Yeats’ Fisherman


Paul Henry, The Lobster Fisherman at Dusk. Not quite the right image, but something of the right flavor, considering Henry was a contemporary of Yeats, an Irish artist who painted the West of Ireland.

Yeats’ “The Fisherman” opens with an image of unity, harmony, and simplicity in the figure of a lone Connemara fisherman “casting his flies” at dawn. He stands alone in “a grey place on a hill / In grey Connemara clothes” (3-4), the color of his clothes connecting him to his surroundings, to the land, to Ireland: in the (presumably also grey, or grey-tinged) light of dawn, he merges with the landscape, creating an image of unity in simplicity. This “wise and simple man” (8) is Yeats’ ideal figure, representative of the Irish people of and for whom he wants to write. Yet this fisherman is not, as the opening line seems to suggest, a memory to which Yeats has attached symbolism, but rather an invention he would “call up to the eyes” (7)—something which is made clear by the end of the poem with “A man who does not exist / A man who was but a dream” (35-36), but is hinted at right in the first stanza. The fisherman is an image—the “face” of “What I had hoped ‘twould be / To write for my own race” (10-11). Thus the fisherman is simultaneously ideal subject and audience for Yeats—and on both counts he is disappointed by “the reality.” Where Yeats wishes a “wise and simple man” to speak to, he is met rather with “the living men that I hate” and “a drunken cheer” arising from the possessors of “the commonest ear” (13, 18, 20). The individual, as represented by the fisherman, gives way to the masses—masses governed by their lowest common denominator, masses which “[beat] down . . . the wise” (23), and can neither fulfill Yeats’ dream of an Irish people, nor his dream of an Irish audience capable of appreciating art and literature.

The line “And great Art beaten down” is particularly poignant considering Yeats’ repeated failed efforts to establish an appreciation for Art in Ireland, as well as to foster a national arts scene. Yeats’ nonexistent fisherman can only remain a dream as the Irish masses reject Art, reject the proposal for the national gallery, reject Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World. The reality which Yeats sees is not the Ireland of his dreams, populated by the wise and simple, like his Connemara fisherman, but rather one composed of a faceless mass of “craven” men, “insolent[s]”, “knave[s],” who cannot appreciate anything not “aimed at the commonest ear” (20). It is “in scorn of this audience” (27) that Yeats begins imagining the fisherman, though that in itself feels futile to him; his audience, in having failed him, deprives him, too, of his subject. An imagined audience is no more good than an imagined subject and an imagined subject is no more good than an imagined audience when one wants to write the national poetry of one’s own people for that people. 

This yearning for subject and audience in the creation of the fisherman is not, however, entirely futile. In the last stanza, as the image of the fisherman is redescribed, the fisherman takes on a third role: that of analog for poet himself. Rather than simply “go[ing] to a grey place” (2-3), now the fisherman “climb[s] up to a place / Where the stone is dark under froth” (31-32), the shift in diction emphasizing his positioning himself apart, above, separate from the rest of the world, from the masses. Along with this shift comes increased attention paid to the fisherman’s craft: rather than simply “[going]… to cast his flies,” we see “the down-turn of his wrist / When the flies drop in the stream” (33-34). Now the fisherman is not simply symbol for ideal Ireland, but also symbol of the poet standing apart, perfecting his craft as he searches the depths, looking beneath the froth—literally, for the fisherman, figuratively for Yeats. Thus, in the poet’s final cry and promise to “have written him one / Poem maybe as cold / And passionate as the dawn” (38-40) before he is old, Yeats strives simultaneously to become the fisherman as well as to write for him.

This progression of the fisherman’s symbolism is accomplished not simply through the poem’s content, but also in the way in which Yeats controls its form. Though the poem opens with diction and a rhyme scheme reflecting the simplicity, harmony, and lack of pretension which Yeats admires in the fisherman, by the end this simplicity has eroded and the form, like the poem, has become complicated. In the first 12 lines, the simple, direct language together with the ABAB rhyme scheme creates an impression of simplicity. The rhythmic predictability of the alternating rhyme creates a balance which echoes the harmony of Yeats’ Connemara fisherman casting his flies, at one with the land around him. However, upon reaching line 6 and the revelation that the fisherman is not a memory, the need to reevaluate the opening lines becomes apparent: the simple diction has belied the import of the complicated syntax. The first word of the poem plunges the reader into a five-line subordinate clause before coming to the main subject and verb of the sentence: “I began” (6), which deals not with the fisherman himself, but with his relation to the poet and the poet’s imagination.¹

From there, things get muddier as the ABAB rhyme scheme is complicated by the introduction of half-rhymes halfway through the first stanza. As Yeats turns from the fisherman to the “living men that I hate” (13), he turns, too, from the harmony of earlier rhymes (such as still/hill) to the tension of rhymes such as hate/seat and book/joke, forcing his scheme. From lines 13 to 19, every rhyme is a half-rhyme, save that of 18, which ends the forced-rhyme spree by rhyming its “cheer” with line 20’s “ear,” reasserting, as the stanza comes to an end, the earlier unity of the fully rhymed ABAB scheme. It would seem, then, that the dissonant half-rhyming of the second half of the first stanza is linked to the anger of Yeats’ tirade against the ignorant Irish masses. He sees no unity or harmony in them, and so portrays none in his rhyme.

The second stanza conforms, too, to the alternating scheme, lulling the reader into the sense that the jarring tension of the central tirade has been overcome, order and harmony have been reasserted, and unity attained. That is, until the last line, when “dawn” is rhymed with “one” right in the middle of the poet’s promise to create a poem for the fisherman, apparently reintroducing the chaos of the portrait of the masses. However, this final half-rhyme is less a resurgence of chaos and disharmony, than an indication of incompletion. The poet both has and has not written “for [his] own race”—this poem has begun the project, but the closing promise pushes it into the future, the half-rhyme extending it, rather than closing the poem off.

Were the rhyme a full one, it might seem that this poem itself is the poem intended for the fisherman and yet, since it is not, it seems that the hope implicit in the birth and awakening associated with the dawn are still ahead. The poem cannot close with a full rhyme because that would return it to its beginning, a beginning which was removed from reality and steeped in dreamland. Hope comes with the dawn, with new birth and awakening—awakening from the dreams of sleep into reality. Thus, in his last line, Yeats has achieved a synthesis, projecting the poet forward into a future where he will marry dream and reality by dedicating himself to his craft, in the manner of the fisherman, and writing of a reality which is not that of the central tirade, but a new one. Just as the image of his promised poem is a synthesis of apparent opposites—cold and passion, Yeats’ ending manages to unite the dream-image of the fisherman with the reality of the world through the figure of the poet himself.²

  1. In fact, for a poem so linguistically simple, the syntax is made to work very hard as Yeats composes the 40 line poem of only three sentences, the first comprising only 8 lines, while the second two both use 16. Semi-colons and commas, setting off phrases and clauses, abound, giving lie to the simplicity of its surface.
  2. That the poet in the end manages to merge his dream of the idyllic fisherman with reality through himself is also symbolic of Yeats’ poetic transformation, relating “The Fisherman” to other poems such as “The Coat.” In “The Fisherman,” Yeats begins in the space of his earlier poems—a dreamworld detached from reality where fisherman is symbol, symbol of an Irish people which, as the middle of the poems tells us, do not exist. However, by the end of the poem, Yeats has moved forward into his new style; he has married dreamworld and symbol to reality. The fisherman who “does not exist” remains symbol, but now he is a symbol connected to the real by the figure of the poet himself.

The Fisherman

Although I can see him still—
The freckled man who goes
To a gray place on a hill
In gray 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                   10
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,                   20
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 face
And gray Connemara cloth,                       30
Climbing up to a place
Where stone is dark with froth,
And the down turn of his wrist
When the flies drop in 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.                      40

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