'Vacillation' by William Butler Yeats

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Between extremities
Man runs his course;
A brand, or flaming breath.
Comes to destroy
All those antinomies
Of day and night;
The body calls it death,
The heart remorse.
But if these be right
What is joy?


A tree there is that from its topmost bough
Is half all glittering flame and half all green
Abounding foliage moistened with the dew;
And half is half and yet is all the scene;
And half and half consume what they renew,
And he that Attis' image hangs between
That staring fury and the blind lush leaf
May know not what he knows, but knows not grief


Get all the gold and silver that you can,
Satisfy ambition, animate
The trivial days and ram them with the sun,
And yet upon these maxims meditate:
All women dote upon an idle man
Although their children need a rich estate;
No man has ever lived that had enough
Of children's gratitude or woman's love.

No longer in Lethean foliage caught
Begin the preparation for your death
And from the fortieth winter by that thought
Test every work of intellect or faith,
And everything that your own hands have wrought
And call those works extravagance of breath
That are not suited for such men as come
proud, open-eyed and laughing to the tomb.


My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup
On the marble table-top.
While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.


Although the summer Sunlight gild
Cloudy leafage of the sky,
Or wintry moonlight sink the field
In storm-scattered intricacy,
I cannot look thereon,
Responsibility so weighs me down.

Things said or done long years ago,
Or things I did not do or say
But thought that I might say or do,
Weigh me down, and not a day
But something is recalled,
My conscience or my vanity appalled.


A rivery field spread out below,
An odour of the new-mown hay
In his nostrils, the great lord of Chou
Cried, casting off the mountain snow,
`Let all things pass away.'

Wheels by milk-white asses drawn
Where Babylon or Nineveh
Rose; some conquer drew rein
And cried to battle-weary men,
`Let all things pass away.'

From man's blood-sodden heart are sprung
Those branches of the night and day
Where the gaudy moon is hung.
What's the meaning of all song?
`Let all things pass away.'


The Soul. Seek out reality, leave things that seem.
The Heart. What, be a singer born and lack a theme?
The Soul. Isaiah's coal, what more can man desire?
The Heart. Struck dumb in the simplicity of fire!
The Soul. Look on that fire, salvation walks within.
The Heart. What theme had Homer but original sin?


Must we part, Von Hugel, though much alike, for we
Accept the miracles of the saints and honour sanctity?
The body of Saint Teresa lies undecayed in tomb,
Bathed in miraculous oil, sweet odours from it come,
Healing from its lettered slab. Those self-same hands perchance
Eternalised the body of a modern saint that once
Had scooped out pharaoh's mummy. I - though heart might find relief
Did I become a Christian man and choose for my belief
What seems most welcome in the tomb - play a pre-destined part.
Homer is my example and his unchristened heart.
The lion and the honeycomb, what has Scripture said?
So get you gone, Von Hugel, though with blessings on your head.

Editor 1 Interpretation

Vacillation by William Butler Yeats: A Literary Criticism and Interpretation

Oh my goodness, where do I even begin with this poem? Vacillation by William Butler Yeats is one of those pieces of literature that leaves you with a million thoughts and emotions swirling around in your head. It's a complex, multi-layered work that demands careful analysis and interpretation. But fear not, dear reader, for I am here to guide you through it all.

Summary of Vacillation

Before we dive into the nitty-gritty of the poem, let's take a moment to summarize the overall plot and structure. Vacillation is a poem in two parts, each consisting of six stanzas. The first part is titled "Between two worlds," while the second is called "A woman Homer sung."

The poem opens with the speaker describing a state of indecision or "vacillation" in which they find themselves. They are torn between two worlds, one of which is the "world of dream" and the other the "world of waking." The speaker longs for the "world of dream," where they can escape the harsh realities of the waking world and find solace in their imagination.

However, the speaker is also aware of the dangers of getting lost in their dreams and losing touch with reality. They describe the dream world as a "whirlpool" that threatens to swallow them up completely. The first part of the poem ends with the speaker acknowledging the need to find a balance between these two worlds and to "choose the lesser of two evils."

The second part of the poem shifts focus to the figure of Homer and his epic poem, The Odyssey. The speaker reflects on the character of Circe, a sorceress who turns Odysseus's men into pigs. The speaker sees Circe as a representation of the dangerous allure of the dream world, which can transform us into something other than ourselves.

The poem ends with the speaker acknowledging the inevitability of this vacillation, of the constant pull between our desires and our responsibilities. They find some solace in the fact that "The gods are bored with their eternity" and that even they experience this same struggle.

Analysis of Vacillation

Now that we have a basic understanding of the poem's structure and plot, let's dive into some of the key themes and literary devices at play.

Vacillation and Indecision

The most obvious theme in Vacillation is, of course, vacillation itself. The speaker is torn between two worlds, between the dream and the waking, and is struggling to find a balance between the two. This feeling of indecision is something that most of us can relate to, whether it's deciding between two job offers or trying to choose what to have for dinner.

What's interesting about the way Yeats presents this theme is that he doesn't offer a clear answer or solution. The speaker acknowledges that they must "choose the lesser of two evils," but doesn't specify which choice is the right one. This ambiguity reflects the reality of indecision, that there isn't always a clear-cut answer and that we must often make difficult choices without knowing the outcome.

The Allure of the Dream World

Another theme that runs throughout Vacillation is the idea of the dream world as a seductive and dangerous place. The speaker longs for the escapism and creativity of their dreams, but is also aware of the potential harm that can come from getting lost in them.

This theme is particularly evident in the second part of the poem, where the speaker reflects on the character of Circe. Circe's ability to turn men into pigs represents the transformative power of the dream world, the way it has the potential to change us into something other than ourselves.

The danger of the dream world is not necessarily that it is inherently bad, but that it can be all-consuming. The speaker recognizes this when they describe the dream world as a "whirlpool" that threatens to pull them under. This image conveys the sense of being trapped, of losing control and being swept away by our desires.

Literary Devices

In addition to these thematic elements, Vacillation also makes use of a variety of literary devices that contribute to its overall effect. Here are a few examples:

Interpretation of Vacillation

So, what can we take away from all of this? How can we interpret Vacillation in a way that sheds light on our own experiences of indecision and the pull of our desires?

One possible interpretation is that the poem is ultimately about the search for balance. The speaker is torn between two worlds, between the dream and the waking, and must find a way to reconcile these two sides of themselves. This struggle is ongoing and never fully resolved, but the speaker finds comfort in the fact that even the gods themselves experience this same vacillation.

Another interpretation is that the poem is a cautionary tale about the dangers of getting lost in our desires. The dream world may be alluring, but it can also be destructive if we allow ourselves to be consumed by it. The character of Circe serves as a warning about the transformative power of the dream world, the way it can change us into something other than ourselves.

Finally, we might interpret Vacillation as a meditation on the nature of creativity and imagination. The dream world is a place of infinite possibility, where we can create and explore without the constraints of the waking world. However, this creativity must be tempered by a sense of responsibility and groundedness in reality. The speaker's struggle to find balance between these two worlds reflects the tension between the imaginative and the practical that all artists and creatives must navigate.


In conclusion, Vacillation is a complex and multi-layered poem that explores themes of indecision, the allure of the dream world, and the search for balance. Through its use of repetition, imagery, and allusion, the poem invites us to reflect on our own experiences of vacillation and the ways in which we navigate the tension between our desires and our responsibilities. At its core, Vacillation is a poem about the human condition, about the ways in which we are constantly pulled in different directions and the struggle to find our footing in a world that is never fully stable.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Vacillation: A Poem of Inner Conflict and Spiritual Journey

William Butler Yeats, one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, wrote Vacillation in 1912, a time when he was struggling with his own spiritual journey and the conflicting forces within him. The poem is a reflection of his inner turmoil, his doubts and fears, his longing for transcendence, and his search for a higher truth. It is a complex and multi-layered work that requires careful analysis and interpretation, but also rewards the reader with its beauty, depth, and insight.

The poem consists of two parts, each with six stanzas of four lines, and a refrain that repeats at the end of each part. The refrain, "My fiftieth year had come and gone, / I sat, a solitary man, / In a crowded London shop, / An open book and empty cup / On the marble table-top," sets the tone and the context of the poem, and suggests the speaker's age, his isolation, and his quest for knowledge and meaning.

The first part of the poem is titled "The Choice" and deals with the speaker's dilemma between two opposing paths, one of reason and one of passion. The first stanza introduces the theme of vacillation, or indecision, and the image of the "dancer" who is torn between two lovers, one of whom is "cold and the other's gay." The second stanza presents the two options, "Reason said, 'Let go,' / Of the net of passion and pain, / Sensibility, 'Though has wrought / A joy beyond all walking or flying.'" The third stanza describes the speaker's struggle to choose between them, "Armed with the passion of Eros' wings, / Suddenly I flung away, / Yet felt because I could not speak, / A trembling in the mood." The fourth stanza concludes the first part with the refrain, which suggests that the speaker has not yet found the answer to his dilemma, but is still searching for it.

The second part of the poem is titled "The Coming of Wisdom with Time" and deals with the speaker's realization that neither reason nor passion can satisfy his longing for transcendence, and that he needs a higher wisdom to guide him. The fifth stanza introduces the theme of time, and the image of the "old man" who has "learned to dance" and "forgotten that the floor / Is not the earth." The sixth stanza presents the speaker's epiphany, "Mere words! Mere words! How terrible they were! / How clear, and vivid, and cruel! / One heard the sea-gulls and the beating heart / Of the lonely sea and knew." The seventh stanza describes the speaker's vision of the divine, "That the future years had come, / Dancing to a frenzied drum, / Out of the murderous innocence of the sea." The eighth stanza concludes the poem with the refrain, which suggests that the speaker has found the answer to his dilemma, and that he has achieved a higher wisdom through his spiritual journey.

The poem is rich in symbolism, imagery, and allusions, and requires a close reading to appreciate its nuances and complexities. The image of the dancer, for example, represents the speaker's inner conflict between reason and passion, and suggests that he is torn between two opposing forces that pull him in different directions. The image of the open book and empty cup, on the other hand, represents the speaker's thirst for knowledge and his emptiness without it, and suggests that he is searching for a higher truth that can fill his soul.

The allusions to Greek mythology, such as Eros, the god of love, and the sea-gulls, which are associated with the sea and the goddess Aphrodite, suggest that the speaker is drawing on a rich cultural heritage to express his spiritual journey. The image of the sea, which appears several times in the poem, represents the vastness and mystery of the divine, and suggests that the speaker is seeking a deeper connection with the universe.

The use of repetition, such as the refrain and the repetition of words and phrases, such as "mere words," "dancer," and "sea," creates a sense of rhythm and musicality that enhances the poem's emotional impact. The use of rhyme and meter, such as the ABAB rhyme scheme and the iambic tetrameter, also contribute to the poem's aesthetic appeal and its coherence.

The poem's themes of vacillation, spiritual journey, and wisdom are universal and timeless, and resonate with readers of all ages and cultures. The poem speaks to our own struggles with inner conflict, our longing for transcendence, and our search for a higher truth. It reminds us that we are all dancers in the cosmic dance of life, and that we need to find our own path and our own wisdom to guide us.

In conclusion, Vacillation is a masterpiece of modern poetry that captures the essence of the human condition and the quest for spiritual enlightenment. It is a poem of inner conflict and spiritual journey, of doubt and faith, of reason and passion, of wisdom and transcendence. It is a poem that challenges us to look within ourselves, to confront our own vacillation, and to seek a higher truth that can guide us on our journey through life. It is a poem that inspires us to dance to the rhythm of the universe, and to embrace the mystery and beauty of existence.

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