Thematic Progression in Yeats' Early Poetry
("Nature," Dreams, Woman, the Alienated Poet, the Past, Contemporary Society, Magic, the Supernatural, Irish History)
1 . Nature
"The Lake Isle of Innisfree" 1892
nature veiled, beautiful, physically remote and desirable,
simple, corresponds with poet's psychological reality
("I hear it in the deep heart's core")
cmp. "The Wild Swans at Coole" 1917
sense of existence concretized in more narrowly specified .
images (59 swans); swans are "mysterious, beautiful,"
they fly away--greater emphasis ·on speaker• s alienation
2 . Woman
"Down by the Salley Gardens .. 1889
"When You Are Old" 1892
.. Sorrow of Love" 1892
"Adam's Curse" 1903
Woman associated with sorrow and melancholy of love; sometimes she suffers, sometimes is occasion of suffering.
Little sense that woman is by nature evil, destructive, though she is implicated in a cycle of sorrowful love.
Contrast later poems:
"No Second Troy" 1910
Like the Helen who destroyed Troy, she fills his days with misery.
"The Cold Heaven" 1912
The poet "cried and trembled and rocked to and fro," as though smitten by the "injustice of the skies." Love is no longer a gentle frustration but an active pain, and woman its unpitying agent.
3. Spirits, the Supernatural
"To the Rose Upon the Rood of Time" 1892
She is "eternal beauty
wandering on her way"; spiritual reality is idealized, associated
with Ireland, embodied in concrete image of object in nature,
given female pronoun.
"To Ireland in the Coming Times" 1892
Poet sings the essential
meaning of Ireland's past, expressed in a benign female spirit:
Because the red-rose-bordered hem
Of her, whose history began
Before God made the angelic clan,
Trails all about the written page...
"The Hosting of the Sidhe" 1893
Spirits are threatening but "fair" they beckon to a world apart from this mortal one--
"Empty your heart of its mortal dream."
Spirits are male and female, plural, associated with elemental forces of motion and change ( the winds ).
"Michael Robartes Bids His Beloved Be At Peace" 1899
to love, the "shadowy horses" embody elemental forces of fate and change. Like the Sidhe they are destructive and plural, yet more ominous and less seductive. Again natural beings are chosen for symbolic contrast, the person of "The Magi", "The Second Coming. "
"The Magi 1914
The "pale unsatisfied ones" are threatening half-divinities,
Plural, male, unattractive, remote, threatening, characterized not by personal traits but by artifacts and costumes which embody rank and power ("stiff, painted clothes", "ancient faces like rain-beaten stones;" silver helmets)
"The Second Coming" 1921
The supernatural is threatening and destructive; the sphinx will engender "the rough beast" of a nightmarish new order. Yeats has returned to using a single being as metaphor for historical reality--notice the striking
contrast with the earlier rose--man and animal are repellently, unnaturally joined.
Evil and good are much less easily differentiated than in the days of
the "happy shepherd"
4. Visions--from dreams to nightmares
Contrasts "The Song of the Happy Shepherd" (1889) in which the poet's visions are happy and true and "words alone are certain good" (st. 1);
"l would please,,.with mirthful songs before the dawn." (st. 3)
"Dream, dream, for this is also sooth " (st. 3),
with "The Magi" and "The Second Coming'' 1914 and 1921--in which the future is an "uncontrollable mystery," or worse, a "rough beast."
In earliest poems, songs of Ireland's past created happiness (though paradoxically that past contained sorrow; remembered melancholy soothes); in "The Song of the Happy Shepherd"
and "To the Rose Upon the Rood of Time," dreaming comforts and returns the spirit to eternal beauty.
By "The Magi" and "The Second Coming," the weight of past expectations and mythologies can only oppress; the magi threaten,
Christianity's 2000 year cycle will create a monster. Ironically as history becomes a powerful and determining force, it shifts from
the embodiment of benign, subjective escapist fancies to a destructive, depersonalized force. We've returned full cycle and nature has become its worst, "a rough beast."