Poetry Reading: The Song of the Happy Shepherd By Yeats

12 Jan

It’s difficult to talk about Yeats for too long without going into his theories of cyclic history, which is this headache inducing blend of history, horoscopes, mythology, mysticism, and charts that don’t really explain anything.  Personally, though I think many parts of our society are cyclical, Yeats takes it to an extreme usually only used by conspiracy theorists and dungeons and dragons players.   However, The Happy Shepherd comes before Yeats developed these theories, and he’s referencing the classical view on the ages of society.

So according to mythology, there’s five ages:  Gold, Silver, Bronze, Heroic, and Iron.   Unlike how we use the term “golden age” now, the golden age of mythology is not associated with power and strength, rather it was an edenic time of peace where there was no central society, and people lived a gentle agrarian life.   It’s a combination of utopia, paradise, with more innocence and freedom involved.   The reason why there was no central society was that it  wasn’t necessary to control the population as they were peaceful on their own.

The reason I’m bringing this up is one of the first places that Yeats brings up in this poem is Arcadia–an area in Greece that is particularly associated with the golden age.  19th century poetry mentions Arcadia a lot–usually involving Shepherds, summertime, eternal youth, and love dalliances.   In the rapidly industrializing world, this idea of a place where one can be gentle and free with no effort seemed very alluring in comparison to the soot filled cities of the Victorian era.

In this poem, the golden age is over, but the shepherd is revisiting it in song.   According to him, the world is filled with many tiresome things, and the only good ones are words and dreams.   Only words can bring back the golden age as it was, dreams are what life is made of.     Deeds and people pass, but words are forever.

Dreaming in particular has a central position in this work–by which Yeats is not referring to wishes or the nighttime sort, but visionary dreams that inform the very way we see the world.  After all, the world is just a construction in our heads, and because of this we must be very careful as to what we call important, because each thing we take in influences our dreams.  All life is merely a vision, and visions are very prone to influence.   He asks us not to listen to the learned men, who view the world with cold detachment–their facts our useless to us, in our self-made worlds.

The shepherd asks us to find answers instead in seashells, where we can whisper our troubles and here them told back to us until they lose meaning.  Our troubles, our concerns are self inflicted miseries, that would simply dissolve if we could only see past them.

In the end, the Shepherd says he’s about to go to Pan’s grave, to sing to him though he is dead.  (Pan was the god of the golden age, which ended at his death.)  The earth too is dead.   Only in us, can we breathe life to this visionary world of peace.

This poem, once you parse out the meaning, is a very seductive invocation to a certain way of thinking–many of the ideas here exist in other forms to this day.  The idea of finding truth in simplicity, of getting back to nature making us more real certainly resonates with the green movement, while the looking back at a certain golden age that we must try to get back to is a message that underlies modern American conservatives.

However both those ideas, as nice as they are, are little more than dreams–idealizations of existences that we never truly knew.  There’s a reason that golden ages are always noted in the past and never in the present.   Looking back at a time that seemed more stable, more peaceful, is a purely imaginary activity–one which often deliberately omits the parts of history that weren’t so wonderful.    The Shepherd here is happy not because he is living in this era, but because he’s recounting it, as passed down through generations.   He wants us to lay aside reason and actions because these two things would easily pop this bubble he has built of the perfect world.

However, the dream is necessary.   Our worlds really are constructed in our heads, and having such a thing gives us passion and direction.   My argument is that we would follow these things with reason and actions, thus bringing our world inches closer to the idealized one, rather than decorating the graves of dead gods.



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