The conflict that the antimonies between dream and action caused in the mind of William Butler Yeats could not be resolved in the verse tradition of the Pre-Raphaelites. This was the poetry, together with that of Shelley and Keats and the plays of Shakespeare, with which he was most familiar. It was also the tradition to which he was closest in time. As he did not have a background of coherent culture on which to base his poetry, nor a personally satisfying faith, Yeats throughout his life had to create his own systems of thought—create, in fact, the convention in which he was to write.
In the introduction to A VISION, he said: “I wished for a system of thought that would leave my imagination free to create as it chose and yet make all it created, or could create, part of the one history, and that the soul’s.” His search for reality in belief and feeling was aided by his knowledge that the Romantic poets expressed faith in the power of the imagination. This knowledge also strengthened his conviction that the problems of human existence would never be solved by science and that answers would have to come from quite different disciplines: therefore, both his philosophy and his actions were of paramount importance to him in the writing of poetry.
Yeats spent many years in the study of the occult: spiritualism, magic, mysticism, and theosophy. His feelings for Ireland and for the Pre-Raphaelites led him, early in his life, to the study and use of ancient Irish myths. His hopes of independence for Ireland and his periodic identification with Irish nationalism, also a part of the fabric of his verse, were influenced by his passion for Maud Gonne and his friendship with his patron, Lady Gregory. He believed the system expounded in A VISION was revealed to him by his wife’s power as a medium. Thus for Yeats, as for all poets, the pattern of his relationships, interests, beliefs, and loyalties was the material of his poetry. However, great poetry is always the expression of one man’s personality in such a way that it is generally or universally meaningful. Magic, nationalism, and myth partly formed Yeats’s complex personality, and his prose writings in these areas are undoubtedly esoteric. Although it was through these studies that Yeats was able to write as he did, it is not through them that the reader appreciates his poetry. All Yeats’s poetry can be enjoyed and understood when carefully read, without reference to any of his prose. Yeats, in fact, took care to make his work understandable, and one of the most interesting aspects in the study of his poetry is his lifelong preoccupation with clarity, simplicity, and exactness.
This clarity was the goal toward which he worked throughout his career. For Yeats, symbol was the means by which the natural and the supernatural could be fused and the antimonies be resolved. Writing in many personae, he worked toward this unified expression of reality, with the result that the continuous development of his powers and his ultimate success are both rare and exciting achievements. Yeats’s dedication to his art was such that to the end of his life his conscious goals were always in advance of the poems he had completed.
Yeats was a lyric poet, but his belief in and practice of “active virtue”—that is, following a discipline that one has forged oneself—makes his verse essentially dramatic. His first volumes of poetry express the sensibility of the Pre-Raphaelites; the lyrics are slight and the emotion, incompletely realized, often expresses his indecision between the life of dream and that of action. Twilight and longing predominate in these poems.
In his fourth volume, IN THE SEVEN WOODS, published in 1903, Yeats began to find his true voice. Emotion is particularized and he has started to speak with authority. His technique is more sure and his tone more varied. In “Adam’s Curse,” in which the poet discusses the labor of writing poetry with a woman whom he loves, he uses common words and speech idioms which firmly link the poem to reality:
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