Astronomical Symbols in Selected Poems of W.B. Yeats

Raju Ta, Visva-Bharati University

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   “I have desired like every artist, to create a little world out of the beautiful, pleasant and  

     significant things of this marred and clumsy world”-The Celtic Twilight

Through this line Yeats has excellently delineated his creative world. His creative world is pervaded by multiple poetic styles. His use of symbol has added to the glory and aura to that poetic endeavour. His poetry stretches across the whole period of the late Victorian and Early Modern ages. Through this period he has shown maturity and mastery in handling the different poetic style. Ronald Carter has rightly commented that “Yeats’s poetry undergoes more marked changes during these years than that of Hardy. Yeats is not as restlessly experimental as T.S. Eliot, but he is not as content as Hardy to work with traditional forms and poetic subject matter.” (The Routledge History of Literature in English,335). He is thought to have passed through three main stages of development. Through these three stages he had shown different meanings of the same entity. He had immense liking towards sun, moon and star. These are the basic antinomies. He recurrently referred to them. If we probe deeper , we can have the idea of how he had created multiple layer of meaning for the same thing. His symbols convey meanings not from one fixed point but rather from several points.

     Symbol is a way of revelation of higher truth-arriving imaginative truth in literary works. Idea of symbol has changed in course of time. But still its function has not diminished. Carlyle has pertinently pointed out:

             It is in and through symbols that man, consciously or unconsciously, lives, works,

               and has his being: those ages, moreover, are accounted the noblest which can the

             best recognize symbolical worth, and prize it highest.” (Sarter Resartes, Book3, Chapter3)

Symbols add to the inexhaustible supply of meanings and association. As in most symbolical thoughts, the moon is actually the light of the changing, transitory world. In Yeats it is the source of subjective perception, whereas, the sun is the source of light of the super sensory world, the light of the fundamental laws of the universe. Yeats had early interest in the light and dark effect.

     These entities-sun, moon and star have the touch of something divine. They are the sources of God-like force which pulsate through nature. Different cultures of different societies cherish different thoughts. Ireland was once rich in astronomical mythologies. Even in the place name one can find astronomical reference. There is mystery of creation in Irish folklore about how the earth has contained life after the stars begin to shine. Naturally people in Ireland had bent towards these astronomical entities and this is reflected in the titles of the book such as The Plough and the Stars by O’Casey, The Rising of the Moon by Gregory etc. Irish art and culture experienced the solar illumination-direct representation of the moon and the sun. Irish ballad had revered this archetype for the perfect presentation of the natural world-“I bid unto myself today/ the virtues of the star-lit heaven/ the glorious sun’s light giving ray, the whiteness of the moon at even…” (The Liturgy of St. Patrick). Even Shakespeare did not forget to mention the animals’ closeness to the nature when he writes in As You Like It –“Like the howling of Irish wolves against the moon” (5.3.92). All these create a mystical element in Irish literature. Yeats was too much concerned with this mystical element. He puts it thus:

     “…the mystical life is the centre of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write”. (Letter to O’ Leary, July 23, 1892)

This interest in mystical world led him to employ images, and pattern of oppositional configuration. However, it is difficult to find particular and consistent meaning of these two entities in Yeats’ poetic world.

     At the outset Yeats had interest towards the romantic efflorescence and exuberance of Nature. However, in course of time he aspired towards reality. He evoked this reality evolved from his personal experience. As an Irish he was imbued with the myth, folklore, and dreamy landscape of Ireland. His genius was ‘the greatest of all powers, capable of evoking Nature’s memory itself’ (Balachandra Rajan, p.28). His early poems had emotion but this emotion had developed later into intellect. Emotion and intellect together creates a rich poetic world. Symbols of moon, sun and star play the main parts in supplying the inexhaustible meaning and association in Yeats’ world.

   In his earlier poetry he had drawn upon the fairy and folktales of Ireland. Therefore, we find reference to Gaelic legends, the Cuchulain saga and the Tales of Fianna in abundance. So we find the figure of Cuchulain in the poem ‘Cuchulain’s Fight with the Sea’. This poem is written in dramatic style. It recounts Cuchulain’s slaughter of a young challenger whom he later discovers to be his son. Therefore, tinge of melancholy like that of Shelley can be found. Image of star serves the role of expressing the potent idea of sadness.

                       ‘Whether under its daylight or its stars

                         My father stands amid his battle-cars.’


                         Yet somewhere under starlight or the sun

                         My father stands.

                         ‘I only ask what way my journey lies,

                         For He who made you bitter made you wise.’

                                                                                 (Cuchulain’s Fight with the Sea)

Love is an important theme in Yeats. Generally, ‘Rose’ is associated with love and romance. In Yeats’ ‘To the Rose upon the Rood of Time’ ‘Rose’ suggests beautiful symbol of nationalism in Ireland. In his early years Yeats was swayed by the nationalist idea of the revolutionaries. This poem sings the paean of the early mythic characters of history. Here, image of ‘stars’ evokes the early mythic characters in history.

                                     …whereof stars, grown old

                         In dancing silver-sandalled on the sea,

                       Sing in their high and lonely melody.

                                                            (To the Rose upon the Rood of Time)

   Moon which is traditionally associated with love finds brilliant place in Yeats’s poem ‘The Sorrow of Love’ to evoke the melancholies of love. This poem is brilliant for the interweaving of man with Nature. Love finds its predominance even within its infusing notes of somberness.

                       A climbing moon upon an empty sky,

                     And all that lamentation of the leaves,

                     Could but compose man’s image and his cry.

                                                                                 (The Sorrow of Love)

The image and symbol of the moon in association with ‘lamentation of the leaves’ creates a gloomy atmosphere in unison with the girl’s gloominess.

In ‘He Wishes His Beloved were Dead’ he wishes that Maud Gonne would come to ‘murmur tender words of forgiveness’. This love is not animating or exhilarating. Rather this love is buried and dead as Gonne’s love has slowly dwindled away from him. Probably there is an element of hostility and benevolence in this love because Yeats’ love has proved to be failure. So poet’s helplessness is expressed reasonably. Here, the astronomical association has rendered perfect ambience to that kind of love. Here is the succinct picture of it:

                   About the stars and moon and sun:

                   O would, beloved, that you lay

                   Under the cock-leaves in the ground,

                  While lights were paling one by one.

                                                           (He Wishes His Beloved Were Dead)

Actually the poetry of the first phase of Yeats was marked by exuberance of romantic nostalgia and these lines of the poems reveal the potent relationship of the astronomical nature and the people in general. There is evocation of Irish background.

   The superstition of moon in association with animal is also stated in Yeats’ poem ‘The Cat and the Moon.’ Here, the cat is the black Persian cat which once belonged to Maud Gonne. The moon is thought to have a sacred place in Celtic belief. Yeats was very much aware of it and he notes down this fact in his poem. It has feminine quality. Through the metaphor of the moon and the cat the basic relationship between Yeats and Maud Gonne is explored. Maud is now a lost love but still she is serving as the muse behind Yeats’ poetry. The moon is now shedding ‘pure cold light’ and this actually makes disturbance on him. Moreover, the love proves to a matter of inconsistency on their part -“Maybe the moon may learn,/ Tired of that courtly fashion,/ A new dance turn.” The waning phase of the moon actually marks this point.

                           From moonlit place to place,

                          The sacred moon overheard

                           Has taken a new phase.

                                                         (The Cat and the Moon)

This image of the moon as the creative impulse is not new in Yeats’ poetic ideas. He uses it more explicitly in his poem ‘Lines Written in Dejection’. It is rooted in romantic self-lamentation like the poems such as Coleridge’s ‘Dejection: An Ode’, Shelley’s ‘Stanzas Written in Dejection December 1818, Near Naples’. This poem presents the mid-life ebb of the imagination, the loss of power to sustain creativity on the part of Yeats. The poem centers round the opposition between the feminine moon which presides over the imagination and the masculine sun which presides over the physical world. Having reached fifteen years of age Yeats surrenders himself to his pathetic condition. So ‘the dark leopards of the moon’ has gone with their ‘round green eyes’ and ‘long wavering bodies’. Yeats must have to endure the rejected and dejected state of mind:

                           The holy centaurs of the hill are vanished;

                           I have nothing but the embittered sun;

                           Banished heroic mother moon and vanished,

                           And now that I have come to fifty years

                           I must endure the timid sun.

                                                                                       (Lines Written in Dejection)

Here the ‘timid sun’ indicates the light vitality of mind and creativity. This would not make his writings so powerful. Rather, it would make him ‘embittered’ to think about his fruitful creative life. So he would have to put up with it.

‘The Second Coming’ is a poem commenting severely upon the horrors of the First World War.

Here is an image of a Sphinx-like figure whose gaze is compared to that of the sun:

                                                         Somewhere in sands of the desert

                             A shape with lion body and the head of a man,

                             A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,

                             Is moving its slow thighs,

                                                                                          (The Second Coming)

The note is indeed modern. Actually the early effusion of romantic impulsion gradually leads way to hard-core modern idea. He uses the same astronomical metaphoric entity in new style. So he fuses the image of terrible beauty with imaginative convulsion and evocation. Though it is taken from traditional Greek myth, it does not lack in modernity. Indeed, “It took a later generation of Modernists to savor the dissonance between fact and myth with full appreciation of the aesthetic possibilities” (Albright, Daniel). Yeats attained the unattainable by fusing aestheticism with modernism.

     Yeats’ ‘The Tower’ records his mature experience of life. It is an emblem of the accretion of history and the purity of solitude. A. Norman Jeffares has written in his book A New Commentary on the Poems of W.B. Yeats about Yeats’ style of writings:

       “He uses a symbolism which is direct speech, it records the richness of his life as well as

         its bitterness”. (xiv)

Leaving the romantic fragments he is now concerned with reality. He beckons to the ‘images and memories’ from ruins of houses to create translucent pieces of works. Then he throws ample light on the poetic creed. Actually the poet establishes the fact that recapitulation forms the mainstay of creative writing which is a journey down memory lane. This creative piece may have frenzied effect upon the imagination. This is explained through the symbol of ‘moon’ and ‘sunlight’:

                    O may the moon and sunlight seem

                     One inextricable beam,

                     For if I triumph I must make men mad.

                                                                               (The Tower)

Moon, sun and star, according to Yeats, have spectacularly visionary effects upon the literary artifacts. Those may cast ‘mighty memories’ and these ‘memories through which the poet defines his own self, constitute the very staff which imagination, a transcendent faculty, can work into poetry’ (L.N.Gupta). Yeats thus puts down:

                   Aye, sun and moon and star, all,

                   And further add to that

                   That, being dead, we rise,

                   Dream, and so create

                  Translunar Paradise.

                                                         (The Tower)

Here, ‘Translunar Paradise’ suggests the realm beyond the visible world where the soul and body reside in their perfection. The ‘superhuman/Mirror-resembling dream’ reflects a self-legislated reality which is the expression of bitter soul.

In this way Yeats has recurrently used the astronomical symbols. Some of the uses are extremely original. These symbols serve as a means of resolving some of the dichotomies in life that had arrested Yeats’ interest from the very beginning of the literary career. Yeats had finely embraced the new literary mode and medium to express the vision of the ages. In this regard, he has become successful. Indeed,

            Yeats’s art has lost its roots in popular love and folk belief, so that he is left with only

             the intellectual elaborateness of a desiccated civilization.

                                                                     (Thomas Parkinson)

Yeats’ astronomical symbols are evocative and sensitive. They embody Yeats’ intellect and emotion to cope up with the modern situation leaving behind the last trail of romantic glinting as he is aptly called the ‘Last Romantic’.

Works cited

Albright, Daniel.“Yeats and Modernism”. The Cambridge Companion to W.B. Yeats. Ed. Marjorie Howes & John Kelly. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Print.

Carlyle, Thomas. Sartor Resartes. Ed. Kerry McSweeney and Peter Sabor. New York: Oxford University press, 2008. Print.

Carter, Ronald and John McRae. The Routledge History of Literature in English. London: Routledge; New York: Taylor & Francis Group, 2008. Print.

Gupta, L.N. Modern Literary Discourse: Critical Studies in Yeats, Eliot and Lawrence. Kolkata: Sarat Book Distributors, 2014. Print.

Jeffares A. Norman. A Commentary on the Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats. California: Stanford University Press, 1968. Print.

W.B.Yeats: Selected Poetry. Kolkata: Radha Publishing House, 2011. Print.

Parkinson, Thomas. “The Sun and the Moon in Yeats’s Early Poetry.” Chicago Journals 50.1(1952): 50-58. JSTOR.Web. 26 June.2015

Rajan, Balachandra. W.B. Yeats: A Critical Introduction. London: Hutchinson & Company, Print.

Shakespeare, William. As You Like It. Ed. Agnes Latham. Bangalore: Methuen & Co. Ltd, Print.

Warren, Frederick Edward. The Liturgy and Ritual of the Celtic Church. Madison: University  of Wiskonsin Press, 1987. Print.

Yeats, W.B. The Celtic Twilight. New York: Prism Press, 1990. Print.

Raju Ta is a Ph.D. Research Scholar, Visva-Bharati University

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