WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS QUESTIONS

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Assigned: W. B. Yeats. "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" (2025); "The Second Coming" (2036-37); "Leda and the Swan" (2039); "Sailing to Byzantium" (2040); "Among School Children" (2041-42); "Byzantium" (2044-45); "Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop" (2045-46); "Under Ben Bulben" (2047-50); "The Circus Animals' Desertion" (2051-52).

Of Interest: Author Image | Literary History | DMOZ Links | Brett Baldwin's Modernism Guide | Bartleby's Yeats Etext Collection | Yeats Exhibition, Nat. Library of Ireland

"The Lake Isle of Innisfree" (Lough Gill, County Sligo, Wikipedia)

1. In "The Lake Isle of Innisfree," what does the speaker say he wants to do -- why will he go to the Lake Isle and what will he do there? Also, compare this poem to a romantic nature lyric -- how does the relationship posited between nature and the speaker in this symbolist-oriented poem differ from that of a romantic poem?

"Easter 1916" (Easter Rebellion, Wikipedia)

2. Aside from praising the Irish Easter Rebellion's executed leaders, what more complex attitude does the speaker adopt in "Easter 1916" towards the sacrifices called for during the struggle for Irish independence? How does the line "a terrible beauty is born" encapsulate this attitude?

"The Second Coming"

3. What do the last twelve lines of "The Second Coming" suggest about poetry's power to render great events intelligible, or to project future possibilities based on present conditions? Do the last twelve lines clarify the historical situation, or obscure it? Explain your reasons for responding as you do.

4. What is the source or "provenance" of the Sphinx myth referenced in "The Second Coming," and what was the point of the original version? What significance does it take on in Yeats' modern treatment?

"Leda and the Swan" (Leda, Wikipedia)

5. In 'Leda and the Swan," what is the source of the myth that Yeats employs? (See the Wikipedia entry above.) How does the speaker represent the transmission of poetic insight by means of this classical legend? To what extent does the poem respond to its own question about whether Leda "put on his knowledge with his power"? That is, what does the poem suggest about the connection between prophetic knowledge and creative power?

6. What suggestions does "Leda and the Swan" make about the origins of Greek civilization -- how does it represent the foundational moments in the life of a people so important to the development of western history? What does this poem imply about the significance of Greek myth as a way of understanding history?

"Sailing to Byzantium" (Constantinople, Wikipedia)

7. The speaker begins "Sailing to Byzantium" with the line, "That is no country for old men," apparently in reference to the natural world and to youthful human beings. What is going on in that environment that makes it unfit for an aging person -- how does the poet describe it?

8. In the second stanza of "Sailing to Byzantium," how does the speaker convey what it means to him to grow old? How does he represent the relationship between body and soul? And what becomes his priority, now that he knows his end is near? How does he present his decision to set sail for "the holy city of Byzantium"?

9. Who are the "sages" in the third stanza of "Sailing to Byzantium," and what does the speaker pray for in addressing them? How does this stanza reinforce the need for (and further specify the nature of) the transformation he must undergo from mortality to a state of being that lasts?

10. In the fourth stanza of "Sailing to Byzantium," what resolution does the speaker make about what he will do when he arrives in Byzantium? What does "Byzantium" represent in this poem? How does this final stanza (and the poem in its entirety) assert the value of artistic form and process over "Whatever is begotten, born, and dies" (6)?

"Among School Children"

11. In stanzas 1-4 of "Among School Children," the speaker's stroll among school children leads him to reflect on his present identity and his childhood past. (Yeats himself held a post as an inspector of schools in Ireland.) What does he apparently think of the children before him, and how does he say they regard him? To what reveries does his presence among them lead him, and what do those reveries mean to him emotionally?

12. How do stanzas 5-7 of "Among School Children" follow up on the meditation the speaker has already offered on childhood? What does he suggest about the philosophical systems of Plato, Aristotle, and Pythagoras, which tried to explain the nature and purpose of life? Why does he compare the "images" mothers worship with those venerated by nuns -- what insight does he draw from that comparison?

13. How, and to what extent, does the final stanza of "Among School Children" resolve the speaker's quandary over his present identity and his earlier self? What role does the address to a great "chestnut tree" play in the speaker's attempt to deal with his disjunctive sense of who he was and is? And what does the reference to dancing add to our understanding of this problem? When the speaker asks, "how can we know the dancer from the dance?" How do you interpret the significance of that question?

"A Dialogue of Self and Soul"

14. What are the Soul's primary concerns in "A Dialogue of Self and Soul"? On what grounds does the Self justify its choice of rebirth over escape from the cycle of life and death? Which do you find has the better argument, and why?

"Byzantium" (Constantinople, Wikipedia)

15. In "Byzantium," what is the holy city like and what seems to be happening in it, now that the speaker has arrived there, as he said he wanted to in "Sailing to Byzantium"? And as for the speaker, what are his experiences, thoughts, and feelings in Byzantium?

16. How does "Byzantium" explore the distance between ordinary human affairs and the world of artistic production? In "Sailing to Byzantium," the aging speaker seemed to have figured this destination as an answer to his difficulties. What sort of answer does the present poem turn out to be -- do you find "Byzantium's" vision of the eternal city of art satisfying, reassuring, comforting, etc? Or would some other terms better describe your own response and what you believe to be Yeats' aim? Explain your reasons for responding as you do.

"Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop"

17. In "Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop," how is Crazy Jane's response an appropriate rebuke to the Bishop, who privileges heavenly things at the expense of the body? How does she drive home her point about the importance of the body? And how does she explain the soul's relation to the body?

"Under Ben Bulben" (Ben Bulben, Wikipedia)

18. In "Under Ben Bulben" who is the addressee from the first stanza onward? Who must "swear" to do -- and then do -- what the speaker tells them to? And who is the speaker to tell them this -- where does his authority come from, as this authority reveals itself through the poem's several stanzas?

19. In the second section/stanza of "Under Ben Bulben," what doctrine about "eternity" emerges? How should we understand death, according to this doctrine? And how does the poet's loyalty to Ireland and its heritage begin to show in this section?

20. In the third section/stanza of "Under Ben Bulben," what admonishment does the speaker offer about the need for "tension" in human existence? What does the "violence" the speaker references do for a person? And what understanding of life's purpose does this stanza encourage?

21. In the fourth section of "Under Ben Bulben," how does the speaker sum up the ages of art and their effect upon the societies within which they were created? How did those ages all, in their way, honor the imperatives of form and craftsmanship?

22. To what extent does the fifth section of "Under Ben Bulben" suggest that the past can serve as the stuff of poetic creation? What significance does the present play in this regard -- that is, what should Irish poets of the speaker's own time do so that future generations may remain "the indomitable Irishry"?

23. In the sixth section of "Under Ben Bulben," how does the speaker describe his coming to terms with death? What words does he require to be carve upon his tombstone, and how should they be interpreted? Does this epitaph refer to the relationship between the poet and his work, or perhaps to that and something more? Explain.

"The Circus Animals' Desertion"

24. In the first part of "The Circus Animals' Desertion," what trouble is the speaker having as a poet, at least for the present time? How do you interpret his reference to the "circus animals" that were always "all on show" until he arrived at old age?

25. In the second part of "The Circus Animals' Desertion," what is the speaker's point in taking himself (and us) back to his earlier creations in the second part of the poem? What enabled him to create them?

26. How confident is he in his ability to recover what has been lost? What course of action does he decide upon? The poem concludes, "I must lie down where all the ladders start / In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart." What is the "ladder" here, and what is the "bone shop"? Where does creative capacity originate?

Edition: Greenblatt, Stephen et al, eds. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 8th ed. Vol. E. New York: Norton, 2006. ISBN Package 2 (Vols. DEF) 0-393-92834-9.