Reading Yeats is challenging. He draws on a lot of symbolism and mythology, so there is always work involved in getting at the meaning of one of his poems. Before continuing, you should take a couple of minutes and read the poem at least once (click here to read it online).
The word ephemera is defined as “any transitory written or printed matter not meant to be retained or preserved. The word derives from the Greek, meaning things lasting no more than a day.” (source: Wikipedia) So the title implies that whatever Yeats is describing is something fleeting.
Upon my first pass, the poem appears to describe two lovers who are nearing the end of their lives. Their passion is fading as a result of their age. They stand together by a lake and reminisce about their past, which seems distant. There is imagery of autumn and falling leaves, adding to the sense of aging. Also, the comparison of the leaves to “faint meteors in the gloom” adds to the overall sense of the ephemeral.
I knew there had to be more to the poem than what was on the surface, so I read the poem a couple more times and thought about it. The first thing that struck me was the possibility that the man and woman in the poem might be Adam and Eve. My reason for considering this symbolism lies in the following lines:
Turning, he saw that she had thrust dead leaves
Gathered in silence, dewy as her eyes,
In bosom and hair.
I considered that the hair might be pubic, and if that is the case, then she could be covering her nakedness. This is what lead me to consider the possibility that Yeats was referring to the Adam and Eve story. But I still felt like I was missing something , so I reread it and thought about it some more. Then, it came to me.
I began to see the man as a poet and the woman as his muse. The passion between them is the creative spark, the inspiration for writing poetry. That inspiration, like a meteor, is bright, yet fleeting. Then we have the leaves, faded and yellowed with age, which represent the pages of old poems written in the past. So not only is the inspiration ephemeral, but the actual poems themselves are nothing but ephemera, destined to fade.
The poem ends on a somewhat positive note, as the poet realizes that as he nears the end of his life and has lost his inspiration to write, he faces the prospect of the next plane of existence and the new inspiration that potentially hides behind the veil of death.
‘Ah, do not mourn,’ he said,‘That we are tired, for other loves await us,
Hate on and love through unrepining hours.
Before us lies eternity; our souls
Are love, and a continual farewell.’
For me, there is something really gratifying about uncovering the hidden meaning in a poem like this. I suspect, knowing Yeats as I do, that there are probably other meanings hidden and woven in to the poem. If you see something else, I would love to hear about it. Thanks for visiting my blog, and keep on reading!