Yeats’s Symbolism: A Note
W. B.Yeats is a towering and unique figure in the annals of English poetry. He holds a singular position as a symbolist in the history of English literature. It is he who is popular as the chief exponent of the symbolist movement in England. At their best his symbols are highly evocative and suggestive.
To analyze and evaluate Yeats's symbolism it would be better to define symbolism and to mention the brief history of symbolist movement. A symbol is something that stands for something else. The symbolist movement was started in France as a reaction against naturalism. The representative symbolists were – Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine and Stephane Mallarme. In England these symbolists were admired and imitated by many poets. In this context W. B. Yeats may be called as the champion.
W. B. Yeats has used different types of symbols in his poetry. They were carefully woven into the pattern of the poem. He uses these symbols to convey his inner sensations, his visions and his mystic experiences. In his early poems his symbols are elementary. They are not complex. Thus they put no obstacles in the way of the meaning. In this phase the poet makes use of traditional symbols. Among these symbols 'the Rose' may be mentioned as the major symbol. Gradually these symbols grow and develop. They become personal, complicated and complex. The symbols used in the Byzantium poems are its fine examples.
W. B. Yeats used a number of symbols in his poetry. Among these symbols the major symbols are- the rose, the tower, the gyre, the wheel, the sword, the sea, the bird, the tree, the sun, the moon, the gold, the silver, the earth, the water, the air and the fire. These symbols are drawn from myth, magic, history and poet's personal world. They are not only the clusters of varied associations, but they also grow, expand and change as living being. They are the integral part of Yeats's poetry.
Yeats's symbols always convey more than one meaning. ‘The Rose' has been used as a symbol in several poems in different context. It is an emblem of beauty. On the one hand it is a symbol of earthly love and eternal love on the other. Sometimes it stands for life and hope; sometimes it becomes a symbol of Esotericism.
The number of his symbols is countless and implications inexhaustible. ‘The Tower’ is one of them. It is a traditional and personal symbol. It conveys a host of meanings. It symbolizes the ascendancy of the human soul. It stands for mental elevation, noble contemplation, permanence of philosophy and art. It signifies the dark future of humanity also. Like the tower, ‘The Gyre’ is also a major symbol. Mainly it represents the cyclic movement of history and subjectivity and objectivity of human soul. It stands for the seal of Solomon used in magic.
In the poetry of W. B. Yeats we find the presence of 'The Sword'. This may be categorized as a masculine symbol. It stands for life, war, love and sex. 'The Moon' is also a significant symbol. The twenty-eight phases of this moon represent the human personality. The human soul passes through all these twenty-eight phases. ‘The Earth’, ‘the Water’, ‘the Air’ and ‘the Fire’ are symbolic of four phases of an individual as well as four ages of civilization. ‘The Tree’ stands for age, sterility and the reality of life. ‘The Bird’ signifies speed, lightness, freedom, flight and quickness of intellect.
The Byzantium poems are highly symbolic. Here we get a lot of grave symbols. The utopian ‘Byzantium’ stands for the world of intellect and spirit. It is the platonic paradise where the soul is purified. The entire poem is evocative and it has become a symbol for monuments of unageing intellect. ‘The Gold’ is a symbol of purgation and ‘the Holy Fire’ stands for a mode of purification through suffering. If the golden bird represents pure soul, immortality and art, the golden tree is the tree of life. Thus the Byzantium poems display Yeats's use of complex symbols.
Thus Yeats is one of the greatest symbolists in English literature. To conclude, it will be better to quote Tyndall who says that 'he was a symbolist and that he was symbolist from the beginning of his career to the end.
Satna, Madhya Pradesh, India