A Dialogue of Self and Soul: by W. B. Yeats - Summary & Analysis

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Stanza I—My Soul

      My preference is for the ancient winding stair of spiritualism (a kind of ‘Nirvana’) and for setting one’s mind upon the steep ascent (of the stair) and upon the broken, crumbling battlement. I am also in favor of setting one’s mind upon the breathless starlit air and upon that star i.e., the Pole Star which makes the hidden pole. I am in favor of fixing one’s thought upon that area where all thought stops i,e., the area of an afterlife with no return. This involves being led to a special kind of darkness which is indistinguishable from the soul.

Stanza II—My Soul

      The sacred sword lying upon my knees is Sato’s ancient sword which has not lost any of its keenness and brightness over many years. It is still the same and is still shining like a looking glass. The passage of centuries has had no effect upon its shine and it is spotless. The remarkable thing about this sword is that the flowering silken and embroidered cloth which was tom from some court lady’s dress and wound around the wooden scabbard of the sword is still capable of protecting and adorning the sword though it is now tattered and faded.

Stanza III—My Soul

      Now that the prime of the body is left long back why should your imagination remember things concerning love and war (Sato’s sword is emblematical i.e., symbolic of love and war). The right thing for you to do now is to think of the ancestral night (spiritualism) which alone can deliver us from the crime of being subject to life and death. The only condition for this deliverance is that the imagination should start scorning the earthly things and the intellect should stop wandering here, there and everywhere.

Stanza IV—My Soul

      Montashigi who was the third of his family, fashioned this sword five hundred years ago and the flowers which are there in the embroidery on the cloth covering the scabbard though beyond comprehension are purple colored like the heart. All these are the emblems of the day and I set these against the tower which is a symbol of the night (spiritualism). My claim is that I may be given permission to commit the crime once more as it is my right as a soldier.

Stanza V—My Soul

      In that area (of spiritualism) such fullness flows and falls in to the reservoirs of the mind that man is unable to hear or speak or see. All this happens because the distinctions between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ ‘knower’ and ‘known’ no longer exist as far as the intellect is concerned. Intellect, in fact, ascends to heaven. Even forgiveness comes only to the dead. The very thought of all takes my power of speech away.


Stanza VI—My Self

      A living man may well be blind to things like his true nature and other things but then he drinks his drop i.e., lives life to the full. Even if the ditches (from which the living people drink their drop even when those ditches are the very place where they lie) are impure how does it matter. In other words, it does not matter even if living life to the full involves some impure actions. How does it matter if I reassert my ‘right’ to live life again, to suffer the hazards of growing up and the ignominy of boyhood once again. I want to re-live the distress of boyhood changing into manhood and one’s own clumsiness which one is brought face to face will when one bears the pain of realizing that he is no longer a boy and not as yet a complete man.

Stanza VII—My Self

      Once the complete man is among his enemies he can’t but think of his image and the malice which he’ll have to face if his image as a warrior is spoilt. In such a situation escape is no way out because honor binds one to facing one’s cold and wintry death right on the battlefield (the sword stands not only for love but also for war).

Stanza VIII—My Self

      I am quite happy to live it all again even if re-living it all means no more than men fighting blindly and the worst possible folly of wooing a proud woman whose soul is not the right company for your soul. Even if re-living life all over again means falling into all sorts of blind ditches I am quite happy to do that.

Stanza IX—My Self

      I am quite content to follow every event to its source in action as well as in thought. Once one starts measuring life and art in terms of achievement and yet is ready to forego all achievement without any remorse he gets tragic joy—the bitter sweetness that is involved in the acceptance of life. This tragic joy involves the casting out of remorse. This sweetness is, for the artist, the only blessedness he can experience and this sweetness leads inevitably to insight. Artists who accept this insight, who experience this tragic joy must sing.

Critical Explanation

      L. 1. Winding—spiral; round about. L. 1. Winding ancient stairs—the difficulties which have to be surmounted. L. 2. Steep ascent—the difficult path to heaven. L. 5. The hidden pole—the External Truth, the Absolute which is beyond this time-bound physical world. L. 7. That quarter—is done—the Infinite and Eternal which is beyond the reach of human intelligence. L. 9. Consecrated— sacred. L. 10. Sato’s ancient blade—‘blade’ means sword. This sword was five hundred and fifty years old and was given to the poet by Jungo Sato during the former’s American tour in 1920. It was made by Montashgi. L. 11. Rajo-keen—very sharp. L. 12. Unspotted— free from rust. L. 15. Scabbard—a sheath or cover of a sword, dagger, etc.

      L. 9-16. The consecrated faded adorn—The blade (sword) is a symbol of life, war, love and sex. According to Yeats it is appropriately covered with a ‘Japanese lady’s court dress.’ And though, it is now tattered, being centuries old, it can still protect the sword sheath and make it look beautiful. In a different sense, the sword may be taken as the vital principle and the lady’s dress as the body enshrining it.

      L. 20. Ancestral night—the eternal darkness that surrounds the time-bound world on all sides. The individual soul originated from this darkness. Thus, darkness is a condition of the soul. The merging of the dark with the dark will result in liberation from the birth and death cycle. L. 31. Soldier’s right—the ‘self’ of the poet has always been a fighter and a soldier and as a soldier he claims the right to fight again so as to live in the world. L. 33. That quarter— the thought of eternal darkness surrounding the earthly life. L. 40. Stone— ead; incapable of utterance. L. 45. Ignominy - dishonor, infamy. L. 47. The unfinished man—the undeveloped man; more of a boy still. L. 49. The finished man—a person who is no longer a boy but is now fully developed capable of thinking and judging for himself L. 52. The mirror of malicious eyes—yes that reflects malice like the mirror which reflects the image. L. 56. Wintry blast— frosty wind in winter that affects the greenery in gardens and groves adversely. L. 58. To pitch—to take a headlong charge. L. 59. Into the frog-spawn.....ditch—frogs breed and scatter their eggs in dirty spots, as a blind man’s ditch is likely to be.

      L. 61. Fecund ditch—a ditch, rich and fertile in which a blind man falls. The allusion is to the poet’s blindly falling in love with Maud Gonne. L. 64. Not kindred of his soul—made of a different stuff which is not in harmony with his inner self. L. 65-66. I am content or in thought—I am content in living this life intensely and fully.

      L. 65-72. I am content to follow to its source we look upon is blest—These lines are from the conclusion of the poem A Dialogue of Self and Soul by W.B. Yeats. The poem is in the form of a debate between the poet’s Self and his Soul in which the upper hand is that of the Self. The second half of the poem is devoted fully to what the Self says. The Self asserts its right to live life to the full. The Self of the poet says: “I am not at all scared of following every event to its source both in action and in thought. Once one does that, the achievement is not to be measured in terms of solid veritable gains. I do not care for the evaluation part of my achievement (forgive myself the lot). In going all out for life I cast out all remorse or regrets. Once one does away with regrets, as great sweetness makes its way into one’s heart. In such a situation laughing it out and singing are the best things. Once that happens everything we look upon becomes blessed and everything in turn blesses us.”

      Critical Comments—These lines assert the superiority of the Self over the Soul and declare Yeats’s in living life to the full whatever the hazards of such a living. In this context, Yeats advocates the need to do away with all regrets in matters of living. As such, the lines provide a fitting finale to the debate between the Self and the Soul.

Critical Analysis


      A Dialogue of Self and Soul was one of Yeats’s favorite poems and the most remarkable thing about the poem is its expression of a fiercely individual, immediate and direct sense of the ultimate validity of life itself. The conviction which comes out of the poem is that the living moment is the sole and decisive proof of the validity of life.
In A Dialogue of Self and Soul the force of the flowing sweetness is quite explicit and it acquires that force from the poet’s ability for creating a language of its own. This makes the poem one of Yeats’s more richly esoteric poems.

      A Dialogue of Self and Soul is a poem which opposes the self and its ‘life-symbol’ Sato’s Sword to the winding stair that leads to darkness, an after life with no return, a kind of ‘Nirvana’ at the end of the soul’s journey through its various incarnations in flesh and blood.

Development of Thought

      The first part of the poem gives us the proper dialogue between Self and Soul; the second part is devoted wholly to what the Self says. Part first contains five stanzas. In the first stanza, the Soul begins by laying stress on the contemplation of the winding stair that symbolizes the path of escape.

      In the second stanza, the Self replies by saying that it prefers a different object of contemplation namely Sato’s Sword (introduced by Yeats in the third section of his poem—Meditations in Time of Civil War. The Sword, is taken to be a kind of masculine symbol for life, war and sex. Appropriately enough the Sword is covered with a Japanese lady’s court dress.

      In the third stanza, Soul calls these things emblems of love and war and gives a call to move away from these to matters of life and death.

      In the fourth stanza Self replies by expanding the symbolism of the sword and giving it a new dimension by adding to it the symbolism of the tower.

      In the fifth stanza soul talks of the fullness which comes from the contemplation of the winding stair. The second section of the poem shows the Self reasserting its right to live life again, to suffer as man, to accept the world—an imposed Mask which blinds each man to his true nature.


      The technical achievement of the poem lies not only in creating a greatly coherent and valuable world but also in giving to the Self and the Soul properly realized individualities. At the same time the poet’s manipulation of rhythm in the first part and the alliteration in the second part are also admirable. An example of alliteration is ‘blind man battering blind men’.

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