The Cold Heaven: by W. B. Yeats - Summary & Analysis

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      Staring at the sky filled with the flight of rooks, Yeats sees it transformed into a sheet of burning ice. This kindles his imagination. All casual thought disappears from his mind and his whole being remembers only the frustrated love experienced in youth. His old (and cold) heart is heated with a sense of regret in which he takes the whole blame of the failure upon himself and shakes and rocks to and fro as his heart is “riddled” (shot through or confused) with the light of reality issuing from past memories. He wonders if his tortured soul when released from the confusion of death-bed, will be sent to wander, exposed to the burning ice of the sky, to be punished.

Critical Analysis


      The Cold Heaven is from the volume of Yeats’s poetry “Responsibilities” (1914). Maud Gonne had separated from John MacBride in 1905. Yeats had resumed his friendship with her. He continued to write love poetry about her with an elegiac note. However, none of the poems, though they are all intensely expressive of a man who gave all his heart and lost, can match the widely passionate outcry of The Cold Heaven, which is metaphysical in its mixture of blood and spirit, its tense questioning, its evocation of mood, as Nonnan Jeffares has pointed out.

Critical Appreciation

      The Cold Heaven is slightly difficult and not absolutely clear in meaning, though the general idea is fairly clear. The complexity leads the poem to be interpreted variously. On a trivial level, it would be enough to say that Yeats is recalling how much he loved Maud Gone. But on a rich symbolic level, the poem gives rise to speculations about the ethical structure of the universe. It has been regarded as a “reservoir of possibilities.” The difficulty comes through the speculation about an after-life. When Maud Gonne asked Yeats the meaning of this poem, he said that he had attempted to describe the feelings aroused in him by the cold and aloof beautiful winter sky. He felt alone, and responsible in his loneliness for all his past mistakes that tortured his mind. The poem was the crystallization of a moment of intense dream-like perception, where physical surroundings remained fixed in the mind, accentuating the years of thought and reality that passed in review.

      Vague nostalgia hardens into a heart-breaking emotion, and many different sentiments—desire, desperation and terror—are interwoven into a composite pattern of feeling. The atmosphere is strange—the frozen snow bums as the sun-rays fall on it. The image explains the nature of the poet’s agony. (It is significant to contrast the cold burning sky here to the heavens over laid with “embroidered cloths” of his earlier poems). A flash of memory of love frustrated comes to the poet’s mind. He does not blame his beloved for his misery. He realizes that his love affair has been a miserable failure and that he had wasted his life in pursuit of something that did not exist. The feeling that his whole past has been meaningless leads him to the thought of death and he imagines what might happen to his ghost. Would it be sent out naked on the roads for punishment? The vision of the agony of the spirit in the burning frost inspires terror.

      The burning ice ties two apparently opposed subjects in a felt unity—the burning passions of youth balance the freezing naked soul of a dead old man. And the soul, “naked on the roads,” is stricken by the coldly burning skies for punishment. Why is the soul punished? The poem seems to offer two possibilities. The naked soul is to be burned by the cold sky for his failure to bring his passion to fruition in love; or he is to be punished for his recklessly assuming the blame for the failure of love, in which case the cold skies will ultimately force an anguish on his soul the vision of which he has already - seen—in being “riddled with light” or shot through with light and insight. However, these two possibilities do not seem entirely right or entirely wrong in themselves. There is a hint of confusion—the poet seems “riddled with light” in the sense of being puzzled and tormented by the shining light of reality. Thus the poem ends with a question.

      The vast expanse of sky tears away illusions and shatters emotional well being. The poet’s mind regrets lost opportunities as he is tormented by the searing memories of “love crossed long ago.” The cold burning sky has no shelter, or hope of escape from the responsibilities of self, and pierces the poet’s innermost being with cruel light. As the memories of his past emotional life overwhelm the poet’s mind, he speculates whether after death a ghost has also to undergo the memories of past life as a purgatorial experience inflicted by “the injustice of the skies.”

      The poem has to be understood in the context of how Yeats used his poetic material, especially the symbolic images and scenes. Yeats considered the use of an image to involve a careful study of its possible meanings, its possible philosophical implication, and its possible relations with other significant images. Through the image of birds, for instance, Yeats drew a whole range of felt values — lightness, flight, freedom, quickness of intellect, or speech. Birds sing and hence their link with the artist; they fly in thin air, and hence they are linked with the after-life. The “rook delighting” sky, therefore, is a visionary scene which inspires Yeats to speculate on the afterlife.

      The poem is a confrontation with himself, and in style as well as emotion it is stark and naked. Emotionally, there is a refusal to accept anything but the naked truth about himself. In the matter of style, there is a change from the earlier manner which, Yeats felt, was not capable of expressing the intensity and subtle nuances of a voice tormented by sorrow. The terrible fury of passion is controlled, but this very controlling of passions brings with it a new intensity. The poem, is perhaps the greatest lyric in this collection “Responsibilities”, close in texture, subtle in logic and starting in its imaginative daring.

Critical Explanation

L.l. Rook-delighting heaven—i.e. The sky seems to take pleasure in the flight of the rooks.
L.2. That seemed...the more ice—The paradox of “ice burned” is not wholly fanciful, even though he image is striking. In actual experience the extreme coldness of ice if held or touched for a long time does produce a burning sensation. The poet implies that the passion of love burns his heart though it has become cold because of old age. Ice—refers to the incapacity of old age. Burned—refers to the passion of youth recollected in old age. (The passion relates to Maud Gonne).
L.3. Thereupon—On seeing the icy-burning expanse of the sky, the poet goes wild (with excitement or pain). No casual thought remains in his mind and he is filled with memories of his love for Maud Gonne. He remembers the frustration in his love for her. Love crossed: frustration.
L.7. I Took all the blame—i.e. of the failure in love.
L.9. Riddled with light: i.e. tortured by the light of memories and sense of failure. “Riddled” is a word which can mean “filled” or “struck repeatedly” (with questions of facts) or puzzled. When the ghost begins to quicken—i.e. when he dies and his ghost is released. L.10. Confusion of the death-bed—i.e. when man hovers between life and death on his death-bed.
L.12. The injustice of the skies—i.e. the coldly burning sky meeting out unjust punishment. The sky is associated with purgatory.

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