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An Analysis Of The Poetic Devices In Yeats' Work

An Irish Airman Foresees His Death, The Lake Isle of Innisfree and When You Are Old are three poems by Yeats which reflect his ability to capture the reader in a subtle, yet confronting context and allow them to explore aspects of the human condition. While each of the poems are spoken from different positions, the first two engage the reader as a third party, while the latter, intended for Maude Gonne, addresses the reader directly which provides for a more confronting experience of the human condition. Yeats’ take on the human condition is enhanced in each of these poems as a result of his innovative use of various poetic devices, some of which are more distinctive in certain poems.

In An Irish Airman Foresees His Death and The Lake Isle of Innisfree, Yeats deals with themes relating to humanity’s restrictions and apathy. The former does this by explaining the situation of an Irish Airman in the First World War from the first person perspective. The Airman notes how indifferent he feels about the current situation, primarily due to his position as an Irishman in a war which does not directly concern his country, “No likely end could bring them loss/Or leave them happier than before.” The Airman, who considers his past and future life a waste, accepts his predicament and allows himself to live entirely for “A lonely impulse of delight”, that he experiences in the sky. In The Lake Isle of Innisfree, Yeats uses his own voice to demonstrate the disconnection with nature that humanity experiences in the modern world. Yeats explains with conviction how he intends to lead a life of solitude in the peaceful atmosphere of Innisfree, expounding the attractiveness of the plan by contrasting it with a city setting, “I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;/While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey.”  When You Are Old takes a different approach to the other poems, exploring love and the possibility of regret for a woman later in her life. As it is directly addressing Maude Gonne, this poem becomes intriguing when Yeats’ one way relationship with her is considered. Thus, it  appears that Yeats wrote the poem in a final attempt to win Gonne over, showing her the life she may have if she continued to reject his love, “But one man loved the pilgrim Soul in you…Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled.”

In each of the poems, Yeats creates a reflective atmosphere which evokes empathy and intrigue in the reader. An Irish Airman Foresees His Death does this by creating a series of confounding contrasts that the Airman’s situation brings and highlights these strongly using a constant iambic pattern throughout, leading to an overall sense of balanced indifference: “Those that I fight I do not hate/those that I guard I do not love.” Similarly, The Lake Isle of Innisfree makes use of contrasting – in this case, between nature and a roadway - not to highlight the indifference of the speaker but rather to demonstrate the speaker’s urge to escape humanity’s repression from nature. This determination is also shown in terms of the language itself with the repetition of the phrase, “I will arise and go now” and the contrasting feelings stirred up by Yeats’ language. For example, serenity is induced by soft, emotive language with an emphasis on peace:  “Dropping slow, glimmer, purple glow, lake water lapping”, but is disrupted by a single line ending with “pavements grey”, bringing the reader back to reality.  While The Lake Isle of Innisfree and An Irish Airman Foresees His Death create the atmosphere through contrasts and language, When You Are Old does this through the scene of pity and regret, detailed in what is essentially short narrative form, in the first stanza.  The reflective atmosphere is also contributed to via the rhyming pattern which establishes a contrast between future settings of When You Are Old and the contemporary setting of the other two.  While they all utilize a four line stanza model, the former two use an ABAB rhyming pattern and When You Are Old uses an ABBA pattern, causing the reader to wait for the rhyme, reflecting the protagonist’s own sense of age and regret.  In each poem, the emotive atmosphere created assists the reader’s overall understanding of the poem. 

As with all poetry, the sounds and rhythm created by the poet often enhances the reader’s understanding of the speaker’s situation much more than thousands of words of non-poetic prose, and this is especially true in the case of Yeats’ poetry.  These elements are paramount in this selection of Yeats’ poetry as he avoids the use of complex literary devices, preferring instead to let natural rhyme and simple format to flow easily with the reader.  When You Are Old takes a soft sounding approach - pushing forward the reflective, sad nature of the protagonist with such words as deep, grace, true and stars used as the rhyming words.  Combining this with the stilted rhythm of the poem, the reflective, solemn nature of the protagonist which Yeats is trying to convey to his intended audience, Maude Gonne, is also pushed onto the reader.  In contrast to this, The Lake Isle of Innisfree’s rhythm in the first three lines of each stanza aligns with the progression and determination of the speaker. However, the distorted fourth line breaks the reader’s focus on nature.  This yearning for nature is ultimately the purpose of the poem, to illustrate man’s exile from nature and his desire to be returned to it and is emphasized by the final line, “I hear it in the deep hearts core.”  In the case of An Irish Airman Foresees His Death the sound and rhythm play a lesser role, with the contrasting language in the statements, rather than the sound itself being the major contributor to the reader’s understanding of Yeats’ poem.

In creating these three poems Yeats has employed numerous techniques and poetic devices to convey his message to the reader.  While many have only been outlined and some not even mentioned here, it is Yeats’ innovative use of language, sound and rhythm which primarily appeal to the reader.  Yeats’ minimal use of complex literary devices and obscure references in these poems (which he has been known for) allow the widest demographic to appreciate his take on the human condition.