Though a young poet at the time of the composition of The Rose, Yeats is quite preoccupied with themes of aging and mortality. Imagining his old age served as an escape for the young Yeats, who found himself unsuccessful in love and imagined that later in life he would either have won his beloved or his beloved would have come to regret her rejection of him. "In Old Age" is particularly marked by the image of an older Maud Gonne (the woman with whom Yeats was in love) becoming wiser in old age.
Yeats also had an anxiety about death which was unusual in someone so young. He contemplated death less in terms of himself than in terms of his loved ones. When Maud Gonne traveled to France as a convalescent, a worried Yeats wrote "A Dream of Death." This meditation on Gonne's possible death is less of a nightmare than a dream come true, as Yeats envisions himself being useful to her in death as he could not be in life. Yeats, therefore, views both aging and death as more or less positive forces.
Images of Irish Nature
It is not surprising that a collection entitled The Rose draws heavily upon nature imagery. Yeats draws upon natural imagery both in terms of the symbols he employs and in the settings he summons. Indeed, natural imagery features in all of Yeats's poetry, even that which contains political themes.
Yeats's landscape descriptions are often obviously Irish, even if they do not include a specific place name. He highlights the rolling greenness and shifting light that characterize the Irish landscape. Additionally, some of his poems take a more specific approach to the Irish landscape. Many of them, including "The Lake Isle of Inisfree," treat a particular Irish place. Nearly all of these places are in County Sligo, Yeats' mother's ancestral home and the place on earth that he felt most connected to. Yeats was eventually buried in Sligo.
Yeats also references the natural landscapes of Irish legend and myth. Imaginary natural worlds like Faeryland or Tir na nOg, where people never grow old, provide a compliment to both the general and specific treatments of Irish nature. In all his poems, Yeats carefully chooses a natural backdrop - real or imagined - that captures his home country.
The Rose is rife with mythological references, from King Fergus to Conchubar to Diarmuid. Indeed, such mythic Irish figures populate nearly every poem in the collection.
Mythology operates as a theme in this collection in a number of ways. First and foremost it separates Yeats' poetry from British writing. British writers drew on Roman and Greek mythology - the mythology, in fact, of other (albeit ancient) imperialists. In choosing Irish mythology as his source of allusions and subjects, Yeats creates a poetry distinct from that of Ireland's long-time oppressors. This compliments Yeats' desire to cultivate a poetic language suitable to Ireland alone.
Moreover, Yeats' use of Irish mythological subjects allows him to avoid the political climate of his own day. Yeats, a moderate compared to his beloved Maud Gonne, found his political beliefs to be a burden in his pursuit of love. In treating legendary figures, Yeats avoids the problem of referencing the complicated political environment that so tormented him.
For a fuller discussion of the specific mythology that Yeats draws on, see the Additional Content section in this ClassicNote.
Nationalism in Ireland in the 1890s was in a complicated stage. Many die-hard Fenians (Republicans), including Maud Gonne, were more than willing to take arms against the British to gain their independence. Another group, including Yeats, took the more cautious parliamentary approach. This political party, called the Home Rule Party, was led by John Redmund and held that Ireland could gain independence through legal means.
Because this collection focuses so much on Maud Gonne, Yeats inevitably touches upon his political differences with his beloved. These differences, needless to say, affected their relationship negatively. Yeats feared that Gonne was more repulsed by his moderate politics than by his person.
Thus, in some poems, such as "To Ireland in the Coming Times," Yeats seems to be willfully disassociating himself from the complex political fabric of his own era, instead hearkening to a simpler politics of ancient kings. Undoubtedly Yeats was drawn to these ancient mythic times anyway, but his interest takes on a sadness in the context of his relationship with the politics of his own day (and thus of his relationship with Gonne). Nationalist politics exist negatively in these poems, as the subject that Yeats doesn't want to address.
At the time that Yeats published this collection, Maud Gonne was the major focus of his life. He was deeply in love with her, and although Gonne did not return his romantic sentiments, she remained close friends with him. He saw her often enough to become obsessed with her. Most of the poems in the collection were written for or about Gonne.
The central image of the rose is a symbol of Gonne as well as Ireland. Gonne, an extreme nationalist, represents the Irish spirit in her politics as well as her beauty. Thus Gonne, Ireland and the image of the rose exist interchangeably in Yeats' poetic imagination. His beloved, with her violent desire to free her country from British rule, captures the ferocity of nationalistic pride with spiritual and physical beauty. She is the thorny rose, and the thorny rose is Ireland. Indeed, one of Yeats' fears is that he himself is not violent enough politically or personally to attract Gonne's attentions, a fear that seemed to be justified by her marriage to a military man.
Ireland is, historically, an agrarian land. For centuries it was a nation of farmers - often working under unfair conditions for their British conquerers. Thus, though Ireland's agrarian identity was complicated, it was central. A rapport with the change of seasons and with the harvest cycle was central to Irish life.
At the time of the composition of The Rose, however, urbanization had begun to encroach upon Ireland. Dublin was a major metropolitan area, for instance, in the heart of a traditionally rural society. This complex relationship between urban and rural existence is essential to Yeats' perspective in The Rose. Though he lived much of his life in London and Dublin, Yeats viewed cities as inherently negative and poisonous. Thus poems like "The Lake Isle of Inisfree," which romanticize the Irish agrarian landscape with breathless awe, largely express the poet's discomfort with his urban environment.
It is worth asking, then, whether Yeats' natural landscapes of Ireland are realistic or purely imaginative. They seem to exist largely in the poets remembrance and longings - to be places of escape from a modernity that Yeats finds discomfiting. Yeats invites the conclusion that, in fact, it doesn't matter whether his Ireland is the real Ireland: it is, nevertheless, a place of meaning for the Irish.
Thus Yeats expresses a desire to capture in imaginative verse the spirit of Ireland - its symbols, mythology, people, nature - that might well be lost in the encroaching press of nationalism and urbanization. Yeats, in short, writes against the city, but also from the city. He cultivates an imaginative place of escape that is only necessary because of the coming modernity.
Poems of W.B. Yeats: The Rose Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Poems of W.B. Yeats: The Rose is a great
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