Permanence of the Impermanent in Selected Poems by William Butler Yeats

Irum Alvi, Rajasthan Technical University, Kota, Rajasthan

Download PDF Version

“There is nothing permanent except change.”— Heraclitus

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), is one of the greatest poets of Ireland. He is a renowned leader of Irish Renaissance. Yeats deals with the theme of the permanence of impermanence in his work. He continues experimentations with it even in his later works. The theme of permanence of impermanence is expanded and investigated from various perspectives. He deals with permanence of impermanence in all aspects of life making it an important feature of his poetry. His concept is that all of conditioned life, without any exceptions, is transitory. It is in an invariable condition of flux and movement. The mutability of life, a central characteristic of impermanence, is visible in several of his poems. This paper focuses on how he uses visual images to show the permanence of impermanence in his poems.

The spiritual temperament of Yeats gives him an insight into the concept of the permanence of impermanence. He asserted it in a letter written in 1892, “The mystical life is the centre of all that I do & all that I think & all that I write” (Yeats, 1954: p. 303). He makes use of Irish myths and mythologies to portray the phenomenon from a unique angle. His farsighted understanding of the phenomenon of the permanence of impermanence is concealed in his mysticism and occultism. His great philosophical work A Vision offers an opportunity to grasp his awareness of this pervasive experience. A Vision not only provides a prototype to comprehend earthly transience incidents, but also shows the relationship between his visual imagery and the theme of the permanence of impermanence. He makes use of two important visual images —the Gyres and the Great Wheel to portray impermanence or change, as a fact of all existence. He demonstrates that it is not only an experience of the animate but also applies to inanimate existence, though only the animate feel pain and suffer due to it.

Yeats makes use of the gyres as an image, which is depicted as two cones which go through each other in the poem A Vision. These gyres possess antithetical traits and with change one becomes more determining than the other. Change or motion of the gyres show the transience of all things associated with life, the past and the present, the birth and death, the rise and downfall, the flow and recession etc. In “The Gyres” are visual images that symbolize the impermanence of world as they map out the rise and fall of societies and cultures as well as life and death of man. In the first stanza, Yeats stresses everything is impermanent by linking it with the movement. Nothing is permanent. He states:

The gyres! The gyres! Old Rocky Face, look forth;

Things thought too long can not be thought,

For beauty dies of beauty, worth of worth,

And ancient lineaments are blotted out. (Yeats, 2008: p. 249)

He talks of impermanence and change again in the following words:

A great, a more gracious time has gone;

…and all things run

On that unfashionable gyre again. (p. 249)

Change or impermanence is the central attribute of all phenomenal existence in the poems by Yeats. He shows that nothing animate or inanimate can be labeled as lasting as it will definitely undergo change. Everything in the world is transitory. The falcon’s turning in the widening gyres is another exquisite visual image created by Yeats, taken from nature in “The Second Coming”:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer; (p. 158)

The falcon motion takes it away from the trainer to such an extent that it can’t listen to the falconer’s voice. Motion causes change and the falcon becomes the visual image of mankind itself that is lost and unable to come to terms with its reality. Yeats also depicts the Tree of Life and Tree of Knowledge as the transformed cones in “The Two Trees”. He seems to assert that existence can be understood only if the basic facts are understood, not only logically, but also in agreement with one’s own experiences. Insight or wisdom which is the ultimate liberating factor consists of this experience or realization of the permanence of impermanence. To see things as they really are means seeing them time after time in the light of knowledge. Ignorance or self-deception is by itself a potent cause for suffering by being caught in the net of bogus hopes, of idealistic and destructive desires, of fake ideologies, phony values and false endeavors in life man is lost. Ignoring or distorting the basic fact that all life is impermanent can only lead to dissatisfaction, disillusionment, and despondency.

The first stanza of this poem concerns the Tree of Life and the second stanza the Tree of Knowledge. All things in the universe alter between the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge, nothing is eternal:

The broken wall, the burning roof and tower

And Agamemnon dead. (p. 182)

Yeats portrays in “Veronica’s Napkin”, the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified. The manifestation of this visual image used by Yeats shows the desire for liberation and attainment of permanent glory.

The Father and His angelic hierarchy

That made the magnitude and glory there

Stood in the circuit of a needle’s eye.

Some found a different pole, and where it stood

A pattern on a napkin dipped in blood.

Nothing is permanent as even permanent structures like the tower in poems written by Yeats become linked to his theme of transience and change. He tackles the theme of transience and impermanence of life in his poem “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory”, Yeats declares in “Blood and the moon” that:

I declare this tower is my symbol; I declare

This widening, gyring, spiring treadmill of a stair is my ancestral stair; (p. 200)

As clearly discernible from the above mentioned lines the tower is a visual image, a symbol for self albeit it too is ever changing “widening, gyring spiring”. Yeats looks out from the tower not to a magical enchanted world but an impermanent and transient world that provokes him to think about his reality.

The Great Wheel is another important visual image used by Yeats in A Vision. The Great Wheel with twenty-eight spokes, each representing a year set out in lunar months. In this complex visual image every spoke signifies the twenty-eight possible selves, each being a mask of the one opposite. Every soul and every civilization passes through all twenty-eight phases of the wheel. Yeats in “The Phases of the Moon” says:

Twenty-and-eight the phases of the moon

The full and the moon’s dark and all the crescents

Twenty-and-eight, and yet but six-and-twenty

The cradles that a man must needs be rocked in

For there’s no human life at the full or the dark…(p. 138)

The moon itself is a visual image showing the permanence of impermanence. It rules over man’s life representing incarnation and change. It depicts mans desire for permanence and perpetuity.

Yeats mentions the idea of The Great Year in “The Wheel”:

Through winter time we call on spring,

And through the spring on summer call,

And when abounding hedges ring

Declare that winter’s best of all;

And after that there’s nothing good

Because the spring-time has not come—

Nor know that what disturbs our blood

Is but its longing for the tomb. (p. 179)

Yeats concern with this theme reminds one of Heraclitus’ “There is nothing permanent except change”. The determinedly distinguishing thing about the world is its transience. Even centuries have no advantage over the present instant due to their lack of permanence. The continuity of transience cannot give any consolation to man as the seasons change, life changes to death. Poets, painters and musicians struggle at their work, building lawless and lawful things. They exemplify the difference between the permanent and the transient.

Yeats marks the changing nature of life. He sees it and he portrays it with dispassionate discernment. He shows how, though change again and again speaks to them and makes them unhappy; they pursue their mad career of whirling round the wheel of existence and are twisted and torn between the spokes of agony. They treasure the conviction that somehow it will be possible for them to find permanent happiness in this transitory world, to find a core of security in this sphere of impermanence. They visualize that in the vague world they can find certainty and so the insistent struggle for worldly perfection goes on with persevering effort and futile enthusiasm. History has proved and will further prove that nothing in this world is everlasting. All the things that man desperately tries to hold on to are impermanent. Nations and civilizations rise, thrive, and die away as waves upon the deep, yielding place to the novel, and the scrolls of time trace the ephemeral spectacle, the unjustifiable apparition, and the vanishing stream that is civilization.

Yeats asserted that, “these children of the Holy Spirit labor at their moments with eyes upon the shining substance on which Time has heaped the refuse of creation; for the world only exists to be a tale in the ears of coming generations; and terror and content, birth and death, love and hatred, and the fruit of the Tree, are but instruments for that supreme art which is to win us from life and gather us into eternity like doves into their dove-cots.” (Yeats, 1959: pp. 300-301). Impermanence means that reality is never static but is dynamic throughout. Yeats portrays this reality of life making use of various forms of visual image in his poems to depict Change and Movement as the Lord of the Universe. Birds’ sail in circles in “The Wild Swans at Coole”. In “My Descendants” he states:

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me

Since I first made my count;

I saw, before I had well finished,

All suddenly mount

And scatter wheeling in great broken rings

Upon their clamorous wings. (p. 107)

The above lines describe the frustration and despair at the realization that nothing is permanent, as he continues:

The Primum Mobile that fashioned us

Has made the very owls in circles move; (p. 173)

The poet mentions the Primum Mobile, the owls move in circles implying life is a continuous change where nothing is permanent. Movement is life. Life is change. The poet depicts the special dance in “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen”:

When Loie Fuller’s Chinese dancers enwound

A shining web, a floating ribbon of cloth,

It seemed that a dragon of air

Had fallen among dancers, had whirled them round

Or hurried them off on its own furious path;

So the Platonic Year

Whirls out new right and wrong,

Whirls in the old instead;

All men are dancers and their tread

Goes to the barbarous clangor of a gong. (p. 177)

Yeats’ notices how change has special function that “whirls out new right and wrong” and “whirls in the old instead”. Only change is permanent as the dancers attain the ideal state through circular movement or motion. All things can be crystallized in the single word, impermanence. All tones and clangor of gongs are just variations struck on the chord which is made up of impermanence.

In Sailing to Byzantium, Yeats realized “That is no country for old men. The young / in one another’s arms, birds in the trees, those dying generations” as he confesses he no longer needs the transient nature of youth and desires something more satisfying. Although the young represented in the poem by William Butler Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium” are “those dying generations” they are so occupied with their frivolity to appreciate the desire for something permanent. Yeats talks about permanence of impermanence when he mentions the winding path towards the “monuments of un-aging intellect”, through the sea of “a dying animal” towards “God’s holy fire”:

O sages standing in God’s holy fire,

As in the gold mosaic of a wall,

Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,

And be the singing-masters of my soul. (p. 163)

One of literature’s chief themes in the twentieth century has been the permanence of impermanence. Permanence and Impermanence receive separate treatment by different authors and from different angles, with a great diversity of approach. Yeats gives striking visual images to illustrate the ephemeral nature of permanence and impermanence. He makes use of visual imagery to portray the permanence of impermanence in all things, the Gyres and the Great Wheel become images of change and impermanence. Yeats deals with the desire for permanence and the pursuit for perpetuity. The fascination with the permanence of impermanence makes his mystical system appear exceptional in English and Irish literature. His prophetic consciousness of permanence of impermanence is disguised in his mystical and occult visual images as the above discussion establishes


Yeats, W. B. (1954). The Letters of W. B. Yeats. London: Rupert Hart-Davis.

Yeats, W. B. (1959). Mythologies. New York: Macmillan.

Yeats, W. B. (2008). The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Edition Limited.

Dr. Irum Alvi is presently working as Assistant Professor and Dean, At Rajasthan Technical University, Kota, Rajasthan.

Hits: 1214