W.B Yeats & Great War Poets Symbolism

Discuss the use of symbols and correspondences in the set writers on the module. William Butler Yeats was considered to be one of the most important symbolists of the 20th Century. Believed to have been influenced by the French symbolist movement of the 19th Century, his poems incorporated symbols as a means of representing mystical, dream-like and abstract ideals. This was especially prevalent towards the latter part of his life when, inspired by his wife Georgiana Hyde-Lees, he developed a symbolic system which theorized movements through major cycles of history in his book A Vision (1925, 1937)[1]. The Wild Swans at Coole” and “The Second Coming” are poems of Yeats’ which incorporate symbols, and will be discussed in this essay. In A Vision, Yeats speaks of “gyres” as his term for a spiralling motion in the shape of a cone. These gyres are important symbols in Yeats’ poetry, and especially in “The Second Coming”, being mentioned in the very first line (“turning and turning in the widening gyre”[2]). The gyres function as a symbol alluding to something which could be subjective to the reader.

It could be prophetically interpreted to mean that mankind and life itself is spiralling into self-destruction. This idea is reflected in the first few lines of the poem: “The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”[3] The symbol of the gyre is being continued through the image of the falcon, as it spirals above the falconer, getting further and further from the centre until eventually the falcon cannot hear the calls of its master.

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The phrase “Things fall apart” could easily be interpreted as referring to the destruction of the physical world itself, and the use of the verb “loosed” is effective as it personifies the “anarchy”, conjuring up the image of a monster or a beast which is to be unleashed upon the unsuspecting world. The phrase “the centre cannot hold” is reflective of the chaos at the centre of the gyre and the harsh “c” sounds stresses the unstableness of everything. In the context of modernity, the gyres could be interpreted as symbolic of the end of an historical era and the transfer of ideals from one era to the next.

In A Vision, Yeats spoke of the gyres as symbolising the movement through major cycles of history, and the next revelation being “‘represented by the coming of one gyre to its place of greatest expansion and of the other to that of its greatest contraction’, beginning the next cycle with a violent reversal. This idea is enforced in the lines: “Surely some revelation is at hand; Surely the Second Coming is at hand. ”[4] The call for a revelation in the poem is in vain, as it immediately conjures up an image not of a saviour, but of the beast which Yeats makes sure is powerfully envisioned.

Continuing with this line of thought, it could be argued that Yeats sees the transfer of ideals through the gyres as one that will change the beauty of the world for the worse. If the gyre which is at its moment of greatest expansion is symbolic of classicism and true forms of art and culture, the other represents the opposite ideals of the not too distant future which Yeats visualises society travelling towards. This future is one which Yeats has lost faith in, one in which the “best lack all conviction”[5], and “passionate intensity” causes widespread chaos.

The beast which is conjured from “Spiritus Mundi”[6] with the “shape with lion body and the head of a man”[7] could be interpreted as being symbolic of the second coming of Christ, as it is prophesised Christ will return upon the coming of the Beast of the Apocalypse. This interpretation is supported through the biblical allusions throughout the poem, and is emphasised by the language Yeats uses. The “blood-dimmed tide”[8] which has drowned innocence could allude to the flood which forced Noah to build an ark, however does so in a way which puts the reader in the perspective of someone (or something) which did not get on to the ark.

The phrase “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” is symbolic of Satan ruling on Earth before Christ’s return, and the verb “loosed” alludes to the unleashing of the sphinx later in the poem, and thus the Second Coming. The sphinx is spotted “somewhere in the sands of the desert”[9]. The desert is symbolic of the temptation of Christ during his forty days and forty nights fasting by the devil. Therefore the sphinx can be associated with the devil in heralding the second coming of Christ.

The city of Bethlehem mentioned in the last line of the poem is symbolic of the entering into the world of powerful and Godly forces, Christ being one of purity. However, the “rough beast”[10] which moves its “slow thighs”[11] and “slouches” towards Bethlehem to bring a reign of terror as its “hour come round at last” symbolises anything but purity. Symbolism is also a strong element in Yeats’ poem “Wild Swans at Coole”. This is most obviously seen through the actual swans in the poem. In the poem, it has been nineteen years (“the nineteenth autumn has come upon me”[12]) since Yeats has visited the park and seen the swans.

He admits that his “heart is sore”[13] upon seeing the “brilliant creatures”[14], alluding to the fact that time has passed by, and he has changed, whereas these “mysterious”[15] swans have not. Their “hearts have not grown old”[16], and they still “paddle” beside each other, “lover by lover”, doing what they please, transcending time itself to swim down the “companionable streams or climb the air”. [17] These swans symbolise something which humans cling to, the need to hold onto something which is unaltered by man’s biggest foe; time.

They symbolise man’s want to have left something on this earth which will be eternal, leaving a piece of them behind to remain with the people, the places, the life they held so dear because they could not continue on their “conquest”[18]. The fear of losing this is evident in the last two lines of the poem (“I awake some day/ To find they have flown away? ”[19]). Through this rhetorical question Yeats conveys the helplessness and sadness of those who have had the thing which they cling to disappear. The season which is the setting for the poem is symbolic in itself. The season of autumn is when the most change occurs throughout the year.

The time of day is shorter, the wind is colder, and the leaves fall off the trees, all symbolising the inevitability of time passing, things changing, and the end of their life drawing closer. Through the swans and the setting, Yeats has perfectly symbolised the passage of time and the changes which come with it. Not only this but it shows that some things can transcend time, however ultimately the things which make us feel whole eventually will have to be let go of. The use of symbols is also very evident in the poetry of Thomas Stearns Eliot, who, like Yeats, was influenced by the French symbolists.

This influence can especially be seen in his poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, which borrows from the sensuous language and anti-aesthetic detail of the symbolists[20], however due to constraints on the word limit, only a few of the symbols in Eliot’s poem will be discussed. The epigraph at the start of the poem is symbolically very important as it sets up the overall tone and feeling of the character of Alfred Prufrock. Translated from the original Italian, the lines spoken by the character of Count Guido da Montefelltro in Dante’s “Inferno” mean: If I thought that my reply would be to one who would ever return to the world, this flame would stay without further movement; but since none has ever returned alive from this depth, if what I hear is true, I answer you without fear of infamy”[21] Dante meets the punished Count, who explains that the only reason he is speaking truly of the shame of his evil life is because he believes that Dante will never escape the circles of hell to report it to the world above. The reference to Dante’s “Inferno” could be taken literally to symbolise a hell-on-earth which the character of Prufrock must, like those condemned in hell, suffer endlessly.

It could also be taken to symbolise an urban landscape which suffocates Prufrock with its “yellow fog”[22]. Much more likely, however, is that Eliot intended the epigraph to symbolise the feelings of the character of Prufrock. Like Guido, Prufrock does not intend for his love song to be revealed, however it is ironic that although Prufrock does not think his love song will be read by anyone else, he still cannot speak of the love he feels for the woman. The “yellow fog” mentioned above is also used as a symbol by Eliot. This is emphasised by the personification of the fog, as it: “[…]rubs its back upon the window-panes, …]rubs its muzzle on the window-panes Licked its tongue[…]”[23] Through Eliot’s use of language, the fog is personified, and therefore feels all the more present in the poem. The yellow fog may symbolise the fear of Prufrock himself, the fear of being unable to confront a woman that he desires. Through the description of the fog, Eliot provides the readers with a powerful image of Prufrock’s fears infiltrating the room, and in successfully doing so; it has also infiltrated and occupies his mind. Isaac Rosenberg was an English war poet who was most famously known for his “Poems from the Trenches”.

In his poems, Rosenberg conveys the harsh realities of World War I brilliantly, making use of his strong poetic mind. In his poem “Break of Day in the Trenches”, Rosenberg makes use of symbols not only to convey the appalling conditions in the trenches, but also to comment on the feelings which were experienced by both sides during the war. The most significant symbol in the poem is the “sardonic rat”[24]. The fact that the rat is given a personality (being referred to as “droll”[25] as well as sardonic) makes it all the more humane, ironically switching the roles between the rat and the soldiers, who blindly kill because they are ordered to.

Not only this, but the rat is symbolic of the sunken position of human life. This is seen in the lines: “It seems you inwardly grin as you pass Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes, Less chanced than you for life”[26] Because of the war, human life has been transformed into something which is so easily disposed of that a rat is better adapted to survive. Above all this, the most important connection which the rat symbolises is that of experience. The rat symbolises something which has broken down the barriers between allies and enemies (“Now you have touched this English hand/You will o the same to a German”[27]), and is therefore able to see the truth. This truth is that all soldiers, be they enemy or foe, experience the same feelings. They experience the fear of the trenches, the sorrow of loss, the longing to be home, and the temporary joy of knowing they survived another day. The image of the hand gives more emphasis to the symbol of the rat, as it provides a physical link between the soldiers, and in doing so, allows the reader to come to the realisation that in the trenches across the “sleeping green”[28] there are other people with personalities and families of their own.

Not faceless, meticulous killing machines, but people. In “Break of Day in the Trenches”, Rosenberg uses the poppy as a symbol of not only death, but of the innocence of life and the young. The soldier picks out the poppy from the parapet, as Rosenberg writes: “Poppies whose roots are in man’s veins Drop, and are ever dropping; But mine in my ear is safe- Just a little white with the dust. ”[29] Just as the poppies are rooted into the earth, and are therefore its children, so too are the children who are at war rooted in their parent’s veins.

Therefore, the poppy being plucked from the parapet is symbolic of the children being plucked from their parents and family. Because the poppy has been plucked from the earth, it will inevitably die, which is ironic as the soldier claims that in his ear the poppy is “safe”. Similarly, the young soldiers who have been watched as they have grown up by their parents and family are plucked from their “roots”, and in the same tragic sense of irony, the families of these soldiers believe that they are safe and will return one day.

This is of course an ignorant belief, as many of the people back home did not understand how brutal the war actually was. The plucking of the unaware poppy could also symbolise the exploitation of the oblivious and naive youths. Society has taken the innocent youths, and fooled them into believing they are committing crimes against their fellow man in the name of their flag and country. It is of course the desire for power of the corrupt generation which leads the innocent youths blindly towards their death.

Yeats, Eliot, and Rosenberg are three poets who are undoubtedly varied in the way in which they approach the writing of their poems. However, it is one of the most fundamental elements of poetry which links the three, and that is the prevalent use of symbols in their poetry. Yeats, making use of symbols to evoke a sense of change over time and something prophetically apocalyptic; Eliot conveying his inability to confront the object of his desire; and finally Rosenberg, who, through his use of symbols, made his audience aware of how unnecessary the bloodshed of World War I was.of Day in the Trenches”, l. 23-26

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