Notes by Harry Savill
Yeats considers many different abstract themes, with topics of memory, politics, death, the afterlife and unrequited love all bearing consideration. Yet it is the issue of beauty that emerges as particularly noteworthy, especially in relation to the ageing process and especially with the modern fixation of keeping appearances unblemished and free from the smallest of wrinkles.
- The poem was published in 1917, just after Yeats’ last proposal to Maud Gonne
- Yeats was 52 years of age when the poem was published.
- John MacBride (Maud’s estranged husband) was already dead (executed in May 1916 for his part in the Easter 1916 rising).
The Poem’s Structure / Use of Language
- The varying length of the five stanzas stanza help to contribute to the unplanned feeling, and the constantly shifting focus gives an almost stream-of-consciousness feel to the proceedings.
- The enjambment used throughout the poem fortifies this idea, creating a fast-paced recollection of memories. It is particularly prominent in his recalling of Maud’s youthful beauty- conveys excitement and yearning for the opportunity to again see this incomparable beauty.
- The sibilance (‘sole sake’) reflects the ethereal dream-like quality of the poem. The weary repetition of the ‘s’ sound also creates a despairing tone to the poem.
Key Links to Other Poems
- ‘There is grey in your hair’ : ‘Hollow of cheek’ (Among School Children)
Both images of ageing and the decaying of natural beauty
- ‘But in the grave all, all, shall be renewed’ : ‘gather me into the artifice of eternity’ (‘Sailing To Byzantium’)
In both poems, Yeats expresses the importance of permanency. He realises that to know truth and immortality, he has to die. In ‘Broken Dreams’, Yeats says he will be reunited with her (Maud’s) youthful form only after he enters the ‘artifice of eternity’, and thus he welcomes death. He recognises that Death changes everything (reference ‘An Irish Airman foresees his Death’ and ‘Easter 1916’).
- ‘And the first loveliness of womanhood’ : ‘ vain gaiety…vain repose’ (‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’)
Yeats fervently describes Maud’s youthful perfection and talks of how he misses the time when he was able to see her and experience her youthful beauty; he seems to envy the young. This contradicts the bitter memories expressed by Yeats towards youthful ignorance and his early writing. In ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’, for example, Yeats expresses his regret and almost embarrassment of how he so composed himself so naively in his earlier years while the tone of ‘Broken Dreams’ implies he misses those times.
- ‘In rambling talk with an image of air’ : ‘old iron, old bones, old rags’
The image portrayed in the final two lines of ‘Broken Dreams’, suggests that all of his ‘rhyme[s]’ are unclear, repetitive and futile. His beliefs are expressed on paper, without the real conviction he seeks and he finds it difficult to truly emphasize the meaning of this futile love he has for the youthful Maud. This draws comparisons to the ‘old’ ideas he has recycled over the years in his poetry. He feels frustrated by the way his poetry seems very meaningless and the fact that he has nothing new to say. In the same way, he is suggesting that his poetry has become useless and insignificant in relation to everything else. The ‘rambling’ nature of it also reflects his increasing aged nature, and his inability to reflect his feelings on paper.
- Young men no longer suddenly catch their breath / When you are passing –
The poem begins with somewhat prosaic language, perhaps representing the concept of growing old and old passions dying.
- But in the grave all, all, shall be renewed –
Yeats is infatuated by the physical beauty she once had. Now that age has withered this, he’s not able to love her in the same way he once did. Consequentially, all he can do is search for memories (compare to the use of ‘Shadows’ in ‘In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth…) and look forward to the death and the afterlife, being reunited with her former-self, for death releases the physical constraints of age.
- You are more beautiful than any one/ And yet your body had a flaw / Your small hands were not beautiful –
The flaw is the only thing that separates her from the angels. The angelic qualities so fervently described in his poems beatifies her, yet is neutralised by the presence of a ‘flaw’. It perhaps makes her even more desirable as this human-like flaw makes her beauty transient and more precious. (c/r: ‘leave unchanged/ the hands’).
- In rambling talk with an image of air/ Vague memories, nothing but memories –
It is as if Yeats has finally accepted Gonne’s rejection and is no longer tormented by it. He is much more at peace writing ‘Broken Dreams’ than with his other Maud Gonne poems. Whilst he still finds his life understandably sad, he no longer expects her to change her mind and, accordingly, he does not write a depressingly bitter poem. He accepts the fact that their relationship was something of the past and realises there is no point in pursuing something that is already lost or ‘broken’.
- Burdensome beauty –
She does not lose any of her power in the eyes of Yeats and other admirers; she is not adored any less for the diminishing of her physical appearance, there is still ‘something about her’ that seems to be amplified in the paring down of outward distractions and indeed made better for not having to put on ‘burdensome beauty’ – such efforts are not needed. Alternatively, the negative association with beauty could be to describe the even greater effect age has on someone who is already beautiful. Beauty is seen as a burden as ageing will seem even more damaging to the beholder of it.
Criticism of the Poem
- Biographer R.F. Foster has observed that Yeats’ last offer was motivated more by a sense of duty than by a genuine desire to marry her.
- See this link for more critical quotations