The Falcon and the Falconer: Personal and Universal Aspects of Bird Symbolism in the Poetry of W B Yeats

Marcus Sly


There are myriad birds scattered throughout William Butler Yeats’s plays and poetry. In the lyric poems alone there are over 90 references to birds of one type or another, ranging from familiar native wildfowl—jackdaws, ravens, doves, sparrows, moorhens—to the famous golden bird of Byzantium that was “Planted on the starlit golden bough” to “scorn aloud / In glory of changeless metal”.

There has been a good deal of scholarly attention paid to the golden bird, and the famous swans that are particularly associated with Yeats’s verse, but less has been written about many of his other symbolic birds, and I have not found any broad survey of the place of birds as a whole in his symbolic system.

This is a shortfall I seek to make up in this dissertation.

I ask why birds appeared to him as such promising symbolic material: Yeats tended to draw from a relatively small stock of primary symbols which he used over and over again, and these symbols—rose, stone, tower, bird, mask, tree —consequently came to carry an enormous and evolving weight of meaning within his work. What was it about birds, and bird imagery, which appealed to him enough for them to be given a central place among these other prominent symbols? And how did he make use of bird symbolism to illuminate the personal and universal issues that concerned him?



Marcus Sly is a therapist, Alexander Technique teacher and writer. He is also the owner and editor of Anima Poetry Press.