Meditations in Time of Civil War: Summary & Analysis

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Stanza I

      Ambition brings pains with it but among the flowering lawns and planted hills of a rich man, life flows very spontaneously and those pains which are the product of ambition are absent. There is so much of life that there is mostly an overflow (The basin spills). Life mounts to dizzy heights at such places. It is able to take whatever shape it likes without having to stoope to a mechanical or serial shape which is at the beck and call of others. In other words, the spontaneity of life at such a place consists in its being able to follow patterns all its own, without any external patterns being imposed on it.

Stanza II

      At one stage, a fountain was taken to be the symbol of the inherited glory of the rich but now the symbol seems to rather some marvelous empty sea-shell flung out of rich streams which have an obscure darkness about them. The talk of spontaneity among a rich man’s flowering lawns may be all dreams but Homer after all had been able to find the fountain (the glittering jet) of life’s own self-delight through dreams alone.

Stanza III

      These ancestral houses are the result of some violent, bitter and powerful men called architects. Even they were bitter and violent men but they were capable of raising in stone the sweetness which had been desired by all at all times. None of these people liked gentleness. But now that the house is in ruins, mice may play there and a mouse may well be the great grandson (the inheritor) of the house inspite of all its (the house’s) bronze and marble.

Stanza IV

      The garden deities of this house are now indifferent and hence it does not make any difference even if a peacock strays with delicate feet upon old terraces. Even the figure of Juno displayed on an urn would not make any difference. In these leveled lawns and paths on which there is a log of gravel one can walk in slippers and indulge in contemplation at ease. Even childhood can get a delight for all the senses in these lawns and on these gravel paths. As such these lawns are capable of absorbing greatness as well as violence.

Stanza V

      Will it make any difference if the glory of doors on which shields (escutche-on-shield) have been fixed and the building designedly a more proud and earlier age are able to take greatness and bitterness in the same way. Also will it make any difference if one’s walking on polished floors in these great chambers and long galleries with the famous portraits of one’s ancestors hanging on the walls, enabling us to take our greatness with our bitterness. What if these things which mankind values most, help us to take our greatness with our bitterness.


Stanza VI

      (After talking of ancestral houses, Yeats now comes to talk of his own house and tells us): My house has an ancient bridge, a more ancient tower, a farm house with a wall around it, an acre of stony ground where roses sometimes appear along with old raged elms and thorns. In my house the sound of the rain and the sound of every win can be heard. At the same time one is able to see the sight of an inflated (silted) water-hen crossing the stream after being scared by the splashing of a dozen cows in the water.

Stanza VII

      Yeats says that his house also has a winding stair, a chamber with arches of stone, a fire place of grey stone with the Platonist of Milton’s poem IV Penseroso and says that he must have toiled in some similar chamber fire-shadowing Milton’s daemonic imagination in creating his great later works. His midnight candle had been seen by travellers who were returning from the fairs and markets.

Stanza VIII

      Two men have been found in the house. There was man-at-arms with twenty horses who had spent his days here at this place of unrest. He and his twenty horses were forgetting things and were forgotten by the world outside as the number of horses went on reducing. They lived through long wars and sudden night-alarms. He was the first man found here. And I am second. I have done all this so that my descendants may find proper emblems of adversity to exalt a lonely mind.


Stanza IX

      There are two trestles (movable frames for supporting a table) and there is a board where Sato’s sword lies along with pen and paper and all this helps me to find ways out of the aimlessness of my day. The wooden-sheath of the sword is covered by a bit of dress with embroidery on it. The sword is very ancient (i.e., belongs to a period before Chaucer. It lay for five hundred years in Sato’s house. It shone in moonlight and had the shape of the curved new moon. Still, it does not seem to have changed at all. Only a heart capable of living through pain can conceive a work of art which is changeless. Learned people say that since the day the sword was forged there has been a lot of progress in painting and poetry, the skills being passed from father to son. These arts ran through the centuries and seemed unchanging just like the sword. If adoration is given to the beauty of soul, then men and their work can take on some of the permanence of the soul i.e., can become changeless. The richest inheritors knew that a lover of inferior art cannot pass Heaven’s door. He, though dressed in silken clothes and having a majestic walk had an aching heart and an intelligence was always aware. It seemed as if Juno’s peacock screamed.


Stanza X

      Because my old fathers have given me a vigorous mind as inheritance, it is necessary that I give food to dreams and leave behind me a son and a daughter whose minds are as vigorous as mine is. Yet commonness is the thing which afflicts life most and it is in the form of petals which cover the garden. It is very difficult for life to leave an impression which is either very lasting or matches the fragrance of the wind or the glory of the morning rays.

Stanza XI

      And who knows my descendants may lose all I left with them through the natural decline of the soul or through being too much engrossed in momentary things. They may lose best things of life through too much wantonness or my daughter may marry a fool (like Maud Gonne) and lose the better things of life. Who knows these stairs and this stark tower may become ruins with a roof and the only inhabitants may be owl, building their house in the cracked buildings and tearing the desolate sky with their cries.

Stanza XII

      After all, the owl is also moved by the same prime mover who moves us. I am most lucky and prosperous that my love and friendship are sufficient. I had chosen this house mainly for the sake of an old neighbor’s friendship. I decorated it and made alteration in it for a girl’s love. I am quite sure that whatever decline or progress may come in future years, this house will remain a monument for them and for me.


Stanza XIII

      On the road at my door, passed an affable irregular, who is a heavily built man and resembles Falstaff in many ways. He is talking of the Civil War and is cracking jokes about it as if the biggest thing that can happen to a man is getting killed by gunshot.

Stanza XIV

      I see a brown lieutenant and his men half dressed in national uniform standing at my door. Seeing them I talk about the weather being hard and of hail and rain of the pear tree which was broken by the storm.

Stanza XV

      A moorhen is guiding feathered balls to shoot upon the stream and I count those balls. This is meant to soften my envy of the hen. Then I turn towards my chamber caught in the cold snows of a dream.


Stanza XVI

      The bees have started building their hives in the crevices which have started opening up in the building. Mother birds are bringing grubs and flies. The wall of my house has started loosening. Also honey bees have started building their hives in the empty house of the stare (a bird).

Stanza XVII

      In the house we are closed in and our uncertainty has been finally affirmed by the turning of the sky. A man is killed or a house is burned somewhere and yet nothing clear and substantial emerges. Come and build in the empty house of the stare, O honey bees.

Stanza XVIII

      During roughly fourteen days of the Civil War, barricades of stones or wood were built. Last night a dead soldier was rolled and dragged down the road in his own blood. Come and build your hive in the empty house of the stare, O honey bees.

Stanza XIX

      Our heart has grown brutal by being fed too long on fantasies alone. Our rivalries and enmities somehow have in them more substance than is there in our love. O honey bees, come and build your hive in the empty house of the stare.


Stanza XX

      When I climb to the top of the tower and lean upon broken stone, I find that there is a mist sweeping over everything. This mist is like blown snow and covers the valley, the river and the elms. Above all this is the light of a moon which seems to be different from its real self and seems unchangeable. This moon is coming like a glittering sword out of the east. As I (Yeats) see all this, the white shining fragments of the mist and a puff of wind pass by me. I am bewildered by frenzies and my mind is perturbed by familiar but monstrous images fleeting before my mind’s eye.

Stanza XXI

      In the atmosphere, there are shouts like “Vengeance upon the murderers” and “Vengeance for Jacques Molay.” The soldiers are in rags which are pale like the clouds or they are in lace. They are driven by rage, tormented by rage and hungry for revenge. One soldier is beating another soldier. Biting at their own arm or face, the soldiers plunge towards, they know not what, and their arms and fingers are spread wide for embracing—God knows what. My wits being deranged by all this and this senseless noise getting on my nerves, even I (Yeats) almost cried for vengeance on the murderers of Jacques Molay (The grand master of the Templars).

Stanza XXII

      Magical unicorns (a fabulous animal like a horse) with long? delicate and slender legs and bluish green shining eyes bear ladies on their backs and the ladies close their contemplating eyes which could not be closed even by prophecies remembering out of Babylonian legends. The minds of these ladies are like a pool where even desire drowns under its own excess. Their hearts are full of their own sweetness and their bodies are full of loveliness. What remains is nothing but stillness.

Stanza XXIII

      All these things—the unicorns which are pale like clouds, the bluish-green eyes, the quivering half-closed eyelids; and the rags of soldiers or the eyes brightened by rage and the arms made lean by rage—all these things have been replaced by shameless impudent hawks. The innumerable clanging wings of these hawks have eclipsed the moon. Even self-delighting reveries, hate of what is to come, pity for what is gone have all been replaced by a grip of claw and the complacency of eyes.

Stanza XXIV

      I turn away from all this, shut the door and as I go up the stairs, I wonder how many times it would have been possible for me to have proved my worth in something which could be shared or understood by all. But the trouble is that proving my worth would have brought to me a company of friends and a conscience set at ease and these things would have made my heart pine still more. The things which really are worth something to the growing boy as the aging man are the abstract joy and the half-read wisdom which daemonic images bring with them.

Critical Analysis


      Meditations in Time of Civil War occupies an important place in Yeats poetic work. It contains a generous humanitarian response to the Irish Civil War and also brings in a lot of personal examination on Yeats’s part. The poem is also memorable for the peculiar thought patterns which it consists of One of the special achievements of the poem is its being able to contain and sustain an ever-expanding network of transferring energies and of active interrelations. It is not one but many realities which go into the making of the poem’s world. The poem’s world, as a result turns out to be a world of vigorous actions and of process and event. The poem is also notable for its memorable lines and striking images. All in all, poem gives enough evidence of the fineness of human response which Yeats as a poet was capable of

Development of Thought

      The poem has seven sections in all. The First Section is called ‘Ancestral Houses.’ The section opens with a reference to the ancestral house of the noble families which are on the verge of destruction along with the values they stood for. These houses, Yeats says have been symbols of the spontaneous flowing life which like a rainy cloud showered life around them and the higher it mounted and more abundant its gifts of rain became. But now, Yeats says all this is a vanishing dream.

      Yeats goes on to say that a noble house like Lady Gregory’s Coole Park, may have been built by some violent man who, however, called architects and artists (who were bitter men himself) who raised a structure where sweetness and gentleness resided which people around had never known may reside.

      In Section Second Yeats talks of his own house and describes the various objects around it. He also talks of its winding stairs, its chamber with a stone fire-place and a lighted, candle and the open page of a book. Yeats is the second owner of this house and is anxious to leave behind a legacy of a lonely mind which he considers a befitting symbol of human pride in adversity.

      The Third section deals with a symbol of the permanence of art in a world where all things change and pass. It is Sato’s sword given to Yeats by a Japanese.

      In the Fourth section Yeats talks of his descendant and of what he had. inherited from his fore-fathers a vigorous mind. He wants to leave the same (a vigorous mind) for his descendants.

      The Fifth section is called ‘The Road at My Door.’ It brings in reference to an irregular soldier of the Civil War and to a brown Lieutenant and his men.

      In section Sixth, Yeats refers to the honey-bees whom he sees as a symbol of sweetness. They are building in his house, amid the violence and fury of civil strife which is raging outside. The bees offer a contrast to men whose minds are guided more by hatred than sweetness.

      The Seventh section of the poem is quite long and Yeats here creates a nightmare in which slaughter and vengeance are the major elements. Two visions which pass before Yeats’s troubled and bewildered mind’s that of noble ladies mounted on pure white icons, and the second vision is that civilization on the brink of collapse. It is a vision of dark night in which wings of brazan hawk flap. These hawks serve a two-fold symbolized function. They are symbolical not only of the fierce gaiety of tragic ruin but also of the straight path of logic and mechanism. The last lines of the poem expresses. Yeats’s desire that he should have been a man of action. But he soon dismisses this ambition as not being satisfactory. Yeats concludes that for the aged poet, the contemplation of abstract images and their half-read wisdom worthy of a prophet are quite sufficient.


      The most striking thing about Meditations in Time of Civil War is its ability to sustain intensity throughout such a long poem. The poem has a remarkable coincidence of period or a stanza. An intensifying pattern of arguments runs from beginning to the end of the poem. At the same time there is a progress enrichment of ideas taking place all the time. All these give the poem what may be called an ‘intensity of pattern.’

Critical Opinion

      John Crowe Ransome has this to say about Meditations in Time of Civil War: “It is magnificent, being both large and intense, it is, uncompromising in its sense of values; and it is austere and humble enough in its expectations.”

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