Some poems start with an introduction, while others suddenly start. The poem written by William Butler Yeats (1865 – 1939) is such a poem. This is his poem entitled “The Cold Heaven.”
One big metaphor
You may consider this poem not only as a crisis but also as one big metaphor. To be more precise: one big, dramatic metaphor.
Yeats wrote this poem in 1912. It was published in the poetry collection “Responsibilities” (1914). This poetry collection gives us an inside look into the mind of Yeats. In this poem, he describes the moment of crisis when he realised that his love life was full of failures. He feared the emptiness and loneliness that followed. According to his words, these would continue even in the afterlife.
This may have been based on his experiences with Maud Gonne MacBride (1866 – 1953). This Irish actress was also a revolutionary and suffragette. They met each other in 1889. Yeats fell in love, she didn’t. he even proposed to her, years later – when her husband died. She turned him down. Yeats then did something strange, he proposed to Iseult Gonne (1894 – 1954), the daughter of Maud. She was at that time 23 years old. She feared that her mother would be upset and turned him down too.
It was particularly because on more than one occasion people believed that Yeats was her father. He was in his fifties, so he might as well been. This is probably the reason why he wrote a poem in the first-person narrative. It resulted in a very personal poem. In combination with the different length of the sentences, it’s a fragile poem.
Normally, heaven is not associated with cold. It’s hard for anyone to imagine heaven must be like Antarctica or the North Pole. But the cold is the opposite of hell. Yeats found himself in a position where he believed that heaven could turn into hell, but a cold one.
As heaven is also the place where people spent their eternity, it must have been the realization that he would not spend it with her, that made this heaven a cold and lonely place. Cold is also associated with a feeling of loneliness.
The process where Yeats changed his beliefs came Suddenly (the first word of the poem). The ice burned him, also a good way to describe the heartburn.
But there is more to this poem. Some claim, that Yeats wrote away his sexual desires he had for Gonne at one point in time. The usage of the words “hot blood”, “rocked to and fro” are good indicators that there is more to this poem.
But what is it then? The desires he had? Or was it just the wish for him to find true love?
The Cold Heaven
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 quicken,
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?
— William Butler Yeats