphasizes losses and loneliness as well as darkness and age.
In the second stanza, the tone of the poem becomes even darker. The speaker announces that his “temptation is quiet” (7). In other words, now that he is old and somewhat alone, he no longer feels nor is faced with the kinds of temptations that might have bothered or preoccupied a younger man. Perhaps he is thinking particularly of fleshly temptations. In any case, in line 8, he explicitly states that he feels that he is at or near the end of his life. Stanza 1 emphasized loss, constrictions, and loneliness; stanza 2 now openly anticipates the speaker’s death. His imagination now seems “loose,” but this word does not seem to imply freedom. Instead, it seems to suggest an inability to focus, an incapacity to concentrate, at least in comparison with the imaginative powers the speaker once possessed. The speaker now thinks of his mind as a kind of “mill,” turning in a relentless, repetitive routine and thus “consuming its rag and bone” (10-11). Readers who already know the works of Yeats will immediately recognize, in line 11, an allusion to one of Yeats’ most famous poems, “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” which had memorably mentioned “the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.” In the present poem, the mind is a mill that uses up or breaks down whatever leftovers it contains. Neither the undisciplined imagination nor the monotonous, mechanical mind can any longer, apparently, “make truth known” (12).
This last assertion, however, seems ironic for several reasons. In the first place, the present poem is itself a product of the speaker’s mind and imagination, and this poem is in fact making a kind of truth known by memorably describing the thoughts and feelings of an old man facing the nearness of death. In the second place, the old man’s preoccupation with making truth known suggests that although he is even at or near the end of his existence, his ideals are still lofty and worthy. He is not using his final years in frivolous, self-indulgent ways. Instead, he still has noble aspirations. He may feel less mentally capable than he once felt, and his sense of his present limitations may be causing him a certain degree of depression, but he has not merely abandoned the demanding standards he earlier set for himself. In that sense, then, he may be old and facing death, but he is not entirely defeated.
Indeed, in stanza 3, he desires a kind of renewal. He is sensible enough to know that his body cannot be renewed, but he is also determined enough to seek a kind of mental, imaginative, and even spiritual revitalization. He initially asks an unnamed someone or something to “grant” him “an old man’s frenzy” (13). The fact that he does not address this request to a god or gods implies that he does not take seriously the kinds of standard, conventional ideas about divinity and the supernatural that might once have provided solace and hope to a person of his age. Instead, he initially seems simply to hope that fate will somehow allot him a new—if inevitably temporary—lease on mental and imaginative life.
He desires, in fact, not merely renewal but intense renewal—a kind of imaginative “frenzy,” the kind of irrationality and madness that have long been associated with creativity. However, having first asked that he be “grant[ed]” such frenzy, he now asserts that he must personally “remake” himself (14) so that he can feel the kind of passion once displayed by such Shakespearean figures as Timon of Athens and King Lear. Ironically, the passions of neither of these old men were especially admirable; both figures were famous as much for their anger as for any wisdom they possessed. Perhaps Yeats’s speaker is suggesting that old people, if they are to be passionate, must be passionate in all the kinds of ways we associate with passionate people of any age.
In any case, the next two passionate old men the poem mentions are more unambiguously admirable: William Blake (the great English poet and painter [16-18]) and Michelangelo (the legendary Italian painter and sculptor [19-20]). Both were creative geniuses of great imaginative independence, and so Yeats’s speaker sets his goals about as high as he could possibly set them. He hopes not to settle for anything second-rate. No matter how old his body may be, he seeks a mind and imagination that are young and full of life and yet also brimming with the wisdom of experience. Ultimately, he hopes for the kind of imaginative force that will make him nearly a demigod with almost Christ-like powers: he hopes to be able to “shake the dead in their shrouds” (22). Facing death shortly himself, he hopes, paradoxically, to overcome death—at least for a relatively brief time—before he dies.
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