In our class discussion “To Ireland in the Coming Times” and “He wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” both poems by W.B. Yeats were brought up. In these poems one can see that, among other things, Yeats is making a comment on society and it’s values or who it values at the time. “He wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” depicts the gesture of a gentleman laying a coat down for a lady to walk over, and though the speaker is poor he does not have a grand cloth to lay down for the lady, but will lay down his dreams instead. However the manner in which Yeats wrote this poem brings into question his personal feelings about this gesture. The poem is written very formally, but uses the symbol of the speakers dreams to be what is offered at the poems end. In reality, this really isn’t laying down anything at all, symbolically the dreams are immaterial and are just larger ideas. The poem uses poetic language and embraces the uselessness of the gesture the speaker demonstrates, that it is merely a performance of a courting gesture, and that there really is no meaning to the action outside of that realm.
In “To Ireland in the Coming Times” Yeats calls into question the methods in which it was believed a revival of the Celtic culture should be brought about. Though Yeats has written this poem in English he believes it is just as useful to reviving the Irish spirit as any efforts from other poets such as “Davis, Mangan, Ferguson” which Yeats mentions by name in the poem itself. By putting these other poets into his work, Yeats is calling readers to see him as someone who is doing the same thing for Ireland, even though it might not appear like it at first glance.
“Last night all my household had retired at a quarter to 11 and I thought I would go to you astrally[…] We went somewhere in space I don’t know where – I was conscious of starlight & of hearing the sea below us[…] We melted into one another till we formed only one being.”
–The Gonne-Yeats Letters, via poets.org
After reading this excerpt written in July of 1908 by Maud Gonne to W.B. Y., it seems natural for one to grow intrigued by the “occult-esque” romance between this literary duo. After today’s lecture, I was curious about Maud as a woman in Ireland, who at the time felt like a pioneering feminist—le maître of The Daughters of Ireland, the radical leader of a movement. After close consideration of Yeats’ essay on “The Symbolism of Poetry,” it appeared eerily coincidental that both Maud and Yeats were enamored by “things unseen”—a realm slightly outside of physical experience, a seemingly alluring escape within the mind that permitted one to be overcome by the whimsy of the Druids… yet, it was a world which ultimately lacked concrete progress and measurable advancement. This idea is not only emphasized in Maud’s 1908 letter where she states, “[…] material union is but a pale shadow” compared to the spiritual union she experiences in her dream-state, but also in “The Symbolism of Poetry.” Yeats says, “the laws of art […] can alone bind the imagination.” With this, the reader is left to understand that Yeats’ image of “true” poetry is rooted in the realm of imagination—of semiotics and signifiers working together to convey emotion.
In the eyes of a feminist critic, it appears that Yeats’ logic of worshiping symbolic meaning fails when it is ignorantly applied to women, specifically Maud. The idea that Yeats’ wanted to turn women into symbols is evident in Cathleen Ni Houlihan, where Maud appears as the old woman (symbolic of Ireland). The irony of the role seems to supplant Maud’s idealism: she willingly subjects herself to being deduced to an artifice while simultaneously proclaiming herself to be a radical crusader for feminine power and Irish freedom.
It’s interesting to note Maud’s interest in championing Irish goddesses from Celtic myths as Idols: Maud willingly puts intellectual investment in a semiotic domain. The empowerment of women, when viewed as being extracted from the Goddesses of lore, falls flat and even base-less. While Maud was an optimistic activist for her cause, her efforts seem to have operated on a faulty axis, where women extracted their strength from “castles in the air”– tales of mythical women like Queen Maeve, Niamh, etc.—without the notion that their strength could push beyond the mythological realm and into something more tangible. While it’s nice to find inspiration from the artistic, traditional sphere of Ireland’s mythology, it appears dangerous and all too radical for the faith of liberation to be propped solely on an elusive and almost untouchable platform.
Throughout most of Yeats’ poetry that we’ve already looked at, we see the usage of the rose as a symbol to represent Ireland. In his poem “To the Rose Upon the Rood of Time,” Yeats’ rose could be interpreted as Ireland being crucified upon the cross, probably relating the cross to Britain. The rose is not merely representing Ireland, but also nature and beauty being brought down by the man-made wooden structure that is the rood. Yeats’ writes, “Eternal beauty wandering on her way”, that eternal beauty is the rose and he also personifies it as something feminine. We have discussed Yeats’ admiration of Maude Gonne as the symbol of Irish nationalism; therefore, we see here that Yeats makes her the rose as well as Ireland. Focusing on the word eternal we can gather that the rose is forever pinned upon the rood of time, waiting to be resurrected. Simply by looking at this poem we can figure out that the rose plays a very symbolic role in Yeats’ work. It represents Ireland, but it also is the manifestation of the people of Ireland, beauty, and desire. This desire exists in many forms, desire for the freeing of Ireland, an emotional desire for Maude Gonne, and a desire to return to the Celtic roots of Ireland. The Red Rose possibly Ireland, the proud Rose possibly Maude Gonne, and the sad Rose the sentimentality for the “old” Ireland. All of these things that the rose is a symbol for are threatened and pinned down by the rood. Are there any other thoughts on what the rose could represent in this poem or in any other work we’ve discussed?
As we discussed in class today, “To the Rose upon the Rood of Time” is the first poem in Yeats’ collection entitled The Rose, a later collection of Yeats’. Originally, this poem was published along with Gregory and Yeats’ play, “Cathleen ni Houlihan.” The poem as we mentioned centers on the symbol of a rose, which holds magical importance or significance for Yeats. In this post I will be mentioning or discussing further significance of the rose. Yeats use of the rose may also have been a symptom of his fascination or interest in the secret order of the Knights of the Rosy Cross. It also refers to the French movement and symbolizes eternal beauty. However, the rose has been most known as a female symbol for Ireland itself. It stands for the idolized woman whom all men desire, but only the rightful man or king will be able to claim. Yeats borrows this symbol that is often associated with the violent or militant nationalist movement and uses it for his own cultural nationalist motivations. Militant nationalists believed that the red rose only bloomed when men die or spill their blood for the sake of Ireland. His use of this particular symbol in the poem could be interpreted as Yeats proclaiming his loyalty to the nationalist movement. Though, it is important to note that Yeats does try to distance himself from making overly political statements in his work. This aversion seems to have something to do with Yeats not wanting to be limited or defined by his association with one group or another, again as mentioned today in class.
Here’s a link to the extensive coverage of Seamus Heaney in today’s Irish Times and the Guardian. The Guardian also has links to Heaney reading several of his works here.