The Words upon the Window-Pane

by William Butler Yeats

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Themes and Meanings

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In The Words upon the Window-Pane, William Butler Yeats returns to a theme that dominates his poetry and plays: the mysterious layering of the past within the present, specifically as the history of Ireland is embodied in the lives of contemporary men and women. Incorporated in this dominant theme are other significant motifs having to do with Yeats’s own struggle with old age and the poet’s attempt to come to terms with the relationship between reason and passion.

The play’s setting, the mundane Dublin boardinghouse, represents at once commonplace, ordinary life and the absurd and trivial existence of modern Ireland. Several of the characters reinforce this sense of the coarseness of contemporary life: The third-rate horseplayer, Patterson; the slightly crazed evangelist, Johnson; and even Mrs. Henderson, the medium, are inane, petit bourgeois personalities who symbolize the tawdriness of modern humanity. Against this frayed backdrop peopled by unexceptional characters erupts a mystery that bears out Yeats’s belief that moments of “passionate intensity” remain vital past death.

Swift’s tragedy, his denial of the women who loved him and the failure of his ideal commonwealth, contains a reality so powerful that it sweeps aside the spurious appearances which constitute the lives of those attending the séance. However, although the living are deeply moved by the reenactment of that tragedy, they are baffled by it, and leave the séance puzzled, or, like Corbet, they misinterpret what they have seen and heard. For Yeats, this is as it must be; as citizens of the twentieth century, the play’s characters are blind to the spirit which dwells in history. Their perspective has shrunk to the small scope of their own petty needs and self-obsessions.

In contrast, Swift’s agony overshadows them: The clarity with which he confronts his torment brings his death to life and casts the existences of the living into a kind of netherworld. Swift’s denial of Stella and Vanessa assumes significance precisely because it is so closely tied to his denial of humanity. As Corbet tells Mrs. Henderson, Swift “was the chief representative of the intellect of his epoch,” a paradigm of reason “free at last from superstition.” He foresaw that the modern world would bring the “collapse” of reason; he prophesied just such a collection of ill-thought-out, sordid worldviews as the living guests bring with them to the séance. Swift’s horror of the future, however, is by no means abstract. His disgust takes palpable form, the fathering of children. “Am I,” he asks Vanessa, “to add another to the healthy rascaldom and knavery of the world?”

It is, then, Swift’s unified sensibility—his merging of personal emotion and social consciousness—that makes him a tragic figure. Like that of all such figures, his tragedy arises from the transcendence of a purely individual grief and the embodiment of his personal situation in the wider disaster of history. Corbet comes closest among the living to grasping this truth, but he diminishes what he might have learned from Swift’s ghostly appearance by placing it in the context of his own scholarly ambition.

Toward the end of his exchange with Stella, Swift prays that he “may leave to posterity nothing but this intellect that came to [him] from heaven.” These lines echo corollary themes in Yeats’s poems of this period, such as “Sailing to Byzantium” (1927) and “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” (1939). Faced with what he viewed as Ireland’s political failure and his own increasing self-doubt in old age, Yeats dreamed of a kind of apotheosis where he might find “monuments of unageing intellect.”

Swift’s own doubts, which he expresses in the subsequent dialogue with Stella, are redeemed by her poem, the words upon the window-pane. She says of his old age that “a beauteous mind repairs/ The loss of chang’d or falling hairs;/ How wit and virtue from within/ Can spread a smoothness o’er the skin.” Against the obtuse self-preoccupation of the séance participants, who symbolize degraded modern Ireland, Yeats poses Swift’s, and his own, belief in a historically and bodily transcendent reason metamorphosed through spirit.

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