The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop” is a short poem in three six-line stanzas. The poem is the sixth in a series of seven in which Crazy Jane is the persona. The title refers to a fictional character whom William Butler Yeats based upon an old woman who lived in a little cottage in Gort, a small village near Galway in western Ireland. He admired her for her audacious speech, her lust for life, and her satirical eye. She had clearly become an important symbol for him by the time he came to write this poem; for some time, he had been thinking about what it was that such a cantankerous old woman might represent.

The poem begins as a confrontation between Jane and a bishop, who happen to meet on a road. The bishop speaks in the first stanza, and Jane is the sole speaker in the second and third stanzas. That is the extent of the poem’s actions, and they can be understood easily enough at face value. The reader, however, cannot fail to be struck by the emotionally charged content of the conversation, which is highly personal in tone. The bishop condemns the woman, apparently for her unkempt appearance. The implication seems to be that she is leading an unchaste life. Jane responds somewhat defensively, but even more defiantly. In fact, she seems didactic, as if she is attempting to teach the bishop a lesson of some sort.

Since the first stanza notes that the two said “much” to each other, the implication is that the conversation recorded here is only part of what transpired, or, more likely, that the persona believes that she has distilled the incident into something of greater significance than its brevity might at first suggest.

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

This poem can be appreciated and understood on its own. Insofar as Jane introduces the reader to a bishop as “the” bishop, however, and thereby suggests some familiarity between them, there is an implication that one is coming upon this scene in medias res—that there is a prehistory, which may be culled from a reading of the other poems in the Crazy Jane series. In this regard, therefore, it shares somewhat in the balladic tradition, where poems frequently begin without much explanation of all that led up to the current situation being narrated.

The rhythm in each stanza is basically iambic, alternating each line between tetrameter and trimeter. The last two lines of each stanza are less regular, ending with a more emphatic spondaic pulse. The rhyme scheme is abcbdb, efgfhf, ijkjlj (every other line rhymes).

For such a short poem, with a rather humble woman as its central focus, there is a surprising gravity of tone. Yeats achieves this effect through his masterful use of several devices. The regular rhythm and rhyme, first of all, call the reader’s attention to an artificiality in the discussion, a careful crafting of the supposedly spontaneous interchange between the bishop and the woman. This artificiality is accented by the surprising juxtaposition of a childlike nursery-rhyme rhythm and a blunt reference to the woman’s bodily parts by the bishop. The singsong effect and the crudity of the bishop’s gaze raise...

(The entire section is 547 words.)