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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1489

First published: 1933

Edition(s) used: “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” in The Variorum Edition of the Poems of W. B. Yeats, edited by Peter Allt and Russell K. Alspach. New York: Macmillan, 1957

Genre(s): Poetry

Subgenre(s): Debate; dialogue; lyric poetry

Core issue(s):Heart; life; morality; soul; spiritual warfare

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First published: 1933

Edition(s) used: “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” in The Variorum Edition of the Poems of W. B. Yeats, edited by Peter Allt and Russell K. Alspach. New York: Macmillan, 1957

Genre(s): Poetry

Subgenre(s): Debate; dialogue; lyric poetry

Core issue(s):Heart; life; morality; soul; spiritual warfare

Overview

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 cœur 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 another traditional pattern, the ottava rima. Thus, if this pattern of repetitions controls as well as emphasizes the emotion, behind the intensity of the imagery the pattern tells us there is order in the world. Still, that order is problematic: Is it divine or is it simply imposed by humankind?

The poem is divided into two main sections. In the first section, the Soul and the Self alternate, the Soul beginning and ending the exchange. In giving the Soul an extra stanza, Yeats would seem to be coming down on the side of the Soul, but the second part of the poem is one long speech by the Self alone, emphasizing that it chooses, has chosen, to live life in all its pains and difficulties, since that is what life is. The Self would be “content to live it all again”:

I am content to follow to its sourceEvery event in action or in thought;Measure the lot; forgive myself the lot!When such as I cast out remorseSo great a sweetness flows into the breastWe must laugh and we must sing,We are blest by everything,Everything we look upon is blest.

Christian Themes

The most striking comment on Christian themes in “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” is the attitude toward the human body and experience, which reverses the traditional Christian stance. For instance, the English poet Andrew Marvell (1621-1678), in his “A Dialogue, Between the Resolved Soul, and Created Pleasure” (1681), has his Created Pleasure present the things of this earth as beautiful, pleasurable, and tempting. Human knowledge is powerful, although by implication much less so than heaven; so too the pleasures of heaven are far beyond our human existence.

Yeats’s Self, by contrast, promises nothing of this, saying rather that the experiences of this world are ignorance, pain, difficulty, and humiliation but nevertheless asserting that “I” would suffer it all again. Here the poem is filled with painful memories and images from Yeats’s life, including a reference to his long and unrequited love for Irish actress Maud Gonne (“A proud woman not kindred of his soul”). Too, the image of the Japanese sword and the old and ragged but still beautiful embroidered cloth in which it is wrapped emphasizes both the violence (which can also be seen as courage) and the power of sex in human life, reversing two aspects of a once widely held ideal of the Christian life, peace and asceticism.

Yeats is arguing that life itself is—paradoxically, because of its difficulty—our reason for existence. The Self’s arguments can be read as laying out the Eastern religious belief that the soul is born again and again, on the slow path to escaping the individual existence. However, Yeats, even in using these images, is still arguing against treating the body as something that leads only to sin. Yeats’s poem also differs from the usual débat in that the débat normally begins at the end of life, when hell threatens and has, usually, won the struggle through the sins of the body. Although the Self in Yeats’s poem is obviously no longer young, the poem still celebrates physical life, life as individual existence, and furthermore asserts it to be “blest.”

Neither hell nor punishment enters into Yeats’s poem. Nor, for that matter, does any vision of heaven: There is no promise of eternity in the presence of God, as in the standard Christian teaching. Indeed, Yeats’s Soul offers a mystery, almost more threatening than comforting. The Soul urges the Self to climb the staircase of the tower on Yeats’s Irish property, mounting toward death but not to see a landscape that somehow speaks of a Dantean heaven—rather to see only the darkness, the mystery, of the night. What that night may mean cannot be discerned. Indeed, the Soul’s last speech closes with “Only the dead can be forgiven;/ But when I think of that [what follows life] my tongue’s a stone.” Heaven, in brief, hardly seems a reward. The Soul itself in not speaking, or being unable to speak, cannot therefore prove that it is right.

Sources for Further Study

  • Foster, R. F. W. B. Yeats: A Life. 2 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997, 2003. A biography in two volumes, The Apprentice Mage, 1865-1914 and The Arch-Poet, 1915-1939, giving the facts of Yeats’s life and connecting those facts with his works.
  • Jeffares, A. Norman. A Commentary on the Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1968. Commentary on the poems, giving explanations of people, places, and sources in each poem treated.
  • Rosenthal, M. L. Running to Paradise: Yeats’s Poetic Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. Careful chronological working through of Yeats’s poems.
  • Unterecker, John. A Reader’s Guide to William Butler Yeats. New York: Noonday Press, 1959. Offers a short biographical sketch along with themes and explications of the poems, worked through chronologically.
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