Themes and Meanings

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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Another Yeats poem of this period, “Sailing to Byzantium,” deals again with old men, but as more appropriately withdrawn into a subjective vision of reality:

An aged man is but a paltry thing,A tattered coat upon a stick, unlessSoul clap its hands and sing, and louder singFor every tatter in its mortal dress.

In warfare, persons of all ages become, like old men, more aware of the imminence of death. For them, here is an even greater urgency to transcend fate and to teach the soul to “clap its hands and sing.”

The singer speaks for life, not death. In “A General Introduction for My Work,” Yeats wrote, “The heroes of Shakespeare convey to us through their looks, or through the metaphorical patterns of their speech, the sudden enlargement of their vision, their ecstasy at the approach of death.” While social crisis should bring forth an active response to empirical danger, it should not silence the singers. Human beings must live in two worlds: the material, objective world where all men die, and the mental, imaginative world where the soul abides and joy is possible.

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