William Butler Yeats as a Symbolist

William Butler Yeats is regarded as one of the most important representative symbolist of the twentieth century English literature who was mainly influenced by the French symbolist movement of 19th century. Symbolism as a conscious movement was born in France as a reaction against naturalism and the precision and exactitude of the 'naturalist' school represented by Emile Zola.

William B. Yeats (1865-1939)

The French symbolists, led by Mallarme, condemned mere "exteriority", and laid great emphasis on the treatment of the sensations or the representation of the vague, fleeting impressions that constantly pass before the mind's eye. It meant a virtual withdrawal from the life, a concentration on its experience and its expression through the use of symbols.

Before the French movement Yeats had already experimented his poetry with symbolism and after the rise of French symbolism he was more determined and devoted to it. In order to comprehend his poetry, one has to be familiar with his own version of complex symbolism, magic, history, occultism and theosophy. Symbolism is a major way of conveying Yeats’s ideas who wants to say more than what meets the eye wants to suggest something beyond the expressed meaning.  His symbolism was based upon the poetry of Blake, Shelley and Rosette. But, more than that, his symbolism was based upon his reading of books on the occult from the works of Madame Blavatsky Yeats learned that Anima Mundi, a reservoir of all that has touched mankind, may be evoked by symbols. He also became acquainted with the doctrine of correspondences, the doctrine of signatures, and the doctrine of magical in connotations and symbols which have power over spiritual and material reality.

Symbols may be of two kinds (1) Traditional and (2) Personal. Traditional symbols are such stock symbols as have been in general use. For instance, 'rose' is a traditional. Symbol of beauty and has been in use in poetry from the earliest times. As a majority of readers are familiar with such stock symbols their use increases the charm and pleasure of poetry without introducing any element of complexity or obscurity. Personal symbols, how-ever, are devised by the poet for his own purposes, to express the vague fleeting impressions passing through his mind, or to convey his own sense of the mystery of life. They express the poet's experiences which are often of a mystical nature. As the readers are not familiar with such symbols, they create difficulties for them, though at the same time they add to the charm and dignity of the language.

A rebel against the world of matter, Yeats learned that all material things correspond to concepts in the world of spirit, and that through the use of material object as magical symbols the specialist may summon disembodied powers,. In 1925, Yeats announced an occult system of his own (in his essay called "A Vision"). The main element in A Vision is Yeats's view of history. He saw history as series of cyclical processes. He saw time made up of opposing cycles lasting tow thousand years, and he used the diagrams of opposing gyres to illustrate them, a gyre being the espial path traced out on a come. Each age was seen as the reversal of the previous age. The Second Coming conveys the terror of a coming of antithetical civilization. This poem creates its effect by its images, by disgust at prevalent anarchy, by horror at the overcoming of innocence, and by its revelation of what is to convey the image of the rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem. In his search for a compensating tradition, Yeats went first to romantic literature, and then to mysticism of one kind and another, to folklore, theosophy, spiritualism, Neo-Platonism, and finally elaborated a symbolic system of his own, based on a variety of sources, giving order and proportion to his insights. He became more and more himself, he shed his coat of mythological embroidery for a colloquial but ceremonial nakedness, a precisions, strength and symbolic density all his own.

In the collection The Tower, Yeats achieved a kind of ripeness in disillusion. The scorn so pervasive before is gone. "Sailing to Byzantium" is the opening poem of this volume. The poem reflects the interest in Byzantium art felt by Yeats since his visit to Ravenna, a city whose churches contain the finest of all Byzantine mosaics. Yeats saw in Byzantine culture what he called the "unity of being," a state in which are and life inner-penetrated each other. Rejected by the cruel world of birth, generation, and death as obsolete, the poet determines to sail to a place where he will be appreciated, namely, Byzantium. He hopes that he will thus be able to defeat time, because art is timeless. He wants to sail from sensual music made by the birds-that "dying generation" to the ethereal music made by the By Byzantine birds of hammered goal and goal enameling. And, yet, in spite of the favor of his resolution, this is a poem of regret, uncertainty and the rootless ness that follows rejections.

Further, his symbolism is fully and firmly grounded in Irish mythology and legend and this fact imparts to it a precision, definiteness, a clear lucidity, which the French symbolism is wanting in. Yeats' symbols are not vague or hazy. They have well-defined forms which perceptible meet the eye. They are thus not quite obscure and indistinct.

Yeats' symbolism has yet another characteristic quality which makes it stand apart from the French symbolism. The symbols of Yeats are all-pervasive. There are certain key-symbols round which a number of poems are arranged, and each poem that follows in succeeding order throws light on foregoing ones and illuminates their sense. For example, in The Rose Volume of verses, rose is the key-symbol. In these poems, rose symbolically stands for intellectual Beauty, beauty of woman (particularly that of Maud Gonne), austerity and also Ireland. Such symbols are not adapted suddenly on the spur of the moment but they are firmly planted in mythology and legends. Likewise, in the poem The Wild Swans at Coole, the swan is the ever-recurring symbol. Another symbol which constantly glitters in Yeats' poetry is Helen, symbolizing destructive beauty, and the linking up of Helen with Dierdre and Maud Gonne furnishes to the poems like No Second Troy an unthinkable vastness, complexity and continuous expansiveness. As his art grew to maturity, Yeats' symbols become more and more complex and personal. This complex nature of symbols is manifest in the poems included in The Tower and The Winding Stair group of the poems. The Tower symbol partakes of both traditional and personal character. It was a tower of real physical existence where the poet lived for some time, and at the same time it is used as a symbol of loneliness and isolation, a secluded place of retreat for the poet.

In A Prayer for my Daughter; the tower hints at the poet's vision of the dark and dismal future of humanity. All these associations and suggestions associated with the tower, make it a symbol of high complexity. While they add to the richness and elegance of the poem they also add to the perplexity and bewilderment of the reader. The complexity of symbolism is no less intriguing in the Byzantium group of the poems. Such intricacy of symbols increases the obscurity of Yeats' poetry. Yeats was a symbolist from the very outset of his poetic career up to the last, even before and after the brief spell of the French influence. As his powers attained maturity, his symbols acquired richness of associations, evocative quality and intricacy. Symbolism enabled him to make his vision and traces concrete and substantial. Only in this way he could convey to his readers a definite picture of his vague, fleeting sensations and experiences. Symbolism helped him to express the richness of man's deeper reality, something mystical in essence.

Cite this Page!

Sharma, K.N. "William Butler Yeats as a Symbolist." BachelorandMaster, 14 June 2017, bachelorandmaster.com/britishandamericanpoetry/yeats-as-a-symbolist.html.