Notes by Henry Jamieson
Written in 1938, just before Yeats’ death.
Made up of rhyming couplets
Trochaic Tetrametre: /-/-/-/-
The effect of the Echo – “Lie down and die.” “Into the night.”
The Echo takes his words out of context, changing their meaning and representing the lack of control one has over their words one they have been spoken. Yeats [The Man] argues against the echo emulating his frustration at the misinterpretation, manipulation and misuse of his works by others.
The discord between Yeats and his echo shows the conflict of thoughts within himself as the echo is only an extension of himself, his words and ideas repeated back to him.
The poem begins with the “Man” – Yeats – travelling to a quiet, dark and cold (“broad noon has never lit”) place, parodying the journey to the Oracle of Delphi, and so suggesting a need for answers. He is haunted by a sense of unknowing about questions of life, philosophy and his own past – as he can “never get the answers right.”
He goes on to comment on the regrets of his life, betraying a sense of guilt that is compounded by his lying “awake night after night” suggesting guilt and potentially insomnia to the point where “all seems evil until I/ Sleepless would lie down and die.” Meaning either he feels that death is the only thing that would release him from the regret he feels and sin in the world or, that his death would end the evil coming of his writing.
References to Historical events/ Events in Yeats’ life
- Line 11-12: “Did that play of mine send out/ Certain men the English shot?” Refers to the Easter 1916 executions after the uprising. Yeats’ is questioning whether he was the cause of the uprising and the resultant deaths through his play Cathleen ni Houlihan – in which a woman personifying Ireland incites a bridegroom to rebellion and death.
- Line 13-14: “Did words of mine put too great strain/ On that woman’s reeling brain?” These lines refer to Margo Collins, an aspiring, mentally unstable writer, who Yeats’ had an affair with. She became his muse and he mentored her, attempting to improve her poetry. Yeats broke off their relationship after becoming dissatisfied with her poetry leading to further mental breakdowns and her eventual suicide.
- Line 15-16: “Could my spoken words have checked/ That whereby a house lay wrecked?” In these lines Yeats asks whether his influence through his poetry, plays and politics could have enabled him to prevent the destruction of many of the old mansions, specifically Coole Park where he met with Lady Gregory – the other driving force of the artistic revolution in Ireland.
In the second stanza, as Yeats admits in the third, he has “lost the theme” and original purpose of the poem. He abandons the personal analysis of his mistakes and regrets and begins to talk of far broader philosophical issues. Yeats disapproved of the use of alcohol, drugs and love to lessen the pains of life and “drug him [man in general] to sleep.” Yeats believed that one must bear the toils and hardship of life, that death will provide no release for the wearied and sorrowful and that the point is for one to bear it to end it by suicide or giving into disease is just cowardly. – This opinion contrasts with some of his earlier canon such as An Irish Airman Foresees his Death where Yeats seems to believe that death is a way out of the meaningless and “wasted breath” of life.
Yeats’ is of the opinion, contrary to Sailing to Byzantium where he appeals to the “Sages standing in God’s holy fire,” that all existence, even intellect, is lost to the man when he “sinks at last into the night.” – Suggestive of nothingness after death.
In this stanza Yeats rhetorically asks his echo, “Shall we in this great night rejoice?” This is either questioning the existence of a god and afterlife; whether death is something to be celebrated or if the end of life and release from the physical something to be rejoiced in. He comments that he has lost the theme and goes onto to conclude that one should live in the moment; by finishing the poem talking about a “hawk or owl” preying on a “stricken rabbit” (symbolising life and the present moment) and saying how the rabbits “cry distracts” his philosophical thoughts.
References to other literature/mythology
The setting for the poem, “In a cleft that’s christened Alt/ Under broken stone I halt” alludes to or parodies the journey to the Oracle of Delphi – a priestess at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, the most prestigious and authoritative oracle in the ancient Greek world.
“There is no release/ In a bodkin or disease” – Refers to Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ speech : “For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,/ Th’oppressor’s wrong… When he himself might his quietus make/ With a bare bodkin?”
I lie awake night after night/ And never get the answers right
All seems evil until I/ Sleepless would lie down and die.
[Echo]Lie down and die. [Man] That were to shirk/ the spiritual intellectual’s great work
There is no release/ In a bodkin or disease
Shall we in that great night rejoice?