Friday, 19 June 2009

No Second Troy - W.B. Yeats

Both of the two poems I have looked at before, One Art and The Collar had a very definite conclusion that brought proceedings firmly to an end.

Today I would like to examine a very short poem whose conclusion is much more enigmatic and forces the reader to keep on re-evaluating what the poem is trying to say.


WHY should I blame her that she filled my days
With misery, or that she would of late
Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways,
Or hurled the little streets upon the great.
Had they but courage equal to desire?
What could have made her peaceful with a mind
That nobleness made simple as a fire,
With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind
That is not natural in an age like this,
Being high and solitary and most stern?
Why, what could she have done, being what she is?
Was there another Troy for her to burn?


Much as I deplore too much biographical investigation, even I would concede that you can't really get to grips with this poem unless you realise that the subject is Maud Gonne. She was active in Irish republican politics in the early 20th century and indeed an advocate of violent revolution to secure an independent Ireland. She was a great beauty. Yeats adored her for most of his life but, while she regarded Yeats as a friend, she was adamant that that was the extent of their relationship. Indeed, just before this poem was written, she had married someone else: a boorish, violent, drunk who Yeats despised.

With that in mind, at least superficially, the meaning looks clear. The poem takes the form of a sonnet which is associated with a love poem. There are some aspects of the love poem for example the praise of Maud Gonne's physical beauty. However, there is also an acknowledgement of her failings. She is a rabble-rouser who can inspire ignorant men to violence. She can inspire the "little streets", presumably the Irish, to "hurl themselves" on the much more powerful English. Yeats does not think this will end well: if you pull out too quickly from a "little street", you will get run over. "Ignorant men" might not appreciate that their own violence could lead to repercussions.

While noting these failings, Yeats seems to say that she is not to blame for them or indeed for the misery she inflicts on him, by not returning his affections. She is a special creature who simply could be no other way.


To my mind, it is the Helen of Troy image right at the end that sets this poem apart.

Helen, also a great beauty, was abucted from Menalaus by the Trojan prince, Paris. Menalaus and his allies declared war on Troy in revenge and ultimately Troy was destroyed.

So, Yeats seems to compare Maud Gonne to Helen of Troy, asking rhetorically "Was there another Troy for her to burn". But this implied comparison with Helen serves to highlight the differences between the two women. First of all, Helen did not burn Troy. She was abducted, against her will by Paris. It was Paris who was responsible for the fall of Troy: Helen was really a passive observer. Maud Gonne, however, is no passive observer: she is actively seeking to foment violence and discord.

So, why make the comparison if it is so inapt? I think that what this image does is bring out two separate aspects of Maud Gonne. The first aspect is as an object of Yeats's love. In this regard, Maud Gonne is "Helen-like". She causes pain and suffering to Yeats without any conscious act of will on her part. The Helen image is effectively an ackowledgement of the futility of Yeats's love. If Maud wished to cause him "suffering", or lead him on, she clearly has the wherewithal to do so. The fact that she does not demonstrates that Yeats's love exists only his own mind.

Separately, the inaptness of the Helen image in relation to Maud Gonne's political life highlights that this is a woman who, with her rabble rousing tendencies has the ability to perform conscious acts which, however unintentionally, could lead Ireland to befall the same fate as Troy.

1 comment:

  1. based on what i have read, helen eloped with paris. so, along with paris, she is responsible for troy's destruction. just like helen, she is consciously inflicting pain.