Essay by Matthew Denvir
It is not uncommon for a poet’s work to be thematically concerned with death, and this is certainly the case with William Butler Yeats. “The Wild Swans at Coole,” for example, is a melancholic poem that ponders the inevitable, unchangeable passage of time. The speaker tells of the beauty of seeing the swans each autumn but laments the time when he will “awake some day / To find they have flown away” (132). The poem establishes early on that the speaker is growing older, and therefore the idea that the seemingly eternal swans will someday be gone speaks to the fact that his soul will also have to fly away. He will someday have to die.
Though this poem is a typical example of a poet’s depiction of death (elegantly sorrowful and with a sense of loss), it doesn’t represent Yeats’ final word on the subject. His argument about death, about what it means to die, becomes more complex when his war poems are taken into account. And it is with these poems that the reader sees an attitude about death that is strikingly different from that represented by his other work. Simply put, in the universe created by Yeats’ poetry, death in war is a far different philosophical and existential experience than death by any other means.
Before dealing with Yeats’ war poems, a contrasting poem should first be examined. One of his most famous poems about death is “Sailing to Byzantium.” The first stanza is about “no country for old men,” which is the world, with its “salmon-falls” and “mackerel crowded seas.” The speaker of the poem talks of no longer belonging to such a world, because he is too old, like a “tattered coat upon a stick.” “And therefore I have sailed the seas and come / To the holy city of Byzantium,” Yeats writes. In this realm he calls Byzantium, he “shall never take/ (His) bodily form from any natural thing.” Therefore, this realm is the afterlife. The speaker’s soul has been freed from its “dying animal” and has made its way to “the artifice of eternity,” where it will take a form “as Grecian goldsmiths make” and sing “Of what is past, or passing, or to come” (193-194).
The portrayal of death in this poem, therefore, is quite positive. The speaker’s decision to accept death is not posited as suicidal, but rather portrayed as a journey to a mythical land. The speaker is able to live on after death in this realm, which is perhaps a metaphor for living on through one’s art. In any case, death is, in this poem, not the end of a journey but rather a next step. This isn’t to say the poem is entirely devoid of sadness, but it has an optimistic perspective. In Yeats’ war poems, however, such a perspective is non-existent.
This is apparent in Yeats’ memorial poem to his friend, Robert Gregory. Unlike “Sailing to Byzantium,” “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory” is not about living on through one’s art. And unlike “The Wild Swans at Coole,” it is not about the passage of time, but rather is about time that never came to pass. It is about men killed in war, Robert Gregory especially. The poem begins, “Now that we’re almost settled in our house / I’ll name the friends that cannot sup with us” (132). The sense of loss in this poem is heightened by such lines, as they express sadness over what could have been. Whereas “Sailing to Byzantium” is about a life after death, this poem is about the potential life that death made impossible. The poem, in a way, creates two worlds and then navigates the tension between them. One world is the hypothetical world, in which men have not died in war. But the other world is the real world, in which the men are dead.
The loss of life is the loss of that hypothetical world. “What made us dream that he could comb grey hair?” Yeats writes (135). The speaker is, in this line, wondering why he thought he would see his friend reach old age. By extension, he is lamenting the reality that caused his “dream” to be proven untrue. That reality is war, an unnatural force that destroys men at an unnaturally young age. Yeats again refers to lost possibilities when he writes, “What other could so well have counseled us / In all lovely intricacies of a house” (134). The speaker is referring to Robert Gregory and to the life they were unable to live together as friends. The possibility of such a life was shattered by war.
Therefore, “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory” presents life as a linear narrative and argues that war is wholly disruptive of that narrative. The speaker tells of men’s lives that were disrupted and destroyed by war, and tells of how those lives could have unfolded had they not been cut short.
Yeats’ other war poem, perhaps also about Robert Gregory, is “An Irish Airman foresees his Death.” The poem both reinforces and elaborates on the war-related themes of “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory.” The poem is about an airman who, seeing the futility of war, decides to die. Again, the idea of lost possibility is present. “The years to come seemed waste of breath,” the speaker says (135). Though this poem is told from the perspective of a man (essentially) committing suicide, it still refers to what cannot come to pass due to war. Just as Robert Gregory will never “comb grey hair,” the speaker here will never experience the “years to come.” And in this poem, war does not only destroy the future, but the past as well. The next line reads, “A waste of breath the years behind” (135). Thus, war is a wholly destructive force, making life in every tense (past, present, and future) pointless and/or non-existent.
Furthermore, in addition to the poem being about the destructiveness of war, Yeats points out the futility of it. “Those that I fight I do not hate,” the speaker says, “Those that I guard I do not love” (135). These lines are about the plight of Irishmen fighting for England in the first World War. The airman is fighting a war he has no stake in. After mentioning that his people are in Ireland, the speaker says, “No likely end could bring them loss / Or leave them happier than before” (135). Nothing he can do in the war will matter to him or the people he cares about. The poem’s vision of war is bleak, almost nihilistic. The speaker sees this purposelessness (as life suddenly seems a “waste of breath”) and seeks to end his life because of it.
Thus we see how divergent Yeats’ views of death are, and we see where that divergence comes from. It would be too obvious to say that a natural death is preferable to death in war, but Yeats’ poetry says more than that. As his poems illustrate, the whole enterprise of war changes the philosophical nature of death. There is life after death as portrayed in “Sailing to Byzantium,” even if that life only comes in the form of a metaphorical golden bird. In Yeats’ war poems, however, death is a much different beast. It is pointless, nihilistic, and destructive.
Yeats, W.B., and Richard Finneran. The collected poems of W.B. Yeats. Scribner, 1996.
Matthew Denvir is also a film critic. Visit his blog Hitchcock Cameo
Matthew Denvir is also a film critic. Visit his blog Hitchcock Cameo