The poem represents Yeats' vision of the ideal Irishman, combining wisdom with simplicity, who lives with close communion with nature, is appreciative of art and fits into the natural landscape of the country.
Stanza I: The opening line of the poem suggests the despondency of the poet with contemporary society, Yeats no longer envisages his fisherman as a living reality, the events of the recent past pushed the image deeper into his mind, there is in the opening twelve lines a clear discrepancy between the reality and the poets vision. The fisherman is described by Yeats in terms which make him identifiable with the Connemara topography, the greyness of his clothes reflects the greyness of the limestone, of the clouded sky and of the sea, his freckled face reflects the stony fields of Connemara, the dappled effect of the stones is analogous with the fishermans fair skin. The close relationship with man and nature is represented in the colour grey, everything in the scene is monochrome, the dawn also produces grey light thereby casting a uniformity over the fisherman, the landscape and the river or lake in which he is about to fish. Yeats describes the fisherman as being both wise and simple, the attributes he wishes for in contemporary Ireland. From lines 9-12 the poet's wish for such a reality is clearly evident when the contrast between the ideal and the real is quickly outlined. In the secondhalf of the opening stanza Yeats launches into a bitter attack on contemporary Irish society, his language is forceful and clear, his feelings of hatred for people like William Martin Murphy are in contrast with his fondness for Synge-: "The living men that I hate, The dead men that I loved." The remainder of the stanza is devoted to highlighting what Yeats sees as the most detestable feature of Irish society-: "The craven man in his seat,(cowardly) The insolent unreprived (mannerly)" He refers to knaves, drunks and cute politicians-: "The clever man who cries The catch-cries of the clown," He concludes with a reference to the Hugh Lane affair-: "And great Art beaten down."
Stanza II: In the second stanza of the poem, Yeats begins by emphasising the extent to which he has considered his vision of an ideal Irishman and the reason why he felt it necessary-: "In scorn of this audience." This refers to the people he has criticised in the second half of the opening stanza. A noticeable change has taken place since the beginning of the poem, now this man is imagined - he is but a figment of the poets imagination. At the beginning of the poem he could still be seen-: "Although I can see him still", suggesting that previously he was nearer to being a reality. A description of the fisherman which highlights his close communion with his environment is -: "Climbing up to a place Where stone is dark under froth, And the down-turn of his wrist When the flies drop in the stream." This is followed by an admission that this utopian scenario is just a figment of his imagination-: "A man who does not exist, A man who is but a dream;" The final four lines of the poem represents the poets resolve not to be silenced by the unappreciative society in which he lives, he will commit this dream to words, a declaration of intent, to glorify and preserve this image of the ideal Irishman through his art-: "Before I am old, I shall have written him one Poem maybe as cold And passionate as the dawn." There is an obvious paradox between the words cold and passionate, perhaps Yeats here is reflecting the contrast between those who are appreciative of art and those who are not, between the unrequited lover and those who do not love in return, between the darkness of the night and the warmness of day or between the Ireland still under English rule and an Ireland that might be free. The word dawn is significant and is used as a symbol to represent a new era, a new life, a new appreciation of culture and a reflection of the greyness that represents both the fisherman and the Connemara environment. The poem is largely concerned with Yeats disillusionment with contemporary Dublin society as outlined in the second part of the opening stanza, it paints a romantic and idealistic picture of an Irishman and the Ireland that Yeats appreciates. He is forced to take refuge in his imagination to conceive the fisherman in his mind, turning his back on the real world. The sense of dejection which dominates the second part of the opening stanza is perhaps lifted by the resolution of the poet in the final quatrain.
Home : W.B. Yeats (1865 - 1939) : Among School Children : No Second Troy : The Circus Animals' Desertion : Sailing to Byzantium : September 1913