Symbolism Used in W. B. Yeats Poetry

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Symbolism of W. B. Yeats

      Arthur Symons dedicated his book The Symbolist Moueprent in Literature (1919) to W. B. Yeats and called him ‘the chief representative of that movement in our country.’ However, Yeats was riot doing the same thing in Ireland as Baudelaire and Mallarme were doing or had done in France. The fact is that his conception of the end and object of the symbolic technique is fundamentally different from that of his French compeers and counterparts.

Yeats Different from the French Symbolists

      According to Arthur Symons, “for symbolist poet Mallarme, to name is to destroy, to suggest is to create.” But Yeats was trained at the School of Art in Dublin and he was in full agreement with Blake’s emphasis on ‘hard and wiry line of rectitude and certainty.’ To Yeats “the indefiniteness of symbol and image was not in its inherent obscurity, its fundamental shadowness, or its personal associative powers, indefiniteness was like multitude, the expansiveness of symbol and image.” For Yeats, the concrete and the visual which was the starting point, was seldom forgotten. In 1927 he wrote to Surge Moore concerning the design of the book-plate for The Tower. “I need not make any suggestion, except that the tower should not be too unlike the real object, or rather that it should suggest the real object, I like to think of that building as a permanent symbol of my work, plainly visible to the passer-by.”

The Nature and Function of Symbols in Yeats

      In Yeats’s own words “a symbol is (indeed) the possible expression of some invisible essence, a transparent lamp about a spiritual flame;...” Symbols are not merely denotative, but also connotative and evocative. In addition to the literal meaning, they also conjure up a host of associations before the mind’s eye. The word rose not only denotes a flower but it also evokes images of beauty and love. Thus, symbols make the language rich and expressive.

      Yeats made use of a complex system of symbols in his poems. He had come to believe that symbols were given, not deliberately chosen or invented. In Jungian psychology it is stated that great symbols well-up from the depth of ‘the collectively unconscious’ or the racial memory. Yeats describes this racial memory, after the manner of Henry Moore as Anima Mundi.

      Yeats’s remark concerning the symbols appropriate to poetry and the best ways for making them most effective is worth noting; “It is only by ancient symbols, by symbols that have numberless meanings besides the one or two the writer lays an emphasis upon, or the half score he knows of, that any highly subjective art can escape from the barrenness and shallowness of a too conscious arrangement, into the depth and abundance of Nature.”

      But Yeats draws his ‘ancient symbols’ from sources which are unfamiliar to the readers. His symbols are taken from such diverse source as Irish folk-lore and mythology, magic, alchemy and the occult disciplines, philosophy, metaphysics, paintings and drawings. To add to the difficulty of the readers, the several implications are confessed into a single symbol. Take for example the sword presented to Yeats in 1920 by a Japanese admirer. It became the symbol of ‘life, war, love and sex’, while its covering of ‘a Japanese lady’s court dress’, came to stand for the female sex. The sword could also symbolize the soul or the vital principle, unaffected by time, and the tattered covering stood for the old and decayed body which could still guard the soul. This ever shifting meaning of the symbols, of course, become very baffling to the student of Yeats.

The Kind of Symbols used in Yeats’s Poetry

      Symbols are of two kinds—the traditional and personal. ‘The Rose’ is a traditional symbol of beauty, and it has been used by poets from times immemorial. Such stock symbols are easy for the readers to understand. But ‘The Rose’ symbols takes on a different meaning in Yeats’s poems. It would be relevant here to point out that Yeats was a member of the Hermatic Student of the Golden Dawn, which was founded in 1888. ‘The Rose’ was the central symbol of this Theosophist Society. Yeats was chiefly attracted by the ritual or initiation and the freedom that the society granted its members experimentation and demonstration and constant meditation upon its central symbol. ‘The Rose’ of course thus, lead to various interpretations of this symbol and in Yeats’s poems too ‘The Rose’ has taken various layers of meanings.

The Bird and the Beast Symbol

      The bird ‘symbol’ is one of the most important symbols in Yeats’s poems. It is a striking example of the dynamic nature of the Yeatsian symbol which grows, changes and acquires greater depth and density in their progression. A similar process may be traced in the ‘beast imagery.’ The unicorn and ‘the slouching animal-form’ in The Second Coming are two fabulous creatures which are used as symbols by Yeats in his poems.

Symbolism in the ‘Wind Among the Reeds’: Its Complexity

      The theories of symbolism which Yeats derived from the translations of the French Symbolists by Arthur Symons is clearly seen in the poems of the volume The Wind Among the Reeds. Though symbols used in the poems of the volume The Wind Among the Reeds, where he still uses Irish legend and mythology, become personal, more suggestive and therefore more complex, Aedh, Hanrahan, Robartes, etc. are used as symbols. They symbolise the poet’s own love, pain, suffering, and ecstasy. The Fairies, Aengus the Celtic gods, the shadowy horses, all have traditional mythological significance, but in Yeats’s poetry they are all infused with a personal meaning and significance.

All Pervasive Key-Symbols

      Yeats’s symbols are all pervasive. There are a number of poems that are organized around certain key-symbols and each succeeding poem sheds light on the previous poems and “illuminates their sense.” In the volume of poems entitled The Rose, ‘Rose’ is the key-symbol. It symbolizes intellectual beauty, austerity, the beauty of women specially that of Maud Gonne and Ireland as well. Such symbols have been adopted by Yeats after great deliberation and they have their roots in mythology and legend. The ‘Swan’ in The Wild Swans at Coole is another ever-recurring symbol. Then, there is the symbol of ‘Helen.’ She symbolizes destructive beanty and is linked up with Dierdre and Maud Gonne, imparting to poems like No Second Troy an unimaginable vastness, complexity and continuous expansiveness.

The French Influence and the Impact of Magic and Nationalism on Yeats’s Poetry

      It has been presumed by many that the French Symbolist Movement had a great impact on Yeats. It is true that Yeats had come across Mallarme, Villiers and other French symbolists through the translations of Arthur Symons but despite this fact, Yeats’s use of symbols differs from that of the French Symbolists in several ways. His symbolism is different from the French symbolism as it is mixed up and modified by his belief in magic, and by his nationalism. In his use of symbols, his theories of magic have a great part to play. Often his symbols are both poetic and magical and for a fall understanding of them reference to his theory of magic becomes essential. Moreover, his symbolism emanates also from Irish mythology and legend. And according to Edmond Wilson, “Yeats, in transplanting his symbolism to Ireland, gave it a strange and national quality.”

Symbolism with Reference to W.B. Yeats’s Poetry

      Yeats’s poetry is replete with symbols. He has been regarded as one of the greatest symbolists in English literature. In his poetry the same symbol is often used for different purpose and in different contexts, thereby becoming very obscure and almost unintelligible to the uninitiated reader. His symbols are derived from occult studies which included, a fascination for fairies, banshees, astrology, automatic writing and prophetic dreams. He had come to know from Madame Blavatsky that the great memory of Nature preserved the legends of all nations. This made him feel that he could come in contact with Anima Mundi through symbols drawn from Irish legends—Oisin or Aengus, the hound with one red ear or the white deer with no horns. Arbitrary occult symbols like that of the ‘rose’, ‘cross’, ‘lily’, ‘bird’, ‘tree’, ‘moon’ and the ‘sun’, Yeats found in the Kabalistic theosophical and other such works.

The Symbol: ‘The Rose’

      The ‘rose’ symbol occurs frequently in the poems of W.B. Yeats. Most of his poems, which have ‘the rose’ as the central symbol, can be found in the volume called The Rose which appeared in 1933. In The Rose or Peace, the symbol of ‘the rose’ means earthly love but in The Rose of The World this means, on the one hand transient earthly love and beauty and on the other hand eternal love and beauty, thus, complicating the meaning. The shift in meaning of the same symbol in different poems of Yeats, at times baffles the readers. In The Rose of Battle, ‘the rose’ is a refuge from earthly love, symbolising God’s side in the battle of spirit against matter. But this very symbol stands for the power of the creative imagination and occult philosophy in the poem called To the Rose upon the Rood of Time.

The Symbol: ‘Dance’

      According to Yeats the value of a symbol is in its richness or indefiniteness of reference. This, he feels, make it much more mysterious and powerful than allegory with its single meaning. Like ‘the rose’, the symbol of the ‘dance’ is closely connected with Yeats’s “system” and often appears in his poetry. It is used, at times to indicate patterned movement and at times to indicate joyous energy Upon a Dying Lady is a poem in which the woman’s soul “flies to the pre-destined dancing place.” Of course, this pre-destined dancing place suggests all that is traditionally associated with a heavenly afterlife—perfect unity, peace and joy. In the closing stanza of the poem called Among School Children the concept of unity is invoked once again by the symbol of the ‘dance.’ The first four lines of the closing stanza depict a heavenly or an ideal state of balance and unity but the focus in the last four lines shifts to life itself giving the suggestion that one cannot separate the part from the whole, nor body from spirit, or being from becoming.

The Symbol: ‘Byzantium’

      ‘Byzantium’, too, has been used by Yeats as a symbol of unity and perfection. Yeats felt that Byzantium and its golden age is symbolical or a kind of unity and perfection such as the world had never known before or since. He believed that the religious, aesthetic and practical life were one in the early Byzantium. He saw in the Byzantine culture—the unity of being, a state in which art and life interpenetrated each other. In his poem Sailing to Byzantium ‘Byzantium’ becomes the symbol of a perfect world. The poet rejects the world of birth and death and decides for Byzantium. He thinks he will be able to defeat Time by taking refuge in the world of art because art itself is timeless. He ignores the sensual music made by “that dying generation” (mortal birds) in favor of the ethereal music produced by the Byzantine birds or hammered gold and gold enameling. ‘Byzantium’ suggests a far-off, unfamiliar civilization which is symbolical of the ideal, aesthetic existence he longs for.

Symbols in “The Second Coming”

      A study of the symbolism in the poem The Second Coming will show us the nature of the symbols Yeats was wont to use. They are taken partly from private doctrine, partly from Yeats’s direct sense of the world about him and partly from both these sources. For Yeats one of the qualities that made life valuable under the dying aristocratic social tradition was the “ceremony of innocence” a phrase that occurs in this poem. The expression “falcon and the falconer” have both a symbolic and a doctrinal reference.

Opposing Symbols in “A Dialogue of Self and Soul”

      An example of two opposing symbols can be seen in A Dialog of Self and Soul. On the one hand there is the symbol of Sato’s sword while on the other hand there is the winding stair that leads to darkness and after life from where there is no return. The “Soul” is inclined to contemplate on the winding stair which symbolizes the path of escape. But the ‘Self-prefers to contemplate on Sato’s sword instead. However, in Meditations in Time of Civil War—Yeats used this as a symbol of art which is imperishable and contrasted it with the artist who is perishable. But in the Self and Soul poem the word is used as a masculine symbol for life, war, love, and sex. The ‘Self in the second section of the poem, re-asserts its right to live life again and to suffer as man. It represents the totality of living, whereas the ‘Soul’ represents withdrawal from life. It stands for abstraction.


      After having made this survey, we could conclude that Yeats was a great symbolist right from the beginning of his career to the Very end. As his powers matured, his symbols became more intricate and gained in evocative power and associative richness. Symbolism was a help in giving concretness to his vision. Symbolism made it possible for Yeats to express “the richness of man’s deeper reality” (Tyndell) which is something essentially mystical.

      Thus, winding stairs, spirals of all kinds, gyres and spinning tops are some of the symbols which hold great importance in Yeats’s later poetry. These symbols serve as a means of resolving some of the dichotomies in life that had arrested Yeats’s interest from the very beginning of literary career.


Discuss W.B. Yeats’s Symbolism with reference to the poems prescribed in your course.

Give a critical estimate of the use of symbolism in Yeats’s poems with special reference to the poems you have read.

Write a note on symbolism in the poetry of W.B. Yeats.

Discuss with reference to the poems you have read, the major symbols in Yeats’s poetry.

What is symbolism? Give an estimate of Yeats as a symbolist.

How far was Yeats influenced by the French Symbolist Movement? Discuss.

‘Yeats was a symbolist from the beginning to the end, and his symbolism increased in complexity with the maturing of his powers.’ Elucidate.

Symbols give “dumb things voices, and bodiless things bodies.” Justify this dictum.

“The poetic effect of the symbols of Yeats’s maturity is one of vastness and continuous expansiveness.” Discuss with quotations from Yeats’s poems.

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