Jan. 30, 2011 The Symbol of Soul
—The bird image in Yeats’ poetry
The poetry of William Butler Yeats is permeated by symbolism and mysticism which are attributed to his manipulation of various images. The image of birds crowns among the imageries of his poetry and is endowed with the poets’ profound philosophies. The bird as the symbol of soul is a heritage of classical writings. In Golden Bough, Sir James Frazer comments on the subject, “Often the Soul is conceived as a bird ready to take flight. This conception has probably left traces in most languages, and it lingers as a metaphor in poetry” (33-34).Yeats’ adaption of the bird image, therefore, echoes the traditional and universal values, which facilitates readers to make sense of his otherwise obscure, complex and mysterious poetry. In light of Yeats’ gyre theory of the universe, a close study of Yeats’ poems respectively written in three stages of the poet’s life demonstrates the bird-soul symbolism in three transformed phases of the poet’s beliefs evolving from idealism, eternity to reincarnation.
1. Idealism of Early Yeats
It is obvious that the basic meanings of birds in Yeats’ writings are the ancient ones, standing for ideal paradise of soul filled with love, freedom as well as desire in Yeats’ early poetry. Yeats enjoys a very familiar relationship with legends and folklores since his childhood. Young Yeats observes in an early essay, “Folk-lore makes the souls of the blessed take upon themselves every evening the shape of white birds…” (qtd. Allen118). One of his early poems, The White Birds gives an evident testament to the poet’s personal expression in the image of white birds as he wishes he and his lover could transform into white birds to escape from social and political constraint into a fairyland and to be together. He wishes his beloved could neglect the beautiful but temporary images — the fading meteor, the blue star, the rose and lily and he desires to transcend into a fairyland with her and to enjoy the ecstasy of love simply by becoming white birds without enduring ordeal of pains, sorrows and time. This early work may not the masterpiece of Yeats’, but the image the white birds flying off to the imaginary care-free island certainly evokes readers’ emotional response to the poet’s unrequited love. The poem was composed for Maud Gonne in 1892 after Gonne expressed that she would rather be a seagull than any other bird. Yeats took her idea and sent her this poem when his first marriage proposal to her was rejected. Though being positioned in a difficult time, the young passionate poet never fails to project his love and hope onto the pair of seagulls, wishing in vain he and his beloved be immortal in his ideal paradise. The imagery of white birds in this Yeats’ early work carries a mood of delight and joy, symbolizing the soul immersed in the ecstasy of love and infinite illusion. The soul of the poet is blessed by transcending the “fret of the flames” and leaving sorrows far behind in the form of white birds.
2 Soul of Eternity of Middle Yeats
Not only does time change a person’s face but also fashions his mind. The middle-aged Yeats brings a new level of implication to the basic symbolism of the bird in his later poem. Yeats’ subtle adaption of the bird-soul motif to his own particular needs and purposes can be observed in the poem The Wild Swans at Coole collected in 1919, as the poet observes, …
Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold,
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.
But now they drift on the still water