This poem’s vitality comes partially from its joining together of the personal, the political, and the historical or mythical worlds. Yeats was a poet who was deeply involved in his country’s movement to cultural, if not political, independence from Great Britain, and his work is strengthened by this involvement. He, as is evidenced in this poem, managed to include his own love life in his poetry, without excluding the larger social and mythic realms. Perhaps he is offering a recipe for great poetry in this poem: Create a unified whole by mixing personal obsessions with the power of contemporary events, but do not forget the timeless world of myth.
Although this is, on one level, a love poem, it also contains many of Yeats’s political views, partially because his love—Maude Gonne—was a very active, political person. Even though Yeats was in love with Gonne, he was not in love with her political activism. Given the opportunity, Gonne “would of late/ Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways,/ Or hurled the little streets upon the great.” Yeats, as is clear from his word choice, opposes such action; it is equivalent to filling his “days/ With misery.” Yeats was troubled by Gonne’s involvement in nationalist and working-class organizations that espoused violence as a method to achieve political ends. Yeats shows his hand very clearly by calling those involved in these organizations “ignorant men.” He questions not only their intelligence or learning but also their courage by saying they could have “hurled the little streets upon the great,/ Had they but courage equal to desire.” The “little streets” is a figure of speech representing the poor, or working class, and the “great” refers to the aristocracy that Yeats respected. He does not question the desire of the poor to wrest power from the rich, but he does question their courage.
Yeats makes his poem about his love different from others not only by blending the political with the personal but also by creating a different kind of heroine. Too often male poets writing about women whom they love use stereotypical language or imagery to talk about the them. Often the women are merely objects, inactive beauties whose bodies are the focus of the work. Yeats, writing at a time when the women’s suffrage movement was sweeping through Europe and the United States, conjures up a different portrait, one that emphasizes not beauty as object, but beauty as something active, powerful, “like a tightened bow.” The portrait is extended to include “a mind/ That nobleness made simple as a fire.” Both the bow and the fire suggest power, vehemence, and action, and they are not images normally associated with women in traditional poetry.
In addition, in the Greek myth Helen is merely a beautiful victim, someone who is stolen by Paris and used as a pawn in the dispute between the Trojans and the Greeks. In this poem, even though Gonne is compared to Helen, she is not a victim, but rather an active force; Helen may have caused others to burn Troy, but Gonne in this poem is imagined burning Troy herself. This type of presentation of a woman in poetry could be considered revolutionary. Unfortunately, Yeats’s poem does not really allow Gonne any option in the real world of modern Ireland. He may acknowledge her power, but he does not imagine a world in which that power can be used productively. Instead, her power, which is frustrated, turns into a destructive force; her power leads to violence without just cause or positive result.