An Introduction to W B Yeats

by Ian Mackean

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world
['The Second Coming']

  The Essentials of Literature in English Post-1914
This is a sample article from The Essentials of Literature in English Post-1914 edited by Ian Mackean.

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) is regarded as not only the most important Irish poet, but also as one of the most important English language poets, of the 20th century. He was a key figure in the Irish Cultural Revival, his later poems made a significant contribution to Modernism, and he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923.

Yeats’s life, and his poetry, bridged the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As a youth he studied art in fin de siècle London and absorbed the prevailing outlook of aestheticism, which was also expressed in the writing of Oscar Wilde, and the painting and poetry of the Pre-Raphaelites. He was also influenced by the French Symbolist poets, and developed a lifelong interest in mysticism and the occult, which fed into his poetry, lifting it above the concerns of everyday life.

His early poems, the first being published when he was twenty, are characterised by a dreamy romanticism in both their form and content. He was interested in the Gaelic language, song, and folklore, and used effects borrowed from Gaelic literature in his own poems. He wanted to reawaken Ireland to its ancient literature. According to an article written a year before his death, his efforts had a mixed reception. On the one hand,

these evocations of Celtic beauty, heroism, and strangeness wakened . . . Ireland's ears to the sound of its own voice speaking its own music. [1]

While on the other,

political societies and the press turned against his aesthetic purposes. The poems in The Wind among the Reeds (1899) were termed "affected," "un-Irish," "esoteric," "pagan," and "heretical." [2]

Yeats’s poetic style underwent a number of transformations as he grew older, becoming leaner and more direct. Unusually for a poet, he wrote his best work late in life, between the ages of 50 and 74. His greatest period is generally said to have begun with the publication of The Wild Swans at Coole in 1919, and by the end of his career he was ranked along with Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, as a foremost modernist poet.

Yeats's grandfather and great-grandfather were Protestant rectors, but Yeats himself rejected Protestantism because of the materialism with which he felt it to be associated, and in London he joined the Theosophical Society, having met its co-founder, Madam Blavatsky. He was also a member of the occult Order of the Golden Dawn. He considered himself to be a visionary, like William Blake, whom he admired, and devised his own mystical view of life, which owed more to paganism and oriental religion than to Christianity, which he set out in A Vision (1925, revised 1937).

In A Vision he developed his theory of 'gyres', which lies behind the concept of the 'widening gyre' in the opening lines from ‘The Second Coming’ (quoted above). 'Gyres' were spirals of cyclic time which widened to the point of collapse, and in those lines Yeats expressed the idea that world history was spiralling out of control towards the end of an era, and that an apocalypse was drawing close. He returned to the theme in ‘The Gyres’, from Last Poems, expressing his view that the approaching end of our civilisation was not necessarily a matter for despair. In fact it was an inevitability about which we could 'laugh in tragic joy', and 'Rejoice!'.

Hector is dead and there's a light in Troy;
We that look on but laugh in tragic joy.

. . .

What matter? Out of cavern comes a voice,
And all it knows is that one word 'Rejoice!'
[‘The Gyres’]

Throughout Last Poems Yeats faces the decline of his own ageing body, as well as that of civilisation, but finds ample reason to rejoice in response to art, dance, nature, and sensual pleasure.

Yeats lived through a turbulent period in Irish history, including the rise and fall of Parnell, the Easter Rising of 1916, and ultimately, in 1922, independence from Britain. He joined the Irish Nationalist cause as a youth, and in 1922 became a senator in the Irish Free State. But although he was a 'fiery young Nationalist' [3], and his work was embedded in, and drew upon, the politics of his day, his writing is far from being overtly political. He was opposed to literature being used as a vehicle for political propaganda, feeling that:

The danger to art and literature comes today from the tyranny and persuasions of revolutionary societies and forms of political and religious propaganda. [4]

Yeats said of the dramatist J. M. Synge, whose plays he put on in the Abbey theatre:

He was the man that we needed because he was the only man I have ever known incapable of a political thought or of a humanitarian purpose . . . he was so little a politician that the world merely amused him and touched his pity. [5]

Irish politics was a theme to which Yeats frequently returned, particularly in the middle phase of his career, but he was responding as an individual to the turmoil and violence which was on the one hand tearing his country apart, and on the other hand setting it free. In his poem ‘Easter 1916’ his concern is to commemorate the individuals who suffered and died in the struggle to bring about what he calls 'A terrible beauty', and in his Nobel lecture he drew attention to the 'monstrous savagery' perpetrated on both sides of the conflict.

A trumpery dispute about an acre of land can rouse our people to monstrous savagery, and if in their war with the English auxiliary police they were shown no mercy they showed none: murder answered murder. [6]

The themes of Yeats's poetry transcend political argument, and the Ireland we see in his poems owes as much to the ancient myths and legends which had fascinated him during his visits to his grandparents in Sligo, as to the political events of his day. He expressed his Nationalism through a passionate desire to revive the Irish literary tradition, and worked towards this end by founding clubs and societies, and by setting up an Irish national theatre. He wanted to revive the spirit of the ancient oral tradition of Gaelic folklore and song, to

bring the imagination and speech of the country, all that poetical tradition descended from the middle ages, to the people of the town . . . It seemed as if the ancient world lay all about us with its freedom of imagination, its delight in good stories, in man's force and woman's beauty, and that all we had to do was to make the town think as the country felt; yet we soon discovered that the town could only think town thought. [7]

He felt it important to promote literature through theatrical performances, he says, because

the great mass of our people, accustomed to interminable political speeches, read little [8]

With the help of Lady Isabella Augusta Gregory, a fellow Nationalist who was also interested in Irish traditional folklore, and was herself a playwright, he set up the Irish National Theatre Company, which took up residence in the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. The plays they put on brought them into frequent conflicts with the public, the press, and the religious establishment. The most notorious was J. M. Synge's The Playboy of the Western World, presented in 1904, which initially had to be performed under police protection because it caused riots due to its implication that the rural Irish tend to glamorise lawless thugs, but later became a regular part of the theatre's repertory. In 1923 they produced The Shadow of a Gunman by Sean O'Casey, which drew directly upon the conflict between the Irish and the British and stirred up a lot of Irish feeling.

Yeats's own plays drew on the same sources of inspiration as his poems. He was also fascinated by Japanese Noh plays, to which Ezra Pound introduced him while working as his secretary, and was influenced by them in the writing of a number of short plays, such as At the Hawk's Well (1916), Four Plays for Dancers (1921), Wheels and Butterflies (1934), and The King of the Great Clock Tower (1935).

Another important source of inspiration in Yeats's life and writing was his unrequited love for the actress and Irish Nationalist activist Maude Gonne, who played the leading role in his most successful play Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902), and to whom he proposed, only to be rejected. It is generally accepted that it was this love which inspired the passages about love and passion in his poems and plays. He later proposed to her daughter, but was rejected by her too.

Yeats’s poems frequently took mystical flight, into regions where it was not easy for the reader to follow, but he also had a 'balancing streak of common sense' [9] and he could bring us down to earth with a bump with stark honest lines such as these:

I have found nothing half so good
As my long-planned half solitude,
Where I can sit up half the night
With some friend that has the wit
Not to allow his looks to tell
When I am unintelligible
Fifteen apparitions have I seen;
The worst a coat upon a coat-hanger.
[‘The Apparitions’, from Last Poems, 1936-1939]

In those lines we see the direct, colloquial, modern voice, which influenced later poets of the 20th century. His mystical temperament is still present in his reference to 'apparitions', but the worst being 'a coat upon a coat hanger' is surely a reference to the stark reality we all have to face - the fear of death; his coat is there, but he isn’t in it. We also see the change Yeats's style and tone had undergone when we compare those lines to the romantic opening lines of his best-known early poem:

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made
[‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’]

He had come a long way from his original stance of ‘a romantic exile seeking, away from reality, the landscape of his dreams’. [10]

Yeats's ardent pursuit of the occult and spiritual was idiosyncratic, and cannot in itself be said to have been a major influence on the generation of poets to come, but in leaving behind the escapist romanticism of his youth and developing a stronger, leaner, more direct style in response to the changing times, he became a leading figure in modernist literature, and could be said to have opened a door through which later British, Irish, and American poets followed.

In Yeats's old age, in ‘Under Ben Bulben’, (a hill in Sligo, near which he was buried), he addressed future Irish poets:

Irish poets, learn your trade,
Sing whatever is well made,
Scorn the sort now growing up,
All out of shape from toe to top,
[‘Under Ben Bulben’, from Last Poems]

1. Bogan, Louise. William Butler Yeats. The Atlantic Monthly, May 1938. Volume 161, No. 5; pages 637-644. (Hereafter referred to as 'Bogan')
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid
4. Yeats, W. B. Nobel Lecture. December 15, 1923.
From Nobel Lectures, Literature 1901-1967, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid.
9. Bogan.
10. Ibid.

Selected Works: Poetry: Crossways (1889); The Wanderings of Oisin, and Other Poems (1889); The Rose (1893); Poems (1895); The Wind Among the Reeds (1899); The Old Age of Queen Maeve (1903); Baile and Aillinn (1903); In the Seven Woods (1904); The Shadowy Waters (1906); The Green Helmet and Other Poems (1910); Poems Written in Discouragement (1913); The Two Kings (1914); Responsibilities: Poems and a Play (1914); The Wild Swans at Coole (1919); Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921); Seven Poems and a Fragment (1922); The Gift of Harun Al-Rashid (1923); The Cat and the Moon and Certain Poems (1924); October Blast (1927); The Tower (1928); The Winding Stair and other Poems (1929); Words for Music Perhaps and Other Poems (1932); A Full Moon in March (1935); New Poems (1938); Last Poems (1939). Plays: The Countess Cathleen (1892); The Land of Heart's Desire (1894); Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902); The Hour Glass (1903); The King's Threshold (1904); The Pot of Broth (1904); On Baile's Strand (1905); Deirdre (1907); At the Hawk's Well (1916); Four Plays for Dancers (1921); Wheels and Butterflies (1934); The King of the Great Clock Tower (1935); The Herne's Egg (1938). Prose: Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (1888); John Sherman and Dhoya (1891); The Celtic Twilight (1893); The Secret Rose (1897); A Vision (1925, revised 1937); Dramatis Personae (1936); Autobiographies (published posthumously in 1955). As editor: The Poems of William Blake (1893); The Works of William Blake (with E. J. Ellis) (1893); Poems of Spenser (1906); The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, 1892–1935 (1936).

Further Reading:
Ellmann, Richard. Yeats: The Man and the Masks. E P Dutton. 1979
Jeffares, A. Norman. W. B. Yeats: A New Biography. Continuum Pub Group. 2001.
Kermode, Frank. Romantic Image. University of Chicago Press. 1985.

This is a sample article from The Essentials of Literature in English Post-1914 edited by Ian Mackean and published by Hodder Arnold. For more details click here

See also: Tragic Joy: Yeats's Attitude Towards Art in Last Poems and The Celtic Revival

Author: Ian Mackean


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