The Passage of Time, Youth and Old Age in W. B. Yeats’s Poetry

Sanjhee Gianchandani, Lady Shri Ram College for Women, University of Delhi

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This paper seeks to ruminate on the concepts of time through the passage of human age from youth to old age. The poetry of William Butler Yeats stands on the crucial intersection between the literary epochs of the Victorians and the Romantics; however in his later poems he shares the desire of the modernists to “find him[self] and not an image” examining his poetic oeuvre in this light, one can find evident anxieties and conflicts about his personal and poetic mortality. This essay seeks to unravel some of the uncertainties abound in the works using his poems, “Sailing to Byzantium” and “Among School Children” as points of reference.

“Sailing to Byzantium” begins with an explicit address of the “self” trying to create a niche for itself. The evocative lines like, “That is no Country for old men” and “those dying generations” appropriately convey the idea. The poet seems to view his situation with a “panoptic” vision (to use the concept of Jeremy Bentham) which implies a complete and critically conscious view of the reality one is enmeshed in. In the poem, ‘Byzantium’ symbolizes the perfection of art, a “changeless” entity and more importantly, a spiritual life unaffected by temporality. Yeats himself argues stating that “ I have always come to this certainty: what moves natural men in the arts is what moves them in life, and that is, the intensity of personal life…” For him, the personal, the political and the historical are interpenetrating, inseparable entities which are invariably present as subtexts in majority of his poems.

A very important line that also forms the crux of the entire poem is that, “Whatever is begotten, born and dies” implying that all organic things are subject to decay and disintegration. Thus all permanence is detached from a living organism. Having accepted this version of reality, Yeats seeks inspiration in “monuments” since they stand for eternity and timelessness which cannot be ravaged by the continuous passage of time. He seeks to fix his poetry, or to “monumentalize” it in other words since he sees it as a piece of art installed in a particular time and space. He envisages immortality for his work against his own mortality, which is the aspiration of every artist. The dichotomy thus lies between the “ageing body” and the “unageing intellect” .

An important concept to be explained in this regard is how Yeats conceived of History which is elucidated in his own work “A Vision” wherein he states that the movement of history can be diagrammatically represented in the movement of a ‘gyre’ Yeats compares the inevitable pattern of this movement to the growth of living being with each species having its own variation of the fundamental paradigm. Geometrically, the gyre starts at its origin and moves progressively wider in a spiral, while time adds another dimension, creating the form of the vortex or funnel. Once the gyre reaches its point of maximum expansion it then begins to narrow until it reaches its end-point which is also the origin of the new gyre. Thus it consists of both centripetal and centrifugal forces, with the notions of Time, Age, Beauty and Truth thrown in for churning, causing complete havoc and destruction in the process. This movement also encompasses a return to consciousness and a greater civilizational shift. The movement is called ‘synthesis’ which is the result of interaction between the opposing forces of theses and ‘anti-thesis’ of the corresponding gyres. Also the center or the mutual point of the two opposing gyres forms the “point of stability” or the period of perfection and allows for the development of fresh creative impulses. Byzantium, for the poet thus stands for this particular space. His fears about mortality and the continuous passage of time can be explained with regard to the teleological functioning of history.

There is always an apocalyptic change that heralds a civilizational change which can also be connected to the notion of “tragic joy” propagated by Friedrich Nietzsche which is a dualistic notion combining the terrible and the beautiful. In the poem, the cataclysmic change seems to be the realization and acceptance of death in conflict with the state of his work after his death. Thus he creates a sense of immortality in the figure of the “golden bird” which is a permanent artifact. This idea can be compared with that of John Keats’ idea of the art-object in his “Ode on a Grecian Urn” wherein the Urn retains its grandeur through millennia. The golden bird thus sings of past times as well as of times to come.

It is also argued that the bird functions in the text primarily as a “distancing device” and its own sense of beauty and permanence help render its master, his own fears of old age and death while portraying transformation not destruction. The irony here lies in the fact that he is seeking permanence in a sterile object because ultimately the bird cannot sing. Therefore one can question the kind of permanence it actually has. This is a form of artificial preservation illustrated by the phrase “artifice of eternity.” Process of death and renewal happens in natural beings, bound to the processes of history. The paradox lies in the fact that it is the ideal state but he laments his own achievement of it. He wants to hold on to something unnatural to preserve his work through “melting time”. This concept of free- floating time has also been visually illustrated by the Modernist painter, Salvador Dali in his piece titled, “The Persistence of Memory”.

The choice of form, the Ottava Rima too exhibits similar concerns as it is a classical form that the poet uses to resurrect his selfhood. In contrast, in his later poems titled Byzantium, he tries to come to terms with death as artistically as possible. Elsewhere Yeats states, “An early conviction of mine that the creative power of the lyric poet depends upon his accepting some of a few traditional attitudes, lover, sage, hero, scorner of life”, this statement suggests that the formation of his aesthetic was not logically controlled and that it was evoked by memory and elaborated through the use of symbols. He insists on the idealistic view of an object while troubled by the fact that human creativity is the result of deterministic external forces. He avers that “all art is not mere storytelling or mere portraiture, is symbolic… and forms a part of the “divine essence”

His poem “Among School Children” also exemplifies his coming to terms with his literal age. The poetic persona walks through the schoolroom questioning and contrasting young children with his sixty-six year old self. He juxtaposes his perspective with theirs. The “smiling public man” indicates that a healthy acceptance of age has taken over the bitter, unfulfilled poetic persona as was evident in “Sailing to Byzantium.” He also imagines Maud Gonne’s childhood as part of his introspective process and what their relationship would have been like if they had met as young adults. John Wain argues that the “main subject of the poem is the relationship or interpenetration of matter and spirit.” The larger theme of the poem is autobiographical as it highlights what Yeats conceives of his future by saying all that he thinks all men would be reduced to “old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird.” He expounds the idea that all men, irrespective of their fame would be converted to the same dilapidated state upon their deaths. He also envisages that mothers would not be able to bear the “pangs of childbirth” if they knew the future of their children. “The uncertainty of his setting forth” is actually the uncertainty in the poet’s mind about death. Humans are also susceptible to decay and degeneration. He uses the concept of “telescoping” to discuss the past, present and the future. The term “ghostly paradigms” are used to refer to the state of each individual, which would also be a reference to the “ghosts of modernism” that haunted Yeats by his own admission.

The poem also talks about the metaphorical representation of the birth of art by an artist struggling with the prospect of eternalizing his work to create a certain model of perfection. This is a deliberate shift from the mundane to the metaphysical to highlight the inherent dejection of the poet. Also an important idea propagated is that creative artists lose their body to gain a higher wisdom. Knowledge is thus the price to pay for old age. Also the concept of time in Yeats’ poetry is showcased in his poem, “The Phases of the Moon” wherein time is divided into twenty-eight phases. August Martin lucidly explains the philosophy behind his symbolism: “certain periods of history seem to be favorable for the development of human excellence and social harmony. Of these the Athens of Phidias, the Byzantine Empire and the Italian Renaissance stand out for their political culture, their cultivation of arts and their high sense of human excellence, all of which are summarized in Yeats’ term “unity of being”.”

Yeats emphasized that it is the “making” that launching him into an imaginative world of freedom, a world under the control of his creative will. He urges the reader to participate in the literary imagination by participating in the poet’s creative illusion for him, growth and maturity are notions that stir his intellectual capacity; he uses folklore, myths and traditions to reach to the future after withstanding the storms of the present, but having deeper roots in the remote past. To conclude in the words inscribed on his gravestone, “Cast a cold eye/On life, on death/Horseman, pass by!”


Yeats, William Butler. A Vision in The Collected Works of W. B. Yeats, Volume XIII: A Vision. ed Catherine. E. Paul New York: Simon and Schuster, 2008.

Martin, August W.B Yeats. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan Ltd, 1983.

McIntyre, Alan The Sovereignty of Joy: Nietzsche’s Vision of Grand Politics Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1997.

Bentham, Jeremy. The Panopticon Writings. London: Verso 2010.

Sanjhee Gianchandani is currently pursuing Masters in English Literature from Lady Shri Ram College for Women, University of Delhi.

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