Yeats’s Ten Poems
Updated: Nov 6, 2022
In November 1920, ten poems by William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) were published in the American magazine The Dial (1840-1929). The poems and the sequence in which they were published were “Michael Robartes and The Dancer”, “Easter 1916”, “Under Saturn”, “Sixteen Dead Men”, “The Rose Tree”, “On a political Prisoner”, “Towards Break of Day”, “Demon and Beast”, “A Mediation in Time of War” and “The Second Coming”. This cluster of poems by Yeats was nestled in between two pieces of prose by two different writers. In the mind of any reader, the poems’ connections of genre and author and their contrasting surroundings may establish their perception as a unit rather than a loose or random assembly of verse.
Therefore, it is my contention that by the assembly and sequencing of the aforementioned ten poems, several new layers of intertextual meaning and interpretation are created, which both influence the reader’s interpretation of each poem separately and of the poetic unit as a whole. This could be most significant for the interpretation or perception of the poet’s oeuvre in its entirety, as the poetic unit when published in a periodical amidst many other writers and poets could be seen as a sample meant to introduce unfamiliar readers to the work of the poet.
It is my belief that the aforementioned layers of meaning could be grouped and categorised on three levels. Firstly, there is the sequential level, i.e. the way in which the reading of each poem is potentially influenced by what came before it and in turn potentially influences the reading of what comes after it. Secondly, there is the thematic level, which in itself could be divided into two parts: firstly, the occurrence and reoccurrence of prominent themes, in other words, the way in which poems with the same explicit main themes or subjects are incontrovertibly linked; secondly, the occurrence and reoccurrence of secondary themes and imagery, i.e. the way in which thematic similarities or a reoccurrence of imagery can create a subtle and more implicit connection between poems. Lastly, there is the overarching hyper-structure or patterning of the entire poetic unit that combines the aforementioned layers of intertextual meaning into a structure or several structures.
I will examine these layers of meaning in the following manner: Firstly, I will shortly discuss the poems in turn, briefly summarising each poem’s most important themes and imagery and remark on how each poem could be said to be linked to the previous one. Secondly, I will examine the reoccurrence of primary and secondary themes and imagery. Lastly, I will the discuss the poetic unit as a sequence and as a whole, whether or not a pattern or hyper-structure can be observed and its significance.
1. The Poetic Sequence
The first poem, “Michael Robartes and The Dancer,” is about a discussion between a man and a woman, in which the man insist that beauty and wisdom do not go together and that beautiful women should shun knowledge.
The second poem, “Easter 1916” is about the Easter Rising and illustrates Yeats’s complex feelings towards the revolutionaries and their cause. The poem ultimately serves as a eulogy for the executed leaders of the uprising. The first two poems seem mostly at odds in both theme and tone, the first being a somewhat conservative discussion of gender, wisdom and beauty, while the second is a revolutionary eulogy mourning and remembering violence and injustice. However, it could be said that “Easter 1916” contains a slight echo of the first poem when it alludes to the revolutionary figure of Countess Markievicz:
That woman's days were spent
In ignorant good will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
In these verses a clear contrast is created between Countess Markievicz’s state as a revolutionary and her more agreeable appearance as a young woman, which could be seen as a slight echo of the sentiment of the first poem that for women beauty and knowledge (or in this case politics) are incompatible. As discussed by Prinyanka Maral in her contribution to the Yeats Journal of Korea, Yeats’s early work on the Irish Revolution often carries a prejudice towards female revolutionaries for not adhering to the traditional norms of Irish society where women were thought of as not suited for political roles. Only in the later stages of the revolution Yeats began to be reconciled with the role of women in Irish Nationalism.
“Under Saturn” has in common with its preceding poem that it is mainly retrospective and slightly morose. However, while “Easter 1916” was mourning the relatively recent events of the Easter Rising, “Under Saturn” is about a vaguer form of retrospection. The poem centres about reminiscing about the past, missing a lost love, homesickness, and guilt for having left one’s own native soil behind.
The fourth poem, “Sixteen Dead Men”, is again about the Easter Rising and the consequences of the executions that followed. The first line, “O but we talked at large before/ The sixteen men were shot,” could even be seen as an acknowledgement of “Easter 1916” already having elaborately discussed the Easter Rising. While retaining the retrospection of the previous two poems, the poem also looks at the future and wonders about when the revolution should continue, whether or not the uprising should restrain itself till after the First World War and how it should move on without its major leaders.
The fifth poem, “The Rose Tree” again recalls the Easter Uprising by centring two of its leaders in a fictional conversation, James Connolly and Padraig Pearce. The leaders discuss the withering of the Rose Tree, here a symbol of their political movement. After observing that there is no water, it is concluded that the tree must be watered and revived by their blood, recalling their execution. This poem puts the previous one in a slightly different light. While “Sixteen Dead Men” casts an insecure light upon the future of the Irish Republican Movement due to the elimination of its leaders, this poem seems to suggest that the movement will survive, not in spite of, but because of the sacrifice of the Sixteen.
The following poem, “On a Political Prisoner”, continues the theme of revolution in a more distant way. We are presented with a woman imprisoned for her subversive actions. The main theme of the poem seems to be retrospection, recalling a time before politics determined this woman’s fate. The ‘she’ in the poem is said to be the aforementioned Countess Markievicz, the only leader of the Easter Rising who was not executed (she was spared on account of her sex). However, her imprisonment could be seen as a sacrifice equal or similar to the sacrifices alluded to in the preceding poems. Once again, a contrast is created between how Countess Markievicz is at present and how she was in her youth: her present state is described as “bitter” and “blind and leader of the blind” while in her youth she was “clean and sweet”. This again seems to echo the conflict presented in the first poem, i.e. that of beauty conflicting with intellectual action in women (or in the context of this poem) political action, thus again reinforcing conservative gender roles. However, certain admiration for the Countess’s ambition and her sacrifice also resonates throughout the poem.
In the first stanza it is mentioned how imprisonment has calmed her temper and has made her patient, whereas in her childhood she was not. The touching of the lone wing of a gull (a symbol of female beauty) who visits her in her cell further indicates that, though politics has embittered and hardened her, she has not become ungentle or unwomanly. The penultimate and final stanza serve to contrast her current predicament, and the wildness of her unblemished youth. So, although the narrator speaks of her with certain reverence, her actions and her breaking with tradition are not explicitly lauded or condoned. Instead, more attention is given to what politics and imprisonment has done to her youthful softness and beauty.
The seventh poem, “Towards Break of Day”, further ponders the theme of retrospection and nostalgia which was found in “Under Saturn”. However, “Under Saturn” and “Towards Break of Day” differ significantly in their approach of the aforementioned theme. The former is mainly about daydreaming and conscious retrospection and mostly forefronts the feeling of gloom, loss and even homesickness such reminisces can bring, i.e. the way in which present happiness and comfort can be overshadowed by the intangible longing for the absent. “Towards Break of Day” is about the nightly revisiting of memories in the form of dreams and explicitly acknowledges that memories are coloured by the mood of the time (in this case, “childish delight”) and most importantly notes that were we to go back to the locations that hold a dear place in our memory, we would find nothing but “cold stone and water”. The poem thus draws attentions to the immaterial and fantastical nature of nostalgic dreams and daydreams, and stresses that only in our memory the objects of our nostalgia and retrospection are as delightful and beautiful as we remember.
The eighth poem, “Demon and Beast”, is arguably the most complex of the cluster of poems so far and breaks with many of the themes prominent in the preceding poems. The poem is about an intense internal struggle between “hatred” and “desire” that is only relieved by brief moments of transcending joy. It could be said that this binary opposition of “hatred” and “desire” is implied to be synonymous with or evocative of other dichotomies in philosophy, theology and theosophy, as near the end of the poem they are also implied to govern all of nature. In their broadest internalised sense, they seem to represent the internal opposition of aversion and attraction. However, when combined with their possible presence in nature, it could be said that “hatred and “desire” or “demon” and “beast” are emblematic of a number of other dichotomies. As the narrator wanders through the National Gallery in Dublin, his sense of joy is projected upon the painted faces he sees there. This moment of joy is caused by the appearance of a gull (a symbol of female beauty), a simple spectacle of nature. However, he expresses disbelief that any “natural victory” could be able to not belong to either “beast” or “demon”. At the end of the poem, the narrator states that this same sweetness was what Saint Anthony of Coma knew, while the Caesars remained impoverished, having nothing but their thrones, i.e. spiritual enrichment through immersion in the natural world is found superior to materialism and worldly measures of power.
The penultimate poem, “A Mediation in time of War”, is the shortest poem of the cluster. It has metaphysical considerations in common with its predecessor as its main theme. However, the nature of the considerations and the way in which they are expressed differ much. While the previous poem was more explicit and elaborate in its considerations, this poem is almost exactly the opposite due to its brief and cryptic nature. The main thrust of the poem’s conceit seems to be the realisation of one’s own animate nature versus the inanimate, fabricated idea of mankind. This combined with the title “Mediation in Time of War” seems suggest a comforting/sobering intention. The poem could also be seen to build on the theme of the grace of nature interrupting metaphysical contemplations fraught with intellectual anxiety. While in the previous poem a gull relieves the struggle between “hatred” and “desire”, here it is the narrator’s own body, the throb of the artery, that pulls the mind out of elevated thought about the abstract notion of mankind and instead confirms one’s own being.
The final poem, “The Second Coming”, is arguably one of the most famous poems written in the twentieth century, and definitely Yeats’s most analysed and discussed poem. The poem paints an apocalyptic picture of chaos and anarchy dominating the world, where the worst rule and the innocent are discouraged and victimised. The poem also anticipates “the coming of the Beast” as referred to in biblical terms, here pictured as sphinx-like abomination coming close to being born in the deserts of Bethlehem. The poem is often said to be representative of the chaos, fragmentation and despair found in the zeitgeist after the First World War. The poem is clearly an outlier and has overtly little in common with its preceding poems. However, more subtle and complex echoes of the secondary and primary themes of the preceding nine poems can be found and will be discussed later in the essay.
2. Thematic reoccurrences
2.1 Primary Themes
When we examine the primary themes of the ten poems, we can divide them in three categories, with one poem being an explicit outlier to all three. These categories could be summarised as being Theoretical Contemplation, the Easter Rising, and Retrospection. It is my belief that the first three poems could be said to introduce each primary theme. The following six poems consist of three pairs, each further elaborating on one primary theme introduced in the first three poems. On first viewing, the final poem, “The Second Coming”, is an exception to this scheme. However, as will be shown later, the role of The Second Coming could be shown to be more complex than that.
The first category could be called ‘theoretically contemplative’ poems, i.e. poems which are mostly concerned with theoretical or metaphysical questions. More specifically, “Michael Robartes and The Dancer” is concerned with questions of gender roles, the relation between knowledge and beauty in women, “Demon and Beast” is about contemplating the opposition between “hatred” and “desire” and lastly “A Mediation in Time of War” is about the animate nature of the human versus the inanimate nature of humankind. The first poem could be said to set up the theme by approaching both a more tangible subject (gender roles and knowledge) in a more tangible fashion (a dialogue), while the other poems following the same theme of theoretical contemplation are more complex due to their metaphysical subject matter and internalised contemplation. Therefore, an evolution that can be observed between these three poems is the increasing abstraction and internalisation.
The second major theme is that of the Easter Rising. The first poem which discusses this theme, “Easter 1916” sets it up by presenting the Easter Rising, its immediate shock and aftermath. It also hints at the poet’s own personal connections to the revolution and thus provides a double context for the reading of the other poems with the same theme. The second poem with the theme, “Sixteen Dead Men” builds on the loss of the leaders of the movements by asking what should be done now and if the future of the movement is secured. The final poem in the subsequence “The Rose Tree” serves as a reassurance that the sacrifice of sixteen was part of the plan to ensure the survival of the movement. A postscript to this theme is “On a Political Prisoner” which is mostly about contrasting the past and present of an imprisoned woman, but is implicitly about Countess Markievicz, her survival, and thus the survival of the movement.
The third major theme we came across is that of retrospection. The first poem tackling this theme is “Under Saturn” and as we have previously discussed, it is about homesickness, guilt and the way in which a longing for what is past can overshadow what is present. The second poem discussing this theme is “On a Political Prisoner” and discusses how a young, wild and beautiful woman has been hardened and embittered by time and experience. The final poem in the subsequence “Towards Break of Day” acknowledges that our memory is an idealised reflection of reality and that whatever makes our memories feel great only exists there and will not be found in the material world. Therefore, we could argue that the through line of this subsequence is the way in which the past is increasingly shown to be irretrievable and gone from the material world. It is shown that time will irrevocably alter places and people, while permanency exists only in the idealised places of memories and dreams.
2.2. Secondary Themes, Imagery & motifs
Apart from what I have referred to as primary themes, there are many more aspects of the poems which occur more than once. However, these recurring themes, images or motifs are less concrete and less prominent than the aforementioned primary themes.
For example, while retrospection (nostalgia, memory) is the focus (i.e. primary theme) of at least three poems, it could also be said that the notion is present in each poem which discusses the historical events of the Easter Rising. Similarly, every time a woman is mentioned in a poem, it could be said that the question of gender roles, which was prominent in the first poem, is present in the background.
A more abstract secondary recurring theme is that of oppositions or dichotomies. The opposition or difference between two forces is the subject of what I have referred to as the ‘theoretically contemplative’ poems (i.e. beauty vs knowledge, hatred vs desire, animate part vs inanimate whole), some of these conflicts could even be said to reverberate throughout the entire poetic unit. However, other conflicts also appear in multiple poems. The retrospective poems carry with them the conflicts of past vs present and memory vs reality, while poems about the Easter Rising, being so deeply entrenched in socio-political events and their connotations have many more dichotomies written into them.
There are many more motifs that can be discussed such as Sacrifice & Loss, Violence, the image of the Gull and of the Beast etc. However, due to the limitations of the essay I will not discuss these in greater detail and instead refer to the scheme in the appendix as an indicator of which poems contain what motifs.
2.3. “The Second Coming”
As mentioned above, the final poem of the ten, “The Second Coming” seems to be detached from the hyper-structures of the rest of the unit (i.e. three poems setting up three major themes, followed by three poetic pairs each further elaborating on one theme). I believe this is because the nature of the poem itself. “The Second Coming” is an apocalyptic piece in which many of the issues and themes could be said to be recurring in an abstracted, broadening sense. The poem is strictly focussed on present and future, which provides a contrast to the retrospective theme so prominent in the rest of the ten poems. The anarchy to which is referred is presented as all-encompassing, and is therefore suggestive of the disintegration that has been discussed before, i.e. war, revolution, the disintegration of traditional gender roles and political stability etc.
David L. Hocutt has argued that, since in the earliest printings of The Dial, “Michael Robartes and The Dancer” and “The Second Coming” followed one another, there might a deeper connection between these poems. An indication of this could be the mention of a dragon in “Michael Robartes and The Dancer” and a beast in “The Second Coming” as a reference to chapter thirteen of The Book of Revelations and could thus serve here as a further demarcation and framing of the poetic unit.
However, more prominently Hocutt argues that given that the closeness of “Demon and Beast” and “The Second Coming” is also maintained in the first collection in which they were published (Michael Robartes and The Dancer), the former poem is instrumental to the interpretation of the latter. He argues that “the Beast” in “The Second Coming” could be seen as the same one from “Demon and Beast” (in his view, an incarnation of spirit). With this Hocutt rejects classical interpretations of “the Beast” (i.e. biblical or standing for a coming age or character), but instead prefers to see the coming of the Beast in “The Second Coming” as Yeats’s full to devotion to pure spirit embodied by art as a way to survive the tumult and chaos shown in the beginning of the poem itself and in the nine other poems that precede it. When examining “The Second Coming” as the closing poem of the poetic unit with this interpretation in mind, it embodies both an escalation of the troubles presented in the previous poems (war, loss, uncertainty etc.) and the ultimate antidote to those troubles, i.e. the full devotion to art.
In summation, I declare that the ten poems published in The Dial in November 1920 act as a distinct intertextually connected unit. Most prominently, the hyper-structure of the unit is determined by the primary theme of each poem and could be summarized as ABCBBCCAAX. However, as previously discussed, this hyper-structure is only one of multiple ways in which the poems are intertwined. Apart from the aforementioned structure, there is the internal development of each primary theme in its subsequence of three poems, there is the sequential connection of each poem with its predecessor and there are the further connections created by recurring images, motifs and secondary themes. Furthermore, it could be said that the closing poem “The Second Coming” is both a culmination and answer to the previous poems, as well as being bound to the first poem and thus framing the entire unit.
When we consider the poems in the context of its publication, we could state that they are both differentiated from and integrated with the context of the magazine. The poems that serve to differentiate are mainly those who emphasize Yeats’s Irish background and his affiliation with traditionalist form. However, it could be said that many poems also fit with the context of the magazine. The poems that are explicitly political could be said to be linked to the magazine’s previous incarnation as a political publication, similarly, the poems which discuss spiritual and contemplative matters could be said to be linked to the magazine’s origin as a transcendentalist publication.
In conclusion, Yeats’s ten poems serve to introduce new readers to the variety of Yeats’s work, both integrate him with and differentiate him from the context of the magazine. The structure of the poetic unit indicates the way in which the poet intended to present his work to a wider (American) audience. The aforementioned primary themes, which are the basis of the structure of the poetic unit, could be seen to illustrate the main thematic through lines of Yeats’s work. Moreover, the evolution of these themes within each subsequence of three poems is further indicative of how the poet views or wishes to present the development of his work on these themes or subjects in general. To summarise: the interconnectivity of primary themes, secondary themes and imagery found in the poems helps to strengthen the poetic unit and consequentially make it more distinctive and memorable within the context of the magazine, as well as functioning as a microcosm of the poet’s work and its evolution.
Thus, this case study provides an interesting illustration of how crucial the context of publication could potentially be to understanding a work’s significance, both to its author’s oeuvre, its development and its perception, and to the historical, social and material context that accompanied its publication.
4. Consulted Works
Hocutt, Daniel L. What Rough Beast Indeed? A New Reading of “The Second Coming” Informed by “Demon and Beast”. 1997
Hughes, Patricia. An Analysis of Selected Poetry by William Butler Yeats between 1918 and 1928. Hues Books. 2014.
Maral, Priyanka. “Representation of Women Nationalists in the Poetry of W.B. Yeats.” The Yeats Journal of Korea, 2014. Vol. 43. pp 33-41
Poehler, Shelly. Yeats and the Woman Question. Colorado State University. Accessed on 16/04/19 via https://writing.colostate.edu/gallery/phantasmagoria/poehler.htm
Revelations 13 KJV. Bible Gateway. www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Revelation+13&version=KJV. Accessed 17 April 2019.
Ross, David. A. Critical Companion to William Butler Yeats: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work. Facts on File. 2009
Toomey, Deidre. Yeats and women. Palgrave Macmillan. 1997.
Šimičević, Matea. The Representation of Women in the Poetry of William Butler
Prim: Primary Theme
Sec: Secondary Theme
Cont. : contemplative
ER: Easter Rising
Forw. : forward-looking
Opp.: Oppositions (dichotomies)
Notes  The Dial was a American magazine originated as a chiefly transcendentalist publication. It was reimagined multiple times. First as political review and literary magazine, later as a chiefly modernist magazine. We will discuss how this context relates to the content of the poems in the conclusion of our paper.  The preceding piece being How Heloïse Passed the Winter of 1117 with Her Uncle, Canon Fulbert of Notre Dame and His Good Servant, Madelon by George Moore and the following piece being Hungarian Night by Paul Morard.  The first six lines of the second stanza  Maral, Priyanka. “Representation of Women Nationalists in the Poetry of W.B. Yeats.” The Yeats Journal of Korea, 2014. Vol. 43. pp 33-41  Hocutt, Daniel L. What Rough Beast Indeed? A New Reading of “The Second Coming” Informed by “Demon and Beast”. 1997  E.g. “And the beast which I saw was like unto a leopard, and his feet were as the feet of a bear, and his mouth as the mouth of a lion: and the dragon gave him his power, and his seat, and great authority.” ( Book of Revelations, chapter 13, paragraph 2, King James Version)