Campbell - The Idea of Artifice in the Mood of William Butler Yeats’ Poetry
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The Idea of Artifice in the Mood of William Butler Yeats’ Poetry

by Ryan Campbell


            In the chapter “Assertion Without Doctrine”, in his famous book The Identity of Yeats, Richard Ellmann eloquently explains Yeats’ notion of the mood of an author that occasions a particular work. In Yeats’ own words, Ellmann denotes a mood as, “the emotions of a soul dwelling in the presence of certain ideas.” (Ellmann, 82) This may seem as slight and insignificant as the choice of a single word in the vast lexicon of poetry, but as we have seen in Yeats’ precision of craft, one word can determine the power and success of a whole poem. It may also distinguish the poems theme or content from one another. The emphasis of the aforementioned quote must be placed on the presence of ideas. In the world of Ellmann’s Yeats there is a hierarchical and evaluative spectrum of “ideas” that are symbiotic with their emotive host. This spectrum of ideas ranges from a complete lack of ideas, where the “poet is shallow, [traditional], timid, and sentimental” (Ellmann, 84), to an abundance of completely appropriated ideas, reified as “beliefs”, that subordinate the imaginative mind-power to their reactivity… “instead of being necessary expressions of [it].” When people hold ideas as beliefs they are “gullible, opinionative, and biased.” (Ellmann, 84) Yeats employed time as the main factor in delineating a belief from an idea. The longer on holds an idea, cherishing it, and the loner it influences the work, the closer it becomes to a “belief” (a very dangerous proposition for the artist). The goal is somewhere between the poles of the spectrum, “perch[ed]” on the idea and its symbols, landscapes, and theme. The synthesis of this type of idea, within the “[mood], or as [Yeats] later put it, a state of mind” (Ellmann, 96), affords the opportunity to construct beautiful poetry and is empowered only by the inhabiting author. “Beauty is the end & law of poetry. It exists to find the beauty in all things, philosophy, nature, passion… If you want to give ideas for their own sake write prose. In verse they are subordinate to beauty which is their soul if they are true.” (Ellmann, 83) The following paper will examine Yeats incarnate idea of artifice and how that idea is morphed, obfuscated, and refamiliarized by the corresponding modifications of authorial mood. The paper will look chronologically at the changes of mood, and how those changes affect the appearance and use of artifice in “The Mask”, “The Dolls”, “Sailing to Byzantium”, and “Lapis Lazuli.”

            For this paper’s usage, artifice will denote anything created by man or woman. The argument that anything created by man is natural because he is organic and thus natural himself will be spared from the commentary. All creations by man/woman serve as icons of artifice, which Yeats deliberately held as one of his poetic altruisms.

            Both ideas and moods are kindled by the imagination and are separate from it. The imagination acts as a flint to spark the dry pine bed of mood while the idea serves as the steady blow of wind feeding the flame. “Moods… are conspicuously, but not exclusively, emotional or temperamental; they differ from emotions in having form and, often, intellectual structure [a key point applicable to Yeats approach]. Less fleeting than a mere wish, and less crystallized than a belief, a mood is suspended between fluidity and solidity. It can be tested only by the likelihood of its being experienced at all, and being so, by many people.” (Ellmann, 96) But it is far easier to see this premise in the work than to drag it out theoretically.

            The first couplet of the “The Arrow” serves as an example of this theory in operation. The narrator/poet has an idea, “I thought of your beauty” (l. 1). This idea is included in and reflexive of the mood, “in my marrow” (l. 2), which has spawned it. Although readers are not given any suggestions as to the temperament of the mood, we are privy to the results of such an idea as beauty in relation to a particular mood. It is the creative and poetic representation of “this arrow,/ Made out of a wild thought” (l. 1-2). This typifies the process of creation for Yeats, and it is the road map readers can follow in their approach to the contents of his poems. Let us now apply this understanding to the idea of artifice rather than beauty.

            The very first line of “The Mask” locates the reader in artifice. This poem propounds it as the primary idea and medium, and a mood has yet to show its strength. “‘Put off that mask of burning gold/ With emerald eyes’” (l. 1-2) pleads our first character. His/her wishes (androgyny is always abundant in Yeats’ poetry) are for his/her lover to remove his/her mask, and its corresponding persona, “to find what’s there to find,/ Love or deceit.” (l. 6-7) The second lover refuses because of the danger in “find[ing] if hearts be wild and wise,/ And yet not cold.” (ll. 3-5) The implications of this are resounding. One lover, in a most personal moment, refuses the “truth” to the other in service of an artifice (i.e. choosing the mask over what is underneath). This might normally cause substantial grief to any devoted lover, but quite naturally and wittily the second lover responds, “It was the mask engaged your mind,/ And after set your heart to beat,/ Not what’s behind.” (ll. 8-10) Here the artificiality has been shown to be the impetus for all of the love and happiness these two people have experienced together, not some clichéd romantic ideal that needs to be euthanized. The artificial mask is the symbol of a type of personal connection very untraditional, yet still wholly valid and intrinsically valuable itself. It is not a denigrated servant to the implausibly good realms of the humanistic and the romantic. So, can readers align this particular treatment of the idea of artifice with a specific mood or state of mind? The answer is, of course, yes.

            The biographical information I have on Yeats always suggests his sexual and romantic frustrations with women (Brown, 84-104). I believe “The Mask” has a mood centered in the questions of an anti-self (which Yeats was often captivated with) as well as how appearance validates the feelings and desires one might be predisposed to by illusion. This means, for Yeats, that he is emotionally connected with an intellectual inquiry into one of the infinite natures of romantic love and personas. This personal investment is the mood, an elusively unutterable force that holds the words in their placement within its circumference.

            In “The Dolls”, readers are reintroduced to the idea of artifice. This time, however, the idea has morphed, along with a corresponding mood shift, to create yet another wholly individualized representation of an imaginative fascination. Again, the very first couplet of the work locates the reader in an artificial setting with qualities and values displaced, “A doll in the doll-maker’s house/ Looks at the cradle and bawls:” (ll. 1-2). The little doll’s textual personification is secondary to Yeats’ general idea of a superior, forged artificiality, imperative to the creation of his poetry. This poem’s idea of artifice differs from that of “The Mask” in that the doll speaks all but one line. There is no human-to-human engagement until the final couplet of the poem. The artifice controls what readers are able to understand. We gain our perceptions and make judgments based on the forces of an artificial nucleus. This is very defamiliarizing for most readers, and is one trait that validates the supposition that Yeats was a modernist before modernism was established. Readers must also recognize the possibility of multiple artificial perspectives when a “whole shelf” of dolls is exposed to us. This multiplicity is used to imply a hierarchy of the dolls and their particular relevant vantage point; as one doll, “the oldest” (l. 4), has seen “Generations of his sort” (l. 6)… his referring to the small human baby the dolls are scrutinizing. This is essential to the poem as the senior doll evokes his particular retrospection of the human world in which he lives. The perceptions of artifice are incredibly didactic and biased, but would come to open up new worlds and ideas for Yeats. Which is the case for “Sailing to Byzantium”. Ultimately, readers may see this idea of artifice as an inversion of the one from “The Mask”. Rather than the poetic pursuit of selfhood or anti-selfhood, viewed from an objective human lens on artifice, “The Dolls” makes readers perceive the human world from the artifice’s perspective. So what mood might occasion this particular idea of artifice?

            It goes without saying that Yeats was a very compassionate man. His involvement with the nationalism of Ireland, his majestic occult beliefs, along with his modesty with the opposite sex, made him a very ‘human’ person. With this poem, however, I sense a mood of contempt and disdain for humanity. Through the vehicle of artifice, Yeats can approach the sentimentality and intellectual conflict he has with the visceral company he must keep. We have often heard how he shunned the nationalistic sentiment prescribed to his early poems by the young idealists of a tumultuous Ireland, perhaps a mood of derision or condescension had then taken hold of the man, and the idea of artifice was skewed to reflect the challenge of said mood. I leave it to the reader to decide.

            As stated earlier, “Sailing to Byzantium” is an opening of a new world. This world is artificial, and it is eternal. These two factors enable readers to accurately pinpoint both idea and mood. The idea of artifice has gone from a single symbol that represents the tensions and dynamics of humans in relation to an artifice, to a perceptual challenge of validity and authenticity, and now to a fully ensconced habitat of artificiality. Byzantium is the hallowed “artifice of eternity” (l. 24) for Yeats, his heaven.

            What is most notable in this poem, for this paper’s topic, is the process of consumption. The poet/narrator implores the Sages of the mystic realm of Byzantium to “Consume my heart away; sick with desire/ And fastened to a dying animal/… and gather me into the artifice of eternity.” (ll. 21-24) This reduction is most significant in that only by the loss of the flesh of humanity can the poet ascend into his ideal state. This is only half of the equation though, for the poet/narrator must be recreated in the artificial world. In doing so, he knows that he “shall never take/ [His] bodily form from any natural thing, But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make/ Of hammered gold and gold enameling” (ll. 25-28). This is the literal forging of oneself as an artifice… completely removed from anything human. The implications of such a transformation are unquestionable. This movement from organic life to non-organic life completely destroys any values predisposed to either. It is a complete transvaluation of life as we know it. Yeats was quite brilliant.

            The mood that accompanies this particular idea of artifice should be clear to anyone. The mood is revolving within the ether of the afterlife. Readers sense the poet’s longing for comfort in knowing what the afterlife will bring. This is a canonized thought of every human in history. The difference with Yeats is that his imagination sparked the idea of artifice, which was then applied to his mood of eternal inquiry, to create a world that was as real and more suiting to him than the world in which he lived… even though it is void of the natural elements symbiotic with humanity. This would prove a great comfort to Yeats and he would later go on to disseminate the strength and integrity of that world into other works. Readers must also recognize that “Yeats implies less stasis in “Sailing to Byzantium” because the poem is, as the title suggests, the [process] of voyaging to Byzantium.” (Porter, 11) His captivation with the process of moving from a human to an artificial world would consume the later part of his career.

            Such is the case with “Lapis Lazuli”. Howard Bloom quotes Yeats in Explorations saying, “…passive suffering is not a theme for poetry. In all the great tragedies, tragedy is a joy to the man who dies.” (Bloom, 438) This passage eerily traces what I believe is Yeats’ most reoccurring mood in the later part of his career. Yeats is longing for a joy he has yet to experience in this world, and that gaiety accompanies death (both literal and figurative death). If there is one poet in history who could succeed in a figurative death and rebirth, it is most undoubtedly Yeats. This is the sentiment of the eternal poems. Yeats is imaginatively searching for a vent for these prolific inquiries and resolutions, and he was successful in finding one.

            So how do the idea of artifice and the mood of eternity interact in this final poem? First, readers will sense an energy yet unseen in Yeats, except for in “The Gyres” perhaps. It is not until the beautiful final stanza that readers sense a more recognizable Yeatsean tone. This energy is a newly inhabited mood that has evolved from former states of mind. It is the culmination of a lifelong imaginative inquiry into human life, death, and afterlife. And as before, Yeats illuminates the tensions and dynamics between these two worlds with artifice. “On their own feet they came, or on shipboard,/ Camel-back, horse-back, ass-back, mule-back,/ Old civilisations put to the sword./ Then they and their wisdom went to rack:/ No handiwork of Callimachus/ Who handled marble as if it were bronze,/ Made draperies that seem to rise/ When sea-wind swept the corner, stands;/ His long lamp chimney shaped like the stem/ Of a slender palm, stood but a day;/ All things fall and are built again/ And those that build them again are gay.” (ll. 25-36) In these sweeping passages of life and death, birth and rebirth, lay icons of the artificial world. What’s more is that these icons comprise the poetic beauty of the poem. Marble statues, draperies, lamps, etc., are all given mellifluous sounds and actions and are obviously valued over the human history and plight. The plight is cyclical, generation after generation, and the joy to be had is in the destruction of the old and the construction of the new… a new effect of Yeats edifice of eternity. Rather than an individual transition or procession from an organic human state to an artificial one, we see a broader and more encompassing idea of the artifice in which people are already a part of, and in which the human plight is already encapsulated in. The process of consumption and reconstruction in “Sailing to Byzantium” is no longer under the lens of inquiry. Here, we have a more complete evolution of the idea of artifice and it is interwoven with the identifiable human world rather than separate from it. Perhaps this was the most liberating off all the artifice exalting poems in that Yeats could finally turn to the world in which he lived to find the symbols and icons that maintained his representation of longing and appreciation for artifice, rather than the constructing of an ideal allegorical realm where all his ideas could play out. With the completion of this poem, Yeats’ idea of artifice and the poetic means of displaying that idea are exhausted. He has chased the idea into a corner and may now corral it as his own.

            It must be reiterated that Yeats often used and reused ideas in slightly different ways. These differences are a direct result of a corresponding mood of the author. However, readers may still follow the authorial train of thought to its destination, in the particular mood, even though this mood is metamorphic and rarely the same. They must simply recognize the differences and similarities in comparison to other identifiable moods in other poems. By integrating Yeats canon, readers are given more insight to the complications, consistencies, and evolution of Yeats’ prolific encounters with the art of poetry. It has been shown that the idea of artifice changed greatly in his poetic pursuit of beauty, though its value remains consistent and symbiotic with the corresponding force of mood.



Works Cited


Bloom, Harold. Yeats. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.


Brown, Terrance. The Life of W.B. Yeats. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 2001.


Ellmann, Richard. “Assertion Without Doctrine.” The Identity of Yeats. New York:

Oxford University Press, 1962


Jeffares, A. Norman. Anglo-Irish Literature. New York: Schocken Books, 1982.


Porter, Kevin. “The Rhetorical Problem of Eternity in Yeats’s [sic] Byzantium Poetry.” Yeats Elliot Review 14 issue 1 (1996) : 10-16.


Yeats, William Butler. The Yeats Reader. Ed. Richard J. Finnerman. New York: Scribner Poetry, 2002.

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