The question has often been asked: does art imitate life, or does life imitate art? In the art of poetry, most often it is the first of these – poetry reflects life. No more clearly can this be seen than in the works of two of the greatest poets the world has ever seen – William Butler Yeats and Robert Frost. The poems they wrote reflected not only their lives, but also life in general. In my presentation today, I will analyse a selection of poems to reveal hidden meanings, hopefully enhancing your overall appreciation and understanding of these poets. Firstly, let's take a look a Yeats.
Within the poetry of Yeats there is instantly a recognisable preoccupation with the death of the Irish culture, an issue that was close to his heart. Born in Dublin on June 13, 1865, and schooled in London and Dublin, Yeats studied painting, and vacationed in county Sligo, which inspired his enthusiasm for Irish tradition. In the poem "September 1913', Yeats remembers the men who fought to keep the romanticized version of Ireland alive, and lost their lives in the process. The men referred to in the poem were Irish patriots who were executed in rebellions against England in 1798 and 1803. In the first stanza, the bitter disappointment felt by Yeats at the outcome of these battles is displayed: ‘ What need you, being come to sense, But fumble in a greasy till…' He talks of how there is now a need for the Irish people to pray, ‘ add prayer to shivering prayer', while the men who gave their lives were unable to, as seen in the second stanza, in the line ‘ But little time they had to pray'. It would appear that Yeats thought that the deaths were unnecessary.
He asks ‘ Was it for this the wild geese spread The grey wing upon every tide For this that all that blood was shed' in the third stanza. Yeats apparently thought that the situation was hopeless, saying ‘ And what, God help us could they save?' in the second stanza and ‘ But let them be, they " re dead and gone' in the forth and final stanza. The language throughout the poem further adds to the state of depression and futility. In the first verse, words such as ‘ fumbling', ‘ greasy' and ‘ shivering' are used to describe the current situation, a stark contrast with the gallant imagery surrounding the tragic heroes who were ‘ wild geese' and whose names ‘ stilled your childish play'. They were ‘ gone about the world like wind', whereas now people only ‘ add the halfpence to the pence'. This poem tells the true story of patriotic ‘ heroes', thus undoubtedly reflecting life, but also reflects the worldly issues of bitter disappointment which often accompanies change, and the senselessness in loss of life.
The inspiration for much of Yeats' work was the beautiful Irish patriot Maud Gonne, equally famous as he for her passionate nationalist politics. Yeats loved Maude unrequitedly for much of his life, as shown in many of his poems. No more so, perhaps, than in ‘ When you are old', a poem specifically written for Maud Gonne. He expresses his love though soft and gentle language in the first stanza, developing a mellow mood and encouraging the reader to sub-consciously adopt a slow reading pace: ‘ And slowly read, and dream of the soft look Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep' Yeats says in the second stanza ‘ many loved your moments of glad grace', referring to Maud's popular beauty but refers to himself in the lines ‘ But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you And loved the sorrows of your changing face' as if it was an attempt to prove to Maud that his love for her would last even as they grew older, and her beauty faded. The third stanza is more cryptic in its message, and is somewhat more sombre.
Yeats hints at the sorrow he feels at his love not being returned in the line ‘ Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled'. In this poem love is reflected as a constant part of life, as is aging and the changing views surrounding materialistic ideals such as beauty. In 1928 Yeats published The Tower which contained many of his finest poems, the most famous being ‘ Sailing to Byzantium'. It is in this poem that we can clearly see Yeats' obsession with youth. U lick O'Connor, a renowned poet, biographer and playwright, said that ‘ Sailing to Byzantium ‘ is a magnificent trumpet blast against the onset of age: ‘ Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing' in which the poet sees himself achieving immortality as a singing bird among the lords and ladies of Byzantium.' In the first stanza, Yeats summarises the journey of life in one short line: ‘ Whatever is begotten, born, dies' and by using pessimistic language such as ‘ dying' and ‘ neglect' evokes a mood of dejection. The second, third and forth stanzas are somewhat more energetic, as Yeats ponders the possibility of going into ‘ the artifice of eternity', ‘ Or set upon a golden bough to sing… .
Of what is past, or passing, or to come'. Yeats was around 65 years old when he wrote ‘ Sailing to Byzantium', and it is conceivable that at this stage of his life he was perturbed at the prospect of death. This poem shows this fear clearly, but ends with the reluctant acceptance of such an ending. Many people experience this mentality, and as such this poem reflects life superbly. ‘ What Then' is one of Yeats' most famous poems, reflecting aspects of life and posing questions relevant to most people. Written in 1937, two years before his death, it provides a brief summary of Yeats' own life, or at least his opinion of it.
Each stanza represents a stage of his life – from school years through to old age. The final line in each stanza features the ghost of Greek philosopher Plato: ‘ ‘ What then?' sang Plato's ghost, ‘ what then?' ' is perhaps symbolic of Yeats constantly questioning himself on his purpose at various stages of his life. Overall, Yeats appears to be satisfied with his life and achievements: ‘ Let the fools rage, I swerved in nought, Something to perfection brought' This poem is unquestionably a portrait of Yeats life. It also whole-heartedly reflects the struggle to succeed experienced by so many people. Robert Frost is another of those great poets whose work always reflects life with varying degrees of subtlety. ‘ The Road Not Taken' is one of these such poems.
In the first line, Frost introduces the metaphor providing the basis for the whole poem – ‘ Two roads diverged in a yellow wood'. After considering both options, and stating that they are ‘ really about the same', Frost then makes his decision, trying to persuade himself that he will eventually satisfy his desire to travel both paths, but simultaneously admitting that such a hope is unrealistic. At the end of the poem, in the future, he will claim that the paths were different from each other and that he courageously did not choose the conventional route: ‘ I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.' This poem represents the decisions we have to make daily, and while perhaps they are not as critical as they would appear in this poem, making the ‘ less traveled' choice often requires courage. ‘ Leaves Compared With Flowers', one of Frost's lesser known poems, describes the journey through life stage by stage, similar to that of Yeats' ‘ What Then?' , however ‘ Leaves Compared With Flowers' explains these stages more metaphorically, using leaves, bark, flowers and ferns to represent various ages and views. The first stanza is lyrical and light-hearted in its language: ‘ But unless you put the right thing to its root It never will show much flower or fruit.' However, the poem quickly progresses to deep insight into the pretence, the ‘ flowers by day', that some people display, and Frost concludes that ‘ Leaves are all my darker mood' meaning that he has succumbed to displaying his true and perhaps darker self. This poem appears to reflect the life of Frost, and his struggle to maintain his real identity rather than false outward appearances.
‘ Leaves Compared with Flowers' also tells the story of anyone who had fought to uphold a bright exterior, while inside they are depressed or unhappy and eventually succumb to their ‘ darker's ide. The works of Robert Frost and William Butler Yeats reflect life on many levels and in a variety of ways. Death, youth, love and the stages of life are reflected through their poems, representing not only their own lives, but life in general and as such their words are relevant to many people, making their it timeless and endlessly enjoyable. I hope that you will take away with you now a greater appreciation of the works of these great poets.