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What Then? Analysis

Author: poem of William Butler Yeats Type: poem Views: 41

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His chosen comrades thought at school
He must grow a famous man;
He thought the same and lived by rule,
All his twenties crammed with toil;
'What then?' sang Plato's ghost.  'What then?'

Everything he wrote was read,
After certain years he won
Sufficient money for his need,
Friends that have been friends indeed;
'What then?' sang Plato's ghost.  ' What then?'

All his happier dreams came true -
A small old house, wife, daughter, son,
Grounds where plum and cabbage grew,
poets and Wits about him drew;
'What then.?' sang Plato's ghost.  'What then?'

The work is done,' grown old he thought,
'According to my boyish plan;
Let the fools rage, I swerved in naught,
Something to perfection brought';
But louder sang that ghost, 'What then?'


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||| Analysis | Critique | Overview Below |||

.: :.

Haha, funnily enough, the \'blank space\' I\'ve talked about (because there was one, in my text) is here replaced by \'Sponsor\'. What\'s the world coming to? :P
-- Prayag

| Posted on 2011-05-09 | by a guest

.: :.

I think this poem can either be read as Romantic, or existential/Nihilistic. It is (problematically) Romantic if we think of its view of life, it is existential if we focus on what it suggests about death. First, the Romantic – it sees life as a quest towards a higher goal. Perfection is practically unattainable in life, but we must nevertheless, the poem suggests, believe in the perfectability of the soul. Schiller, in \'On Naive and Sentimental Poetry\', expresses the view that mankind sees in Nature what it lacks in itself, ie, stability and perfection. Human lives are always in a state of flux. At the same time, we are also ennobled by the fact that this flux makes our lives a constant quest, a striving towards perfection. This is what the poem embodies.
The quest for perfection is a theme that Yeats develops in several of his later poems. In \'An Acre of Grass\', for instance, he first resignedly accepts that \'Neither loose imagination,/ Nor the mill of the mind/ Consuming its rag and bone,/ Can make the truth known.\', and then goes on to subvert his own assertion, praying for \'an old man\"s frenzy\', so he can \'pierce the clouds\' in a moment of mystical vision.
\'What Then\', however, seems to be pessimistic about the possibility of ever bringing \'something to perfection\'. It is at the very moment when the narrator makes this inflated assertion that the voice of Plato\'s ghost undercuts it, singing louder than before, \'What then?\' Perfection is never a state of stasis -- it is a process, a movement towards fuller self realization, a becoming rather than a being -- and therefore when the poet asserts that he has brought something to perfection, as if his life\'s tasks are at an end, Plato\'s ghost repeats his question all the more insistently.
Near the end of his life, following a Steinach operation, Yeats was filled with renewed vitality, a desire never to rest. It is this desire that is embodied in Plato\'s ghost and it is this desire that repeats the question to the restful aspects of his psyche.
Reading the poem biographically can be rewarding. The repeated question, according to the narrator\'s own assertion, is the impetus behind his success in life. It is true that the catalogue of the narrator\'s achievements and acquisitions in the poem, tallies with those of Yeats at this point in his life. It has been a life of constant self-examination. The narrator\'s life seems to epitomize the Socratic notion of \'eudaimonia\', or the \'good life\'; one of self-examination, virtue and philosophical enquiry. However, this is only implicit. Only after a secondary examination can one find anything positive in the ghost\'s insistent question. I feel that the repeated structure of bold assertion undercut by a question that is never quite answered, reveals a deep-seated insecurity and, at least in this poem, pessimism in the poet\'s mind. That the questioning nature of his mind has served a good purpose in life is only secondary. In fact, whether what has been achieved is at all of any worth, is questionable. The poem might be seen as a Modernist statement of the futility of human existence, comparable to, say, Poe\'s \'A Dream within a Dream\' or Beckett\'s \"Waiting For Godot\". Despite established material and personal acquisitions, the question ‘what then’ keeps cropping up in the narrator’s mind. Is the poem ruing the inexhaustibility of human desire? Essentially, the question can be paraphrased as either ‘what next’ or ‘SO what then’. In the former light, it bemoans the endlessness of human desire, in the latter, it questions the acquisitive impulse itself. In either case, the subject is tied to the wheel of Ixion. This brings us to the question of death. We are reminded that Yeats was at a late stage in his life when this poem was written. An old man is coming to terms with mortality, and the poem is essentially his existential expression of doubt.
Before we discuss the theme of death, let us ask, why is the ghost that of Plato? Most obviously, because Plato is one of the best known philosophers in the history of Western civilization, and therefore, the ideal person to voice any philosophical question. Also, many of Plato\'s Socratic dialogues follow the same rhetoric of question and answer that the poem itself follows. Most importantly perhaps, the cornerstone of Plato\'s metaphysics is the belief that beyond this life of shadows, lies a realm of permanence - \'the form of the good\'. Thus, the ghost being that of Plato\'s, is perhaps reminding the poet that all that he feels he has achieved in life ultimately amounts to mere shadows.
Finally, let us think of the last \'what then\' in the poem as asking \"what then, what next after life?\" Seen as such, a problem arises -- the problem of the poet\'s conflicting views on time. Yeats apparently saw time as cyclical. His theory of the \'gyres\' embodies the belief that history repeats itself, and that everything that falls will be built again. Additionally, he believed in rebirth (see \'Under Ben Bulben\') It is such notions that repeatedly give Yeats solace in his last poems. We are tempted, however, to read \'What Then\' against the grain. Its view of time is Christian. Time, in the Christian view, is an arrow moving forward. Christianity, unlike say ancient Greek religions, sees the progression of events in the universe as linear/teleological, rather than cyclical, ending with the fixity of death. The Christian afterlife is a time outside time itself. \'What then\', is a question that can only be asked within a temporal framework -- it presupposes a thereafter to the time of asking -- and therefore the progress of the poem is like the progress of life itself, linear, with death as the terminal point. The reader\'s eyes have moved down the page reading each line of the poem from the first, in a linear manner mirroring the mortal experience of time, but he is ultimately met with a blank white space after the final \'what then?\' The question that impelled the poet\'s life forward now frustrates him when pitted against the timeless silence of death. The blank space after the final \'what then\' spatializes the atemporality of the afterlife. More simply, the blank space could merely indicate unknowability. What then? A blank white space. And end to time, or merely, \"I don\'t know\".
What dreams may come have given the poet pause, an uncomfortable pause that gives no hint of future motion, thereby contradicting Yeat\'s cyclical notion of time.
- Prayag Ray

| Posted on 2011-05-09 | by a guest

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