William Butler Yeats was born into a middle-class Church of Ireland family—that is, he was a product of Protestant and English descent. His grandfather and great-grandfather were members of the clergy. His father, however, rebelled against the family’s religious life, so Yeats was not reared in the traditional Christian faith, although Christian imagery and beliefs, especially moral, remained a continuing and powerful element in his poetry. For instance, his Crazy Jane poems thematically echo the conflicts between Christian morality and human desire which are the concerns of “A Dialogue of Self and Soul.” Too, Yeats used the form he used in “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” in the seventh section of “Vacillation,” although in the latter poem the debate is between the “Soul” and the “Heart.” Certainly, a knowledge of the story of the conception and birth of Christ, as well as of that birth’s religious significance, is necessary for the reader of the antithetical images of Yeats’s “The Second Coming.” However, Yeats’s own “religious” life was a committed interest in, faith in, and even practice (largely synthetic) of various occult beliefs, from his early involvement with the Rosicrucians and Theosophy to his acceptance of aspects of Eastern religions. He was far from being a rationalistic unbeliever.
Yeats was also an Irish patriot and regarded Irish culture as his own; his earliest works are steeped in Irish myth. At the same time, however, he was intensely proud of his English ancestry (to the point of exaggerating its status) and felt himself a part of historical European high culture. He would never really leave Irish myth behind, but his committment to the European tradition, based as it was on the Christian religion, was almost everywhere in his writings. Too, he made direct use of his own life, especially in his later works—a use that gives solidity, facts, and images to his poetry, making them more alive.
In “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” Yeats employs the traditional Christian-based form of a dramatic poetic débat, or debate, between the Soul (or heart) and the Self (or body), reversing the usual Christian message of works in which the soul laments what the body has done. Sinning has condemned both body and soul to hell. Traditionally, sin originates with the body, since that body desires pleasure—the pleasures of the egoistic present and so not of the future in heaven in contemplation of God. Paradoxically, Yeats’s poem chooses the body and life—with all its failures, sins, and humiliations—over the morality of the soul.
Because Yeats’s poem echoes and responds to this debate tradition, its place in that tradition is a necessary part of its meaning. For example, the fifteenth century French poet François Villon’s “Le Débat du corps et du cur de Villon” (1461; the debate of the body and the heart of Villon) is a concentrated and emotional series of short exchanges between body and heart, “heart” meaning here the soul. Villon’s “heart” speaks the truth and so “wins” the argument. Yeats, too, is concrete, his poem rich with imagery, although his poem lacks that quick interchange of argument and so is less dramatically presented. However, the “argument” that Yeats gives the Soul, although powerful emotionally in its imagery, is also more enigmatic in meaning than what he gives the Self.
“A Dialogue of Self and Soul” is also built upon traditional patterns: Most of the lines are iambic pentameter, although with great variants, plus rhyme, although not all the rhymes are perfect; the effect is to emphasize the chanting human voice. The rhymes are abbacddc , a modification of...
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