Summary and Analysis
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...
(The entire section is 1,278 words.)