An Acre of Grass Study Guide


The poem “An Acre of Grass” was first published in 1939 in the collection “Last Poems” by the modernist poet “W.B. Yeats.” In this poem, the poet recounts his sentiments and experiences while staying in an old house in Riverdale, Dublin. By that time, his loving wife, Georgiana Hyde Lees, had died, and the poet was living a lonely existence. He realises he has reached the end of his life and describes the loneliness and joylessness of his sorrowful situation at the end of his life.

Summary of An Acre of Grass

‘An Acre of Grass’ was written in November 1936, when Yeats was 71 years old. In April 1938, it appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and The London Mercury. It is included in the anthology Last Poems. “An Acre of Grass” explores the issue of old age, which appears in a lot of poems written during his later years. Some poems written on the issue of ageing and decrepitude are “Are you Content,” “The Apparitions,” “Why should not old men be Mad,” “A Prayer for Old Age,” and “The Circus Animals’ Desertion.” In these poems, Yeats seeks to return to the basic, elemental passions of life, stripped of all ornamentation. The poet had worked hard in his older years to achieve this level of simplicity when he could reach down to “where all the ladders start, / In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.” In “An Acre of Grass,” Yeats prays for “an old man’s frenzy” to drive him on in his pursuit for truth. In a 1917 essay, the poet foresaw this situation::

A poet when he is growing old will ask himself if he cannot keep his mask and his vision without new bitterness, new disappointment. Could he if he would, knowing how frail his vigour from his youth up, copy Landor who lived loving and hating, ridiculous and unconquered, into extreme old age, all lost but the favour of his Muses.

Stanza 1: Yeats opens the poem by listing the few items he still has: “a picture,” “a book,” and “an acre of green grass for air and exercise.” He is getting old, and his “body strength is fading.” He is in his “old house,” a house in Rathfarnham that he had leased for thirteen years. The poet’s statement of the time—”midnight,” when the whole house is calm, “where nothing stirs but a mouse”—evokes a sense of immediacy, of realism. It could also be a sign of old age sleepiness.

Stanza 2: Yeats reflects on his peaceful life of picture, book, and ‘an acre of green grass.’ “My temptation is quiet,” but has he been able to transform this concept into poetry? No. “At life’s end,” that is, in old age, “neither loose imagination /Nor the mill of the mind” after “consuming its rag and bone” “can make the truth known.” yeats believes that his snippets of creativity are insufficient. And obviously, the mind that has denied the body will not suffice.

Stanza 3: Yeats knows that only frenzy may save him from this uncreative silence. And only the elderly are capable of whipping themselves into a frenzy. He invokes two famous furious people from Shakespeare, Timon and Lear, the former noted for his fury and the latter for his insanity, and both completely abused. Yeats next invokes the name of William Blake, an early Romantic poet-philosopher whose innovative beliefs about the Universe and profound poetry captivated him throughout his life. Blake was a visionary who worked out his own concept of religion until he arrived at the truth—”until Truth obeyed his call.”

Stanza 4: Yeats yearns for “a mind Michael Angelo knew,” that is, the creative spirit associated with the painter-poet. That can pierce the clouds” is an allusion to Michael Angelo’s ‘Creation’ Series, which is painted on the Sistine ceiling. And “shake the dead in their shrouds” is a reference to his ‘Last Judgement,’ which is painted on the altar wall of the same Chapel at the Vatican. Piercing the sky and shaking the dead in their shrouds are thus indicative of the spectrum of creation that frenzy alone can unleash, an old man’s frenzy. He now needs “an old man’s eagle mind,” or else he will be forgotten.

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When Yeats composed “Easter 1916,” he had already abandoned his “coat” of “old mythologies” that he had utilised in his early poetry. Even after he had developed a more mature style, he would use symbols and metaphor when writing about public matters, as in “No Second Troy” or “The Second Coming.” However, in “Easter 1916,” he employs a direct, colloquial style that is full of passionate intensity.” He employs the “stone” metaphor to emphasise his reservations about excessive devotion to a single cause that results in so much bloodshed. In addition, he might ask bluntly in common speech, “Was it all for naught after all?” Nonetheless, he maintains the heightened tone suited for the occasion in which all are “completely transformed” and “a terrible beauty is born.”

In “An Acre of Grass,” Yeats had shifted to a more direct, hard-hitting, and deeply impassioned manner. It is a typical poem from his final years, in which metaphor, picture, symbolism, and plain word are effectively combined. His writing style is terse and full of allusions. His use of literary references (“Timon and Lear,” Blake, Michael Angelo) provides his metaphors and images with a distinct setting and identity. Even while expressing a desire for “frenzy” or inspiration, he prays for “an old man’s eagle mind.” In both of these poems, Yeats attempted to match style to the theme.

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