The relationship between modernity and mythology in W.B. Yeats’s poetry

An analysis of ‘Easter 1916’, ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ and ‘Leda and the Swan’

Essay 2016 9 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


The relationship between modernity and mythology in Yeats’s poetry.

This essay will examine the relationship between mythology and modernity in relation to Yeats’s poetry, and its role and importance within the Irish tradition. I will analyse in-depth the poems ‘Easter 1916’, ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ and ‘Leda and the swan’, while paying close attention to the form, language and the argument Yeats is trying to make. Anthony Bradley on Yeats states that ‘Yeats also saw in Irish myth and legend the hidden and primitive religious energies that could be assimilated to Irish nationalism, and which were not available to modern churches, Catholic or Protestant’.[1] The tension between mythology and colonisation is apparent in his poetry, where a balance must be struck and maintained. Yet, while true history is key to Yeats, Daniel Gomes on Yeats explains that myth was beginning to be seen less ‘as representative of crude racial typographies and instead began to underscore the archetypal themes and structural patterns found in myths, legends, and folklore across national traditions’.[2] I will use M. L. Rosenthal, The Modern Poet to analyse the ways in which Yeats intends to grasp and understand the modern mind; while also exploring in-depth his aversion to modernity in the work of Michael North . Rhythm being crucial to the task of crafting effective poetry, I will engage with the work of Michael Golston to further my argument on the importance of form and structure within Yeats’ poetry.

Michael North’s chapter W.B. Yeats: Cultural Nationalism, is crucial in understanding Yeats’ aversion to Modernity. From the advancement of technology to the creation of the urban masses, Yeats found himself recoiling from a modern world he qualified as being opprobrium. Michael North states that ‘Yeats life and work show as well as those of any poet how aesthetic modernism emerges from modernity’s quarrel with itself”.[3] Once again, this friction is seen in the opposing battle between ‘individualism and nationalism, right and duty, freedom and history’.[4] These conflicts are represented clearly in his poetry under the guise of mythology and its aesthetic representation, and while Yeats sought to distance himself from modernity, his interest in serving these conflicting values places him as a true contemporary writer of his time. His belief in an intellectual unified modernity, ‘one in which enlightenment brings material progress, political freedom, and cultural renaissance – is now so quaint as to seem pre-modern.’ was to be created through the use of mythology, and through the understanding of the modern mind.[5] While Rosenthal’s analyses different writers, his chapter ‘Yeats and the Modern mind’ explores Yeats’s place within modernity. Yeats is described as ‘a spokesman for the modern human condition’, yet with an unshaking faith in the tradition and culture of Ireland.[6] He rejects empty belief and idealism, where religion has a dogmatic hold, to the definitiveness of scientific or ideological social systems. Nevertheless, Yeats is seen to seek throughout his career “to re-embody the free un-consenting spirit through the traditional symbols of myth and folklore”.[7] Rosenthal explains how a balance must be struck between the contemporary and mythological: ‘Yeats had been experimentally juggling opposites, particularly the world of ‘the real’ and the world of imagination’.[8] The poem ‘Easter 1916’ reflects Yeats’s concerns for dogmatic idealism, one of sacrifice for the wrong reasons. While the first half of the poem comes to place a people who ‘but lived where motley was worn’, who are elevated, reborn into a nation through acts of glory; the second half comes to question this rise in nationalism. The imagery of the ‘enchanted stone’ communicates multiple meanings while also being of a mythological nature. Rosenthal states that ‘The enchanted stone may be nothing but a dead weight, unaffected by life’s changing realities. And the poet must remind himself harshly that consolatory euphemisms should not be substituted for the word ‘death.’’[9] While the stone first appears to embody greatness in the heart of the nation, it is soon left behind to symbolise a shift in Yeats’s position on the subject. Realising that the men may have died for the wrong reasons in pursuit of blind faith, the stone reflects a sacrifice which gives birth to a ‘terrible beauty’. We see a battle of opposites: between the rise of a nation, and the poet’s reflection on it mediated by the stone. Mythology provided Yeats with ‘malleable images charged with psychological suggestiveness and relatively free of set doctrinal associations’, he would use these to both mediate English and Irish culture, but also as an attempt to merge the two in the creation of an authentic nation.[10] The juggling of opposite values and ideals is present throughout his poetry. Mythology comes to symbolise a culture he wishes to keep from the rise of modernity and technological advancement.

This battle of opposites is often represented through the use of sexual mystery, and the oppression of one force over another. We see this clearly in his poem ‘Leda and the Swan’ which ‘calls up a series of vibrant, archetypal symbols revolving about the sexual mystery: the rape of Leda’.[11] The poem being an exploration of the myth of the rape of Leda by the god Zeus in the form of a swan, provides multiple interpretations and meanings relating to Yeats’s position as a modern poet and his attempt at resolving the conflicts present at his time. The imagery of two worlds, two consciousness or forces, plays an important part within his work: ‘At the same time he observed that to him all things seemed ‘made of the conflict of two states of consciousness, beings or persons which die each other’s life, live each other’s death. That is true of life and death themselves.’[12] These he represented as cones ‘the apex of each in the other’s base.’[13] The sonnet ‘Leda and the Swan’ begins with the ‘full shock of the swan’s swooping attack upon Leda, and the first eight line linger over the sensual details of her surrender to the god’s power.’[14] Zeus as a being more divine and powerful than Leda offers also animalistic imagery, disguising himself as a swan provides himself with a form more bestial and savage than his counterpart. His essence merges with that of materiality, allowing his knowledge to be assimilated by Leda while also taking on the brute force of animalistic interaction:

Being so caught up,

mastered by brute blood of the air,

Did she put on his knowledge with his power

the indifferent beak could let her drop?[15]

Margaret Harper places the violent and inhuman, bestial and divine themes of the poem as ‘socially constructed, ideologically saturated phenomenon, and Yeats used his poem to make a political point.’[16] This exchange is symbolic of the process of inspiration. Helen Sword states that ‘his sonnet "Leda and the Swan," accordingly, focuses less on Zeus's erotic or political motivations for the attack than on Leda's capacity to translate such divine immanence into human understanding’.[17] Inspiration here is presented as a question asking whether Leda’s intelligence ‘as well as her womb was impregnated by the god. Is she, the passive human recipient of the seeds of the future, now charged with the god’s divinity in her own right?’[18] While usually representing positive connotations, inspiration is presented here as an overwhelming force, pushing sexual ecstasy and union on the self from the other. Yeats throughout the poem seems to identify with neither, despite the poem supporting Leda’s point of view. We see him stand as an observer, witnessing the rape as detached yet interested. The mythology present within the poem comes to symbolise modernity as Zeus pushing technological advancement on Ireland, while Leda in her passivity and powerlessness raises the question as to whether her ability in assimilating this knowledge will result simply in engendering a nation in which the traditional culture is lost. These two forces are the sum of Yeats’s attempt at balancing both the English language and the Irish culture. Mythology acts once again as both a mediator and a merger of these values and principles.


[1] Anthony Bradley, Imagining Ireland in the Poems and Plays of W. B. Yeats: Nation, Class and State. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.), p.18.

[2] Daniel Gomes, ‘Reviving Oisin: Yeats and the conflicted Appeal of Irish Mythology’ Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 56 (2014), 376-399 (p. 377).

[3] Michael North, The Political Aesthetic of Yeats, Eliot, and Pound (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 21.

[4] Michael North, p. 21.

[5] Michael North, p. 1.

[6] M. L. Rosenthal, The Modern Mind: a critical introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1960), p. 29.

[7] M.L. Rosenthal, p. 33.

[8] M. L. Rosenthal, p. 35.

[9] M. L. Rosenthal, p. 31.

[10] M. L. Rosenthal, p. 32.

[11] M. L. Rosenthal, p. 39.

[12] M. L. Rosenthal, p. 40.

[13] M. L. Rosenthal, p. 40.

[14] M. L. Rosenthal, p. 41.

[15] W. B. Yeats, The collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (London: Macmillan London LTD, 1978), p. 241.

[16] Margaret Harper, ‘Yeats’s love for Poetry’, English Literature in Transition, 38 (1995), 211-216 (p. 214).

[17] Helen Sword, ‘Leda and the Modernists’, PMLA, 107 (1992), 305-318

[18] M. L. Rosenthal, p. 41.


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Yeats English Literature Poetry Modernity Mythology



Title: The relationship between modernity and mythology in W.B. Yeats’s poetry