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I am working on Turkish translations of W. B. Yeats' poems and I need to compare the source text with the target text. In order to do that, first, I have to get a deeper understanding of the original poem.

Here is the original poem. I am having trouble understanding the lines in bold:

All things can tempt me from this craft of verse:
One time it was a woman's face, or worse —
The seeming needs of my fool-driven land;
Now nothing but comes readier to the hand
Than this accustomed toil. When I was young,
I had not given a penny for a song
Did not the poet sing it with such airs
That one believed he had a sword upstairs;

Yet would be now, could I but have my wish,
Colder and dumber and deafer than a fish.

Also, what wish is the Poet talking about in the penultimate line? Being colder and dumber and deafer than a fish? Why?

Please provide historical, cultural, ideological background as well.

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    Lines 3 and 5.5-8 are talking about the Irish Nationalist movement, which Yeats supported fervently when he was young, but which he seems to have grown disillusioned with by the time he wrote this poem.
    – Peter Shor
    Dec 17, 2023 at 17:37
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    A Japanese admirer of Yeats, perhaps influenced by this poem, presented the poet with an antique Japanese sword, which was accepted. He kept it 'upstairs' in his home Thoor Ballylee, Galway. The sword's impact on Yeats is the theme of another poem: Dialogue of the Self and Soul.(The Winding Stair, 1933.)
    – Tendril
    Jan 9 at 2:12

2 Answers 2

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"All Things Can Tempt Me" was first published in The Green Helmet and Other Poems (1910). The 45 year old Yeats was no longer as hot-blooded and idealistic as he had been in his younger days, nor did he have the same conception of poetry. In this poem, Yeats describes his changed understanding of what it means to be a poet; enumerates the distractions, past and present, that have keep him from his vocation thus understood; and expresses his desire to dedicate himself to poetry anew.

In the first line, Yeats refers to poetry as a craft. Rather than representing his poems as the products of divine inspiration, he portrays them as the results of meticulous labor: he is more poeta faber than poeta vates. Like all craft, poetry requires concentrated attention, but Yeats says that he is easily distracted. In his younger days, it was a beautiful woman and nationalist ideals that kept him from his work. The reference is to his muse of long standing, the Irish revolutionary Maud Gonne. In his present, more mature days, Gonne's beauty and her republican ideals no longer hinder Yeats. Nevertheless, anything and everything seems easier than writing:

Now nothing but comes readier to the hand
Than this accustomed toil.

He then goes on to articulate the change in his understanding of poetry. While he now regards poetry as a craft, he held a different view earlier:

                          When I was young
I had not given a penny for a song
Did not the poet sing it with such airs,
That one believed he had a sword upstairs.

He used to think that poems were worthless unless the poet seemed to have "a sword upstairs". The metaphor is evocative, suggesting that poetry should be a call to arms, should spur one on to action, should flash and glitter, should be wielded as a sign of power, should be dangerous. The general sense is that in his youth, Yeats thought of poetry as an active pursuit, with the poet being as energetic and quick as a swordsman. Additionally, the exchange of a penny for a song equates poetry with broadside ballads, reducing it to commercial goods. By contrast, Yeats's current approach toward poetry as craft foregrounds its status as a contemplative endeavor that is valuable in itself. Instead of wishing to be like a swordsman, Yeats would now rather be:

Colder and dumber and deafer than a fish.

This new kind of poet Yeats aspires to become would be cold, unmoved by "a woman's face"; dumb, not speaking out against "the seeming needs of my fool-driven land"; and deaf, immune to the siren songs of beauty and politics. Single-minded, he would focus solely on his craft.

It bears mention that Yeats is self-aware enough to place "All Things Can Tempt Me" within a group of poems called "Momentary Thoughts". His claims here that he is past the allure of beauty or politics, that he wishes to be serene and piscine, are not presented as fully realized or realizable. They are contingent, merely the way he feels in the given moment.

References

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Poets in ancient times sang of the bravery of heroes - its why it was called heroic poetry. Yeats may be thus thinking of a 'younger' poet in terms of epochs.

Also, young children are often dazzled by stories of heroics. This is why children love fantasy which makes such heroics central to the story. It is the resting place of that old form called the epic. This should be contrasted with its modern successor, the novel, which is a portrait of the soul.

Yeats could also be making the observation that poets often make for bad heroes. They are clumsy around swords and runaway from dragons and ogres - they leave that stuff to real heroes - and instead, write about and admire their exploits . But I doubt he really means that he spotted this incongruence as a child. More like in his immaturity as a young man. In fact, the same observation was made by Sokrates in Ion, one of Plato's early dialogues where he questions a rhapsode (a singer) as to whether when he sings of battles whether he actually is in a battle. He says yes. Sokrates dismisses this and thinks of him as putting on 'airs'. Instead, Sokrates suggests that a rhapsode is motivated by inspiration. It is this which is Yeats more mature realisation. However, inspiration is not a thing that can be worked upon. It is a gift of the gods or of the spirit. One has to prepare the ground. Thus one works at it and which he means by 'now nothing but comes readier to the hand than this accustomed toil'.

The fruits of the spirit tend to come later in life after the first flush of sensual enthusiasm in youth slows down. But it sounds as though Yeats only really understood this after the fourth or fifth flush. This is why he wishes himself as a 'dumber and deafer ... fish' so he could have begun this understanding earlier. He used a similar metaphor in his poem, Sailing to Byzantium which expands upon the ideas of this poem but this time only to wish away the pain we feel that living brings by transmuting himself into 'such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make Of hammered gold and gold enamelling'.

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