19 September 2011
Yeats and the Everlasting
“Everything exists, everything is true and the earth is just a bit of dust beneath our feet,” writes the famed William Butler Yeats on one of his favorite subjects: eternity. Yeats’s poetry often deals with the conflict of the temporal and the eternal. The chronology of Yeats’s life allows for a very interesting exploration of this conflict—coming of age at the end of the nineteenth century, Yeats’s literary career spans both the close of the romantic and the beginning of the modern eras of poetry. Yeats thus presents an interesting body of work in which he moves from an almost archaic style to one less flowery and embellished (clearly influenced by Ezra Pound). Despite the evolution of style, though, Yeats continually returns to the temporal and eternal as central contrasting themes in his work. From “To the Rose upon the Rood of Time,” in which a young Yeats appeals to the eternal rose to save him from the temporal world and its woes, to the much later “Sailing to Byzantium,” in which an older Yeats, cognizant of his death, entreaties the artists of the Hagia Sophia to immortalize him in one of their famed mosaics. Humans back to the age of Gilgamesh have feared death, but Yeats’s use of eternity stems less from fear and more from desire. His constant juxtaposition of the temporal and the eternal reflects his own desire to rise above the “dust” of the current world and become something that will transcend the mad and transient world he sees collapsing around him.
Young Yeats explores the nature of eternity in a truly romantic fashion. He clings to nature, “straining after dreams and visions, brooding on loss and unrequited desire” (Ramazani 90). His early romantic proclivities evidence themselves beautifully in the opener to his first collection of poems, “To the Rose Upon the Rood of Time.” “Red Rose, proud Rose, sad Rose of all my days!” entreats the young Yeats. Yeats immediately brings the concept of eternity into the poem—not only does the rose live on the “rood of time,” that is, on an cross of time, but the rose is “of all my days”. Yeats’s enchantment with this rose is less because it is proud or red, but because it endures through all things. Thus, Yeats implores the eternal rose to light his life while the mortal world, by definition, slowly disintegrates around him—“Come near, that no more blinded by men’s fate/I find under the boughs of love and hate/In all poor foolish things that live a day/Eternal beauty wandering on her way” (Yeats, 9-12). Yeats is simply the mortal degenerate in comparison, but this rose holds the promise of saving the “poor foolish things that live a day” with its “eternal beauty.” Yet, even so, Yeats must reconcile his transient self with the eternal rose. “Come near, come near, come near—Ah, leave me still,” (Yeats 13-15) In typical Yeatsian fashion, Yeats calls the rose forward but reconsiders, pushing it away, “lest [he] no more hear common things that crave” (Yeats 14). The early Yeats longs for the permanence and beauty of the eternal rose, however, he feels his poetry would only speak of “the strange things said/by God to the bright hearts of those long dead…a tongue men do not know” (Yeats 19-21). While eternity has a powerful allure, the Yeats of 1892 wishes his poetry to chronicle “heavy mortal hopes that toil and pass,” even if such hopes, by definition, are transient. Through his poetry, Yeats argues, such “mortal hopes” and “common things” can imbibe of some aspect of the rose’s eternity, and thus he sends the rose away, knowing that even the chronicle of transient life can carry through time.
Despite the seeming acceptance of “To the Rose Upon the Rood of Time” of the transient nature of life, later poems of Yeats explore the conflicts between aging and the desire for the eternal. Yeats’s 1897 poem, “The Song of Wandering Aengus” establishes this conflict (although does not resolve it)...