The use of Symbol in the poems of W.B. Yeats



After the First World War, the “Symbolist Movement” began in France. This movement influenced the English poets profusely. Yeats is one of them. He has been called the ‘chief representative’ of the “Symbolist Movement” in English literature. In his poems, he uses a lot of symbols for various purposes in various contexts.


          Before going further, we should know what symbolism means. Symbolism is the use of one object to represent another in literature. A symbol may be a figure of speech or a literal word that assumes an extra meaning. For example, the rose for beauty, the rising sun for birth and the white colour for purity are conventionally accepted public symbols. A symbol may also be a private created by a particular writer.

          “Easter 1916” is remarkable for the depth and intensity of symbols which have three characteristic features: directness of expression illuminated by unexpected symbols, a tone of tragic solemnity and a professional quality. In the first stanza of the poem, the ‘close of day’ conveys the image of an evening sky. In this poem, the word ‘stream’ symbolizes change and ‘stone’ symbolizes immobility and petrifaction. At the end of poem, the poet utters:
“All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born”.

          “The second coming” is another famous symbolic poem of Yeats. In this poem, the ‘ceremony of innocence’ represent for Yeats for one of the qualities that made life valuable under the dying aristocratic social tradition. The expression ‘falcon and the falconer’ have a symbolic meaning. A falcon is a hawk and a hawk is the symbol of the active or intellectual mind and ‘the falconer’ symbolizes the soul of it.

          “A prayer for My Daughter” is another symbolic poem of Yeats. In this poem, the word ‘tower’ suggests Yeats’ vision of the dark future of humanity. It is used to suggest loneliness and seclusion tradition or national heritage. Again, ‘linnet’ symbolizes innocent and cheerful thoughts and ‘leaf’ symbolizes the soul of a person.

          “Sailing to Byzantium” is another symbolic poem by W.B. Yeats. Here in this poem, Yeats has used the elemental symbols of earth, air, fire and water. To Yeats Byzantium is a symbol for unity and perfection. Yeats was drawn to Byzantium and its golden age because he felt that they represented a kind of unity and perfection such as the world had never known before or since. In his poem ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, ‘Byzantium’ becomes the symbol of a perfect world.

“The Lake Isle of Innisfree” is another important symbolic poem by Yeats. In this poem, Yeats says us his homesickness. The poet has become weary of London life and so he desires to return at once to the Lake Isle in his own country Ireland. He knows that in Ireland he can enjoy a peaceful life. The Lake Isle of Innisfree is the symbol of a peaceful place.

          To sum up, we may say that Yeats’ use of symbols is complex and rich. Indeed, in Yeats’ poetry, symbols give dumb things voices and bodiless things bodies. We may consider Yeats as a great symbolist.

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