W. B. Yeats – ‘Broken Dreams’

“I walk this empty street
On the Boulevard of broken dreams

That song has no relevance to this poem, it just always plays in my mind when I look at it

Enough Green Day, back to Yeats’ poem ‘Broken Dreams’ – it was written in 1917 when he was 52 years of age, this was just after his last proposal to Maud Gonne. Yeats explores the themes of time, ageing and afterlife in this poem and their effects of his unrequited love (most probably for  Gonne considering the poem’s historical context). He does this by exploring the loveliness and perfection of his beloved, and also presents the drama of ageing and its sense of frailty.

As we already know from previous Yeats’ poem analysis, his feelings too many forms in his writing. Throughout his poetry, Maud Gonne transforms into almost like a ‘myth’, and in this particular poem, she is his Helen of Troy as he discusses her perfections as well as the perfections of her imperfections.

The poem takes the reader on a journey through the series of images and ideas of Maud Gonne, being the past, present, her being idealised, transient and “nothing but a memory”. The title ‘Broken Dreams’ instantly sets the focus of the poem of Yeats’ dreams of being with Maud Gonne that are now broken. Because of this reason, it would have thought Yeats may use a number of ‘broken’ stanzas for this poem, but instead it includes one long stanza, giving it a sense of being like a monologue. However, the varying of line length illustrates the shift of Yeats’ unplanned feelings and also the focus, giving it a modern, casual feel. Enjambment is also used in this poem to fortify this idea, creating a fast paced recollection of memories. It is particularly prominent when he is recalling Gonne in her youth, “and with the fervour of my youthful eyes”, and how beautiful she was. Yeats also uses monosyllables throughout ‘Broken Dreams’ to ponder over this wonder of true beauty.

The poem begins following a tight rhyme scheme, “passing”;”blessing”, and becomes more ranged and distant as the poem goes on, in the final few lines however, Yeats brings the structure back together as he recognises what love is.

Yeats creates a similarity of his poem to the Shakespeare sonnet ’18’ as he opens with an unflattering truth “There is grey in your hair”, this gives himself the ability to flatter later on in the poem as he shows her beauty has been withered with time, creating the poem’s overall image of ageing and the decaying of natural beauty with the help of somewhat prosaic language, “Young men no longer catch their breath when you are passing”. Yeats then creates a conversational tone, referring himself to an “old gaffer”, this makes it look more like a personal, casual thought.

Maud Gonne is almost described as being supernatural, “it was your prayer recovered him upon the bed of death”, giving her the idea of being saint-like and a miracle worker. But, again Yeats’ follows this by dwelling on how beauty fades and dies “Your beauty can but leave among us”. Yeats is infatuated by the physical beauty she once had and now that age has withered this, he’s not able to love her in the same way he once did. Consequentially, all he can do is search for “nothing but memories” and to look forward to the death and the afterlife, being reunited with her former-self, for death releases the physical constraints of age; “But in the grave all, all, shall be renewed”. To me, this gives the idea of beauty being in the eye of the beholder.

“You are more beautiful than any one/ And yet your body had a flaw / Your small hands were not beautiful”, again, shows Yeats addressing Gonne’s faults.This fault is the only thing that separates her from the angels, perhaps making her even more desirable as this human-like flaw makes her beauty transient and more precious. Adding to the idea of Yeats’ suggestion of her imperfections being a perfection in their own way, “leave unchanged the hands that I have kissed”. This shows a more mature side to Yeats’ as he is being more realistic, rather than describing Gonne as ‘flawless’.

Within the final lines, Yeats reminds us of love and beauty’s vulnerability. “From dream to dream and rhyme to rhyme I have ranged”, this repetition creates the sense of dying and Yeats’ own frustration. Yeats becomes insubstantial to words “in rambling talk with an image of air”, compared to the more imagined reality of the real human love. To end the poem, Yeats repeats a previous line, “Vague memories, nothing but memories” which surprisingly has no rhetorical question (a typical Yeats trait), but instead this inadequate of Yeats represents the mind to the reality of marvellous, physical beauty and leaves the reader with a poet and his broken dreams.

This poem can be compared to others of Yeats’ work involving an elegic tone. For example, his unfulfilled yearning in poems such as ‘The Cold Heaven’ may reflect his torment over his beloved. We can also see Maud as another symbol like in ‘The Fisherman’ and ‘An Irish Airman Forsees his Death’ of being a ‘romantic individual’ as she has her own mind and stands for independence when she ‘rejects’ Yeats.


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