Notes by Arthur Chilcott
Whilst many of Yeats’ poems are written in a manner to convey great passion, ‘The Fisherman’ is particularly so. It is about Yeats’ disdain for the masses, for their disrespect of art and their general inadequacy (or at least his perception of this). He also takes the opportunity to create an image of the perfect man, his perfect audience: that image is embodied in the persona of a fisherman:
In grey Connemara clothes
At dawn to cast his flies,
It’s long since I began
To call up to the eyes
This wise and simple man.
The simple rhyme scheme and language helps to illustrate his point. The words and sentence structure are remarkably restrained and plain for Yeats; it is written for just such an oxymoronic “wise and simple man” as he describes. The phrase “wise and simple implies an intelligent man, but one without the need for materialistic extravagancies. The lack of extravagancies demanded by the lifestyle of his perfect receptacle is mirrored by the lack of pretention in the form of his verse.
The poem becomes even more emotional in the second stanza, when Yeats moves on from the ideal person to the archetypal member of ‘the masses’, reeling off what could almost be called a list of everything which he despises them for. His criticism is absolutely scathing here, the tension and anger almost burning its way off the page, building to a crescendo at the end of the stanza:
The beating down of the wise
And great Art beaten down.
This is part of the main point of the poem; that “Art – all the arts, in other words, including poetry in particular – is being slowly diminished by the ignorance of the general public, that the culture of Ireland is being slowly destroyed by those who look no further than “a drunken cheer”.
The beginning of the third stanza seems slightly different in tone. It is as if Yeats paused for breath and calmed down a little before continuing. After his furious rant, he now reflects back on what he has written, displaying more clarity and less naivety than he did at the beginning. Once again he describes his embodiment of the ideal man in the perfect rural setting, but this time admits that he is “A man who does not exist, / A man who is but a dream; – no longer is he vainly fantasising about how people should be. He is now facing up the reality of the situation and declaring, in the final four lines, that he is determined to use the very thing the masses are trying to diminish, his Art, to retaliate; he will use his poems to make his point: his poetry is his weaponry, his defence against what he saw as the onslaught of the mundane world.