W. B. Yeats: A Life: Volume I, The Apprentice Mage, 1865-1914

by R. F. Foster

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What is W. B. Yeats's definition of symbolism?

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With his works spanning the decades between the mid-1880s to the end of the 1930s, Yeats’ poetic sensibility, like that of many other great poets, was constantly evolving. Therefore, his definition of symbolism too must be inferred as dynamic, changing from the time he wrote “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” to the later poems of "The Second Coming," The Tower, and The Winding Stair. Yeats’ symbolism must also be viewed in the context of his other interests, such as Gaelic tradition and nationalism, occultism, archetypes, and the romanticism of William Blake. In my opinion, though Yeats greatly admired the French symbolist poets and artists, his use of symbolism differed from them in many ways, especially as it played out in his poems.

Early in his poetic career, Yeats wrote in “the Symbolism of Poetry” (1900) that the most potent symbols are those that carry emotional as well as intellectual heft.

If I say “white” or “purple” in an ordinary line of poetry, they evoke emotions so exclusively that I cannot say why they move me; but if I bring them into the same sentence with such obvious intellectual symbols as a cross or a crown of thorns, I think of purity and sovereignty. Furthermore, innumerable meanings, which are held to “white” or to “purple” by bonds of subtle suggestion, and alike in the emotions and in the intellect, move visibly through my mind, and move invisibly beyond the threshold of sleep, casting lights and shadows of an indefinable wisdom on what had seemed before, it may be, but sterility and noisy violence.

As we can see, Yeats, though inspired by French symbolism, was already evolving a sensibility distinct from its more abstract and aesthetic use of symbols. As his poetic vision developed and deepened, Yeats' ideas of symbolism became entwined with the concept of the “unity of being,” a state in which art and life, intellect and emotion, and modernity and tradition become one. This is reminiscent of William Blake’s philosophy of the “marriage of contraries.”

An example of symbols expressing the unity of being can be found in Yeats' poem “Among the Schoolchildren,” where the image of the chestnut tree becomes fused with the symbol of the leaf, and that of the dancer with the dance.

O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Further, for Yeats, symbolism became a vehicle to convey a concrete, precise meaning drawn from his personal experiences, philosophy, and Irish tradition. Some of his symbols are highly original, such as “the gyres,” (Yeats’ conception of history as an ever-widening, spinning spiral), while others impart fresh meaning to perennial motifs, such as “the rose,” “the staircase,” “the tower,” and so on. Other poems make symbols out of historical facts and places, such as Byzantium, as we see in “Sailing to Byzantium:”

O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

In this poem, Byzantium becomes symbolic of the state in which art and reality become one and the poet achieves immortality. The symbols of “gyre,” “gold,” “dying animal,” and the bird that sings on the golden bough reinforce the idea of the self being purified and remade, reinforcing the perfection of Byzantium. Thus, every individual symbol amplifies the central symbol at the heart of the poem, illustrating the rich, complex way Yeats used images and motifs.

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Yeats wrote about his approach to symbolism in an essay published in 1900 called "The Symbolism of Poetry." The definition he develops in that essay is a little obscure; he is somewhat given to defining symbolism through the use of symbolism. To crudely summarize Yeats's thinking, poetic symbolism is a particular arrangement of artistic elements—rhyme, rhythm, metaphor, and so on—that taken together provide access to (or engender) an emotional response to the words that could not otherwise be evoked. Yeats describes such symbols (his example are two lines from Burns: "The white moon is setting behind the white wave, / And Time is setting with me, O!" ) as evoking "an emotion which cannot be evoked by any other arrangement of colours and sounds and forms." As if to underline the ineffable nature of symbolic meaning, he ultimately explains this quality with another symbol: that of a "sword-blade [flickering] with the light of burning towers."

For Yeats, the beauty of the symbol was an attribute of its access to a kind of ultimate spiritual or emotional truth. In this way the symbolic was, for Yeats, the birthplace of human striving—poetry's ability to call forth endless new emotions is equated with the continual "making and unmaking of mankind."

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The Symbolist movement in France, from which Yeats took much of his inspiration, was largely formed in reaction to the dominant naturalism of the age. Symbolist writers railed against what they saw as naturalism's obsession with mere exteriority, with a precise, unerringly detailed description of the material world and everything in it. In response, Symbolism laid great emphasis on the treatment of fleeting sensations and experiences, those all-too-brief moments of quasi-mystical epiphany which often come to us at certain points in our lives. In place of the objectivity of naturalism, Symbolists stressed the importance of the subjective for art in general and poetry in particular.

Symbols were vital in that they gave shape to the constant, ever-changing flow of subjective experience. Symbols, of their very nature, suggest and hint, rather than provide the kind of literal meaning that naturalism seeks to give us. They point toward a higher reality than the senses can provide. To a large extent, Symbolism is a rebellion against the world of matter, the spatio-temporal world in which we live our daily lives.

As a convinced spiritualist as well as a poet, Yeats found himself irresistibly drawn toward the use of symbols in his work, which he believed expressed profound elemental truths that had existed since the dawn of time. He drew a distinction between two kinds of symbol: traditional and personal. Traditional symbols were those that had been in use for quite some time. A rose as a symbol of love would be an obvious example. Personal symbols were those created by the poet himself to capture and express the ceaseless flux of his own subjective experience.

As Yeats progressed as a poet, his use of symbols became ever more personal and complex. Examples of his personal symbols include the tower, which at various points in Yeats's work symbolizes ancient heritage, loneliness, or in "A Prayer for My Daughter," a dark and dismal future. Yeats's symbol of the bird, like all his personal symbols, is incredibly dynamic, taking on a life of its own as it develops and adapts, depending on the individual poem's context. For instance, the falcon in "The Second Coming" is an altogether different creature from the swans in the "The Wild Swans at Coole."

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WB Yeats, "the Master of Symbolism" acquired his taste from the French literati, who taught him how the use of melodic, rythmic, and emotive words can convey a spiritual meaning upon the reader.

To Yeats, the symbol is the missing link between the metaphor and the romantic ideal. The use of symbols is a higher literary strategy which moves the imagination, as well as the heart and the spirit. He is quoted as saying: 'metaphors are not profound enough to be moving,' which is his reason behind providing rich, vivid, nostalgic, and poignant symbology in his works.

In his Symbolism and Poetry, he conveys the need that these symbols are direct, short, to the point, and rich enough to inspire. He understands that the use of well-selected symbols entice and enrich the entire literary experience.

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