Yeats’s Poetry Preoccupation with Age & Vanishing Youth and Beauty

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      One of Years central theme is preoccupation with age and associated to it, the concern with mortality & the cycle of rebirth is basic to earthly life. The theme fascinates and occurs again and again in his poems. Right through his poetic career, Yeats felt deeply about the problems of age and the vanishing of youth and beauty. In When You are Old, he brings out the situation of old age when the soft look of the eye is only a dream and beauty has vanished.

      The concern about age becomes more dominant in Yeats’s later poetry. The Byzantium poems both attempt to compensate for old age by moving away from the teeming world of biological growth and change to a timeless world of art and intellect, a world of golden artifacts. In Sailing to Byzantium, Yeats calls an old man:

a paltry thing
A tattered coat upon a stick

      An aged man is useless and the condition of old age is contemptible. A man in his old age can give some significance to his life an escape being contemptible only by leaving the world of sensual desires and contemplating a world of spirituality and art that is permanent. Yeats is fully conscious of “the dying generations” drifting on the stream of flux and revelling in sexual delight, and all singing in praise of “whatever is begotten, born, and dies.” The young in one another’s arms, the birds, the fish, and all animals are caught up in the urge of generation, which is only found to end in death. Such a world is not a fit place for an old man whose soul must clap its hands and sing and louder sing to draw him towards the “artifice of eternity.” In Byzantium Yeats refers to the “complexities, the fury and the mire of human veins” which trouble man all along, while the golden bird is “changeless.”

      In the later poems, the old man often becomes the symbol of the tyranny wrought by time. The heart becomes “comprehending” but is, unfortunately, now attached to a “dying animal.” In The Tower, Yeats calls the aged body an “absurdity”—

.....this caricature
Decrepit age that has been tied to me
As to a dog’s tail .....

      Thus, he echoes the “tattered coat upon a stick” of Sailing to Byzantium. What troubled Yeats was the fact that age in physical tennis had not blunted his mind or his senses. The “excited passionate, fantastical imagination” had to be curbed and directed towards abstract things, for the body was becoming more and more shattered.

      In Among School Children, Yeats refers to an old man (himself in this case) as “a comfortable kind of old scarecrow”—again recalling, though in a more good-humored tone than the tattered coat upon a stick” of Sailing to Byzantium. He asks if it is worthwhile for a woman to undergo all the pain and pangs of childbirth when the baby is only to look like a scarecrow at the age of sixty odd years. No one—not even the great philosophers—are anything more than “old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird.”

      In A Dialogue of Self and Soul, however, Yeats is much more reconciled to old age. Self does not agree with the Soul’s view that one should fix one’s eyes on spiritual things alone in old age. In the end, he is ready to forgive himself everything, content to follow everything to its source and understand its significance. In Lapis Lazuli, old age brings the wisdom of experience, or “tragic gaiety”— wisdom that can accept with equanimity and joy the rise and fall of civilization and by implication decay and death in human life. The wrinkles of the old China-men in the carving indicate that their serenity is the product of the experience of life and the insight gained in old age.

      Yeats’s attitude to old age cannot be typified. He sees it as a time when the continuing vigor of the mind revolts against the increasing feebleness of the body. On the one hand he seems to say that in old age one should try to steer clear of the sensual mire. On the other hand, he commends the value of desire and vigor of mind even if the body is decaying, for in that lies the spirit of his ability to create poetry. Old age is certainly a handicap to the still vigorous sensual desires, as he laments in Politics:

But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms.
But then with old age can be achieved the discovery of the tragic joy of life—significance and meaning of life’s sufferings and the knowledge that construction will follow destruction.

University Questions

Discuss Yeats’s attitude to old age as revealed in the poems you have read.
One of the central themes of Yeats’s poetry is his preoccupation with age and the vanishing of youth and beauty. Discuss with illustrations from the poems you have read.
In Yeats’s poetry, especially in the poems of his last years, “the continuing vigor of his mind and sense is in revolt against the enfeeblement of his body.” Elucidate with reference to the poems you have read.

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