Symbolism in Yeats' Poems

William Butler Yeats used symbols prominently in his poetry. This stemmed in part from the influence of William Blake, whom Yeats admired and studied and who had developed an extensive system of symbols himself. Yeats was no mere imitator, however. He used symbols toward incredibly ambitious ends: to reconcile binaries in pursuit of a unity of being.


Yeats wrote a series of rose poems, including “To the Rose Upon the Rood of Time,” “The Secret Rose,” “The Rose Tree” and “The Rose of the World.” For Yeats, the flower reconciles the binary of temporal and eternal. It unifies these concepts in two ways. First, the rose maintains its position as a representative or touchstone of beauty unwaveringly. In other words, roses never go out of fashion. However, an actual individual rose lives quite a short life. Similarly, the rose symbolizes woman, both divine, transcendent woman and natural, sensual woman, and in doing so, unifies them.


Unlike the rose, the stone symbol does not unify opposed concepts. The stone’s dualism comes from the fact that the qualities it represents -- solidity, steadiness -- may be positive or negative. The stone’s immovability may indicate strength or stubbornness. As a result, stones often figure in poems in which Yeats grapples with his ambivalence about Ireland’s political climate. In “Easter 1916,” Yeats describes a stone in a rapidly flowing river. In the image, the stone participates in a dualism; while the stone never moves, the water never rests. The stone never bends; the water constantly changes shape to flow around any obstacles.


Yeats imagined time not as a line, but as a spiral. In some poems the spiral appears as a winding staircase, but the poet’s favorite image was a gyre. Gyres are sewing tools that have inverted conical shapes, like that of a tornado. As a symbol, the gyre characterizes history as both progressive and repetitive. Yeats’ most famous reference to the gyre occurs in “The Second Coming”: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer.” In this poem, the disintegration of the gyre signals the end of time.


Water's significance differs between poems. Yeats sometimes uses it to represent another world and devotes his attention to species that are able to move in and out of water: dolphins, which breathe air, and swans that both fly and swim. Yeats places this movement between water and air parallel to movement between life and death. In both “The Wild Swans at Coole” and “Byzantium,” the speaker is a tired, aged man who is in awe of the immortality of the water-dwelling creatures. While Coole Park is an actual place, the sea beside Byzantium is imagined by Yeats, and the two poems’ symbols differ accordingly. The swans, gliding on actual waters, represent the eternity of nature. The dolphins, swimming in an imagined sea, allude to the Roman myth that dolphins carried souls to the afterlife.

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