Despair in Yeats Poetry
In the terms of hope and despair ‘The Second Coming’ is a particularly interesting focal point by which we empathise with Yeats’ despair at the breakdown of humanity and it affect on society (in particular Ireland). Conversely one may suggest that the concept of a ‘Second Coming‘ implies that Yeats feels hope for the future, as the title clearly alludes to the return of Christ thus suggesting the salvation of humanity. ‘September 1913’ is another poem in which Yeats expresses his despair at the changing society at the hands of the merciless middle class.
The final poem that I will comment on is ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’ in which Yeats both airs hope and despair. The despair in this poem is largely based around the inevitability of death, and death for a meaningless cause. However hope is also conveyed in the bliss that the Airman finds in his journey into the skies, implying that he enjoys the solitary freedom of flying and therefore does not fear death. ‘The Second Coming’ is the most fruitful poem in the terms of hope and despair.
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It was written in 1919, shortly after World War One, which sets the tone of despair as Yeats is disgusted at humanities violent capabilities. The imagery of the ‘widening gyre’ indicates a building up of destruction within society, implying that a meltdown is imminent. As the ‘gyre’ widens it moves further and further away from an initial point, which represents civilized behavior. This creates a sense of despair, as the imagery suggests that order cannot be salvaged. Yeats refers to ‘mere anarchy’ being ‘loosed upon the world’, referencing the way that War can tear apart civilizations.
This is reinforced by the fragmented rhyme scheme which reflects the breaking down of order. Yeats also uses the despairing imagery of ‘the falcon can no longer hear the falconer’ this image conveys man no longer being able to control the beast within them. Yeats reinforces this concept with ‘Falcon’ being the subject of the line indicating that the ‘Falconer’ can no longer control the predator. Moreover Yeats’ despairing tone is due to the people he describes as ‘the worst’ holding the most prominent positions within society.
He says that these politicians are ‘full of passionate intensity’ whilst the working class people ‘lack all conviction’. This juxtaposition of emotions implies that the people are growing apart from the politicians. Ultimately this creates despair towards the futility of democracy in the time of war. However the poem is also filled with godly/ethereal imagery, which creates a sense of hope. The title (‘The Second Coming’) suggests the return of Jesus, signifying a return to order in society.
The use of ethereal imagery such as ‘Spiritus Mundi’ (collective spirit of mankind) conveys unity amongst humanity. “The Second Coming” was written soon after world war 1, hence after a period full of despair Yeats wrote this poem reflecting the anarchy within the world. At first Yeats presents us with the concept of a “gyre” which presents a cycle, each beginning with the a simple point however dissipates into chaos and despair. By this Yeats may be suggesting that the innocence and simplicity has been stripped from humanity (by WWI) and has transformed into chaos.
This is a rather depressing image, one that suggests there is little hope un the future. However one may argue that Yeats is attempting to find a silver lining, the title “The Second Coming”, suggests the return of Jesus, implying peace will be brought back to mankind. The echoes and repetition of “turning” implies a sense of dizziness and irregularity adding to the image of society breaking down. Further evidence for this is “The Falcon cannot hear the Falconer” hence the handler has lost control of the “beast” reflecting how humanity has lost all sense of order.
The breakdown of society is the main reason for despair within this poem, however Yeats also uses images of horror to portray this. For example “Blood-dimmed tide”, this image reflects the loss of life in WWI, the concept of waves of blood suggest how mankind is overwhelmed my the loss of loved ones. Similar to “The Second Coming” is “September 1913”, in that they both portray a breakdown of society at the hands of Mankind. The refrain in this poem “.. with O’Leary in the grave” suggests the death of irish values, and the emergence of a new society fueled by greed.
The phrase “fumble in a greasy till” is reflecting how the greedy middle class are always looking to take in us much money as possible whilst returning very little back into society. The word “Fumble” has connotations with the haste of their greed, implying how quickly society has transformed. Yeats expresses his disgust at their behavior, “Marrow from the Bone” suggests that greed is draining life out of society, therefore weakening the working class. This lack of care towards each other conveys Yeats’ despair towards society.
This is also reflected in the phrase “Prayer to shivering Prayer”, this shows how the unrelenting middle class have launched an unsympathetic attack on the working class leaving them on the streets with nothing but their devotion to god. Yeats also loosely refers to War, as in “The Second Coming”, “Delirium of the Brave” suggests that the working class have madly sacrificed their lives for those who do not even care for them, meaning the English. In relation to the previous two poems Yeats conveys a lack of hope and a great deal of despair in “Broken Dreams”.
The title suggests unattained goals, the word “broken” implies there is little chance of salvaging success. This is largely inspired by his failed love for Maud Gonne, phrases such as “Burdensome Beauty” tells us how his love for her has tormented him for his whole life. This relates back to how he conveys despair in this poem. In his old age he realises that he will never be able to become close to her, as she has slowly been drifting away. The line “Leaning or Standing or Walking” depicts her actively moving away from him, reinforcing her unattainable companionship thus the reason for his despair.
However “Vague memories, nothing but memories” in fact suggests that their may be a glimmer of hope. It is as if Yeats has finally accepted Gonne’s rejection and is no longer tormented by it. He is much more at peace writing ‘Broken Dreams’ than with his other Maud Gonne poems. Whilst he still finds his life understandably sad, he no longer expects her to change her mind and, accordingly, he does not write a depressingly bitter poem. He accepts the fact that their relationship was something of the past as he refers to them as mere memories.