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An enemy of consequence

analysis of william yeats' "the lamentation of the old pensioner"

Jonathan Barker
Professor Kusch

An Enemy of Consequence

William Yeats? two versions of ?The lamentation of the Old Pensioner? can be distinguished from one another within a context of sound, symbolism, tone, repetition, and rhythm. Upon a close comparison of such devices within each poem, it is apparent that Yeats? 1925 version takes on an outward stance of hostility. The 1890 version, on the other hand, focuses more upon an intrinsic feeling of degradation. The two differing sounds of the poems are reflected immediately in the first two lines of each. The first line of Yeats? 1890 version begins in a reminiscent voice. There is a break in the rhyme scheme in this line around the words ?chair,? ?every,? and ?hearth.? Upon reading this line, the reader feels inclined to stress these words, although they should be unstressed in a iambic beat. These words serve to focus attention on an image of homeyness and warmth. On the other hand, the rhythmic interruption within the first line of the 1925 version is directed upon the word ?rain?, conveying an image hard times. This version begins in a state of rejection and misfortune, and consequently leads to a more aggressive tone than that of the 1890 version.
If we compare the first two lines of each version, we see that the earlier version does not relate the reader to a difficult and enduring life as the later version does. The beginning of the 1890 version portrays an image of lost fortune and opportunity rather than directed misfortune. These first two lines in version one use long vowel sounds in order to slow the lines down which helps to convey the impression of a time from the past. The next two lines that follow, which offer shorter vowel sounds, counter the voice of helplessness that was formed in the second line, ?When no one turned to see?. The short vowel sounds allude to a quickening of ideas, and the speaker realizes that he was noticed in his prime state of long ago, although he did not attempt to make himself more pronounced. In other words, he comes to a conclusion that it was his own actions that caused his misfortune. This inward state of depression leads to an outward voice of despair. The speaker in the 1925 version does not harbor the same inward feeling of depression, but rather directs his misfortune on an outward force. This leads to a stronger voice of aggression within the poem.
The long vowels in the first two lines of version two stress the words ?rain? and ?broken tree?, contributing to a mood of turmoil and hardship. The voice subsequently changes during the last part of the stanza when the time interval changes to the past. However, unlike Yeats? tone in remembering the past of version one, this version portrays the past as much more favorable and consequently poses a more aggressive tone towards that which took that time away. For instance, in the second version the speaker was ?closest to the fire in every company,? whereas in version one the speaker merely ?had a chair at every hearth when no one turned to see.? We can see that the speaker of the version two recalls his past in a much more delightful tone.
The last line of stanza one in each poem makes the difference in attitude of the speaker very apparent. ?And the fret lies on me? conveys a helpless state of mind where the speaker?s voice is depressed and alone. This is in total opposition to the line ?Ere Time transfigured me,? which portrays a state of victimization. The speaker is crying out rather than muttering softy at that which has been unjust to him: time. It is repetition of the words ?Time that has transfigured me? in lines 11-12, 17-18 and ?Time transfigured me? in line six that plays a particular role in the personification of time and the attitude of bitterness directed upon it. The repetition of the words ?Time?transfigured me,? forms a transition from an object that grows into a threatening being. The first instance in which time is mentioned, it is of an object that has caused harm to the speaker. The next instance ?Time? is given a more ominous tone because the speaker contemplates its destruction. This gives the impression of ?Time? as a more complex object of enmity. By the end of the poem ?Time? has become a monstrous entity with the specific human characteristic of a face that the speaker spits into.
The repetition of the line ?And the fret lies on me? does not necessarily change the meaning of the line, but rather serves to reemphasize that the speaker feeling of personal decay. The image of the speakers decay coupled with the lack of ability to do anything about it is substantiated by symbolism in the first version. The symbolic nature of ?murmuring? ?road-side trees? forms feelings of foreignness and helplessness. Feelings much like that of a lost child. The speaker attempts to alleviate his pain with memories of comfort, such as the ?green oak and poplar tree.? However, it is paradoxical that the speaker should remember these trees of ?the old days long gone by? for comfort. Green oak, which is covered with a parasitic fungus and poplar trees that have droopy leaves are the familiar memories that bring comfort. These are hardly images that reflect the colorful beauty of nature. The speaker?s voice reflects a detrimental cycle where all he notices is the sadness of nature and the loss of beauty such as the ?well-known faces [which] are all gone.? The speaker is indeed infected with a disease that ?wears away? his ability to see the vitality in his life and the beauty in nature that surrounds him. The rhythmic interruptions in these lines falls on the words ?old? and ?gone.? These words emphasize the fact that the speaker is fallen within a world of a time past and cannot reconcile his inability to see life anew and beautiful. Furthermore, he knows exactly his disorder, but cannot do anything to cure it. He therefore falls more and more into his own darkness, and the repetition of the lines, ?the fret lies on me? authenticates this.
The speaker in the second version is not so entranced in his own disease. Rather, he is more aware of the outside world and looks towards it for the evil force that has caused him his demise. In the second stanza he makes a comparison of the direction of his own rage to the direction of the rage of ?lads? and ?crazy rascals.? His rage is toward Time that has done him direct harm unlike the more abstract concepts of ?conspiracy? and ?human tyranny? that others direct anger toward. However, this is paradoxical in itself because the personification of Time is extremely abstract. The speaker is saying it is Time that has caused him to become ?a broken tree? against his will. It is Time, as an evil force that has caused his destruction. This is demonstrated in the last stanza when the speaker says he is capable of loving women, and it is not his fault that women no longer look at him. Rather, it is Times fault. It is Times fault that the only women he can love now are in his memory. It is Time that has changed him, which is why he ?spits into it?s face.?
The poem of the second version ends with a terrific declaration of the speaker?s contempt for Time. The words ?transfigured me? are rhythmically interrupted in the last line in order to bring special attention to the fact that this is a statement of the harm that Time has done to the speaker himself. The poem ends with a sound of loud violence and hatred. Version one, on the other hand, ends with a much softer sound. ?The well-known faces are all gone and the fret lies on me? portrays a quiet retreat and surrender to the gloomy state that the speaker has come to know. The endings of these two poems exemplify the fact that the lamentation of the two speakers is channeled in two distinct ways. Perhaps this difference is the result of Yeats? own age at the time he wrote the two versions. The first poem reflects the sense of being lost and helpless. A young man may have a greater tendency to experience these feelings that a man who has endured more of life. On the other hand, a man who has seen more of life is more hardened and becomes bitterer toward misfortune. A man of age has more experience in wrestling with oppositional forces. Consequently, the speaker of the second version has a greater tendency to lash out at these antagonistic forces of life.

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