William Butler Yeats

‘Meru’ by William Butler Yeats describes the illusion of civilization and the importance of embarking on a spiritual journey.


William Butler Yeats

Nationality: Irish

William Butler Yeats was one of the most important poets of the 20th century.

He passed away in January 1939 after a career in prose, drama, and poetry.

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‘Meru’ by William Butler Yeats is a two stanza poem that can be separated into one set of eight lines and another set of six lines. Due to the nature of the rhyme scheme, and the fact that this poem contains a total of fourteen lines, it is considered to be a Shakespearean sonnet. Poems that are considered to be traditionally Shakespearean follow the rhyming pattern of ababcdcdefefgg. 

A reader should also take note of the moments in which Yeats makes use of alliteration. One such instance appears between the fifth and sixth lines of the first stanza. There are a number of words that come one after another which begin with “r.” This technique, along with the poet’s use of repetition, such as that in the eighth line of the first stanza, helps to unify the text. 

The connections between words and phrases are not trivially arranged. Yeats created moments of alliteration with the intention of giving certain phrases a greater emphasis, especially when the poem is read aloud. 

William Butler Yeats

Civilisation is hooped together, broughtUnder a rule, under the semblance of peaceBy manifold illusion; but man's life is thought,And he, despite his terror, cannot ceaseRavening through century after century,Ravening, raging, and uprooting that he may comeInto the desolation of reality:Egypt and Greece, good-bye, and good-bye, Rome!Hermits upon Mount Meru or Everest,Caverned in night under the drifted snow,Or where that snow and winter's dreadful blastBeat down upon their naked bodies, knowThat day bring round the night, that before dawnHis glory and his monuments are gone.
Meru by William Butler Yeats

Summary of Meru

Meru’ by William Butler Yeats describes the illusion of civilization and the importance of embarking on a spiritual journey. 

The poem begins with the speaker describing how civilization is not the solid construct that many assume it to be. It is instead a “manifold illusion.” It is an imaginary experience had in tandem throughout human existence. 

The sonnet continues on to state that humankind has no true understanding of civilizations’ transitory nature. One might “rage” throughout their life looking for meaning but without a true journey and full understanding of life, there will be no meaningful revelations. 

In the second half of the poem, the speaker moves on to briefly describe the lives of two hermits who are positioned on Mount Meru and Mount Everest. While Everest is being traversed as a physical test, the scaling of Meru is a spiritual one. The poem concludes with the speaker restating the fact that the world is always changing. Dawn will bring on the night for the rest of time until God’s creation is destroyed. These are facts the hermits have come to know throughout their spiritual and physical struggles. 

Analysis of Meru 

Stanza One 

Civilisation is hooped together, brought

Under a rule, under the semblance of peace

By manifold illusion; but man’s life is thought,

And he, despite his terror, cannot cease

Ravening through century after century,

Ravening, raging, and uprooting that he may come

Into the desolation of reality:

Egypt and Greece, good-bye, and good-bye, Rome!

In the first stanza of this piece, the speaker begins by describing the state of “Civilisation,” or civilization. He states that all of the humankind throughout time has been connected throughout the ages. It has been “hooped together” and unified “Under a rule.” 

This “rule” is not the reign of a king, institution, or spiritual belief system, it is instead “illusion.” The speaker believes that humans are connected through “manifold illusion,” that of the illusion of civilization itself. 

Throughout time there has only been a “semblance of peace,” no real embodied state which exists in reality. 

The speaker states that this fact is not commonly known. Men and women are living their lives as they always have, with no full consideration for the truth of their existence. He speaks on “man’s life is thought.” A man living through the days of his life spends time analyzing each moment and worrying over all the details. 

He continues on to describe how even though this is the case, the man cannot stop, “Ravening through century after century.” Humankind has an unquenchable thirst for more. It is animalistic, almost desperate. 

This generalized depiction of humankind is continued. People have lived in this manner through all the ages of the earth. No matter the situation, there is always “Ravening, raging, and uprooting” in an effort to “come / Into the desolation of reality.” 

The speaker is stating that even though humankind continues to search for meaning, they are unable to see the illusion of their lives that connects them all. In the last lines of this section the speaker bids farewell to the great ancient civilization. He speaks of “Egypt, Greece” and “Rome.” The speaker brings these up to prove the point that nothing lasts, there is no permanence. Eventually, all tangible structures made by humankind disappear. 

Stanza Two 

Hermits upon Mount Meru or Everest,

Caverned in night under the drifted snow,

Or where that snow and winter’s dreadful blast

Beat down upon their naked bodies, know

That day bring round the night, that before dawn

His glory and his monuments are gone.

In the second half of the poem, which is made up of six lines, the speaker discusses the importance of a spiritual journey versus a physical one. 

The first lines bring up two different mountains, “Meru” and “Everest.” Mount Meru is a mystical and imagined mountain which is referenced in Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist texts. It is thought to be the center of all spiritual universes. 

The speaker describes “Hermits” who are squatting on either Meru or Everest. These two peaks are quite different, but similar in the fact that it takes a great effort to surmount them. The hermits are “Caverned…under the drifted snow.” Both of these beings are existing in an ever-changing world. It is here that “snow and winter’s dreadful blast” pours down on them. 

Their bodies are described as being “naked.” This choice was made by the poet in an effort to show the strain and depth of one’s spiritual or physical journey. They have been stripped down to nothing as they attempt to climb, or even exist upon these mountains. 

Both hermits know that the day, which brings with it more hospitable conditions, will eventually give way to night. Nothing, no civilization, nor even the warmth of the sun, will last. They both know that “before dawn / His glory and…monuments are gone.” The speaker is now referring directly to God, adding in “His” own creations into the process of continual transformation. 

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.

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