Yeats and Forestry

I found this interesting report from the Forest Service Department of Agriculture that catalogues the precipitous loss of Ireland’s forest coverage over the last few centuries. The loss can be blamed in part on English colonization and the establishment of large plantations in the middle of the sixteenth century. Large-scale exportation of timber to be used as fuel and raw materials in English industrial centers since the early seventeenth century also played a role. Finally, the quadrupling of the Irish population from 1700 to 1840 undoubtedly put a strain on resources.
I believe statistics such as these must have had a profound impact on Yeats’s psyche during his middle and transitional periods. Primeval forests and the mysticism associated with them are vital to those who wish to dredge up an image of an ideal Celtic past. Perhaps the final straw was the Land Act of 1881, which allowed middle class Irish to parcel up the estates held by the aristocracy for centuries. Before passing over the title deeds, many pragmatic aristocrats clear-cut their gardens and forests for quick profits. Those trees that survived the initial sweep were scalped and sold by their new middle class owners. This means that, all over the country, orchards like Augusta Gregory’s Seven Woods were quickly disappearing. The report cites that in 1908, the Departmental Committee on Irish Forestry estimated that only 1.5% of the land mass of Ireland was covered with substantial forest. These few acres were what the landed gentry managed to hold onto after the Land Act. This loss must undoubtedly be what Yeats refers to as “Tara uprooted” in “In the Seven Woods” (line 6). It is interesting that his departure from Romantic ideals somewhat coincides with the loss of forests in Ireland. He shifts toward the political as the mythical is taken away from him.

Reflections on Yeats’ Transitional Phase

I believe that his transitional phase reflects his belief that in order to unite oneself with one’s true self, they must wear the mask of their anti-self. By disregarding his dreamy, magical demeanor and utilize the forms of prose and couplets, he is clearly writing in a style not typical of his self, but ultimately cultivates his true self in doing so. This transitional phase also emulates the fact that his poetry, while not being literal, autobiographical, accounts, they are autobiographical in their subtext. Through his poems on lost love, we see his despair in not only losing the supposed unattainable Maud, but realizing that she was attainable, just not to him. Of course, by not writing his poetry completely autobiographical, recounting his own personal experiences, but by writing with a sort of vague demeanor, the people can identify with the emotions embodied in his work and are unified, by his words, in their thoughts; which he believes is the ultimate goal of art. 

Spoken versus Written Words in “Adam’s Curse”

In class we talked about “Adam’s Curse” within the context of poetry being a labor for Yeats that is unable to be understood by the middle class, due to its intangible and unquantifiable value to the self and to society.  During this discussion, I noticed that in the third to sixth lines: “And you and I, and talked of poetry./ I said, ‘A line will take us hours maybe;/Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,/Our stitching and unstitching has been naught. ” that Yeats details his work with a certain level of irony, immediately drawing attention to the many hours that he must have put into the construction of this poem itself. Yet Yeats says this in a quoted section, implying that he said this and the following stanzas. This simple “I said” thereby highlights the fictive element even further. These quotations, if Yeats has indeed labored for hours on making them fit exactly as he needed them to, so that they may “seem a moment’s thought,” intentionally undercuts himself so-as to make his own hours of “stitching and unstitching” naught and pointless.


This cynicism in regarding his own poetry works on a similar theme as the feelings of loss of love he has for Maud. After Maud’s sister replies in the 2nd stanza that women know they must labor at being beautiful – a noticeably short segmented quote that has no rhythm or rhyme, and distinctly lacks preparation and the labor of poetry – Yeats replies in another quote, working on the nature of beauty and love, which takes a full 3rd stanza. He thinks out loud that lovers usually “…would sigh and quote with learned looks/ Precedents out of beautiful old books”. However, this time, when he notes the natural tendency for lovers to quote things that are not their true thoughts, a tonal and thematic shift occurs in the poem. The rhyme scheme, which in this stanza was rhyming couplets, abruptly breaks into the final line “Yet now it seems an idle trade enough.”

This final line causes the group to go quiet. Time and the beauty in the scenery  both pass in the next stanza, which Yeats contemplates. There are no more quotes or mentions of spoken words. The final stanza has the line “I had a thought for no one’s but your ears:” , which again, deals with the disjunction between the spoken and written word, while calling also upon the original emotion and thoughts that precede their expression. With the emphasis on his subject’s ears, Yeats implies that he would be telling her what follows. Yet we as the readers never know if he actually did, or would, tell her of these thoughts on her beauty – which leaves us to question whether Yeats’s written word is more or less authentic than his speech or thoughts.

Yeats, Maude Gonne, and the Ideal Irish Woman

Yeats’ transitional phase is marked with his disillusionment with his muse, Maude Gonne. Yeats had previously idealized Maude, seeing her as the amazonian goddess, Cathleen ni Houlihan with “the walk of a queen”, an almost Aoife-like figure who was untouchable by Yeats because she was something noble and venerated.  This illusion was destroyed by the revelation of Maude’s affair with Lucien Millevoye, during which she had given birth to two illegitimate children. This revelation and its effect on Yeats’ poetry hints at his conception of the ideal woman, and his idealism in general: the ideal is never attainable, it is always just out of reach. But for women, this restricts their sexual liberty. The ideal woman is desired by men, but never obtained. Like the hallowed Cathleen ni Houlihan, who traps breathing woman beneath the weight of a symbol, this ideal of Yeats leaves real woman with an unsolvable quandary. As long as they are young and beautiful they can inspire desire: they are neither to let themselves be obtained, nor die old and wasted and alone.

Nebulous thoughts on Yeats’ “Transitional Period”

The more I read of Yeats’ poetry and the personal life behind it, the more he sounds like the stereotypical “Nice Guy” whining about how unfair women are. The woman he had a crush on spurns him? He changes his entire poetic form.  Much of his earlier writing (Most blatantly Cathleen ni Houlihan) is aimed at impressing or attracting Maude Gonne, and one of his first poems after she unequivocally “dumps” him is a two-stanza affair comparing her to Helen causing the destruction of Troy. Combined with the “Bitch/Witch” switch he just seems incredibly petty. I wonder if this emotionality is a necessary part of writing great poetry. I think the lesson to be learned here is that it is impossible to truly separate oneself from one’s poetry and prose.

“Like gentle blood”: Does Art Infallibly Yield Transformation?



Something powerful that I have found in reference to the readings for Monday is Yeats’s distinct separation between the domain of creativity and that of politics/ “logical” progressions of thought. Consider Yeats’s essay on Poetry and Tradition where he states, “[…] artists have made all the rest, because Providence has filled them with recklessness […] the others being always anxious have come to possess little that is good in itself, and are always changing from thing to thing.” With this, the reader can infer that Yeats believed artists were given a provincial gift—something they could not escape or ignore. Those that do not identify as “artists” are given the title of “others,” leading one to conclude that there is something superior in the “essence” of an artist that sets them apart. The “recklessness” that Yeats mentions seems to convey positivity: a reckless motivation for generating change or forging movements with the power of art. The notion that art is akin to spiritual possession—the creative colonization of the soul—shapes Yeats’s poems in the Responsibilities collection.

I am particularly captured by “To a Shade.” The poem’s complexity reveals a sort of “code” where the reader is left outside the work, urged to use knowledge of Yeats’s life to surmise whom the “shade” or “shadow” represents. A popular theory among critics stands that the spectre in the poem is Charles Stuart Parnell, Irish nationalist deemed (in his day) “the uncrowned king of Ireland.” Evidence that supports this claim can be found in Yeats’s other poetic references to Parnell: for example, “Parnell” and “Parnell’s Funeral.” “To a Shade” does not directly address Parnell, but it is perhaps stronger in that vein: the poem remains applicable to other Irish activists that have passed, and could fluctuate between public figures or take on a collective nature.

It seems to me that the “town” that Yeats’s calls the spectre (or “shade”) to revisit is Dublin. He claims, “they are at their old tricks yet,” signaling that the politicians of the time had not marooned their inherently malevolent agendas. This reinforces what Yeats has mentioned in his essay on Poetry and Tradition: the artist and what he/she brings to his/her culture extends beyond the pell-mell sphere of “grey” modern existence. Yeats seems to further suggest that the artist or pioneer (like his admired figures: Parnell, Hugh Lane, etc.) provides children with “loftier thought” and “sweeter emotion”—elements that, according to Yeats, have the power to transform the individual by way of the emancipating nature of art and passion.

A sadness emerges as the poem progresses, and Yeats appears to establish (once again) a sharp distinction between the artists (the “passionate few”), and “the others.” The poem states, “Sweeter emotion, […]/ like gentle blood, has been driven from the place,/ and insult heaped upon him for his pains.”  Could the “he” of this stanza be referring to the artist? Under this assumption, the poem operates on a melancholic axis, suggesting that art and passion continue to be smothered by forces too large for Yeats, or any other actively interested artist, to fray. The poem closes with a resignation: “you are safer in the tomb.” This may speak to Yeats’s troubled spirit as he despondently realizes the fruits of artistic labor are not being registered or absorbed into the public memory—and the bold alterations he fought for did not seem fully attainable.


Yeat’s is a SMASH Hit: “Never give all the Heart” in Song

I was considerably moved by Yeats’ “Never give all the Heart”, particularly the imagery regarding the speaker as he attempts to play his beloved’s heart like a musical instrument: “For they, for all smooth lips can say, / Have given their hearts up to the play. / And who could play it well enough / If deaf and dumb and blind with love?” This image of the heart being an instrument is a theme that occurs often in poetry, but the connection that Yeats makes with the evocation of human emotion through melody is particularly unique.  Instead of the heart being a tool, in his piece it is a foreign object to the speaker, who is incapable of working his beloved’s heart properly because he is so consumed with love for her.

Yeats’ ultimate message in this poem, I find, is that he is heartbroken upon discovering that Maud Gonne mothered two children with another man, while he has been pursuing her for so long, his love unrequited.  However he keeps the subject of the poem general, as if he is writing an advice column to all men, explaining that to give your whole heart to a woman is to doom yourself to disappointment and pain.  He claims that love for a woman fades easily between people and things, and that their hearts are incapable of being tied down to a single person or circumstance.

After reading this piece I found a song entitled “Never Give All the Heart” performed on the t.v. show SMASH.  Here I’ve attached a Youtube link as well as a link to the written lyrics of the song:

Never Give All the Heart- SMASH Performance

Never Give All the Heart Lyrics

What I find particularly interesting about the song is not just that it so idolizes Yeats’ work, but that it completely reverses the gender roles of the original piece.  Where Yeats warns men that women will only hurt them, the performer of the song, Katherine McPhee, sings that Yeats’ writing is so effective, and that it resonates with so many people, that it is the reason why she cannot find a man who will commit to her.  Ironically enough, where Yeats indirectly plays the victim of unrequited love, McPhee instead names him to be a keen observer, as well as a proponent of her inability to find someone willing to give her all of his heart.  So, essentially, the it is Yeats’ fault for being so capable of articulating the truth about love, this otherwise intangible emotion, and his understanding of how it works is the reason why people so fear it.  I thought this was a very unique modern take on his work, and it impresses me that his work can be so appreciated and discussed even in modern media.

Performance in Love and Poetry in “Never give all the Heart”

So I just read Yeats’ “Never give all the Heart” and thought it was an interesting play on the Shakespearean sonnet. In this poem Yeats addresses the performative aspect of attraction, and love. The speaker is wary of his object of attraction due to his assertion in the first few lines to “Never give all the heart, for love / Will hardly seem worth thinking of / To passionate women if it seem / Certain” (1-4). In other words, the speaker thinks that women don’t like guys who are too desperate. The speaker then reiterates, “O never give the heart outright, / For they… / Have given their hearts up to the play” (8-10), meaning that love is a performance and a game. Next he asks, “And who could play it well enough / If deaf and dumb and blind with love?”  Love and desire depend on a performance, but if you’re actually in love you can’t play the game well enough to attain your love. Though, the point I want to make is that this performance idea becomes interesting in the context of a Shakespearean sonnet, which in my opinion is the most performative poetic form due to its long history and staple in english poetry. The speaker recognizes that love needs to be “played well enough” to  attain the woman of his desire. Similarly, poetry must be “played well enough” to be good poetry, and, as with love, trying too hard comes off as desperate and no one’s attracted to that. The poem is written in sonnet form as an ironic example of poetry that tries too hard to play well enough and comes off as desperate and obvious. This also explains the rhyme scheme’s (AABBCCDDEEAAGG) divergence from the typical ABABCDCDEFEFGG, as a lame attempt to mix up the sonnet in order to play it well.

Subjective Nationalism and the Immaterial: In the Shadow of the Glen

As Irish playwrights attempted to revitalize a sense of Irish nationalism through their pastoral plays, readers come to understand that the “true” Ireland is immaterial, and exists either in an archaic rendering of the past or an ultimately politicized future.  As discussed in class, John Synge’s expression of nationalism is one of lament over a thing dead and gone- his nationalism seems to be one of mourning, echoed in the keening of a mother whose sons were taken by the sea. In the artistic momentum of the cultural revival, nationalism expressed both strength and weakness as an intangible and ultimately subjective sensation.

If we look at Nora within “The Shadow of the Glen,” we see the struggle of her nationalism as it searches for a place to settle and express itself.  Nora’s nationalism doesn’t exist in her domestic sphere, constructed by an economic system that ultimately commodifies her- nor does it exist in the idealized rendering of the land presented by the tramp. Though pastoral tradition was the poster child the nationalist movement, and more specifically an Irish cultural revival, Synge brings darker substance to the construction of  “reconnecting with the land”: as Nora leaves behind her husband and her domestic sphere, she understands that she is going resigning to freeze out in the Glen- or worse, perhaps end up as the pandering, toothless woman. For Nora, what could “giving herself to Ireland” really mean? To be contented in a a domestic sphere that limits and objectifies her? Or to die freezing out in the rolling green hills? For poets and political orators, the immaterial nature of nationalism is a strength, because it is constructed of promises or gestures toward tradition, never having to deliver in the realm of the now. For characters like Nora, there is no space she can adequately occupy that will express her love for Ireland.

Real nationalism, then, can only be expressed in terms of subjective sensation. Nora’s nationalism does not exist within the home or without, but in the moment of her choosing. The moment she chooses to return to the land, and pursue some sort of ancient authentic, she is experiencing the True Ireland. But this experience is entirely individual to her, and vanishes after the idealism of her choice has faded. And so there is no objective space in which nationalism exists- true Ireland lies neither ahead nor behind, but in the choices of an individual. It exists in that moment, and as such can be inspired, but not preserved.

Yeats and the Courtly Love Tradition Parallels the Use of Dreams

As mentioned in class Yeats’ poem “He wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” is abnormally formal and ironically the last poem he wrote before becoming aware of Maud Gonne’s relationship in France. The poems harkens a likeness to the courtly love tradition that requires an unattainable goal (Gonne) and the attempt to win said “prize” over with thoughtfully crafted rhetoric and often (empty) promises. This poem fits the bill perfectly, although it is interesting that the word “poor” in line 6 stands out so profoundly, as the courtly love tradition was often practiced by a noble class in which the woman was of affluence and the man, usually a knight or of a lower status. This forbidden aspect of love is what creates the possibility and excitement associated with the courtly love tradition and corresponds accordingly with the Yeats/Gonne relationship (or lack there of). It seems that Yeats already recognizes that he cannot gain Maud in reality and therefore can only attain her in his dreams, or through mysticism, the only gateway that Maud ever allowed their relationship to exist and so it would only be natural for Yeats to offer her his dreams, as they are more valuable to Yeats than any reality ever could be. This is crucial to maintaining Maud as a symbol, for in a dream she can continue to represent whatever Yeats wishes, it keeps her at a safe distance, which is the same end goal of the courtly love tradition.