The Song of the Happy Shepherd

by William Butler Yeats

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Themes and Meanings

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Though called a “song,” this poem is far from lyrical, and this discrepancy marks its first break with the past. The implication is that the old kind of song no longer works; it lacks currency. The poem’s title also establishes the persona of the happy shepherd, suggesting with apparent inconsistency a link with the ancient tradition of pastoral poetry, which was centered in the fictitious invention of a timeless landscape populated with innocent sheep and blissful shepherds whose simple singing became poetry. Curiously, in both the original Greek and Roman versions of this convention, and in its Renaissance revival, the pastoral world is considered a refuge from and an antitype to the political world of influence and inside trading. Thus it can be used as a basis for social critique. By similarly withdrawing his happy shepherd, Yeats creates a persona removed from the world and privileged to comment on it.

That is exactly what his happy shepherd does. He begins by lamenting the fate of the woods of Arcady, because that is an image not only of his real home but also of a parallel universe necessary for the spiritual health of modern man. Having rejected that parallel universe, man today has nothing with which to nourish his soul in this world of gray fact. Mankind diverts itself with illusions, but evidences of spiritual decay abound in so-called civilization. The shepherd proclaims that in this materialistic jungle, only words offer certitude and value, for they alone provide access to the eternally green and eternally fertile world of “earth’s dreamy youth.” Words alone open gates to dreams.

The shepherd also announces a counter theme: However seductive the world of fact, recorded in history and analyzed by science, it is ultimately empty, because it does not sustain the spirit. The greatest of kings, including those who derided words—as Pontius Pilate joked about truth—are now reduced to words fumbled by schoolboys. Moreover, the earth and its fabled history occupy but a moment on a cosmic timetable. The old theory of auromancy, or sound magic, held that words preceded and created things, which means that even the world was once only a momentary word in the mouth of the Creator: In the beginning was the Word, as the Gospel of John presents it.

In such a situation only eternal words, the words that attach to dreams, are worth cherishing and preserving. That becomes the shepherd’s third theme. These words are those of life, which connect modern imaginative consciousness with the mythic past of the planet and early man. The spirit of man cannot survive, the shepherd argues, without the solace provided by song, by words turning themselves to music through the agency of the poet. The kind of instinctive faith possible in the past is no longer available. Lacking that, people find refuge increasingly rare. The shepherd offers the help of dreamsong.

The final theme offers the possibility even of transcending or accepting death. The last stanza resembles John Milton’s elegy “Lycidas” (1637) closely enough to constitute an allusion. In both, the shepherd leaves the scene, vowing to keep alive the memory of one untimely dead. In both cases, the song helps conjure up again the image of the departed, depicting him as once more transfigured by and enshrined in the song of the dream.

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