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William Butler Yeats

W. B. Yeats

Why Should Not Old Men Be Mad?
A Personal Stylistic View

William Butler Yeats             Why should not old men be mad?
            Some have known a likely lad
            That had a sound fly-fisher's wrist
            Turn to a drunken journalist;
            A girl that knew all Dante once
            Live to bear children to a dunce;
            A Helen of social welfare dream,
            Climb on a wagonette to scream.
            Some think it a matter of course that chance
            Should starve good men and bad advance,
            That if their neighbours figured plain,
            As though upon a lighted screen,
            No single story would they find
            Of an unbroken happy mind,
            A finish worthy of the start.
            Young men know nothing of this sort,
            Observant old men know it well;
            And when they know what old books tell,
            And that no better can be had,
            Know why an old man should be mad.

W. B. Yeats

By: Mubarak Abdessalami (1989)

            Although he is to be positioned at the dawn of the modernist movement, Yeats is considered the master of the modern lyric poetry. His poetry goes through many phases; each one is characterized and influenced by his personal experiences and thoughts. Yet, the last poems, compared to those of the beginning and those of the middle, are mature and dwell heavily on personal matters and true facts coloured by a highly managed use of literary ornaments. In spite of the fact that most of his themes are tightly connected to his biography - speaking about old age and death , the two themes however which accompanied him all over his long career - still, the refined language and the organic structure he continuously tried to ameliorate and paint make him readable and easily assimilated even by young readers. For the sake of this T. S. Eliot says, that "the young can see him as a poet who in his work remained in the best sense always young, who in one sense became young as he aged"(1) . That is because Yeats is a devoted and gifted poet; and his poems are like a kind of a living monument that traces the development and evolvement of human conditions and beliefs at a certain period of time. Yeats, T. S. Eliot says, "was one of those few whose history is the history of their own time, who are a part of the consciousness of an age which cannot be understood without them"(2). While reading his poetry we get aware of how much the craft of the poet is more important than the poet. In reading Yeats's heritage, T. S. Eliot's judgement, that "unlike many writers, he [Yeats] cared more poetry than for his own reputation as a poet or his picture of himself as a poet. Art was greater than the artist"(3) is felt to be true. The greatness of Yeats came from his being used to deal with poetry as a need for life and a necessary food for his soul.

            "Why should not old men be mad?" is a poem that Yeats wrote only few years before his death. It is a kind of insight, a philosophical insight into the human nature and the bitter reality of life. In this poem, Yeats transmits to us his view of life. For him life is an ambiguous journey worthless to trust. He wants to say that our freedom is restricted and limited by fate. Fate or "hap" has a lot to do with the way we should live and suffer the unexpected surprises that life persistently blow us with. He came to a point where he feels that we laugh at ourselves when we try to make plans for far future goals. Still, the way he presents this insight is what counts more. The simplicity without levity and economy without harm of the essence of the message is the very spirit of the poem. It is a short poem but very rich and I would not perhaps exaggerate if I said that it is at the same time the outcome and the synopsis of a long diverse experience which was the source of all the warmest poems he sang and left strong enough to endure and survive the chill and silence of the tide of time.

            "Why should not old men be mad?" is one of Yeats’s last poems in which his gaze was turned fiercely towards life. The poem has a personal significance to the poet; there is a biographical connection. It is classic in method. On the surface, it is an evocative poem; but it is more than mere description. It conveys a mood, the mood of meditation tinged with regret or nostalgia.

            The choice of words such as “Dante”, "Helen", "books" and the verb "to know", which is repeated six times, makes the poet’s diction tending towards literature. While a number of expressions reveal a close familiarity with Shakespeare, especially in “as you like it” in which Shakespeare sees the journey of life in terms of seven ages.

All the world‘s a stage.
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages ……….
Yeats is dealing with those "acts" in his own way. He states the fact that nothing is everlasting in life particularly youth. In life "no better can be had" and that's the reason why old men should be angry and anxious. The idea is well portrayed in the form. Nothing is eternal except for time. Everything in life changes but time never does, it is always in its regular motion despite of whatever could happen. In other words, time is never affected by the events; it never halts or reduces its cadence because this or that happening deserves it. That's what Yeats tries to express through enjambment. In this poem, Yeats understands time as the incarnation of eternity. And this is more cynical for man who lives his ups and downs while time goes on completing its journey which seems eternal. The poem stresses this truth through the contradictions and paradoxes in the life of man. There's a transition from a verse to another:

- A sound fly-fisher's wrested lad turned to a sick drunken journalist.
- A very bookish intellectual girl lived to marry a stupid person.
- A Helen dreaming and struggling for a noble cause "Climb on a wagonette to scream".

Yeats gives examples about the derisive nature of life. It is completely unwise and naive to trust it. Maud Gonne, who was like the legendary Helen beyond praise or comment, was a source of literary inspiration for Yeats. She used to be the most fitting subject matter for Yeats's poetry. But in this context she might, occasionally, stand for any common person dreaming of social welfare.

            It is through these contrasts that Yeats unveils the irony of fate which is used here to represent a "unity of being". The contrast is, stylistically, sustained by parallelism and symmetry:

  • strong lad # drunken journalist
  • intellectual wife # stupid husband
  • dream # scream (nightmare)
  • good men # bad advance
  • finish # start
  • young men # old men
  • know nothing # observant.
Also the symmetry and parallelism sustains the unity of the poem through alliteration,

  • men / mad
  • fly / fisher
  • single / story
  • observant / old men
The unity, furthermore, is reinforced in the musicality of the assonances of the heroic couplets:

  • mad / lad
  • wrist / journalist
  • once / dunce
  • dream / scream …… etc.

            The poem is sad but true. It depicts life as it really is. It springs from the deep down of a poet who is, before all, a man having suffered and learned a lot from life. It is a philosophical approach to the art of living dealt with in simple understandable direct language though sometimes makes allusion to some mythology. Yeats follows the traces of Aristotle’s remarks that a poet should "think like a wise man yet express himself like the common people". Yeats tackles the problematic of eternity and existence in concrete terms to make the message available to the unlearned reader: In order to say that nothing is sure about life, the poet puts it this way: the young man becomes old and a well-read girl is likely to marry a dunce, and so forth. People may say it is chance which governs life, however Yeats does not believe in that because of the phrase "some think". It is a current way of expression Yeats uses whenever he wants to introduce a wrong idea or statement. It is not chance which operates on life, it is rather Fate or "hap" that makes life full of paradox and inconsistency. For an old man, wisdom is all that one can have as a compensation for the loss of youth. A mere contemplation on life can bring into mind that nothing is to be mourned over and that there is no "happy unbroken mind". Life means suffering and it is void of any better alternative: that’s why old men have to be mad. The experiences of the human being from childhood up to old age are condensed and compressed into a single poem displaying the essence of existence; that is beyond chance or anything people might think of. Life should be taken for granted as a medley of contradictions and paradoxes; and it is the Irony of fate which governs both life and the poem.

            This is not the final analysis of this poem. It is really rich enough to be the target of a multitude of interpretations. If the poet were successful in finding an answer to the angry question notably "Why should not old men be mad?" Still many answers are to be found for the meaning of some ambiguous images such as,

That if their neighbours figured plain,
As though upon a lighted screen,
The symbol used here may bear a legendary explanation. For example "a lighted screen" may refer to Plato's cave where people are sheer shadows. Whatsoever suffering may be connected to the old age, it is not worse than the enigma of death. In his Epitaph, Yeats wrote,
Whether man die in his bed
Or the rifle knocks him dead
A brief parting from those dear
Is the worst man has to fear.

W. B. Yeats (1) - Eliot, T.S; Yeats-a collection of critical Essays-J. Unterecker, p:59
(2) - ibid, p:63
(3) - ibid, p:55
(4) - Shakespeare, William; As You Like It, Act II, Scene 7.


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