This is the first of a new blog section that I’m starting, dealing with poetry analysis. Analysing poems is something that I’ve always liked doing, so thank you for reading; I hope this may be of some use to someone.
The Cold Heaven
By W. B. Yeats
Suddenly I saw the cold and rook-delighting heaven
That seemed as though ice burned and was but the more ice,
And thereupon imagination and heart were driven
So wild that every casual thought of that and this
Vanished, and left but memories, that should be out of season
With the hot blood of youth, of love crossed long ago;
And I took all the blame out of all sense and reason,
Until I cried and trembled and rocked to and fro,
Riddled with light. Ah! when the ghost begins to quick,
Confusion of the death-bed over, is it sent
Out naked on the roads, as the books say, and stricken
By the injustice of the skies for punishment?
The Cold Heaven is all about emotion; it’s Yeats’ revelation, supposedly inspired by strange clouds and patterns in the sky. It explores big concerns, such as life, death and destiny, as well as his personal concerns, which were primarily about his muse, Maud Gonne, and how she refused to love him. Yeats was also extremely concerned about death, particularly as he grew older, and this poem, published in 1914, marks the time when he began to think seriously about the end of his life.
Metre & Structure
The poem is made up of Alexandrines within free verse, which demonstrates a limited order within chaos. It represents Yeats’ own confusion about death and afterlife. The enjambment throughout the poem demonstrates how The Cold Heaven itself is a rush of emotions, as well as a revelation; he cannot control the pace of his thoughts.
The idea of a “cold heaven” is the exact opposite to the idealisation of hell. This could suggest that it is pure and divine, yet “cold” also presents an image of emotional detachment and a lack of passion. These contrasting impressions of an afterlife reveal Yeats’ uncertainties over his death and his fear as he begins to contemplate the unknown.
Line by Line
- “Suddenly” – Reveals the power of Yeats’ thoughts as they burst from him (an idea also considered in “The Wild Swans at Coole”).
- “Rook-delighting heaven” – Could refer to crevices and sharp edges (an unfriendly image), or to how death is satisfied in heaven, suggesting that it is a positive image, and thus a positive afterlife.
- “Ice burned and was but the more ice” – Could demonstrate how heaven is a form of hell; here Yeats critiques religion, suggesting flaws through the image of a “cold heaven”; it is “cold” to represent its opposition to hell, and yet Yeats suggests that heaven is still imperfect, as it is “cold” and unwelcoming. He suggests that, regardless of where he ends up after his death, he will not be happy.
- “Imagination and heart were driven / So wild that every casual thought of that and this” – Yeats suggests that “the cold heaven” would be a place void from “imagination and heart”. These lines also indicate what would happen to the “heart”, if it was to enter a “cold heaven”; if heat represents passion, then he way be considering his unrequited love for Maud Gonne.
- “Vanished, and left but memories, that should be out of season” – Here Yeats considers how his passion for Gonne could not be a part of the idealised heaven. His heaven has gone “cold” as he realises his rejection and feels as though a part of him (the heat of heaven) has left him, leaving only the memories.
- “With the hot blood of youth, of love crossed long ago“ – This could be a Shakespearean link; similar lexical tones suggest that love and death are intertwined, just as they were in Romeo and Juliet, with the “star-crossed lovers”.
- “Sense and reason” – Yeats can’t logically define or understand the concept of an afterlife, no matter how hard he tries.
- “Until I cried and trembled and rocked to and fro” – Yeats weeps over his own confusion; he is desperate to determine what he will face once he dies and whether Gonne will be a part of this existence. He is overwhelmed by grief from her rejection, as well as his own confusion; this line most accurately reveals the emotion within this poem, “to and fro” illustrating how he alternates between concepts of a pleasant afterlife, and an unpleasant afterlife. It also demonstrates how he has nowhere to turn now that he has lost Maud Gonne.
- “Riddled with light. Ah! when the ghost begins to quicken, / Confusion of the death-bed over” – Yeats has another revelation within the first. He is no longer scared about his future; “ah” separated by a caesura in either side slows down the pace of the poem and represents Yeats’ satisfaction over this realisation, suggesting that heaven must be good and that his “confusion of the death-bed [is] over”.
- “Out naked on the roads, as the books say, and stricken / By the injustice of the skies for punishment?” – Yeats is “out naked on the roads” because of his vulnerabilities. “Stricken / By the injustice of the skies” indicates that Yeats’ “punishment” will be met in heaven, but their “injustice” also hints at the idea of destiny and that it is not his fault that Gonne does not love him; it is “the injustice of the skies”, whether this be God or not, that seeks to punish him.
The Cold Heaven is all about oppositions. It’s emotional, passionate and messy, but that’s the point. Yeats is torn between his need to move on from Maud Gonne, so he can focus on much bigger things, such as the questions about death, and his inexplicable love for her. Even though this poem represents his realisation that Gonne will never truly love him, he still wonders whether she might change her mind.
The most important thing to take away from this poem is probably Yeats’ own confusion. He honestly doesn’t know what he’s thinking, because his thoughts are no longer logical. He’s working through his emotions, which is why the issues about Gonne and about death merge together, as he worries about both at the same time. Like I said, it’s messy, and it’s confusing.