The Song of the Happy Shepherd

by William Butler Yeats

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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 463

“The Song of the Happy Shepherd” is actually a theme poem, a declaration of poetic independence. It appears at the beginning of his first volume, and William Butler Yeats intended it as a manifesto—a statement of his poetic creed and a guide to the kind of poetry he was writing and would write. In it, he established his relationship to the poetry of the past and asserted that the role of poetry would have to change in the modern world. He stated that poetry would have to become more divorced from the things of the world, closer to the truths of the heart, more a law to itself.

The poem is divided into three unequal parts. Yeats begins by establishing the persona of the happy shepherd, following the ancient convention of the pastoral, centered on the country singer who comments from his innocent vantage point on the ways of the world. Yet almost at once he breaks from that convention by chanting, “The woods of Arcady are dead,/ And over is their antique joy.” Arcady was the classical location of the pastoral. This shepherd is asserting that the old vision no longer holds, that the old kind of poetry has failed. Having given up on dreams, the world now demands “Grey Truth”—the dingy matter of the daily newspaper. The shepherd derides the attention given to “the many changing things,” concluding instead that only words can confer value and permanence. Even the kings of the past now litter the trash containers of history, lucky to be recalled by words. Moreover, the discoveries of science suggest that all the things of this world may be little more than temporary accidents.

The second section begins by repeating this conclusion: History records only “dusty deeds”; truth is an illusion. Pursuit of truth can only force one to escape in dreams. The only real truths are personal. Scientists, for example, have deadened themselves to produce “cold star-bane”—dead figures and facts about dead things. It would be far better to fashion lovely bodies out of words, as singing into an echoing shell may recombine the original sounds into a higher music. Songs also fade away, but they die in beauty and remain beautiful in death.

In the third section, the shepherd takes his leave to follow on his singing way. He is called to tread the wood region of fable and romance, never far off for an Irish poet. This region of the old earth is still haunted by creatures of fancy, the forces he must immortalize in song. These are the “songs of old earth’s dreamy youth,” now inaccessible from routine daily life. That proves the necessity of poetry today, for it alone preserves the way into faerie, more important now than ever before.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 620

“The Song of the Happy Shepherd” is composed in three sections of alternately rhymed iambic tetrameter—a somewhat flexible pattern first used in English by John Milton and freely imitated thereafter. Yeats develops his topics in a relatively straightforward way, employing few exotic or difficult figures, although some of the diction is ambiguous and some syntax gnarled. The principal device is simple: repetition of phrase and verbal pattern.

The first section, of twenty-one lines, establishes the situation and background by means of allusion. “Woods of Arcady” refers to the groves of Attic Greece, supposedly frequented by the first generations of poets in Western civilization. Then appear two lines that work on several levels simultaneously: “Of old the world on dreaming fed;/ Grey Truth is now her painted toy.” The persona states that dreams sustained the world formerly, implying that they can do so no longer; the world has grown estranged from dreams. Now, in place of that wholesome food, she diverts herself with painted toys—baubles so empty in themselves that they have to be tricked out with paint to attract any interest. The best that can be done with current truth is to daub it with gray; it is too ambiguous to be either black or white. This kind of degeneration exhibits itself in all aspects of modern life: the restlessness and inattentiveness, the sickness of the children, even the dreariness of the dancing. Chronos—the spirit of time—sings now a “cracked tune,” suggesting the corruption of civilization, the running down of time. In this context, only words—paradoxically—have substance, though on an earth that itself may be only “a sudden flaming word” that substance may be slight.

The second section of twenty-three lines weaves itself around the recurrent phrase “this is also sooth.” By “sooth,” Yeats means more than an old poetic synonym for truth, which in any case he has just discarded as a norm. As in the compound “soothsayer,” “sooth” connotes the kind of truth hidden to most observers but of enduring moment—perhaps what he refers to later as the truth of the heart. The word also homonymically conjures up “soothe”—suggesting the kind of truth that alone consoles, that eases the pain otherwise generated by life. This section contains the key to the only solace now viable, something more also than the mere dreams to which that relentless pursuit of facile, mechanical truth will drive human beings.

Two specific images form the poles of this section. One is the “cold star-bane” of the “starry men.” This difficult phrase is a Yeats coinage. By analogy with wolfbane, it is the kind of lore that can be used to banish the stars. Thus it is the kind of knowledge that becomes a substitute for the thing itself, that drives the real presence away. It is star-bane because it diminishes the wonder of the stars by dwindling them to gray facts. The second image is of the “twisted, echo-harboring shell” which replaces the words of a simple story and transfixes them in beauty. That is the material instrument which makes music of human speech, the song which preserves the truths of the heart and soothes the soul.

The final section recapitulates the first two, again ending with the refrain on “sooth,” but the techniques of this section are different. Here, Yeats arranges a cascade of images to illustrate heart truths: “a grave/ Where daffodil and lily wave”; a “hapless fawn/ Buried under the sleepy ground.” These ingredients are those of the faerie land of the imagination, accessible only by turning one’s back on the world of fact. In this way, man can keep in touch with the essential world of “earth’s dreamy youth.”

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