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What shall I do with this absurdity —
O heart, O troubled heart — this caricature,
Decrepit age that has been tied to me
As to a dog's tail?

Never had I more
Excited, passionate, fantastical
Imagination, nor an ear and eye
That more expected the impossible —
No, not in boyhood when with rod and fly,
Or the humbler worm, I climbed Ben Bulben's back
And had the livelong summer day to spend.
It seems that I must bid the Muse go pack,
Choose Plato and Plotinus for a friend
Until imagination, ear and eye,
Can be content with argument and deal
In abstract things; or be derided by
A sort of battered kettle at the heel.

(https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/57587/the-tower-56d23b4072cea)

I'm only interested in the first stanza for now. I have mixed feelings about the first stanza. I like the image of decrepit age being something tied to a dog's tail. It really serves to show how foreign age is to the poet's soul; it is simply not a part of him, but something he tows along.

I like the idea that age excites his imagination more, but when its song is dormant he must content himself with an old friend — Plato or Plotinus, interesting reading choices. He seems to be saying that Plato and Plotinus come in handy until the imagination is ready to soar.

But then, when the poet is ready to sing, when the imagination is ready to soar, there is no song, no beauty. Only this alternate possibility that things will go wrong, and the poet will be derided by a "battered kettle at the heel".

What does this phrase even mean? I can only think of a tea kettle. Why would it be battered? What image is he trying to show? What point is he trying to make?

  • 2
    Interesting question! I wonder if it might have something to do with the phrase "down at heel"? – Rand al'Thor Jan 4 '18 at 17:36
  • Thanks, @Randal'Thor! I like your profile. – ktm5124 Jan 4 '18 at 18:02
  • 1
    Wouldn't the kettle be the thing that some mischievous child tied to the dog's tail and is now dragging at its hind heels? – Peter Shor Jan 5 '18 at 18:25
  • @PeterShor That's an interesting idea. It's more than plausible. It involves the reader filling in some details with his or her imagination but it seems like the kind of mischief many an Irish child has committed! – ktm5124 Jan 5 '18 at 18:29
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    And if it's been tied to the dog's tail all day, of course it's battered. – Peter Shor Jan 5 '18 at 18:31
4

The kettle is (metaphorically) the thing that's been tied to the dog's tail, probably by a mischievous child, and is now dragging behind its rear heels.

Why is it battered? If it's been tied to the dog's tail all day, of course it's battered.

  • Downvoter: what is wrong with this answer? I didn't spell out all the correspondences in the metaphor in detail, but I don't really see why I need to. – Peter Shor Jan 5 '18 at 19:20
  • I find the answer to be a good one, and quite possibly what was going through Yeats's mind. I was planning to accept after a short time, like maybe a day. I personally give it my up vote. – ktm5124 Jan 5 '18 at 21:27
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    Certainly if you google ""kettle tied to a dogs tail" (without the quotes) you get hits on the Yeats poem, on this LSE thread, and many many 19th century usages of the metaphor. With the quotes, you get many hits on a joke: "Why is a kettle tied to a dogs tail like death? Because it is bound to occur." – kimchi lover Jan 5 '18 at 23:51
  • @kimchilover A fine addition. – ktm5124 Jan 6 '18 at 0:14

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