By W. B. Yeats
Although I can see him still-
The freckled man who goes
To a grey place on a hill
In grey Connemara clothes
At dawn to cast his flies-
It’s long since I began
To call up to the eyes
This wise and simple man.
All day I’d looked in the face
What I had hoped it would be
To write for my own race
And the reality:
The living men that I hate,
The dead man that I loved,
The craven man in his seat,
The insolent unreproved-
And no knave brought to book
Who has won a drunken cheer-
The witty man and his joke
Aimed at the commonest ear,
The clever man who cries
The catch cries of the clown,
The beating down of the wise
And great Art beaten down.
Maybe a twelve-month since
Suddenly I began,
In scorn of this audience,
Imagining a man,
And his sun-freckled dace
And grey Connemara cloth,
Climbing up to a place
Where stone is dark with froth,
And the down turn of his wrist
When the flies drop into the stream-
A man who does not exist,
A man who is but a dream;
And cried, “Before I am old
I shall have written him one
Poem maybe as cold
And passionate as the dawn.”
“The Fisherman”, published in 1916, depicts Yeats’ considerations into the loss of Irish tradition. Written during a time of national turmoil, as Ireland fought to retain its identity whilst under British rule, this poem is a very personal view of this change. Yeats uses the persona of a fisherman, which was seen as a typical Irish figure, to explore the loss of the Ireland he knew so well, and compare it to this modern Ireland, which was affected by British culture.
Metre & Structure
The rhyme and rhythm of the poem are reflected in the phrase “wise and simple”, which allows Yeats to demonstrate his pure, uncomplicated passion for traditional Ireland, his home-country before it was affected by British rule. The alternating rhyme scheme, along a rhythm that alternates between an iambic and trochaic metre, demonstrates the comparison between traditional and modern Ireland, but it also suggests that Yeats’ passion is damaged; the partially iambic rhythm gives the impression of a faltering heartbeat, indicative of the destruction of culture and tradition.
Line by Line
- “Although I can see him still” – Yeats has fond memories of Ireland before the 1916 Easter Risings and fights for Independence; his romantic, beautiful Ireland is being torn apart by war, but Yeats remembers when it was peaceful. This is a similar image evoked by “Broken Dreams”: “vague memories, nothing but memories”.
- “The freckled man” – Yeats reflects on his traditional Ireland through the persona of a fisherman. He sees this as a typical figure of Ireland, indicating that he misses the traditional culture of the Irish people, without interference from the British. “Flies” here refers to fly-fishing, a typical Irish past-time.
- “Grey” – The “grey” reflects the general atmosphere of Ireland during this time of war, as well as Yeats’ own state of mind and the cold, “grey” reality of the potential future of Ireland; it can’t be a happy future as modernism has destroyed what Yeats knows so well.
- “Wise and simple” – This matches the rhyme and rhythm of the poem, reflecting the simplicity and peace of Yeats’ familiar Ireland.
- “What I hoped it would be” – Yeats considers modernism, trying to see the traditional Ireland within it, but is disappointed.
- “My own race” – There is some ambiguity here; this could apply to the Irish people in general, or just those born in Ireland, not those who moved over from Britain. The probable assumption is that Yeats is dislocating himself from the British people, representing his own role in the fight for Irish independence.
- “The living men that I hate, / The dead man that I loved” – This is a direct comparison of the modern and traditional aspects of Ireland. Yeats hates the “living men” because they differ from “the dead man”; he considers those from modern Ireland (i.e. the British) and hates them due to the changes they have imposed on Ireland.
- “The craven man” / “the insolent unreproved” / “knave” / “drunken” – This is Yeats’ general lambast against the people of modern Ireland. They are “insolent”, ignorant to the beauty of the country that they’re trying to change. They are also stereotyped as criminals and “drunken” knaves, demonstrating how they don’t appreciate art and Irish culture; this may particularly show how they aren’t appreciating Yeats’ art.
- “The clever man” / “the witty man” – This is quite ambiguous; perhaps “the clever man” “cries” for the loss of traditional Irish art and poetry, but Yeats could also be referring to himself as “the clever man”; he “cries” in desperation for people to stop the “great Art beaten down”. Or, he could be calling himself “the clown” for believing that his art would be recognised, or calling the people of Ireland “the clown” for not appreciating this art.
- “Suddenly I began” – Fluctuating rates of change are conveyed, indicating the power of time. The onomatopoeic “suddenly” has a similar power in “The Wild Swans at Coole” and “The Cold Heaven“.
- “Climbing” – “Climbing” hints at the physical and mental strain that would be required to return Ireland to its traditional state.
- “Where stone is dark with froth” – In “September 1913”, the “stone” is implied to be the heart of Ireland, or else the hearts of nationalists. In this poem, the “stone” is tainted with “froth”, suggesting that its identity has been blurred and lost.
- “A man who does not exist, / A man who is but a dream” – Yeats is probably here referring to himself; his dreams of traditional Ireland are so unusual in the current climate, that he is almost tempted to give up in his efforts to promote its value. The repetition of “a man” draws attention to the lines and emphasises the theme of the “dream”.
- “Cold” / “passionate” – The juxtaposed contrast of “cold” and “passionate” echoes “The Cold Heaven” and therefore Yeats’ uncertainties regarding his future. This also shows how his words have become “cold”, because he knows that nobody is appreciating them, yet he remains “passionate” due to his desire to bring back the culture of traditional Ireland, even though he doesn’t think he can make a difference.
“The Fisherman” is a very personal poem; it not only addresses very serious political changes and crises, but also considers Yeats’ position as a poet, and Irishman, during this time of turmoil.
A simple, repetitious metre and rhyme scheme draws attention to actual content of the poem; Yeats’ isn’t trying to dress up his emotions with fancy words or poetic dialect; he’s trying to reach out to his audience and tell them why Irish tradition means so much to him.
At its core, “The Fisherman” is not only emotional, but sad. Despite the “drunken” audience and “the commonest ear” that may not understand his work, he remembers Ireland as it was, and is fighting to hold on to what is, essentially, his “dream”.