Long-Legged Fly: by W. B. Yeats - Summary & Analysis

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      The first stanza represents the area of politics. It also represents Yeats's belief that pure art and pure genius is inseparable.

      The battle for civilization is lost. This can be compared with “On their own feet they came, or on shipboard, after camelback, horseback, ass-back, mule-back, Old civilization put to the sword. Then they and their wisdom went to rack, the battle is lost the dog is silent and the horse has been tied, down to a distant post. Civilization is in danger of being sunk too low in the bottomless pit of degradation. In order to save the civilization from utter ruin, Caesar is sitting isolated in his tent where the maps are spread. One of his hands is under his head (he is in deep meditation and his eyes are fixed upon nothing like a long-legged fly on the stream his mind moves upon silence. Then the important thing genius requires is silence. Hence, “Quiet the day, tether the pony. To a distant post.” Thus it (the mind) gathers to itself the supernatural power by which it will save civilization from sinking low.

      The second stanza is the “Mythology” stanza that describes the beauty of Helen. Helen of Troy is, like Caesar, a dynamic figure. She is also isolated in lonely place. Here “genius” does not relate to intelligence but grace and beauty—to Yeats, “Genius” conveyed all these things. Like long-legged fly upon the stream her mind moves upon silence. She is one part woman and three parts a child. She is innocent like Iseult Gonne. Her feet move through elemental secret dance pattens, “a tinker shuffle / Picked up on a street.” The poet is also thinking of Iseult Gonne, the beautiful adopted daughter of Maud Gonne, (part woman three parts a child) who rejected the aging man (Yeats at the age of fifty-two) the processional symbols of Helen and Cleopatra (T. R. Henn). She (Helen) is thinking deeply and her mind that will force the topless towers to be burnt, and succeeding ages to remember her face.

      In the last stanza, which represents world of art, the pact describes the art of Michaelangelo, the amoral artist. The artist, paints the young girls whose thoughts are brimming with love and sex. He keeps the young girls out of the church in the open atmosphere of adventure and romance. ‘With no more sound than the mice make’ he is thinking deeply. Note the similarity to other stanzas. Genius will only function in silence. His mind moves upon silence like a long-legged fly upon the stream. He operates ‘the images that parallel those images fanned by his mind’s silent action (Michael Angelo’s ability to move ladies to passion is later drawn on in Under Ben Bulben where “globe-trotting Madam” finds that a glance at “half-awakened Adam” sets “her lines are sensual and awaken the dormant passion sharply. Michaelangelo’s art brings discrimination. While Caesar and Helen determined the past, Michaelangelo determines the future.

      Thus the seers, the military leader, the dancing girl and the artist, create the world and save the civilization from ruin, though they remain unconscious of the source of their power.

Critical Analysis


      The poem was published in the volume of poetry Last Poems (1936-1939). The poet has constructed the poem from three silences and the minds which move upon them. The poet seeks images in the realm of art, politics and mythology. The figures “illustrate the function of the person who discovers through Unity of Being a power to move other men.”

      The power of the refrain in Long Legged Fly is strange. At first it looks mock-heroic or even bathetic.

That civilization may not sink,
Its great battle lost.
Quiet the dog, tether the pony
To a distant post;
Our master Caesar is in the tent
Where the maps are spread,
His eyes fixed upon nothing,
A hand under his head.
Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.

      “But as the poem continues the refrain sets up a counter-sense: it lends a fascinated intensity to the actions of genius, which individually must seem silent, slow, and trivial but in the end prove of the greatest consequence. The simile of the fly becomes steadily more apt each time it is repeated.”

      Iseult Gonne, the adopted daughter of Maud Gonne had been in Yeats’ mind when he described the dancing girl in the poem. But the dancing girl of the poem is also a queen and carries, like Cleopatra, the doom of empires as well as her unselfconscious childhood.

Critical Appreciation

      The poem Long-Legged Fly is notable for the tone of pessimism through which Yeats observes the entire activity of this universe. To emphasize his cynic view Yeats dexterously use the imagery of a fly hovering in a stream. To reinforce his cynicism the line:

“Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence”

      Has been used like a refrain. The last two lines have many interpretations associated. The imagery is beautiful, because the long-legged fly can move across the water effortlessly, without disturbing it in the same way that genius can move effortlessly from one idea to the next. The water imagery is common in Yeats's poems, and relates to his idea of Spiritus Mundi, wherein resides every thought, idea and creation of the human race, which is accessible to only a few. In the first stanza, the poet portrays a picture of the mighty conqueror Julius Caesar pondering over war strategy, scrutinizing a map but his action seems to be futile. The war results in destruction. So, his action is not a constructive over. His achievement does not bear any fruit. That is why it is futile. It loses its worth or value. It is disgusting and petty like a long-legged fly, a debased creature. In the second stanza, the poet depicts a picture of a beautiful woman. The imagery of burning ‘topless towers’ referred to towers in Troy. So, naturally we can assume ‘that face’ which ‘men i-recall is Helen. She has a rhythm in her movement but that is not of a classic standard. It is like a petty dancing-movement of a gypsy girl. There is no novelty in her motion. To some critics this picture of a beautiful woman alludes to Maud Gonne—his love interest. His love for her remained, unrequited. His love failed to produce any mental satisfaction or any solace to his pining heart. This sense of dejection is reflected in the imagery of a beautiful woman whose movement is futile, a mere clumsy action. In the same vein, the third stanza Expresses the poet’s view one an artist’s achievement. We observe the poet’s cynicism reaches the utmost level when he correlates the pettiness of a fly with the work of a legendary artist like Michaelangelo. There is a sarcasm in Yeats’ depiction of young girls attaining puberty, surreptitiously getting involved with sexual act with the man of their life. The overall cynicism, the bleak look into the universal activity mark the tone of the poem. The style, is unambiguous, the diction is lucid but it is the pessimism, which is prominent in his later poems, lies heavy in our mind.

Critical Explanation

Stanza I

L. 2. Its lost—There is no significance of the great lost.
L. 3. Tether—Tie
L. 3-4. Quiet....past—All the hue and. cry raised because of war were silenced. The enthusiastic warriors were dissuaded from getting involved in the war.
L.5. Master Caesar—The great Roman emperor Julius Caesar.
L. 9-10. Like a along silenceulius Caesar is pondering over something. He might be planning about some strategy of war. But those plannings would be proved futile. They would not bear any concrete result. To reinforce the triviality of his thinking the poet brought here the imagery of a fly—a petty debased creature—on a stream.

Stanza II

L. 11. That burnt—The reference here is made to Troy of the epic Iliad by Homer. The City Troy was burnt by the Greek warriors after conquering it in order to take the revenge of Helen’s elopement with Paris. The phrase ‘topless towers’ is taken from Christopher Marlowe’s ‘Dr. Faustus’:
‘Is this the force that burnt the topless towers of Illium ?’,
L. 12. That face—The face or beauty of Helen. According critic’s viewpoints it is the face of Maude Gonne, the love-interest, who was as beautiful as Helen. His love for Maude Gonne remained unrequited. L. 15-18. She thinks....street—Her beauty is childish beauty.
L. 19-20. Like a....silence—These (two lines have been used as a refrain. It underlines the triviality of the woman’s movement, her beauty or charm. Even the beauty of a woman appears frivolous to the poet. A tone of pessimism is noted in these lines.

Stanza III

L. 21. Puberty—Adulthood, maturity. The time when a person attains sexual maturity.
L. 22. The first Adam—The first man in the life of a woman with whom she dreams of having love affair and sexual relationship.
L. 23. Shut.....chapel—In order to have sexual pleasure she stays away from the vigilant eyes of church or religion.
L..24. Keep....out—These girls have their sexual pleasure secretly, away from anybody’s curiosity or any child’s gazing.
L. 25-26. There Michael Angelo—Scaffolding is a raised wooden platform upon which the artist can recline to paint or sculpt. The reference here is made to Michaelangelo the great painter and sculptor, painting the ceiling of Sistine Chapel. Sistine Chapel was built in Rome by the Pope Sixtus IV in 1473. Michaelangelo created the frescoes in the wall of this chapel. His works include Creation of the World; Creation of the Man; The Deluge; the Last Judgement and other biblical themes.
L. 27-28. With no.....fro—Michaelangelo works noiselessly. He is entirely engrossed in his work. A deep silence prevails except the sound made by the mice.
L. 29-30. Like a long-legged.....silence—Yeats’ cynic view reaches to the highest point. Even the creation of legendary artist Michaelangels proves to be as petty and frivolous as a fly hovering on a stream. In other words Yeats, engulfed by pessimism, cannot find any value or meaning in anything earthly. Everything on this earth seems to him futile and meaningless.

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