Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop

by William Butler Yeats

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The Poem

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“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

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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 further questions in the reader’s mind when one looks more closely at the scriptural overtones of the bishop’s language (the parallelism of the consonance in “flat and fallen,” the biblical allusion to one’s “heavenly mansion,” and the possible allusion to the parable of the prodigal son in “some foul sty”).

The woman’s language is also heavily referential, and it might be said that allusion is the “shaping” device in...

(This entire section contains 547 words.)

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this poem. By avoiding any biblical references of her own and replacing them with religious allusions that are less clear, she makes her message even more earthy than the bishop’s. Lines 7 and 8, for example, call to mind the opening scene of William Shakespeare’sMacbeth (1606), in which three witches frame what is to follow: By setting a countervailing anti-Christian tone, their words and presence suggest that there may be a fate controlling Macbeth and all other humans that cannot be easily contained within any theological explanation. Lines 17 and 18 seem an allusion to the sexual violence of Yeats’s own poem “Leda and the Swan” and bring with the allusion all that earlier poem’s respectful references to a pre-Christian philosophy of life.

Such simple yet highly referential language maintains a lyrical and even lilting sound to the lines while forcing them to carry more freight than immediately meets the eye. In effect, Yeats asks the reader to look beyond the niceties of poetic diction to the brutal dichotomies (nursery rhyme/lyric ballad of loss; man/woman; religion/sex) that are central to the controlled discussion between these two characters. These dichotomies are most obvious in the use of puns in the last stanza, specifically the play on the words “sole” and soul, hole and “whole.” “Rent” may pun on the double meaning of tearing something in two and leasing rather than owning outright.