‘We sing amid our uncertainty.’ – W. B. Yeats
Although many of Yeats’ poems, particularly those surrounding political and revolutionary topics, seem to be so ambivalent in their tone that they never wholly affirm any one view or idea, I believe this to be true only of their tone. Even in his poetic writing that seems ambivalent on the tonal level, Yeats simultaneously uses the form of his poems to affirm his stance on their subject matter; this is particularly true of those poems published in his middle and later career as he moves towards a somewhat more Modernist style. In ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’, despite the initial sense that the speaker is a detached figure without any meaningful motivating passion, the formal engineering, balance, and precision, is Yeats’ means of affirming a deeply felt political view of his own. Similarly, in ‘Leda and the Swan’, though the subject matter seems ambiguous at moments, the mutated sonnet form allows Yeats to affirm the chaos he believes resulted from the event, a view underpinned by his mystic belief systems and the ways in which they understand world history. Finally, in ‘Easter 1916’, a poem where Yeats is utterly divided on the subject matter, unsure whether or not the rebels’ cause is worthy and whether one should dedicate their life entirely to the cause, through the form of the poem he affirms his belief in the craft and power of poetry to attempt to order the confusion, and to commemorate those lost.
In ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’ Yeats uses a measured, balanced, and self-contained form to affirm his complete conviction in a political belief, despite the seeming ambivalence of the speaker. The pilot in the poem – based on Robert Gregory, son of Yeats’ close friend and collaborator Lady Gregory, who died whilst flying an English plane over Italy in the First World War – seems deeply ambivalent about his mission, saying ‘those that I fight I do not hate / those that I guard I do not love’ (IA 3-4), and the setting of the poem, high in the air, above the material world, adds to a sense of detachment that Yeats attributes to the pilot’s being an Irish man fighting for an English cause. However, Yeats’ use of form shows how the poet, much unlike the speaker, has a firm and unwavering stance on the politics of such an event. Namely, Yeats believes that an Irish man – something he signposts to readers in the title – dying for the cause of another country is deeply wrong, particularly when the oppressive forces in question are that of the English, whom Yeats so resented for their political and cultural domination of his homeland. Subsequently, Gregory’s choice to voluntarily join such a fight makes him a tragic figure. As Jahan Ramazani articulates, it is tragic because ‘the dead man finds no redemption in the continued life of the nation he fought for’, it is not his country and, Yeats believes, he should feel no loyalty towards it; ‘the Fenian Yeats could hardly look to the continued life of the British Empire as a source for the dead airman’s redemption’.
Thus, though the pilot is ambivalent, Yeats is not. His finely engineered form of this poem affirms the wholeness of his viewpoint. The poem opens with the phrase ‘I know’ (IA 1) and finishes with an endstop line, the combination of which give the poem a feeling of assuredness and completeness, opening with a declaration of self-assurance and certainty, and finishing definitively, leaving no room for doubt or further interpretation. The poem becomes a closed system, a capsule sealed at both ends containing Yeats’ belief. Furthermore, there is a formal balance to the poem which emphasises Yeats’ affirmation of feeling through his close control and careful consideration when crafting the poem. The metre is regular and even throughout, every line containing the same number of syllables and stresses, as is the rhyme scheme. The chiasmus in the penultimate lines ‘the years to come seemed waste of breath / a waste of breath the years behind’ (IA 14-15) adds further to this sense of balance, helping to create a poem that does not read as if it were written in ambivalence, nor in a fleeting moment of great passion, rather, it is the result of a long considered and carefully constructed point of view, that Yeats hopes to affirm through his style. Therefore, though Yeats’ pilot may seem ‘a figure sculpted and freestanding’, ‘balancing […] at a still point’, through form Yeats overrides his ambivalence to affirm his own tragic interpretation of the events described.
Similarly, in Leda and the Swan, though there are apparent ambiguities in the subject matter of the poem, Yeats uses form – this time that of a fractured and transmuted sonnet – to affirm his beliefs once more. The contrast between phrases like the initial ‘sudden blow’ (L 1) or sinister ‘dark webs’ (L 3), and the ‘vague fingers’ (L 5) and sensual ‘thighs caressed’ (L 2), as well as in the lack of closure that the final question provides, have lead some critics to suggest that this is an intensely ambiguous poem, but I would argue otherwise. Yeats uses form, this time a self-consciously chaotic, broken, and hybridised one, to affirm his belief in his own gyre-based theories of history, first published in 1925’s A Vision, that details how worldwide destruction and change can be brought about from momentary, singular events.
Firstly, Yeats’ decision to use a sonnet at all is evidence of his belief in such chaos; the compact fourteen-line nature of the sonnet, combined with ‘the short time sequence of acts’ detailed in the poem, creates a sense of ‘the sweep of historical consequences extending far beyond the framework of the sonnet’ – Yeats wants his reader to experience, through form, just how vast and powerfully beyond individual control history can feel. Moreover, the sudden change of rhyme scheme in the final six lines is due to the hybridised collision of sonnet types Yeats uses to craft this poem; the first half being Shakespearean and the second Petrarchan, adding further to the sense of formal violence and chaos that Yeats believes has echoed through history due to Zeus’ rape and the resulting birth of Helen, who grows up to become the focal point of the Trojan War. Much the same can be said for Yeats’ decision to break the sonnet form into four stanzas – he is reflecting the splintering of civilisation through form here too. The manner in which Yeats crafts the poem’s ‘turn’ adds to this effect: not only does it come half a line earlier of what would be expected on a standard sonnet, but at the point of turning the final two stanzas seem to be abruptly torn apart mid-line, and the caesura following ominously after the word ‘dead’ demonstrates further Yeats’ desire to reflect the way one era of history has come to a certain end, and another is violently begun. The close of the poem – a source of great ambiguity for some readers – is another formal means of Yeats affirming this inevitable chaos. Not only does he end with a question, rather than a definitive and stabilising statement, but the reader is denied auditory closure too: the final word ‘drop’ (L 14) does not rhyme with the final word of the eleventh line ‘up’ (L 11), as would be expected in a more traditional Petrarchan sonnet. This is his final formal means of affirming his belief that the inevitable course of history will come to violent beginnings and endings, and roll on unstoppably, beyond conscious human control, and leaves his readers wondering ‘where, how, and whether Leda’, and indeed the whole human race, ‘will find power’.
Finally, ‘Easter 1916’ is considered by many critics as one of Yeats’ most ambivalent poems but, torn as he undoubtedly was on whether or not the lives given by many of the rebels to the Easter Uprising were lives well spent and well lost, there is still a formal affirmation. Yeats believes that regardless of whether or not the rebels’ lives were lives well spent, they are lives that should be written in verse, both to scrutinise the issues surrounding their deaths and, perhaps more importantly, to commemorate them. As Denis Donoghue points out: ‘“Easter 1916” is an elegy, song of loss: as such, it is supposed to issue in a cry of sorrow for the dead. And so it does. But there is more in the poem that that cry, and some reluctance to utter it’. Indeed, the ‘stone’ (E 58) metaphor that describes the damage of having a ‘heart with one purpose alone’ (E 41), the ‘shrill’ (E 20) cries of the revolutionaries and the famous juxtaposition of ‘terrible beauty’ (E 16) all suggest uncertainty as to whether or not the revolutionaries have made the right decisions in dedicating themselves so totally to their cause, leaving all other aspects of life behind in the pursuit of national heroism. John Wilson-Foster believes that ‘Yeats responded to the Easter Rising as a public poet but felt the need for a personal response as well’, and I believe that Yeats, by resolving to ‘write it out in a verse’ (E 74) and embody the ‘public’ role that Wilson-Foster speaks of, ‘takes part’ through ‘his own poetic effort’.
This decision is reflected through form. The majority of the poem is written in iambic tetrameter, and this regularity of metre is mirrored in the ABAB rhyme scheme, dividing the poem into a series of quatrains. Though Donoghue rightly states that ‘some of the rhymes barely deserve the name’, this imperfection simply reflects the imperfection, or incompleteness, of Yeats’ personal and political stance on the uprising. The presence of a regular metre or rhyme at all is evidence of, and testament to, Yeats’ affirmation that writing the verse is the best response he could take. Similarly, in writing two stanzas of sixteen lines and two of twenty-four, Yeats reminds his reader of the date the Uprising began – 24th April 1916. The doubled appearance of each number suggesting even further that Yeats is affirming, through form, the importance of commemorating such a day. Moreover, though the famous refrain ‘a terrible beauty is born’ (E 16), has at its core the juxtaposition and conflict of interest that Yeats is struggling with, by repeating the phrase, returning to it four times throughout the piece, the poet draws attention to his choice to craft such a refrain, thus reminding the reader not just of the ethical difficulties surrounding the uprising, but of the fact that Yeats is writing about it despite such difficulties. Even though Yeats finds the issue an impossible one to tackle decisively, and despite his evidently feeling somewhat paralyzed by his uncertainty – hence the unchanging nature of the line – he insists upon commemorating the rebels, and on having their ‘terrible beauty’ at the beginning, the end, and the heart of the poem. Through form, he affirms the deep significance of the day.
Therefore, though we doubtlessly ‘sing amid our uncertainty’, through form Yeats’ poetry demonstrates that uncertainty does not have to be total, that there can still be an affirmation of another sort beyond the level of a poem’s tone or subject matter. This affirmation may be a deeply held personal belief such as the politics underlying ‘An Irish Airman’ or the gyre-theories that underpin the violence in ‘Leda’ but, when he feels as politically paralyzed as ‘Easter 1916’ suggests, the form can also become a means of affirming his duty as a poet to commemorate the events that took place and the heroic lives lost, despite any ethical doubts. Though the affirmations may not be sung in Yeats’ words, they are always implicitly present in form.
Yeats, William Butler, ‘An Irish Airman Foresees his Death’, W.B. Yeats: The Major Works, ed. Edward Larrissy, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 64.
- ‘Easter 1916’, The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Gen. ed. Stephen Greenblatt, 9th ed, Vol. F, (New York: Norton, 2012), p. 2093-95.
- ‘Leda and the Swan’, The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Gen. ed. Stephen Greenblatt, 9th ed, Vol. F, (New York: Norton, 2012), p. 2102.
Baumgarten, Murray, ‘Lyric as Performance: Lorca and Yeats’, Comparative Literature, Vol. 29, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1977), pp. 328-350.
Donoghue, Denis, ‘Easter 1916’, Field Day Review, Vol. 11, (Dublin: Field Day Publications, 2015), pp. 1-17.
Neigh, Janet, ‘Reading from the Drop: Poetics of Identification and Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan”’, Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 29, (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2006), pp. 145-160.
Ó’Hare, Colmán, ‘“Even What I Alter Must Seem Traditional”: W.B. Yeats and “Easter 1916”’, The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, Vol. 24, (Montreal: Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, 1998), pp. 93-104.
Ramazani, Jahan, Transnational Poetics, (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2009).
Sato, Yoko, ‘Irish and “Irish” in Yeats’, The Harp, Vol. 15, (Tokyo: IASIL-Japan, 2000), pp. 26-34.
Spitzer, Leo, ‘On Yeats’ Poem “Leda and the Swan”’, Modern Philology, Vol. 51, (Chicago: University of Chicago press, 1954), p. 273.
Wilson-Foster, John, ‘Yeats and the Easter Rising’, The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, Vol. 11, (Montreal: Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, 1985), pp. 21-34.