Poehler - Yeats and the "Woman Question"
Writing@CSU Home Page | Writing Gallery | Phantasmagoria | Shelly Poehler



Yeats and the "Woman Question"

by Shelly Poehler


            W.B. Yeats will never fit into a neat and tidy package. As he is a flurry of contradictions, I feel that there are no clear-cut answers regarding Yeats and his feelings towards the “woman question.” There are no easy answers to guide my final reflections. But, I am inclined to conclude, after much research, that Yeats was a strong advocate for women, struggling to define what form that should take. And although he was living in an extremely oppressive and sexist time, his poetry did not always reflect this thought. In fact, he preached against such writing. Writing is about passion, not truth! He explains that “the poet never speaks directly as to someone at the breakfast table, there is always a phantasmagoria” (Hardwood, 10).


            Besides his philosophy regarding passion and truth in poetry, Yeats’ work in the Occult also had a profound influence on his writings. It was in the Occult teachings where the traditional roles of man and woman were broken and replaced by more progressive views of gender. As I uncovered his spiritual views and met the women that he worked with, loved and wrote about, I feel that the three poems, No Second Troy, Michael Robartes and the Dancer and Crazy Jane, prove that Yeats is not inherently sexist. Rather, Yeats is a progressive male, living in a sexist and oppressive time, struggling to help women articulate their needs and ultimately, through his words, to help free them from the bonds of oppression.


            Yeats’ struggle begins with his identity: white, Protestant, middle-class man, of the British Empire who “belonged to the dominant literary tradition” (Cullingford, 6). He wrote from privilege, both in the literary sense and from society’s perspective. But, he was also an Irishman who “was acutely conscious of repression and exclusion” (6). This second point may have been enough to create an empathetic man who struggled with the “woman question” both in his life and in his poetry.


            It was an interesting time for Yeats to grow up in. The seeds of his woman struggle must have been planted in youth by his father who was a practitioner of John Stuart Mills, a man who championed the rights of women (7). And when Yeats began his writing career in the 1880s, deep and resounding advances for the rights of women were being enacted. In 1870, the Married Women’s Property Act passed, finally giving married women some sense of relief in securing property. Women also began to acquire greater access to higher education. And birth rates fell as contraception became more widely accessible.


            From 1904-1914, a vocal Suffrage movement daily greeted Yeats with women finally being granted the right to vote in 1918. The “woman question” and the “exploration of sexual identity” became “major cultural issues of the time” (6). And these issues were greeted with major resistance. This fear of “woman” and of her sexuality sometimes caused violent reactions as men pondered if they [women] would then, “in the course of their liberation exact a terrible revenge upon [their] oppressors [men]” (7).


            But unlike many men of the time, Yeats “moved in circles sympathetic to emancipation” (7). In fact, “Yeats loved, liked, collaborated with, and respected women- most of the time. He encouraged their intellectual and creative work, assumed their professional competence, chose them as allies. His best friends were all women” (9). Maude Gonne is a good case in point. She was a fierce advocate for girls and women and the feminist founder of Inghinidhe na hEireann, a woman’s organization dedicated to “all the girls who…resented being excluded, as women, from National Organizations” (7). And she can be found everywhere in Yeats’ life, spilling over into his words and into his works.


            These tumultuous political times, along with the strong feminist women with whom Yeats associated with, created a unique philosophy, one which he would struggle with his entire writing career. Yeats believed that the masculine and feminine created the foundation on which all other types and forms of oppositions are generated. And although these oppositions are internal as well as external, the genders are ultimately interdependent, relational, complimentary and interactive. And “for the sake of his destiny in his life and moral purification in the next, the poet must allow the feminine free and formative play in his life and psyche” (Haswell, 27-29). But one gender cannot survive without the other. Both are needed in order to create harmony and unity of being.


            This philosophy has its roots in the Occult, a religion that Yeats’ spent many years practicing. But, the Occult offered no stable definition of masculinity for Yeats. “Indeed in stepping into the world of occultism, he was entering a psychological zone in which sexuality and gender, the role of woman, and correlatively, the role of man, were set in question in the eddying confusions of power relations and of gender identity itself” (Brown, 39). As Cullingford affirms, since the feminine symbol is central to Occult theory, Occult societies attracted many rebellious women who were given power where Orthodox religions denied them (At the Feet of the Goddess, 48).


            She continues explaining how in the Gnostic sects women could preach, prophesize, and baptize “while the orthodox community advocated the social and religious subordination of the female sex” (48). Madame Blavatsky, an influential colleague of Yeats, passed onto him a similar Gnostic tradition with its “reverence for the female principle” (49). She believed that the Absolute was without gender and that female representations of the divine were equal, if not superior to male representations (44). And through Maude Gonne, as the woman who inspired both reverence and revenge in the poetry of Yeats, he saw “the recovery of the Goddess as a project compatible with advanced socialist and feminist thought (49). Both of these women greatly influenced Yeats in his life, and later, in his poetry.


            But because of their embracing of female strength, many followers of the Occult, like Yeats, were labeled as “feminine” (Cullingford, 6). This must have been challenging for him, struggling with his own definitions of manhood and womanhood, while his colleagues, mostly women, were “seeking new sources of power in a religious organization that did not bar them from office because of their sex” (6). But Yeats remained committed to this tradition “which represents centuries of opposition to the ruling discourses of patriarchal religion and male science” while marginalizing himself even further (6).


            So for women in general, and specifically for the women in Yeats’ life, “spiritualism and occultism offered a mode of behavior for women which signaled that they would no longer accept the prescribed roles that society had determined for them in suburban isolation from political and social power” (Brown, 39). And this upsetting of prescribed gender roles influenced Yeats in a profound and lasting way, a way that is played out in his own poetry and prose.


            Yeats’ theory about poetry and the writing of it was just as unique as his theory of gender and of woman’s place in society. Hardwood tells us, in terms of critical practice, that Yeats is “an autobiographical poet, though prone to exaggerate, to mythologise, and occasionally to play tricks on us” (10). Yeats understood that passion, and not sincerity or originality, has the most value in the writing of poetry (Haswell, 18). So when reading his poetry about women, we must be suspect. Yeats’ the man is not writing of his own opinion in his poetry. He is not writing from his own personal experience, for “it is never safe to draw conclusions about the life from the poems unless we possess external evidence regarding the events or emotions in question” (Harwood, 10). As Yeats himself explains: “A poet writes always of his personal life” observing that “all that is personal soon rots: it must be packed in ice or salt” (Cullingford, 9).


            In Yeats, the poetry is really an internal quarrel raging inside the poet. It is a battle between the conscious self and the other self (Haswell, 16-17). Cullingford explains that this tension, this quarrel, is always between women and their emancipation, Yeats’ personal experiences on some level, or between the conventions that he inherited in his own life (9). And although Cullingford was speaking specifically to his love poetry, I feel that it can be applied to all of his poems. That tension of oppositional forces she speaks to can be felt in all of his works. For Yeats, poetry was a constant struggle.


            One can conclude, therefore, that all of the biographical history of Yeats does impact his poetry and how he writes women. However, “the distance between the poet and speaker, autobiography and creative fiction, differs from poem to poem” (9). One cannot simply point the finger and says this is how Yeats feels, either for or against women, for he is not writing his feelings onto the pages. He is engaging in a quest for passion. What will create the best poem? It may be autobiographical nature, or it may not. Therefore the reader of Yeats’ must always remain vigilant, understanding that the poem may not reflect the personal opinions of Yeats himself.


            I must, therefore, conclude that Yeats was not sexist. His belief, that one does not speak from personal experience or express personal emotions in poetry, but rather that these emotions “must come from above…and beyond” the poet (Haswell, 16), proves it to be so. Yeats further explains that, “As I look backward upon my own writing, I take pleasure alone in those verses where it seems to me I have found something hard and cold, some articulation of the Image which is the opposite of all that I am in my daily life, and all that my country is” (Hardwood, 13). Yeats was not writing from truth, but from discovery and from passion. “All propositions,” continues Yeats, “which set all the truth upon one side can only enter rich minds to dislocate and stain…and sooner or later the mind expels them by instinct” (Cullingford, 10). As always, contradictions.


            So focusing specifically on the “woman question” again, Cullingford explains that “Yeats’s choice of women young and old to voice…protest represents both a return to his identification with femininity and a realization of who would suffer most from the regressive social policies of the new State” (9). Yeats understood the politics of his time. He identified and befriended some of the strongest women protesting these very politics. And I feel that his three poems: No Second Troy, Michael Robartes and the Dancer and Crazy Jane, clearly articulate the struggle that Yeats was trying to resolve between what society expects of women and what women themselves want. Each poem deals directly with the “woman question.” No Second Troy explores transgressing stereotypes, Michael Robartes and the Dancer explores the effect of changing sexual roles and Crazy Janegives voice to female sexuality.


            In No Second Troy, Yeats created a poem about woman’s increasing social power (8) and the ambivalence created by her empowerment (Brown, 185). “Why should I blame her” the poet asks. She is simply seeking her own freedom. She “taught to ignorant men most violent ways,/Or hurled the little streets upon the great,/Had they but courage equal to desire?” Woman, here, is taking up the role of chivalrous warrior (Brown, 184). She takes charge of her own destiny, creating a new society with courage, violence and desire. For, she has “beauty like a tightened bow, a kind/That is not natural in an age like this/Being high and solitary and most stern?” She does not remain silent like the stereotypical woman of her time. In fact, as Cullingford explains, “the poem’s heroine transgresses all the stereotypes of femininity: she is violent, courageous, noble, fiery, solitary, and stern; her beauty is a weapon-a ‘tightened bow’-rather than a lure” (Brown, 184).


            So why blame her? The poet is still clearly conflicted by her new role as she takes to “the little streets.” This is a symbol of the affairs of men, and she is encroaching more and more into their territory (Kline, 97). She is becoming a greater threat to traditional roles. Here, the poet shows “a force field of unresolved feelings and of deep ambivalence about woman” (Brown, 183). It is never an easy answer with Yeats. And in the line” “Why, what could she have done, being what she is?/Was there another Troy for her to burn?” Could woman be anything less than true to herself (Keane, 33)? Should society ask her to be? “The exceptional women, the poem implies, can achieve heroism, but seeks to restrict that heroism to the past in which it seems itself most naturally to exist and to control it where it might have deleterious effects on the present” (Brown, 184- 185).


            As he struggles with the “woman question” in No Second Troy, Yeats creates a heroine that transgresses stereotypes by living honestly. She creates change, not through the “lure” of feminine wiles, but through the “violent” and “most stern bow.” This new woman encroaches upon the affairs of men, creating enormous conflict both in society and within Yeats himself.


            In Michael Robartes and the Dancer, Yeats attempts to discuss the effects of changing sexual roles on society. Cullingford feels that through the character of Robartes, Yeats is testing “both his own prejudices and the inherited generic norms of love poetry against feminist objections and demands” (279). In fact, this poem is really a “social quarrel about the effect of changing sexual roles; but it is also that quarrel with himself [Yeats], out of which, he insisted, poetry is made” (279).


            This quarrel takes place between the “He” and “She” of the poem. “He” tries to convince “She” that “Opinion is not worth a rush/…it’s plain/The half-dead dragon was her thought,/That every morning rose again/And dug its claws and shrieked and fought.” It is here where the man is trying to free the dancer “from the terrors of abstract opinion” (Kline, 143). As the dragon represents this opinion, by killing it, “She would have time to turn her eyes/upon the glass/And on the instant would grow wise” (143). So here, Yeats writes that to be wise, a woman must remain free of opinion.


            But “May I not put myself to college” she then asks. Answering directly back to the man, this is new for Yeats to represent the female voice this way. She is infringing on “Robartes’s patriarchal attempt to restrict women’s role” (Brown, 279). But Robartes’s sexism is relentless: “what mere book can grant a knowledge/With an impassioned gravity/Appropriate to that beating breast,/That vigorous thigh, that dreaming eye?” He melodiously sings his argument and tries to convince the dancer that true blessedness comes from perfecting the body and not from developing the mind (Kline, 142).


            She responds with: “I have heard said/There is great danger in the body.” Christian patriarchy has informed her that the body is dangerous. And still trying to reduce her worth down to her body, he counters with a sacramental argument. “Did God in portioning wine and bread/Give man His thought or His mere body?” By perfecting the body, she is also purifying it for sacrifice (143).


            But the dancer knows better and counters with “My wretched dragon is perplexed.” She knows that women are more than their bodies. And she sees the value and empowerment of expanding the female mind beyond the borders of the body. But struggling to stop this progress, Robartes argues: “if they/Will banish every thought, unless/The lineaments that please their view/When the long looking-glass is full,/Even from the foot-sole think it too.” Women can lead men into blessedness by giving up the development of their mind (142). But “They say such different things at school,” she counters in the final line of the poem. Modern education is empowering women to question and challenge their oppression (143). This final thought from the dancer seems to undercut all of Robartes’s arguments in the poem. So, is this character supported or silenced by Yeats (Harwood, 9)? The contradictions and tensions created by Yeats in this poem do not easily answer the question.


            In the final poem, Crazy Jane, Yeats gives voice to the taboo field of female sexuality. Crazy Jane is a sequence of poems found in the broader volume of The Winding Stair. Unlike the proceeding volume of The Tower, a phallic symbol, focusing on men’s lives, the Winding Stair is contrasted with its very female-centered symbol of sexuality. Its focus is woman “and with what Yeats perceived as the feminine in man, which he seems to identify with the desire to affirm and accept sensual life on earth rather than oppose and reject it” (Innes, 94). It is here, in this volume, that Yeats sets Crazy Jane “Against these civilized, decorous and accommodated women [in Yeats’ other poems], providing focal images of order and beauty in the first section of The Winding Stair” (Innes, 96).


            Crazy Jane is a gloriously free and sexual character who frankly affirms both her sexual experience and the flesh as having authority over the book-leaning of the Bishop. Cullingford confirms that:

Against the power of what he [Yeats] called the ‘ecclesiastical mind, Protestant and Catholic’ he pitted an erotic and licentious female figure, the old madwoman Crazy Jane, who disputes through her ballad poetics and carnivalesque insistence on the grotesque body the monologic identity constructed by a celibate clergy, and enshrined in law by the State (227).

In fact, “Crazy Jane belongs to a long tradition of writing in which women question male authority” (Innes, 105). And although she is based on an actual woman whom Yeats encountered named Cracked Jane, (Brown, 332), in Crazy Jane, woman has the voice. She speaks from her body. She speaks from desire. And she is defiant (Innes, 97)! “Bring me to the blasted oak,” she speaks with authority, “That I, midnight upon the stroke,/…May call down curses on his head.” The oak is a symbol of the state, which Jane curses (Cullingford, 236). She is a figurative witch, one who can call “down midnight curses at a blasted oak” (235). The clergy (represented by the Bishop) were the persecutors of witches. The Bishop “represents the forces of organized society and culture arrayed against the marginal female figure” (235).


            Jane also possesses passion and energy. She is an outlaw, never confined to the inside of a building, but outside and free. “She inhabits nature and her songs defy classical and neo-classical order, and-above all-the representatives of Christian order” (Innes, 97). Under the oak, wandering “out into the night” she defies traditional Christianity, leaving it for the more female centered and earthy pagan traditions. It is here where we see most strikingly Yeats’ Occult tradition seeping into his works.


            The Bishop relentlessly tries to move her back inside to the traditional realm of womanhood: body worship and the home. “Those breasts are flat and fallen now,” he proclaims, “Those veins must soon be dry;/Live in a heavenly mansion,/Not in some foul sty.” But “Jane opposes the sterility of the celibate Bishop” (Cullingford, 241): “My friends are gone, but that’s a truth/Nor grave nor bed denied,/Learned in bodily lowliness/And in the heart’s pride.” She need not remain in the home to find happiness. It is through her sexuality and through freeing herself from the “home” and all its trappings where true freedom for women will be found. “Yeats’s celebration of female sexual transgression,” writes Cullingford, “opens an imaginative space for women’s desire and pleasure in a culture that occludes them, and recuperates the desires and pleasures of women from Ireland’s mythological past” (238). In Jane, Yeats’ writes of a gloriously free and openly sexual woman defying the nature of traditional womanhood.


            After all of my research, I find that Yeats and the “woman question” have no easy answers. No Second Troy, Michael Robartes and the Dancer, and Crazy Jane all demonstrate Yeats’ own struggle between accepting the traditional role of woman and of helping to usher in a new and progressive vision of womanhood. While it seems obvious that the influence of his feminist friends, Maude Gonne and Madame Blavatsky, and his progressive Occult teachings, dominate the words of his poems, it is also easily recognizable that Yeats continues to struggle with the more traditional sense of male and female roles. These three poems are the articulation of his internal struggles and they make for a murky understanding of just were he lies in the “woman question.”      

Works Cited


Brown, Terence. The Life of W.B. Yeats. Massachusetts: Blackwell, 2001.


Cullingford, Elizabeth Butler. “At the Feet of the Goddess: Yeats’s Love Poetry and the Feminist Occult.” Yeats Annual No. 9 Ed. Deirdre Toomey. Hampshire: Macmillan, 1992. 31-59.


Cullingford, Elizabeth Butler. Gender and History in Yeats’s Love Poetry. New York: Syracuse U. Press, 1996.


Harwood, John. “Secret Communion”: Yeats’s Sexual Destiny.” Toomey 3-30.


Haswell, Janis Tedesco. “Gender, the Mask, and Complementarity.” Pressed by Divinity. Illinios: Northern Illinois Press, 1997. 15-33.


Innes, C.L. “Unaccommodated Women: Crazy Jane and Other Women in The Winding Stair and Other Poems.” Woman and Nation in Irish Literature and Society, 1880-1935. Georgia: U of Georgia Press, 1993. 93-108.


Keane, Patrick J. Terrible Beauty: Yeats, Joyce, Ireland, and the Myth of the Devouring Female. Missouri: U of Missouri Press, 1988.


Kline, Gloria C. The Last Courtly Lover: Yeats and the Idea of Woman. Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1983.

Writing@CSU Home Page | Writing Gallery | Phantasmagoria | Shelly Poehler