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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

When Yeats uses the term “gay” in describing the old men’s “glittering eyes,” he is obviously not using the word in exactly the sense that the women do who speak of “poets that are always gay.” The women intend some conventional meaning such as indulgence in wine, women, and song in utter disregard of the serious business of life. Yeats’s meaning is closer to an intense consciousness, actually heightened by an understanding of the seriousness, indeed the tragic nature of life.

At about the same time that Yeats received the gift of the lapis lazuli carving, he wrote in a letter, “To me the supreme aim is an act of faith and reason to make one rejoice in the midst of tragedy.” Moreover, in his rather esoteric prose work, A Vision (1925, revised 1937), in which he discussed his private psychological and historical mythology, he asserted, “We begin to live when we conceive of life as tragedy.”

According to Yeats, each psyche is suspended mentally and emotionally between contraries, sometimes referring to some subjective inner validity, sometimes focused on some objective empirical evidence. Indeed, one cannot develop or expand consciousness except in a struggle to unify one’s own contradictory interpretations of existence. Yeats says that “only the greatest obstacle that can be contemplated without despair, rouses the will to full intensity.”

Obviously, the greatest obstacle one can imagine is death itself. The hysterical women are assuming that the threat of death is peculiarly significant in their particular, objective moment of history; therefore, one should suspend all other activities in the present emergency. Yeats is pointing out that the threat of death is the constant human condition, neither more nor less tragic than it ever was. What is needed is courage and a way to contemplate disaster with some measure of equanimity. Art, which may indeed seem to pull one into a different reality, may help one to “transfigure all that dread.”

Another Yeats poem of this period,...

(The entire section is 508 words.)