It seems to me that this poem cannot be explained from within. And that I think is a fault in a poem. A poem which is explicable only, or in part, by reference to history or philosophy etc., or has inexplicable internal inconsistencies or gnomic statements, is an imperfect poem, and bad manners on the part of the poet. There should be in a poem everything needed to understand it.. It may be that there are ideas or words etc. in a poem which are foreign to the reader, but, these explained, a poem should be internally complete. After all, we are reading poetry not history etc. At the same time there is a rhetorical beauty about this poem. Perhaps Yeats was talking to those who would know what he was talking about, and forgot about his wider audience.
I may be completely wrong, but I took a sexual reading of this poem. The title 'love's loneliness' perhaps alludes to sexual neglect or routine. Just looking at the first couplet, there is the imperative line 'rise' (old fathers, great-grandfathers) , this could be, taken on a literal level, to have an erection. Im not positive, but i think when yeats was writing there was most likely no available contraception, thus we have the line 'heaven PROTECT us.'
in the second stanza, we have natural symbols such as 'the mountain throws a shadow' and 'thin is the moon's horn.' The mountain could represent nature's course, and it could be 'throw(ing) a shadow' upon our rationality when sexual desire intervenes. The moon's horn, which i think is the horn-like shape that appears on the surface, could again be a metaphor for the male genetalia, (it is 'thin' in comparison to the impact and consequences it bears, i.e birth, adultery, relationships, etc.) Comparing it to the moon also creates a majestical feel to the poem, as the moon is an awe inspiring planet that will always be there (not unlike the notion of sexuality) . I was even thinking the mountain could represent women, blinding our senses with our moon horn's ;)
The poem seems to end on an anti-climax, 'hearts are torn' which again is reminiscient of sex. 'Dread following longing' could be the anti-climatic stage of sex. when the narrator asks 'what did we remember under the ragged thorn? ' he seems to be questioning our religious intergrity; the ragged thorn representing Christ. Perhaps he is saying that in a moment of lusful desire, we forget 'heaven' and Christ, and succumb to our biological positions on earth i.e to reproduce.
it is such an ambiguous and thought-provoking poem that it can invite so many different readings, but this was just my one.
The fact that Yeats is appealing to the male fore fathers, for me is an indication of his misunderstanding of the female being; so he goes to these mountains which had stood strong and high, which have struggled yet survived; and the moon; every lover blames the moon at some time or other, which makes for an ernest and worthy plead. Love; who is the expert? Yeats knows it is truly Heaven
As Michael Pruchnicki suggests, the poem is best understood when read together with the series of poems under the title WORDS FOR MUSIC PERHAPS. They can be found under that title on this site. Among them is one of my favorites:
XVII - AFTER LONG SILENCE
SPEECH after long silence; it is right,
All other lovers being estranged or dead,
Unfriendly lamplight hid under its shade,
The curtains drawn upon unfriendly night,
That we descant and yet again descant
Upon the supreme theme of Art and Song:
Bodily decrepitude is wisdom; young
We loved each other and were ignorant.
Perhaps, Y B Yeats is referring to the changing tides of love. Once upon a time there was a generation who was against the concept of love affairs and the poet is asking questions to the older generations through the poem. The last lines clearly reflect this aspect. My view is that every generation has a view about love and love affairs about which we can't wholly blame. Many factors contribute to such a kind of view. Dejected lovers may easily find fault with such conservative views but certain views of older generations had their merrits also. They had certainly saved many daughters and sons.
I agree with those who sense a strangeness in this poem. At times, Yeats can be rather difficult; he developed a personal symbology, and often alludes to Irish mythology (as well as other mythologies) , which add a richness and depth to his work, but can sometimes make it opaque for readers. In addition, as Kevin indicates, Yeats was also politically involved. This particular poem may have both a personal reference (Yeats' love was unrequited) , and a political reference (he was deeply involved with Ireland's struggles) , not to mention (as Kevin also mentions) a spiritual/mystical side. Since Yeats is considered one of the great (or greatest) poet of the 20th Century, a careful reading of every word in one of his poems, and a knowledge of its meaning (ie. etymololgy) would be highly appropriate; he is precise in his choice of words, commensurate to his greatness as a poet. A careful reading of this poem would, in the end (and in my opinion) be a highly rewarding exercise.
'Love's Loneliness' is the twelfth in a series of twenty-five poems under the collective title WORDS FOR MUSIC PERHAPS (August 19,1931) . The series includes such standbys as 'Crazy Jane and the Bishop, ' 'Crazy Jane Grown Old Looks at the Dancers, ' and 'Tim the Lunatic.' The speaker in 'Love's Loneliness' exhorts 'Old fathers, great-grandfathers' to come to his aid if they have ever experienced the pangs of a broken heart. Is it possible that such forbears long time dead now, either in the grave or approaching the end, can come to protect their offspring, their descendants who suffer here and now!
The time has come when the first rush of love has subsided and we linger in dread under the thin shadow of a mountain in the waning moon's light. The one we longed for has changed into a creature we no longer know or understand, and we cannot recall with clarity those earlier feelings. This song is followed by 'Her Dream' and 'His Bargain' culminating in 'Three Things.' A refrain ends each of the three stanzas in 'Three Things' -'A bone whitened and dried in the wind'!
To understand this poem fully you need to know the circumstances, which I assume are to do with the Irish troubles. This is like a prayer pertaining to local matters of which the visiting stranger is unaware. I think MP should try to inform rather than lose his temper. LM's comment is wrong in the last statement - if any comment or feeling is justified then error cannot be corrected. On ther other hand I feel sympathy for Valerie's position. I have a problem with religious poetry, and I wonder sometimes if I appreciate it as much as believers do. But I would not do without Donne, Herbert etc for anything!
Sometimes I think about people who post on this site who have no clue nor any interest about poets or poetry, but who seem to assume that their narrow interests
should be addressed by the likes of William Butler Yeats!
So a reader like Valerie assumes that the poem is 'strange' because she doesn't get it! Of course, the standard response is that she is entitled to her opinion, no matter how uninformed it may be! No matter, I think, she is like so many who post such drivel here and elsewhere - if I don't get it, the poet has failed!