The Poets

July 08, 2009

No Second Troy: A Yeats Poem

Edith Maud Gonne, who was born in England, would eventually acquire anti-British sentiments through the influence of Lucien Millevoye, a French political activist. Her revolutionary spirit would thrust her into the midst of the Irish independence movement. William Butler Yeats came to love her dearly, so much so that on a few occasions he asked her hand in marriage- Maud declined all of them. In fact, and to Yeats’ grief, she married Major John MacBride (an Irish nationalist).

Maud’s rejection of his proposals, her nationalistic tendencies and the men that these tendencies attracted (coupled with the pressing and climatic tension between Ireland and Britain), produced in our poet a series of reflections that ultimately found expression in the following poem:

No Second Troy

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?

Of the Poem:

The poem seems to be divided into two parts: lines 1 through 5 deal more in the empirical realm (from emotional pain to political defiance and out rage), while lines 6 through 12 veer off into the ethereal- and apocalyptic- world of ancient Troy and its Helen.

WHY should I blame her that she filled my days / With misery describes the pain of Yeats’ unrequited love.

that she would of late / Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways refers to Irish nationalists drawn to both her beauty and her nationalistic tendencies. That Yeats refers to them as ‘ignorant’ implies Maud’s intelligence.

My favorite line of the poem is: Or hurled the little streets upon the great, where ‘little streets’ is a reference to Irish nationalists and commoners rising up against the strength of a great British Empire. Yeats, it seems, has little confidence that the level of what they desire- an autonomous Ireland- would be met by an equal level of courage, hence the line: Had they but courage equal to desire.

Lines 6 through 10: Yeats exalts his would-be love by etherealizing her as above what he condemns in his own time (not natural in an age like this / Being high and solitary), and predicates upon her qualities of a goddess (peaceful, nobleness, beauty), even a warrior goddess (fire, like a tightened bow, most stern).

His language between lines 6 and 12 is suddenly one of allusions, memories and ideas that the earily Greeks would have known. He continues in line 11 with an allusion to Fate and Necessity, two ideas most certainly known by ancient Greeks, when describing her actions as being necessitated by her character (those attributes mentioned through lines 6 and 10): what could she have done, being what she is ...

Then comes- once again with Yeats- an apocalyptic consideration, a consideration which seems to me to be a synthesis of the empirical and ethereal tones of the poem as a whole: Was there another Troy for her to burn. In one breath Yeats refers to both Helen of Troy and 'Maud of Ireland’- where Ireland, another Troy, is set ablaze by a large and formidable foe (the fate of ancient Tory).

What I love about this poem is that it expresses so much- more than I dare attempt to touch on here- in just a few lines. Poets that do this (and do it well) leave me staggering in awe.

To know a poem in its context, even if vaguely, makes it so much more interesting and beautiful. Yeats would write notes and little comments about the works he produced; because he did this, some of his poems-poems that would normally be too remote for me to ‘feel’- have become some of my favorite to read and know. Context is a pretty thing.


John W. May said...

About the picture.

The picture actually has nothing to do with either Mrs. Gonne or Helen. It's a work done by Jacques-Louis David called: The Intervention of the Sabine Women.

I just thought its image was reflective of the apocalyptic scenes of the Trojan War (and the apocalypse Yeats feared for his Ireland).

Doug P. Baker said...

What an awesome poem! And what a perfect story that led to it! I don't recall reading this one before, so I thank you!

Anonymous said...

Hello John,
I was reading this poem and had difficulties in understanding the poem. All it left was my feeling confused and upset, but reading your explanation in length, now I know why.
Thank you.

Babnu Sourav said...

Rejected affections & Irish Revolution these two forced Yeats to write this poem. When Gonne rejected him he was deeply touched with grief. From the very starting of the poem he surrenders to Gonne & says 'she filled my days'. Again, Irish revolution & Gonne's position in it is hinted from the 3rd line of the poem.
However, his attention suddenly went to Gonne's physical beauty. For Yeats Gonne was like 'a fire'. Word like 'tightened bow' indicates Gonne's body & sexuality.
Then Yeats explained Gonne's social position which was 'high' & therefore lonely. She was filled with pride (Yeats used the word 'Stern' for Gonne).
And the last two lines of the poem express Yeats anger (I better say Yeats poetic childishness) to Gonne. He questions about her haughtiness ('Why') & even says 'what she is' (as he thinks that her physical beauty & haughty personality is not 'natural'.) & mocks her by comparing her with Helen. He wants to know is there another Troy for her to burn (actually, Yeats mocked Gonne & tries to show her faults to him & this poem is nothing but a love poem when the lover is rejected.)

As of April 9th, 2010