Academic journal article Notes on Contemporary Literature

Echoes of Shakespeare's Sonnet 116 in Yeats's "The Indian to His Love"

Academic journal article Notes on Contemporary Literature

Echoes of Shakespeare's Sonnet 116 in Yeats's "The Indian to His Love"

Article excerpt

Critics have assiduously identified almost all the allusions to Shakespeare in W.B. Yeats's poetry. However, they have not so far heard the dormant resonances of Shakespeare's well-known sonnet 116 in Yeats's rather lesser known poem "The Indian to His Love." In his sonnet, Shakespeare juxtaposes the ever constant "star," symbolic of the immutable and transcendental love, with the "wandering bark" and "tempests," suggestive of the mutable and the temporal world, in order to highlight his unsurpassable loyalty to the Earl of Southampton.

   Oh no! it is an ever fixed mark,
   That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

   It is the star to every wandering bark,
   whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
   (W.J. Kraig, ed., The Complete Works of William Shakespeare
   [London: Oxford University Press, 1905]: 112).

Taking a cue from Shakespeare, Yeats puts an "Indian star" in his poem to convey the immeasurable emotional warmth of the Indians's love:

   How we alone of mortals are
   Hid under quiet bows apart
   While our love grows an Indian star,
   A meteor of the burning heart,
   One with the tide that gleams, the wings that gleam and dart.
   (A. Norman Jeffares, The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats
   [London: Papermac, 1982]: 15-16)

Yeats's "Indian star" is the blazing but ephemeral meteor unlike Shakespeare's "ever fixed" but unreachable "mark." It shows that Indians's love is aglow with human passion and therefore in tune with the transitory world of "boughs," "birds," and "tides" (Richard Ellman, The Identity of Yeats [London: Faber, 1964]: 69-70). Yeats humanizes the star, suggesting it is part of the human process, and thereby revises the traditional transcendentalism of the star in English poetry.

Yeats's indebtedness to Shakespeare is proved beyond doubt by yet another more direct allusion to the same sonnet in the unrevised version of his song. Shakespeare next communicates the permanence of true love and the transience of human beauty through a subtle personification of Time:

   Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
   Within his bending sickle's compass come;
   Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
   But bears it out even to the edge of doom:
   If this be error, and upon me prov'd
   I never writ, nor no man ever lov'd. … 
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