The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 463 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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 entire section is 620 words.)