Yeats’ poetry is replete with symbols. He has been called “the chief representative” of the Symbolist Movement in English literature. Indeed Yeats uses innumerable symbols and sometimes he uses the same symbol for different purposes in different context. Often he coins symbols from his study of the occult, Irish folklore and mythology, magic, philosophy, metaphysical, paintings and drawings which are generally unfamiliar to the readers.
It is true that French Symbolist Movement has a great impact on Yeats. But despite this fact, Yeats’ use of symbols differs from that of them, in several ways.
Yeats makes use of a complex system of symbols in his poems. In Yeats’ own words “a symbol is indeed, the possible expression of some invisible essence…...”. Yeats’ symbols are not merely denotative, but also connotative and evocative. In Yeats’ poetry generally symbols are of two kinds; the traditional and the personal as his repeated symbol of “Rose”. It is both a traditional as well as a personal symbol. Yeats’ symbols are also all pervasive key-symbol. A key-symbol sheds light on the previous poems and illuminates their sense. “Rose”, “Swan”, and “Helen” are key-symbols.
The ‘rose’ in Yeats’ poem is generally used to mean earthly love but in “The Rose of the World” it also symbolizes eternal love and beauty. In “The Rose of Battle” the rose is a refuge from earthly love. The symbol, thus, becomes complex and has to be read carefully in the context in which it is used.
The symbol of ‘dance’ is closely related to Yeats’ “system” and is often employed in his poetry. It gives the meanings on the one hand, of a patterned movement, joyous energy and on the other hand, at times, a kind of unity. The symbol of dance evokes the concept of unity in “Among School Children”.
O body swayed to music, O brightened glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
Hence, the ideal state of balance and unity is associated with the symbols of dance.
‘Byzantium’ represents perfection and unity in Yeats’ poems. He feels that Byzantium symbolizes perfection, which the world has never known before. He believes that in Byzantium, all spheres of life are united; there is no fragmentation (Anarchy). In “Sailing to Byzantium” Byzantium becomes the symbol of perfection, free from the cycle of birth and death and also free from time because it is a world of art and an ideal existence, where is neither death nor decay.
The symbol of ‘bird’ is one of the most important symbols in Yeats’ poems. It is a striking example of the dynamic nature of the Yeatsian symbol, which grows, changes and acquires greater depth and destiny in their progression. The symbol of ‘Falcon’ is also very important. In “The Second Coming” Yeats says that modern world is disintegrating and leading to chaos.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer.
A similar process may be traced in the ‘beast imagery’. The sphinx “a shape with lion body and the head of a man”, in “The second Coming” represents the end of the Christianity. Yeats’ uses this symbol with reference to his occult system.
In “The Tower” Tower is both a traditional and a personal symbol. It is used to suggest loneliness, national heritage and blood thirstiness. In another poem, “A prayer for my Daughter”, the tower suggest Yeats’ vision of the dark future of humanity.
Yeats is disgusted with old age, for this he uses the symbol of ‘Scarecrow’. He shows his disgust with old age in “Among School Children” saying:
Old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird
There are a lot of other symbols in Yeats’ poetry. So, to sum up, we can say that Yeats’ use of symbol is complex and rich. Symbols, indeed, give “Dump things Voices, and Bodiless things Bodies” in Yeats’ poetry. The ‘rose’, the ‘swan’, the ‘tower’, the ‘winding stairs’ and the ‘spinning tops’ – all assume a life of their own and speak to the reader of different things.