W.B Yeats & Great War Poets Symbolism

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Discuss the use of symbols and correspondences in the set writers on the module.

William Butler Yeats was considered to be one of the most important symbolists of the 20th Century. Believed to have been influenced by the French symbolist movement of the 19th Century, his poems incorporated symbols as a means of representing mystical, dream-like and abstract ideals. This was especially prevalent towards the latter part of his life when, inspired by his wife Georgiana Hyde-Lees, he developed a symbolic system which theorized movements through major cycles of history in his book A Vision (1925, 1937)[1]. “The Wild Swans at Coole” and “The Second Coming” are poems of Yeats’ which incorporate symbols, and will be discussed in this essay. In A Vision, Yeats speaks of “gyres” as his term for a spiralling motion in the shape of a cone. These gyres are important symbols in Yeats’ poetry, and especially in “The Second Coming”, being mentioned in the very first line (“turning and turning in the widening gyre”[2]). The gyres function as a symbol alluding to something which could be subjective to the reader. It could be prophetically interpreted to mean that mankind and life itself is spiralling into self-destruction. This idea is reflected in the first few lines of the poem:

“The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”[3]

The symbol of the gyre is being continued through the image of the falcon, as it spirals above the falconer, getting further and further from the centre until eventually the falcon cannot hear the calls of its master. The phrase “Things fall apart” could easily be interpreted as referring to the destruction of the physical world itself, and the use of the verb “loosed” is effective as it personifies the “anarchy”, conjuring up the image of a monster or a beast which is to be unleashed upon the unsuspecting world. The phrase “the centre cannot hold” is reflective of the chaos at the centre of the gyre and the harsh “c” sounds stresses the unstableness of everything.

In the context of modernity, the gyres could be interpreted as symbolic of the end of an historical era and the transfer of ideals from one era to the next. In A Vision, Yeats spoke of the gyres as symbolising the movement through major cycles of history, and the next revelation being “‘represented by the coming of one gyre to its place of greatest expansion and of the other to that of its greatest contraction’, beginning the next cycle with a violent reversal. This idea is enforced in the lines:

“Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.”[4]

The call for a revelation in the poem is in vain, as it immediately conjures up an image not of a saviour, but of the beast which Yeats makes sure is powerfully envisioned. Continuing with this line of thought, it could be argued that Yeats sees the transfer of ideals through the gyres as one that will change the beauty of the world for the worse. If the gyre which is at its moment of greatest expansion is symbolic of classicism and true forms of art and culture, the other represents the opposite ideals of the not too distant future which Yeats visualises society travelling towards. This future is one which Yeats has lost faith in, one in which the “best lack all conviction”[5], and “passionate intensity” causes widespread chaos. The beast which is conjured from “Spiritus Mundi”[6] with the “shape with lion body and the head of a man”[7] could be interpreted as being symbolic of the second coming of Christ, as it is prophesised Christ will return upon the coming of the Beast of the Apocalypse. This interpretation is supported through the biblical allusions throughout the poem, and is emphasised by the language Yeats uses. The “blood-dimmed tide”[8] which has drowned innocence could allude to the flood which forced Noah to build an ark, however does so in a way which puts the reader in...
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