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William Butler Yeats

(1865-1939)

Yeats is perhaps the supreme example in poetry of a man who welled himself into
greatness. It was a greatness achieved through coming to ends with his own diversity. He
constructed his own poetic world slowly and painfully through a long life time of experience.
The greatest Irish poet of all ages and one of the most distinguished twenty century poet of the
English language. He wrote poems which can be looked upon as confessions made on crucial
moments in his long and dramatic life. He was born in Dublin in a family with artistic
preoccupations, his father was a cultivated man and an unsuccessful painter, and it was under his
influence that on living high school Yeats decided to become an artist. Following the example of
his father a religious skeptic who believed in the religion of beauty Yeats who was
temperamental religious sought a compensation for his loss of fate in Christian orthodoxy. He
seemed to have found it in a genuine religion of poetry. Hes church of poetic tradition was the
result of his deep knowledge of folklore, neo-platonic philosophy, spiritualism and of various
kinds of mysticism. This knowledge coupled with his interest in finding out new techniques with
which to present his subject and feelings lead him to the elaboration of a symbolic system of his
own based on a variety of sources. Yeats originality and poetic strength lied in his ability to
make use of uncommonly powerful and significant symbols which give coherence to his poetic
imagery.
The first period of his literary activity was spent between Ireland and London each of these
places contributing to the development of his poetic personality spending his holidays with his
grandparents he got acquainted with the life of the Irish peasants and there folklore, their heroic
legends of old times and their folk tradition. In Dublin he was caught in the turmoil of Irish
nationalism, in London he joined the literary group The Rhymers Club whose members tried to
write introspective poetry based on a new poetic diction. Hes early works The Wanderings of
Coisin (1889), The Countess Cathleen and various legends and lyrics (1892), The Celtic twilight
(1893)- stories, Poems (1895), reveal a late romantic poet. The charm of his early poetry lies in
its dreamy, melancholic, passive, self-indulgent moods and visions. Some of these poems echo
characteristic romantic themes such as the contrast between human activities and the strangeness
of nature, the search for solitude in nature, and other poems are deeply rooted into the Irish
mythological and heroic themes and folk traditions. It is in these poems that Yeats achieves a
special simplicity and expressiveness character to the popular style.
The second stage in Yeats poetic evolution is marked by the volumes of collected poems:
In the seven woods (1903), The green helmet and other poems which reveal the influence of the
French symbolists. Yeats replaced the direct expression with the indirect suggestion trying to
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combine the colloquial with the formal, the individual words clutch more at particular objects
becoming means of communication. The connotations are more important than the denotations.
The poet uses images taken from the Celtic mythology, images that give birth to an uncommon
richness of associations and suggestions. It is in this period that he met the beautiful actress and
violent Irish nationalist Maud Gonne with whom he was in love. Under The overwhelming
influence of this love story the poet began to display his own mood and especially his hopeless
love which becomes a dominant theme in his later work. Lady Gregory an Irish writer and ardent
promoter of the Irish theatre was the other woman who played an important role in his life she
urged him to write poems and plays. Despising the middle classes his sympathies like Nieces
were with the strong and proud whom he could find either among peasants and beggars or among
the aristocracy, for each of them had their own traditions and lived according to them, that is why
some of the poems in the volume The green helmet foreshadow a new attitude the poet speaks
directly to the readers in a much simpler poetic language. The Irish movement for national
independence was the main force that contributed to the maturation of his poetry. Yeats became a
national bard who voiced the peoples strivings for independence.
The third period of his creation began with the volume Responsibilities (1914) the title of
which is significant for the change in Yeats view of the poetic function; the old symbols used in
his previous works acquire a new meaning for example the rose changes from the symbol of a
real political ideal involving either longing for national independence. Responsibilities is full of
beggars, hermits, outcasts, people whose gifts are rejected whose sacrifices are vain. Man should
be responsible to the heroes and patriots respect what theyve earned for the present and future,
the new vigor of the verse is reflected in the precision and concreteness of the imagery, the
apparently more real passion, the poems express and the active verb forms. The poems written
after 1919 when the volume entitled The wild swans at Coole reflect a sharpening of his attitudes
the development of an epigrammatic element which leads to an ironical later style. The wild
swans at Coole is Yeats first great collection of poems. The wild swans inhabit Lady Gregorys
aristocratic park, they are natural and beautiful, passionate and powerful and most significantly
they return, they have a noble permanence. Yeats begins to stress the unique individual
experience; he also continued his search for a personal system of symbols. Finally he found it in
the automatic written his wife produced and which he later word out I his book A vision (1925) ,
the system is both a series of the movement of history and a theory of different styles of
personality each movement and type being reeled to a different phase of the moon. He needed
such symbols to express his attitude toward life; he saw life as tragic but felt that we could
embrace our destiny joyfully Hamlet and Lear are gay. The volume representing his force and
greatest period: The tower and The winding stairs (1933) show the mature Yeats at his best a
realist, symbolist, metaphysical a poet in this period he looked for new possibilities of artistic
expressions. In these poems winding stairs, spinning tops, spirals of all kinds become important
symbols. They also serve as a means of understanding the significance of the unwritten syllable
forces that are in an everlasting conflict. He dealt with such antonymic pairs as subjectivity-

objectivity, life-death, youth-old age, body-spirit, beauty-ugliness, exploring the paradoxes of


time and change of growth and of love and age, life art, madness- wisdom.
Sailing to Byzantium- in it an old man rejects as he is rejected by the sensuous world of
youth, ephemerality and the natural cycles. He travels to the monuments of imaging intellect to
Byzantium where art arrests change but in arresting it transforms it into something other. There
he wills himself transformed freed of human passions and the body that is a dying animal, he
wills to be assumed into the artifice of eternity a powerful intellect animates the poems. The
tower (poem) itself is one of Yeats finest long poems exploring the theme of age. He
mythologized, his barding suggests the poet is mad and his task is to make other mad. Among
school children examines the faith of hope, faith and love it also suggests in the famous closing
blinds that form and content, action and actor are ideally inseparable.
In his fifth and final period represented by the volume Last poems (1939) the poet returned
to the turbulence of life after his attempt of escaping from life to the calm eternity of art in the
Byzantium poems. What Yeats learned to do in his poetry was to face himself, his complexities
and inconsistence, in a harsh and even pitiless confrontation. This is the theme of one of his last
poems The circus Animals Desertion- the abandonment of allegorical dreams. Alongside this
self- confrontation goes an almost tragic sense of history as a series of patterns of behavior and
action, mans life is controlled by forces of destiny outside himself. The gyres or circles of
history are continually turning dragging in their voices o succession of consequences. What has
happened will happen again this pattern of destiny or succession of consequences is the theme of
his strange powerful poem Leda and the swan and of The second coming. Leda a queen of
Sparta was according to the legend noticed by Zeus who descended to earth in the form of a
swan and raped her. Leda gave birth to two eggs from one was born Helen whos seduction by
Paris was the consequence to the Trojan War which in its turn caused the birth to the Greek
culture which in its turn laid the foundation of modern Europe. The poem first gives a vial
sensual picture of the rape itself the clash between animal human, god and man implicit in the
picture and the act itself is the realization that from it will result Love and War the two activities
which Helen symbolizes, so that the birth of western civilization is also the birth of two of mans
primary passions lust and violence. Zeus as the supreme god must have realized these
consequences but did Leda? The passive woman through whom history enacted itself, asks the
poet.
Much of Yeats later poetry and some of it are likely to be among the most enduring stands
not from political, historical or mystical thought or from his frustrated love for Maude Gonne,
but from the unquenchable and unsatisfied generalized passion of his old age. The poems in The
Winding Stairs including Music perhaps, A woman young and old, and in The Last Poems
can be seen as the crowning success in Yeats search for a persona or mask, the projection of a
situation and a voice into other people. He dramatizes his own desires and sets them in the body
and spirit and words of a woman as The Ladys first song or Crazy Jane talks to the Bishop.
Yeats problem was to discover a technique, by which the personal could somehow be
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objectified, could be given the appearance of impersonal truth and yet retained the emotive force
of privately felt belief. A partial solution was the mask which implies that reality is neither to be
found in that barried self which directs and orders a mans life or in its mask the anti-self but in
the product born from their struggle. Extraverts must flee their Masks; introverts (all creative
men) must recognize their own Mask and try to become those nearly impossible selves, to create
the dramatic tension from which art arises. The doctrine of the Mask helped Yeats to write a
poetry far more intense than his early verses at their most extreme this late poems seem to reject
any view of men and women other than as a simple desiring animal the responsibilities of
politics were reduced to the primary passions.
Taking some words from Thomas Mann in our time the destiny of man presents itself in
political terms he wrote his poem Politics the scene is a party full of distinguished,
knowledgeable and opinioned men politicians, journalists, economists, discussing the world
situation this was the 1930 with the Second World War on the horizon. Yeats sees near him a
young and beautiful girl and her presence distracts him from the abstract talk and makes him
wish to be young again and hold her.
Yeats sense of reality had deepened his prophetic side had taken a much former deep of
the real. For over fifty years he had struggled in his art to condense an image of human
perfection. He took the colloquial and raised it to rhetoric he hammered the desperate images of
his life into a unite which was more than the sum of its parts. Yeats greatness lies in his power to
use fantasy, irony, visionary exaltation as means of exploring the human situation. It lies in his
endeavor to renew the poetic diction with which he tried to express the human feelings on his
death Eliot paid one of the noblest tributes to the poet by saying Yeats was one of the few who
are part of the consciousness of our age which cannot be understood without them.