William Butler Yeats (1865–1939)
107 Study Questions and Activities
The Lake Isle of Innisfree
- How would you describe the tone, the voice, and the mood of this poem? Is it melancholy, enthusiastic, or some point between? How does Yeats achieve this tone? How does it complement his theme?
- What is alliteration (cf. Glossary)? Find an example in “Lake Isle” and comment on its effect.
- Determine the poem’s rhythm (cf. Glossary) and rhyme scheme (cf. Glossary) and assess their effect on theme.
No Second Troy
- How do you interpret the last line of this poem?
- Why is this poem almost, but not quite, a Shakespearean sonnet (cf. Glossary)?
- What does this poem reveal about Yeats’s attitude to Maud, who was married to another man, when Yeats wrote this poem? Does he love her still? Dislike her? Resent her?
- The rhythm of this poem is unusual, basically uneven iambic trimetre (cf. Glossary). Why do you think Yeats used this rhythm for this poem?
- Explain the meaning of the poem’s famous refrain, “A terrible beauty is born.” Reveal in your answer the type of figurative language exemplified in the phrase “a terrible beauty.”
- “Easter, 1916” presupposes a considerable knowledge of historical and biographical context. Does the need for this knowledge add to or take away from the poem’s intensity?
The Wild Swans at Coole
- What do the wild swans at Coole symbolize? How does the symbolism inform the theme of the poem?
- Find two examples of half rhyme (cf. Glossary) in the poem and comment on the effect of the half rhyme on the tone and theme of the poem.
- Compare and contrast this poem with “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.”
The Second Coming
- The form of the poem is blank verse (cf. Glossary). Why do you think Yeats chose this form for this poem? Consider, especially, its effect on the tone (cf. Glossary) of the poem.
- Compare and contrast the theme of this poem with the theme of T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” Do Yeats and Eliot share similar views on the condition of modern society?
- How does Yeats’s vision of the Second Coming differ from the vision that Christians believe? How do you account for the difference?
A Prayer for My Daughter
- What are the character traits and the outlook on life Yeats hopes his daughter will possess? How does Yeats’s relationship with Maud Gonne influence his hopes?
- Why is there a “great gloom” in Yeats’s mind, as he writes this poem?
- “A Prayer for My Daughter” is a regular verse poem, mainly iambic pentameter, with an aabbcddc rhyme scheme. Note that in lines 6 and 7 of each stanza (after the first) Yeats switches to iambic tetrameter. What effect does this switch have on theme of the poem?
Leda and the Swan
- What are three features of the form and structure of “Leda and the Swan” that identify it as a sonnet (cf. Glossary)?
- What, in the Christian faith, is the Annunciation, and how and why does Yeats connect the Annunciation to the events he describes in this poem?
- Express in your own words the meaning of the question with which the sonnet concludes.
Sailing to Byzantium
- Note the rhyme scheme (cf. Glossary) of this poem. It is regular, but Yeats makes extensive use of half rhyme (cf. Glossary). What is the effect of this use of half rhyme?
- Review Yeats’s biography and determine why he expresses disappointment in his native Ireland at the beginning of this poem.
- The desire to transcend death is a common poetic theme. How does Yeats render this theme in “Sailing to Byzantium”? How does he hope to transcend death?
Among School Children
- In “Among School Children,” Yeats seeks common ground among apparently disparate, things, people, and ideas: nuns, mothers, and philosophers; Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras; leaf, blossom, and bole; music, dancer, and dance. How does this search for a unity of purpose influence the theme of the poem?
- An understanding of this poem presupposes so much reader prior knowledge of the poet’s life and of philosophy and mythology. What are the benefits and the drawbacks this presupposition?
- The verse form of the poem is Ottava rima (cf. Glossary). Why might Yeats have chosen this form for this poem?
- Is “Byzantium” a regular verse or a free verse poem (cf. Glossary)? Explain your answer.
- What is it that Yeats, now reincarnated as a golden bird, witnesses from his perch on the golden bough of the Emperor’s palace? What are his mood and emotions as he witnesses the transformation?
- The desire that Yeats expresses in “Sailing to Byzantium” and its fulfillment in “Byzantium” has been described by some as visionary and by others as eccentric. How would you describe the goal, expressed in these poems, Yeats wants to achieve? Explain your answer.
Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop
- What is satire (cf. Glossary)? In what sense is “Crazy Jane” a satiric poem?
- The poem is framed as a debate between Jane and a bishop. What argument does Jane advance to win the debate? Do you support hers or the bishop’s argument?
- The poem is a first-person narrative, written in modified ballad stanzas (cf. Glossary). Why might Yeats have chosen this form for this poem?
The Circus Animal’s Desertion
- What fear does Yeats express in this poem? How will he overcome this fear?
- How might readers know, without referring to Yeats’s biography, that this is one of his last poems?
- Explain the famous metaphor with which this poem concludes.
- How does Yeats’s unrequited love for Maud Gonne influence his poetry?
- How does Irish nationalism and the struggle for Irish independence influence Yeats’s work?
- How does Yeats’s life-long quest for spiritual enlightenment influence his work?
- Yeats is, among his other various identities as a poet, a satirist. Discuss Yeats’s use of satire in his poetry and his goals as a satirist.