Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
What can I but enumerate old themes,
- Okay, so if all of your new thoughts don't seem to be panning out, what should you do? Well, you can always go for a stroll down memory lane. That's precisely what our speaker decides to do.
- In fact, the longest section of this poem (the one we're discussing now) is entirely devoted to reminiscing about the characters and imaginings that once occupied our speaker's poetic life.
- Notice, however, that our speaker isn't planning to relive or explore or even recycle old themes. Nope, he's just enumerating (listing) them. It's almost like he's stacking up all his old work and weighing it in the balance of his new need for clear-sighted vision. Will he succeed? Well, that's the gamble this particular section of the poem is taking.
- If it's successful, this poem will function something like an exorcism: the speaker will remember all of his old loves, but by the end of the day, he'll be ready to move on to something new. There's always the chance, though, that he'll fail – that he'll become as entranced by his old passions as he was when they first captivated his attention. Is he going to veer off on long digressions?
- The stakes are pretty high, folks. After all, we're talking about a man's heart and soul here. And he doesn't take either of those things all that lightly.
First that sea-rider Oisin led by the nose
Through three enchanted islands, allegorical dreams,
Vain gaiety, vain battle, vain repose,
- Allusion alert! Theme the first: Oisin. If we haven't mentioned it before, we should point out that Yeats spent a good deal of his youth writing about Irish folk heroes and Celtic myth. Why? Well, that's a complicated question. We'll talk more about it in "Symbols, Imagery and Wordplay." Here's the quick and dirty version, though:
- (1) Yeats always had a thing for mysticism in all its forms. And what better way to fall into mystic and mythic worlds than by returning to the stuff of legend? His poems and even his letters express a yearning for the sweeping emotions of myth – the supernatural love and unbelievable bravery that were the stuff of legend. Should he return to this theme?
- (2) Yeats also had a bit of a thing for a woman named Maud Gonne, a firebrand actress, feminist, and Irish nationalist. As it turns out, part of the Irish national project was reviving a sense of Irish culture as distinct from English culture. Enter Yeats's poems about Irish myth, and Bingo! Yeats had himself a girl. For a little while, anyway. And if you're wondering why we're mentioning this now, don't worry, it'll become clear in just a few lines.
- In short, this Oisin theme (the first theme that he enumerates) is all about Irish heritage and identity, which is something about which Yeats wrote a ton throughout his poetic career. In fact, he wrote a poem all about Oisin in 1889, called "The Wanderings of Oisin." That poem, it's no surprise, is full of "enchanted islands" and "allegorical dreams."
- But this can't all be fun adventures and bravery. There's something "vain" about it all. Does that mean that the characters in these stories are vain? Or that our speaker was vain for writing about them? Or that all that writing was in vain, as in, it led to nothing.
Themes of the embittered heart, or so it seems,
That might adorn old songs or courtly shows;
- For whatever reason, Yeats's return to Oisin doesn't seem to have done for him what he thought it would. Instead, it means he has an "embittered heart." Could that have something to do with the vanity he mentions in line 4 of this section?
- We're guessing that it just might have something to do with the legend of Oisin himself.
- See, Oisin was lured onto a magical island by an enchanting (read: really, really hot) fairy. He thinks he stays there for three years, but when he gets back to Ireland, he realizes he's actually been gone for 300 years. (Sound a bit like Rip Van Winkle to you?)
- Why would this be the theme of an "embittered heart"? Well, we're not totally sure, but one theory is that it could be a way of expressing frustration at being strung along by someone you've loved for years and years and years. (Maybe not 300 years, but still… )
- As it turns out, that's precisely how Yeats felt about his relationship with Maud Gonne. (Check out our "Brain Snacks" to learn more.) Could Maud be the one he's really talking about in line 4? Carly Simon probably thinks so.
- Something about this Oisin theme makes it fitting for "old songs or courtly shows." That sounds like more of a performance than a poem, right? But in fact, for much of history, poetry was a kind of performance. The truly great poems were sung in court.
But what cared I that set him on to ride,
I, starved for the bosom of his faery bride.
- See? Who wouldn't yearn for the love of Oisin's "faery bride"? Even Yeats isn't immune to her charms.
- If you've ever liked someone that you just know wouldn't be good for you, you can understand all the agony and resentment that went into Yeats's imagined love affair. Heck, maybe the knowledge that he or she was unreachable made that person all the more alluring.
- What does this mean for Yeats's poetry? Well, it seems like the whole Oisin section of his career might just have been an allegorical method for expressing his own frustrated desires. He wrote about Oisin's adventures because he yearned for adventures in his own life and writing.
- Sure, it's one way of writing poetry, and it probably makes for some thrilling poems for his readers. But is it honest?
- Well, that's a question that our speaker is asking himself right about now. And as it turns out, he's not all that satisfied with the answers he's coming up with. He doesn't seem to actually care about Oisin. The whole time, he was really writing about himself.
- But there is another way we could read these lines: he doesn't care about where Oisin came from or why Oisin did the things he did. He's too busy being fascinated by what he did, and with whom he fell in love. But origins matter, don't they?
And then a counter-truth filled out its play,
- Moving on, folks, moving on.
- Theme the second: A play. Apparently, after our speaker went through his myths-and-legends phase, he opted for the theater.
- But his plays were based on very different emotions than the longing for adventure that first swept our poet into a love and lust-filled frenzy. You might even call these new emotions counter-truths.
- You see, when you counter something, you say the opposite of what has just been said. So while his early poems were all about Oisin and enchanted adventures, these plays were about something a bit different.
- To find out what, we'll have to keep reading.
'The Countess Cathleen' was the name I gave it;
She, pity-crazed, had given her soul away,
But masterful Heaven had intervened to save it.
I thought my dear must her own soul destroy
So did fanaticism and hate enslave it,
- We hate to say it, but this stanza is sounding more and more like another go at Maud Gonne – if only because the play Yeats wrote, The Countess Cathleen, is dedicated to Gonne.
- Like the Cathleen in the play, who sells her soul to the devil to save some needy folks, Gonne became so caught up in the whirling emotions of a grand cause – in this case, the Irish freedom fights – that she lost her sense of right and wrong.
- That's a very Yeatsian reading, of course. Yeats was horrified by the way the freedom fight changed gentle, thoughtful people into violent extremists.
- As far as Yeats was concerned, no social struggle could ever be worth the destruction of an individual's soul. "Fanaticism and hate," in other words, were about the worst things that a person could feel.
- It's worth noting, too, that at the end of the play, Cathleen gets to go to heaven, even though she has sold her soul to the devil. Why? Because it was for a good cause, of course.
- Did you notice how our sly dog Yeats doesn't approach his relationship with Gonne directly? Instead, he sorts through it by thinking about the literary works he wrote while under her sway. Is this really a poem about Yeats's love life, then? Or is it a poem about poetry? Maybe a bit of both?
- Well, strangely enough, Yeats often thought of the two as similar extensions of his soul. They're both forms of expression, after all. Why bother separating the two at all?
- Our speaker is also tossing us some politics, too. Check out that word "fanaticism." This marks a bit of a shift in the poem.
- How so? Glad you asked. In the previous stanza, our speaker/poet was all about adventure. Apparently, in his early career, that was the dominant theme. But then it seems he dabbled in politics, thematically speaking (which is true of Yeats, too – The Countess Cathleen was definitely a political play).
- Yeats, for one, thought politics and art should go hand in hand. Or at least he did in the middle of his career, around the turn of the century.
And this brought forth a dream and soon enough
This dream itself had all my thought and love.
- Here's the tricky thing about turning your life experiences into plays (and your loves into characters): it's all too easy to fall in love with the fiction.
- It looks like our speaker/poet had to move on from his plays because they tricked him into dedicating himself to a dream.
- Notice all the variations on "o" and "aw" sounds that appear in these two lines? From "forth" to "soon" to "thought" and "brought" and "love" – it's an accumulation of lulling, soothing vowels that mimic the feeling of lulling yourself into loving a figment of your own imagination – whether it be adventure, politics, or even a woman.
And when the Fool and Blind Man stole the bread
Cuchulain fought the ungovernable sea;
- Theme the third: we're back to the myths and legends, folks. In these lines, Yeats alludes to the legend of Cuchulain.
- Cuchulain is – you guessed it! – another hero of Irish mythology. You can read all about him in the links in our "Brain Snacks" section.
- We seem to be falling into a pattern here, don't we? The first few lines of a stanza sketch out the start of a new legend, then the rest of the stanza explains why that myth/legend/poem turns out to have been an emotional mirage. Does this stanza follow suit? Let's see, shall we?
- The Fool and the Blind Man, by the way, is yet another allusion to the Cuchulain myth.
Heart-mysteries there, and yet when all is said
It was the dream itself enchanted me:
Character isolated by a deed
To engross the present and dominate memory.
- A-ha! It's just as we suspected. Once again, the characters set out in the first lines are a feint. He fakes left, and then goes right.
- He acknowledges that there were "heart-mysteries" in his writing about the myth of Cuchulain, but the he questions the entire purpose of writing about that myth, or any myth for that matter. As our speaker admits, it wasn't any particular myth that he loved. He loved the chance these myths offered him to dream – to escape the constraints of his regular life and revel in loves as magical or deeds as impossible as those of the heroes of old. It's almost like the myths become a way to escape both past and present. When you can create characters at will… well, then you've got a first-class ticket to a lifetime of escapism.
- He also points out the fact that these mythological characters, like Cuchulain and Oisin, are "isolated" by their deeds. It seems like in myth, actions matter much more than things like, say, emotions or personality.
Players and painted stage took all my love,
And not those things that they were emblems of.
- As our speaker finally realizes, it's all too easy to confuse fiction with reality. That's one of the tricky things with allegory: if you construct an entire fictional world that's supposed to be a symbolic reference to the real one, it might just become too difficult to leave the fictional world behind.
- After all, characters on a stage (or characters on the page) are a lot easier to fall in love with than honest-to-goodness people with honest-to-goodness flaws. For one thing, they only come to life when you want them to.
- For another, they can be just about anything (or everything) that you desire. Remember Jessica Rabbit? There was a reason all the humans in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? thought she was their dream woman: because she was a cartoon.
- Learning to tell the difference between the "real" and the "emblems," though, is a pretty big step. After all, you can't face reality if you can't tell it apart from fiction. By the end of this section, our speaker seems to think he has made some decent progress.