Article abstract: Yeats transformed himself from a minor late Romantic poet into the complex artist who became the greatest poet of the twentieth century.
William Butler Yeats was born in Sandymount, near Dublin in 1865. His father was an unsuccessful painter who encouraged his son to pursue a life in the arts. William attempted to follow his father and attended art school in Dublin for a short while. He disliked the form of instruction, however, and found that his talents lay in poetry rather than painting. Yeats’s roots were in Ireland, but he spent an equal amount of time in London. While he was in London, he came in contact with William Morris and other adherents of the Pre-Raphaelite movement; this connection increased his already latent Romanticism. He published a long narrative poem, “The Wanderings of Oisin,” in 1889, and the poem shows the influences on his early poetry. It evokes a legendary Irish hero, Oisin (Ossiah), and is written in the Romantic style of the Pre-Raphaelites. In another early poem, Yeats declares, “Words alone are certain good.” Reality and facts are seen as enemies of the life of the imagination and need to be overcome by “words.” One of the reasons that Yeats turned to Romanticism was that he was poor, badly clothed, and obsessed with the fame and sex that seemed to be so far out of his reach.
Yeats was also seeking to replace the religion that his father and other skeptics had driven out. He was associated for a while with the Theosophists and Madame Blavatsky and later joined the Order of the Golden Dawn. This interest in mysticism had an effect on his poetry; his second book, The Rose (1893), has a number of poems that allude to Rosicrucianism and a mystical union after death with the beloved. It was during this period that Yeats met the woman he was to love for the rest of his life, Maud Gonne. She was interested in Irish affairs but not in the same way as Yeats was; he wanted to make “an Ireland beautiful in the memory” with his poems, but she was interested in radical political action. He wrote many poems to and about her, and he proposed to her a number of times, but she continued to refuse him. Even after she married John MacBride in 1903, she remained an inspiration for his poems.
Yeats became interested in the theater in the late 1890’s after he met Lady Augusta Gregory, and he founded the Irish National Theatre with her in 1899. As a result of his involvement with the theater and Irish culture and politics, Yeats’s style and subject matter began to change from the shadowy Romanticism of the early poems to the satiric and realistic poems found in the 1914 volume, Responsibilities. The last poem of that volume, “A Coat,” makes his change clear.
I made my song a coat
Covered with embroideries
Out of old mythologies
From heel to throat;
But the fools caught it,
Wore it in the world’s eyes
As though they’d wrought it.
Song, let them take it,
For there’s more enterprise
In walking naked.
By 1914, Yeats had published several books of poetry and a number of well-received plays. If he had died at that time, he would be remembered as an important but minor poet of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Beginning with Responsibilities, Yeats began to remake himself as a modern poet. The first aspect of that modernity is a satiric rather than a Romantic approach. In poems such as “Paudeen,” “To a Shade,” and “To a Wealthy Man,” Yeats takes on the Irish middle class and scorns them for not knowing excellence when it comes before them. The style is also much leaner and tighter; Yeats’s description of “the fumbling wits, the obscure spite/ Of our old Paudeen in his shop” has a hard edge not to be found in the other-worldly early poems. There are, to be sure, poems on Maud Gonne in the book, but they have changed as well. For example, in “The Cold Heaven,” he describes the relationship with Gonne as one that “should be out of season”; the only reward he receives for his loyalty in love is to be “sent/ Out naked on the roads. . . .”
During this period, Yeats met Ezra Pound, who helped him change his style. Pound also introduced him to Japanese Nō drama, and Yeats was immediately taken with this symbolic theater. He wrote and produced At the Hawk’s Well in 1916 with Japanese-like masks. Another event that altered Yeats was not a literary one but a political one: the Easter Uprising of 1916. The revolutionary politics that he hated had suddenly blossomed and, as a poet, he had to respond. The response is found in “Easter 1916.” The poem describes how everything has been “changed, changed utterly” by the actions of a few heroic fanatics. Moreover, while Yeats celebrates the “terrible beauty” that was born by this revolution, he also makes the political action into a myth and himself into a bard; in that mythic and apolitical dimension, it does not matter whether “England” keeps faith or not. Political action fades before the timelessness of myth.
In 1917, Yeats married Georgia Hyde-Lees, and she gave him some of the stability that he had lacked until this point. They lived at Coole on the estate of Lady Gregory, who had helped and been helped by Yeats for a number of years. His wife also helped Yeats by engaging in automatic writing that was later to produce A Vision (1925) as well as many of the occult symbols and the fascination with history that began to become prominent in Yeats’s poetry.
In The Wild Swans at Coole (1919) and Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921), some of these new directions in Yeats’s poetry are apparent. There is now an interest in the heroic man who puts by tragedy in “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory” and in “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.” Gregory is portrayed as an ideal man who combines “Soldier, Scholar, Horseman,” and his death is not tragic but an escape from old age, another of Yeats’s prominent themes. “A Deep-Sworn Vow” is about Maud Gonne, but it is about loss more than love.
Others because you did not keep
That deep-sworn vow have been friends of mine;
Yet always when I look death in the face,
When I clamber to the heights of sleep,
Or when I grow excited with wine,
Suddenly I meet your face.
We also find the first signs of the system of A Vision appear in the poetry in such poems as “The Phases of the Moon,” although they are at this time less successful than the love poems and the heroic ones.
Yeats’s greatest book is certainly The Tower (1928), and it reflects much of the bitterness he perceived in the civil war in Ireland and the breakdown of old traditions after World War I. The first poem in that volume, “Sailing to Byzantium,” opens with a rejection of a society that has no concern for “Monuments of unageing intellect” since it is caught in its own “sensual music” that is ensnared in the process of “Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.” His solution is to turn himself into an art object that escapes this cycle. In the poems that follow, however, Yeats returns to confront once more the problems of old age and history. These themes can be seen in the title poem, “The Tower,” in “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” and, above all, in “Among School Children.” In that poem, Yeats again confronts the problems of old age, love, and the life of the artist. He seems to conclude that “passion, piety, and affection” are only temporary and “mockers of man’s enterprise.” The last stanza, however, moves to a transcendent union of all things: “O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,/ How can we know the dancer from the dance?” The last poem in the volume is “All Souls’ Night: Epilogue to ‘A Vision.’ “ It is also a poem of transcendence, but not the natural one of “Among School Children”; it is, instead, a victory of “meditation” and of the cycles of history that Yeats thought he controlled in A Vision.
Yeats believed that “The Tower” was a “distortion” because its bitterness showed only one side. In his next volume, The Winding Stair and Other Poems (1933), the poems celebrate life and the victory of the “Self” over the abstraction of the “Soul” in “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” and “Vacillation.” In addition, there is a new emphasis on sexuality in the “Crazy Jane” poems. In 1934, Yeats had a Steinach operation performed to rejuvenate his sexual powers, and an emphasis on the sexual rather than the earlier ideal love began to become more important in his poetry.
In 1938, Yeats moved to France, where he wrote some of his best plays, including Purgatory, and the poems that would later be collected in Last Poems and Plays (1940). His powers did not flag, and while Last Poems and Plays is more uneven than the earlier volumes, it does contain such great poems as “Lapis Lazuli” and “The Circus Animals Desertion.” On January 26, 1939, Yeats suddenly fell ill and died soon after. He was buried in France, but his body was returned to his beloved Ireland in 1948 and was met by Sean MacBride, Minister for External Affairs and the son of Maud Gonne.
William Butler Yeats described some of the stages he went through in “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”; the first stage was “that sea-rider Oisin led by the nose/ Through three enchanted islands”; the next was the political stage of the “counter-truth” and its play, The Countess Cathleen, and Maud Gonne, who played the title role; the last was a recognition that his perfect art grew out of imperfect material and needed the realism that the earlier stages lacked:
Now that my ladder’s gone
I must lie down where all the ladders start,
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.
Yeats began as a gifted late Romantic poet whose poems were more sound than sense, and the doctrine they pronounced was that only the imagination is real. He made himself into a modern poet by changing his subject matter and technique. The middle and last phases of Yeats’s poetry are marked by poems that connect and relate more closely to the concerns of the audience than did the earlier ones. Such great poems as “A Prayer for My Daughter,” “The Municipal Gallery Revisited,” and “Easter 1916” deal intimately with such concerns as the future of one’s child, friendship, and revolution and would have been impossible in his earlier style.
His life as well as his art changed from about 1914 onward. The pursuit of Gonne continued but became angry and realistic rather than Romantic. Yeats became involved in such historical events as the Easter Uprising and World War I, and history itself became prominent in his thought. His position as a senator in the Irish Free State as well as a founder or leader of various Irish cultural groups testifies to his involvement in the world. He may have defied the world in his epitaph (“Cast a cold eye/ On life, on death/ Horseman, pass by”), but he was a part of it. As Richard Ellmann said, “Few poets have found mastery of themselves and their craft so difficult or have sought such mastery, through conflict and struggle, so unflinchingly.”
Ellmann, Richard. Yeats: The Man and the Masks. New York: Macmillan, 1948. One of the first “life and works” books on Yeats and still a useful introduction to the poet.
Unterecker, John. A Reader’s Guide to William Butler Yeats. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1959. A useful interpretive guide for readers of the poems.
Whitaker, Thomas R. Swan and Shadow. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1964. An excellent study of Yeats’s ideas about history and how they are incorporated into the poems.
Yeats, William B. Memoirs: Autobiography, First Draft Journal. New York: Macmillan, 1972. An excellent edition of Yeats’s Autobiography and Journal in one volume, in which Yeats describes his development and his relationship with other poets and Maud Gonne.