Monday, February 9, 2015

No Second Troy - William Butler Yeats

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?

It is necessary to know that this poem is about Maud Gonne, with whom Yeats had a turbulent relationship for many years.  She was his muse, and manifests in his poetry under a lot of different guises, here appearing as a Helen of Troy figure.  The poem is also set against the background of Irish nationalism, particularly at a time when Irish oppression under the British crown was harsh and strong.  I am not an expert in this subject, and will try my best to not make sweeping conclusions.  I'd encourage you, reader, to look up both Maud Gonne and Yeats' politics at a later date.

In the poem itself, Yeats asks rhetorical questions, trying to reconcile his hurt with the woman who caused them.  Why should he blame her for his own hurt, when it is in her nature?  Ignorant masses (violent Irish nationalists) follow her due to her beauty and political sentiment, and she has through this "taught to ignorant men most violent ways."  He ultimately concludes, "Why, what could she have done, being what she is?"  It's her nature, and because there is no Troy for this Helen to see burn, it must be Ireland.

If you can help elucidate this for me, reader, please leave a comment.


  1. I think you have it well encapsulated Christopher.

    Yeats was skeptical of and not aligned to the revolutionary nationalist movement that was stirring in Ireland at the time. Maud Gonne was much involved, as her husband John McBride had a direct part in it. As such Yeats saw her as a fierce figurehead of the movement and tried to accept this revolutionary character as her nature - Helen of Troy - as he tried to accept it of the country. I think it both entranced (a tragic fierce classical heroine) and reviled him (the violence inherent in her politics) in the same way as the revolutionary politics that were gathering pace did. Throughout his career Yeats tried to reconcile the idea of beauty being violent and violence bearing beauty (the Republic would be born in bloodshed after all) in relation to the national question and Maud Gonne (a terrible love). 'Easter 1916', his poem about the 1916 Rising ('a terrible beauty is born') outlines his view on this much more clearly.

    I just love the line here - 'beauty like a tightened bow' - perfect. I've always held in high esteem Yeats' control on language in all his poems - many of them like tightened bows themselves.

    1. Thanks so much for the great informative comment! I was worried I was being too reductionist, but not knowing enough, I tried to keep it simple and not overreach my knowledge.

      It makes a lot of sense that Yeats had trouble reconciling the idea of violence leading to beauty. I think I'll need to do a more in-depth study of Yeats soon for my own edification.