Sepulveda - Desire: Can’t Live With It, Can’t Live Without It
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Desire: Canít Live With It, Canít Live Without It

by Javier Sepulveda

††††††††††† Desire is an emotion that all humans feel at one time or another. Some people, however, feel desire all of the time. We all wish for something in our lives that we cannot attain, be it more money, a better figure, straight or curly hair, or, in many cases, a person. From this point of view, desire is a negative thing that destroys the human soul. In the teachings of Buddha, it is said that if one obsesses on the attainment of something, he or she will learn nothing in life and fall into an emotional pit of anger and despair for not having that something. Because of the way humans react to desire, it is considered the cause of all woe for mankind, (Hagen, 34). However, in W.B. Yeats’ AVision one of the descriptions of human actions for desire is an “object for desire or idea of good,” (Yeats, 83). Even though desire can be destructive to the human soul, our potential as human beings can never be reached without it. For example, the desire to get good grades in a W.B. Yeats poetry class drives us to read Yeats’ poetry, analyze it, and write a paper on one of his complicated subjects. If humanity doesn’t desire, humanity will be, “Out of phase, seeking emotion instead of impersonal action, there is—desire being impossible—self-pity, and there fore discontent with people and with circumstances, and an overwhelming sense of loneliness, of being abandoned” (Yeats, 171). Desire saves us and ruins us at the same time. Humanity needs desire to have the ambition to achieve anything in life.

††††††††††† W.B. Yeats shows the positive and negative aspects of desire in his poetry and writing works. Poetry such as “The Rose for the World,” “Adam’s Curse,” “No Second Troy,” “All Things can Tempt me,” and “Meditations in Time of Civil War” show how desire hurts Yeats himself along with the rest of the world. The poem, “Sailing to Byzantium,” gives the message of how desire can be used to achieve great art, beauty, and inner peace when it is used properly. The goal of this paper is to show how Yeats’ own personal feelings of desire affected his life and his works and how his concept of desire is shown in his works.

††††††††††† In order to understand Yeats’ concept of desire, one must look at sections of his book AVision; a book of esoteric thoughts on how life and the universe work. Yeats’ refers to desire as, “the image of what we wish to become,” known as Mask. He uses the term Mask because we as humans use masks to make ourselves into something we are not, but often wish to be. Yeats himself says that when the Mask is completely dominate in a person, that person is, “Aimless and blundering, possesses nothing except the knowledge that there is something known to others that is not mere instinct” (Yeats, 109). This person wants something out there that he or she doesn’t have, and they’ll do almost anything to get it.

††††††††††† The concept of Mask is not always a bad thing as long as it is combined with Will, a concept of the human ego. Neil Mann, a Yeats scholar who made a website about A Vision with other Yeats scholars, describes Will as a, “feeling that has not become desire because there is no object to desire.” By itself, Will causes no desire whatsoever, but the consequence of not having desire is that nothing will ever be accomplished by man. Both Mask and Will are opposing forces inside each of us that consistently try to outweigh one another. A balance of Mask and Will is one of the most ideal states to be in. In this state a man’s desires will be of the greater good for himself and others. An unbalance of Mask or Will can cause either the will to do nothing or the desire of objects; which can lead to depression and sadness as the objects that humanity often desire are ones that can never be obtained. Yeats’ concept of desire can also be explained through Buddhist teachings. Desire causes, “confusion and discontent,” and that “we do not often realize that it’s precisely our confused state of mind that binds us,” (Hagen, 2).

††††††††††† In his earlier works, many of Yeats’ poems were about the desire for things that he wanted, but, in most cases, they were things he could never have. One example of something he could never have that nearly drove him to madness to get it was the love of his life, Maud Gonne. Yeats’ obsession over Gonne is an excellent example on why desire is poison for the soul. Yeats believed that obtaining Gonne would cause him unending happiness. In reality, however, “Our longing, our craving, our thirsting for something other than Reality is what dissatisfies us,” (Hagen, 19). Yeats has created his own reality where he needs Gonne in order to make that reality complete. When that reality is crushed, he feels he has lost the only thing he has ever wanted.

††††††††††† Yeats loved Gonne with all of his heart, and it is argued that she may have been his muse throughout most of his poetry career. Due to his infatuation with Gonne, many of his poems and plays were either dedicated to, or written about her. For example, Cathleen ni Houlihan was not only based off of Gonne, but Yeats also had her play the lead when the play first premiered. Not only do his desires for her frustrate him deeply, they also made him a miserable and unhappy man.

††††††††††† Yeats’ feelings of frustrations and longing for Gonne manifest themselves in his poetic works as well. In his collections of poems “The Rose,” Yeats’ frustrations and longing for Maud Gonne are shown in the poems. In the poem “The Rose for the World,” he compares her to Helen of Troy; the woman whose great beauty led to the destruction of Troy. “For these red lips, with all their mournful pride, / Mournful that no new wonder may betide, / Troy passed away in one high funeral gleam, / And Usna’s children died.” Yeats is consistently watching Gonne from a distance, admiring her beauty, but he watches her in pain because he cannot have her.

††††††††††† In the poem, “Adam’s Curse,” Yeats’ desire for Gonne is shown once again. He speaks of his failure to woo her and how he is becoming tired of trying to woo her, as it causes him nothing but pain and misery. He describes himself as “A moon, worn as if it had been a shell/ Washed by time’s waters as they rose and fell/.” His attempts to win her affections have made him feel as old as the moon.

††††††††††† Desires for an unattainable object lead to sadness, misery, and depression. Sadness, misery, and depression often lead to anger and self-loathing. One gets angry at himself and others for their failure to get that “one thing” that would make his or her life complete (Hagen, 33-34). In the poem “No Second Troy,” anger and bitterness against Gonne is definitely present due to the never ending love game that they play. “Why should I blame her that she filled my days / With misery, or that she would of late.” In these lines, Yeats wonders if he should blame her for all the pain and misery he feels because she is unattainable. He closes the poem in a sad and miserable tone as well: “ Why, what could she have done, being what she is? / Was there another Troy for her to burn?” In Yeats’ mind, Maud is Helen of Troy; a woman who destroys everything and everyone with her beauty. The striking thing about this poem is that Yeats admits that it was his desires for her that made him miserable. “Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways, / Or hurled the little streets upon the great, / Had they but courage equal to desire?” Yeats realizes that if he would have had the courage to face the fact that Gonne was an unattainable woman, he would have been a much happier man. He goes into this further in his poem, “All Things can Tempt me.”

††††††††††† The poem “All Things can Tempt me,” is Yeats’ realization that his own objective desires have made him into the unhappy, hateful man that he was at the time. The opening line “ All things can tempt me from this craft of verse / One time it was a woman’s face, or worse—,” shows that he realizes his desires for Gonne have not only caused him pain, but also caused him to be distracted from his poetry; his most prized possession. The main message in this poem, however, is that even though Yeats now knows the cause of his woes, he wishes that he could remain ignorant to it in order to avoid the pain all together; a common human trait. Avoiding emotional pain is often easier than dealing with it. This is represented in the closing lines of the poem: “Yet would be now, could I but have my wish, / Colder and dumber and deafer than a fish.” Understanding the cause of one’s pain can cause more pain on its own. Yeats knows that that he can’t have Gonne, and knows why he is having an emotional decline, but that still doesn’t stop the emotional pain.

††††††††††† Of course Yeats isn’t consistently in emotional pain. Like all people, Yeats has good and bad days when it comes to emotions, but because he still desires for something he cannot get, he will eventually relapse into depression. This is explained, once again, in Buddhist teachings: “Of course there are moments of pleasure. But no matter how hard we try to cultivate pleasure and keep it coming our way, eventually the pleasure recedes and disturbance and vexation returns,” (Hagen, 26).

††††††††††† Yeats finally had a self-realization that helped him snap out of the Limbo of pain and depression described by Hagen. In Per Amica Silentia Lunae, Yeats describes that self-realization as a series of moments in his life:

††††††††††† At certain moments, always unforeseen, I become happy, most commonly when at hazard I have opened some book of verse…I look at strangers near as if I had known them all my life, and it seems strange that I cannot speak to them: everything ills me with affection, I have no longer any fears or any needs; I do not even remember that this happy mood must come to an end. (410-411)


††††††††††† In the end, Yeats comes to the conclusion that these moments come to him when he ceases to hate. Hate is brought on by desire and anger, but these emotions cease to exist when one is content with what he or she is, and what he or she has. In those few moments, Yeats is in perfect emotional balance; which is the key to living life happily and successfully. Petty, emotional desires disappear, and only your ambition to do well for yourself, and others, remain, (Yeats, 110).

††††††††††† At this point in his life, Yeats seems to be, more or less, content with himself as a human being. He married Georgie Hyde-Lees in 1917, and later has a son Michael Yeats in 1921. In 1926, Yeats, along with his wife, published A Vision which was based off of an actual vision he had on how life and the universe work. While the book had several messages on how the universe worked mathematically, the book also talked about humanities actions and why they happen. Desire is talked about often in A Vision; especially how selfish, often objective, desires ruin the human soul while ambitions for the growth of oneself and the greater good of mankind is what we should all be trying to achieve, (Yeats, 110). Yeats messages from A Vision are put throughout his poetry changing his style from an angry, bitter romantic to that of a strong spiritualist with a sense of personal contentment.

††††††††††† While Yeats was making major changes in his life, he was still troubled with one major thing: the condition of Ireland. In the early 1920’s, Ireland was currently in a civil war over the Anglo-Irish treaty which, to some of the Irish citizens, gave the British too much power over them. A violent conflict eventually ensued and lasted for a year, causing much bloodshed, (Wikipedia). Yeats was against this battle, thinking that many of his country men had gone too far in trying to gain Ireland’s independence. He began to realize that his countrymen were plagued by their own selfish desires for revenge and hatred of the English instead of creating their own country. Yeats put many messages in his poetry about his disappointment of his Irish brothers, along with what they should be doing instead of fighting.

††††††††††† The collection of poems called The Tower contains many messages intended for the Irish fighting the civil war. “Sailing to Byzantium,” is one of the most memorable and influential poems by Yeats. That being said, “Sailing to Byzantium” has a large message on human desire and where it is leading humanity. The poem starts with our speaker in old Ireland. He’s an old man that truly feels he doesn’t belong in Ireland. The speaker feels out of place. He no longer wishes to live in a world filled with death and desire. The younger generation is, “caught in that sensual music all neglect / Monuments of unageing intellect.” The younger generation simply desires, dies, and does not appreciate the immortality of intellect. By desire, Yeats is referring to selfish, objective desire; the same type of desire that many of the people of Ireland are displaying. To Yeats, both sides of the conflict are only thinking about themselves and not the greater good for all of Ireland. Yeats tries to show that he is the speaker, the old man, who no longer wishes to be among the bloody war that is fought over, in his opinion, selfish desires.

††††††††††† This poem also touches Yeats personal desires to be immortal through his art. While this may be considered a selfish desire, the desire to create art and beauty for the world is not only positive growth for the artist, but positive growth for the world. In the poem, the old man asks the wise men of Byzantium, those who have achieved the state of non-desire, to “Consume my heart away; sick with desire.” Once he gets rid of his desire, he will go “Into the artifice of eternity,” so that he himself will be eternal because of his art.

††††††††††† Upon his arrival to Byzantium, our speaker becomes a great bird of gold that is “a form as Grecian goldsmiths make / Of hammered gold and gold enemelling.” Our speaker becomes a beautiful work of art and is free from his selfish desires. However, just because he currently has no selfish desires does not mean that he cannot get them again. As a bird, he sings to the lords and ladies of Byzantium, “Of what is past, or passing, or to come.” Even though our speaker has become a work of eternal art without desire, the concept of mortality and desire is still with him. Desires and feelings can be controlled, but, “n othing we do can keep them entirely at bay,” (Hagen, 26). The mortality and desire he carries with him is not as extreme as the mortality in Ireland, but it is still a part of the old world that he wished to avoid. He must still deal with the concept of mortality as he did before. No matter what mankind does, the negative desires will always be with them, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he will suffer from those same desires again.

††††††††††† Yeats wants his Ireland to become a place of beauty and greatness instead of the violent, selfish place of desire it has become. Yeats talks of his opinions involving his country and their current civil war in his poem “Meditations in Time of Civil War.” In the poem Yeats describes the difference between the Ireland of the past and his contemporary Ireland. Though old Ireland came from violence, that violence had a cause and seemed to be for the greater good for Ireland. But now, Ireland is filled with desire and bloodlust. “What if those things the greatest of mankind / Consider most to magnify, or to bless, / But take our greatness with our bitterness?” To Yeats, a war that is violent just for the sake of selfish desires will have no effect on the greater good for Ireland and will just destroy what greatness Ireland has left.

††††††††††† Yeats admits that the culture of his people is no longer what it used to be and is now filled with unreasonable violence brought on by selfish desire in section two of the poem: “How the daemonic rage / Imagined everything. / Benighted travelers / From markets and from fairs / Have seen his midnight candle glimmering.”Ireland now wants more than it can have, and the thought of getting more is spreading all over the country. Ireland was not being realistic in the changes that they wanted. Hagen says that mankind will never be satisfied “Because we ignore our true situation,” (36). Trying to create change where change is impossible will only bring about more frustration and desire.

††††††††††† In section three there is a several lines eluding that the cause of the leaders of previous wars and revolutions are not the same cause as the current leaders of the civil war:

For the most rich inheritor,
Knowing that none could pass Heaven's door,
That loved inferior art,
Had such an aching heart
That he, although a country's talk
For silken clothes and stately walk.
Had waking wits; it seemed
Juno's peacock screamed.


††††††††††† No matter what is said, however, the current civil war leaders keep claiming that they have the same noble cause as the fighters of the past.

††††††††††† Yeats shows his strongest bit of proof that Ireland’s civil war is just violence for the sake of personal desire. To prove his point Yeats brings the Templar knight Jacques Molay into his Tower and uses him as a metaphor for the situation in Ireland. Molay was a martyr, and his followers caused great death and destruction for the vengeance of him:

'Vengeance upon the murderers,' the cry goes up,
'Vengeance for Jacques Molay.' In cloud-pale rags, or in lace,
The rage-driven, rage-tormented, and rage-hungry troop,
Trooper belabouring trooper, biting at arm or at face,
Plunges towards nothing, arms and fingers spreading wide
For the embrace of nothing; and I, my wits astray
Because of all that senseless tumult, all but cried
For vengeance on the murderers of Jacques Molay.


††††††††††† Yeats feels that the martyrs created in Ireland are causing an utmost need for vengeance. If everyone is out to satisfy their needs for vengeance, Ireland will only cause more death between its countrymen and destroy their original cause.

††††††††††† Desire is a powerful thing. Not only does it have the ability to drive us to create wonderful works of beauty, but it can also destroy our lives. Desire caused W.B. Yeats to fall into deep depression and self loathing. Though his pain caused great works of poetry, it also nearly drove him mad. Taking to heart what he wrote about desire in A Vision, Yeats changed his desire into ambition which caused him to change his outlook on life, which showed in his poetry. It was Yeats’ hope that, through his poetry, the human race would one day cleanse themselves of objective desire in order to stop the violence and hate in this world. Yeats’ vision of a peaceful, ambitious world has not completely come true, but with Yeats’ ideas, along with a little common sense, humanity can make Yeats’ vision a reality.

Works Cited

Finneran, Richard J, ed. The Yeats Reader. New York: Scribner Poetry, 2002.


Hagen, Steve. Buddhism Plain and Simple. New York: Broadway Books, 1997.


Mann, Niel. Yeats' Vision. University of London’s Institute of English Studies. 2 Nov. 2005 <>.


Wikipedia. "Irish Civil War." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. 01 Dec. 2005 <>.


Yeats, WB. A Vision. New York: Macmillan Company, 1938.


Yeats, WB. "Per Amica Silentia Lunae." The Yeats Reader. Ed. Richard J. Finneran. New York: Scribner Poetry, 2002.

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