The major preoccupation of Yeats’s imagination was expressed in a statement he made at the beginning of his career: “Hammer your thoughts into unity.” These words suggest the various ways in which Yeats perceived the raw materials of his poetry; they also point to the sense of totality that he wished to derive from those materials. Yeats’s raw materials include personal history, family history, cultural history, ancient and modern Irish history, friendship, mysticism, and personal and academic philosophy. There is no denying the complexity of some of Yeats’s poetry. Some of his poems challenge readers to become better acquainted with Irish history and culture. To a large extent, however, the difficulty of Yeats’s poetry resembles the poetry of William Blake, whose work requires readers to hold paradoxical notions of the universe in their minds at the same time. Throughout his work, Yeats struggled with the tensions between the concrete and the abstract, between Irish identity and human commonalities, between things falling apart and things coming together.
The range of Yeats’s poetic resources is also comprehensive; his work covers the gamut of possibilities provided by lyric poetry. Beginning with ballads and songs that are almost naïve in their expression of simplicity, Yeats’s poetry quickly evolves into nuanced, layered works. The allusive symbolism of his collection, The Wind Among the Reeds (1899), for example, has by the time of The Green Helmet, and Other Poems (1910) given way to a more explicit, personal tone, drawing on more obviously autobiographical material. This tone, in turn, becomes more assertive and public in the first collection of major importance, Responsibilities (1914). The increasingly distinctive character of Yeats’s verse also can be seen in his poetry’s progressively more flexible use of verse structure, rhyme, and, particularly, rhythm.
In addition, Yeats’s development is also noteworthy for its reinvigorating effect on certain poetic forms. These forms, particularly the elegy and the dramatic lyric, had received extensive attention from both Romantic and Victorian poets. The elegy was a form renewed particularly by Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was an important influence on the youthful Yeats, as was Blake, whose reformulation of lyric in terms of spirit and dream made a deep impression on Yeats’s early efforts to establish a poetic identity. Yeats’s dramatic lyrics intensify that particular form’s possibilities in a manner not envisaged by its chief exponent, Robert Browning. Again from a formal standpoint, Yeats’s attempts to reproduce in somewhat condensed form the epic ambitions of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and William Morris reveal his often overlooked interest in form. His use of Irish materials in the elegy and the dramatic lyric is an important example of continuity and change in literary history.
Although Yeats significantly renewed some of the forms of nineteenth century English verse, it would be misleading to consider him an experimental poet. His traditional qualities can be illustrated through a comparison of his work with that of his two most important modernist contemporaries, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Yeats’s use of form expresses a sense of radical continuity. This concept reveals the poet’s understanding of tradition, an understanding that is a major source of duality in Yeats’s thinking. In poetry, however, duality can be hammered into unity by reconciling content to form. In addition, emphasizing the formal aspect of his work draws attention not only to the forms themselves but also to the restlessness that their renewal contains. It is this restlessness, this excitation of psychic energy, that is the driving force of Yeats’s verse.
This sense of restlessness, of ardor, intensity, longing, and continuity comes to the poet from an awareness of loss. Many of Yeats’s most significant experiences are associated with loss. He grew up in a period when loss of faith in organized religion was widespread. The political and economic rule of the landowning class with which Yeats identified was dismantled in the course of his lifetime. As his career evolved, he lost his original audience and adopted a critical posture toward the Ireland that his verse had, in part, inspired. His experience of love is also rendered in verse as one of loss. Moreover, many of his most important poems are elegies. Yet while duly admitting the pain of loss and frequently expressing its effects in terms of violence and apocalypse, Yeats attempts to compensate for its impact. It is from this commitment that his imaginative rage for unity derives.
Yeats usually presents his readers with a creative tension between dual elements. These elements occur in various guises. Vagaries of personality find compensation in the stability of masks. The destructive work of time is offset by the constructive work of art. The force of an individual personality can overcome the energies of the general public. The peasant can be reconciled to the aristocrat. The sting of defeat is healed by contemplating the commitment of the hero. Out of such conflicts, Yeats produces what is essentially a poetry of possibility. This poetry expresses both a desire for unity and peace together with an acknowledgment of the remoteness of those goals. Such a realization is sounded in the note of “tragic joy” for which Yeats’s verse is celebrated. Aware of the fragmentary nature of modern experience, conscious of the mortal nature of the human condition, suspicious of his age’s increasingly democratic trends, Yeats’s poetry attempts to stare down such facts of life, achieving greatness through commitment rather than by argument.
First published: 1902 (collected in The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats, 1996)
Type of work: Poem
This poem is an important early example of Yeats’s use of autobiographical materials for poetic ends.
“Adam’s Curse” was first published in the Monthly Review of December, 1902, and first collected in In the Seven Woods (1903). The poem is an important example of Yeats’s mature style in the making. The subject matter of Yeats’s early poetry tended to deal with abstractions, such as love, truth, and beauty. Missing from these early poems is a sense of the poet dealing with actual experiences of the actual world. Even the early verse’s conception of Ireland is extremely romantic.
While in “Adam’s Curse” Yeats continues to acknowledge the power of romance, his attitude toward that power is now considerably changed. First, the poem draws on Yeats’s own direct experience. The three people mentioned in the poem are real. The basis for the poem is a conversation that Yeats had with “that beautiful mild woman” and is addressed to a third person who was also present at the time. This third person, the “you” of the poem, is Maud Gonne; the “mild woman” is her sister, Mrs. Kathleen Pilcher. While “Adam’s Curse” draws on elements of Yeats’s life, the poet had not lost interest in the Irish mythological figures that featured so prominently in his early work; Yeats never abandoned this interest. At the same time, however, the presence of intimate acquaintances in a private setting and the reconstruction of their after-dinner conversation represents a breakthrough in candor and immediacy for Yeats.
Second, “Adam’s Curse” is significant because of the manner in which the poet uses his new materials. His altered attitude to romance is expressed in his critical treatment of the subject. This criticism forms the closing lines of the poem. Yet these lines do not have a dramatic or climactic effect. On the contrary, they reveal the poet’s weariness of romantic love, leaving the reader with a sense of his isolation and lack of fulfillment. This strong suggestion of personal loss comes from the realization that love will not conquer all. Love, too, is subject to change, and so are lovers. This thought brings the poet depressingly down to earth.
In addition, Yeats’s technique is more sophisticated in “Adam’s Curse” than it is in many of his earlier poems. The decision to open the poem with what appear to be direct quotes from the remembered conversation greatly adds to the reader’s sense of the immediacy, directness, spontaneity, and candor of actual experience. The informal character of conversation is conveyed by letting the lines run into each other. The first part of the poem reads as though it is written in sentences rather than in poetic lines. The poet draws attention to this effect by the poem’s form, which consists of one long stanza and two shorter ones. Because of this arrangement, the poem can be described as having, in effect, two parts, even though Yeats does not number or identify those parts.
There is a deliberate sense of disproportion between the parts, which is intended to suggest the problem of duality, which is the poem’s theme. Seeing the poem in two parts also draws attention to how Yeats has separated speech from silence, exposition from reflection, and the conversational interlude from the larger emotional context. This strategy of separation underlines the variety of ways in which “Adam’s Curse” concentrates on the dual character of human experience. The overall effect of the verbal and technical accomplishments of “Adam’s Curse” is to make the poet’s concerns more accessible. The poem’s theme is still basically abstract, but its abstract nature is brought closer to the reader.
The theme, broadly speaking, addresses the discrepancy between appearance and reality. The poet, says Yeats in the first conversational extract, can slave to perfect a line of poetry yet be considered an idler by the world at large. Similarly, says Mrs. Pilcher, to appear beautiful is the result of hard work. These facts of life are, to the poet, a version of Adam’s curse, a reference to the fact that Adam was not only expelled from the ideal existence of paradise but also condemned to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow. Even love requires deliberate effort. Yet that thought reminds the poet that, try as he might, he has failed to perfect his love for Maud Gonne. The reality of life lies in commitment rather than in achievement, though such a realization dampens the spirit of idealism.
First published: 1920 (collected in The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats, 1996)
Type of work: Poem
A commemoration in verse of the Easter, 1916, Irish rebellion against English rule.
Although written within a few months of the event that it commemorates, and privately printed later in the year of its composition, “Easter 1916” did not receive general publication until 1920. It was first collected in the volume Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1920). It is Yeats’s best-known poem. Its title refers to the Irish rebellion of Easter, 1916, when a small group of rebels in Dublin unexpectedly proclaimed the establishment of an Irish Republic. The rebellion was in defiance of the British rule under which Ireland was then governed.
The refrain of “Easter 1916” has frequently been thought to refer to the new political arrangements initiated by the rebels. Yet such a reading is not necessarily what Yeats had in mind, as awareness of the poem’s publication history will confirm. “Easter 1916” is not a political poem in the sense that it takes one side or the other in the rebellion. Nevertheless, the poem’s renown is, to some extent, the result of a narrow, one-sided interpretation of the line “A terrible beauty is born.” It is important to note, however, that Yeats carefully refrains from providing a facile understanding of the momentous event in Irish history that has taken place. On the contrary, the poem is notable for the questioning manner in which it expresses awe and bewilderment at the rebels. The difficulty in reaching an immediate understanding of what “A terrible beauty is born” means crystallizes the poet’s own stunned reaction to the rebellion. Therefore, the most striking feature of “Easter 1916” is its honesty.
The basis for the poet’s reaction is contained in the poem’s opening stanza. The reader is informed that, although the poet and his cronies were aware that republican militants existed, nobody took them seriously. They were unassuming, had little social status, and provided occasions of trivial conversation. In addition, the anonymous “them,” which the poet later names, were considered laughingstocks by their social superiors. The poet includes himself among those superiors, members of the “club.” Yet social superiority in itself is said to count for nothing, since both the ridiculers and the ridiculed live in a land fit for clowns (“motley” being a reference to the traditional dress of the jester). The suggestion is that the rebel’s subsequent heroism and self-sacrifice were unimaginable.
The second stanza presents some of the rebels in a different light. All but the first of those mentioned were executed for their part in the rebellion. Two of those mentioned were well known to the poet. “That woman” is Constance Markievicz, born Constance Gore-Booth, an Anglo-Irish aristocrat whose involvement with the rebels Yeats views as a fall from grace. The other person with whom Yeats was acquainted is Major John MacBride, “A drunken, vainglorious lout” and the estranged husband of Maud Gonne. Yet even MacBride can no longer be considered simply a clown. Mention of these two personal associations, neither of them particularly attractive, provides a frame within which Yeats portrays two of the rebel leaders. “This man” is Patrick Pearse, a poet and teacher who led the rebellion. “This other” is Thomas MacDonough, poet and academic. Although Yeats was not very well acquainted with either of them, he presents them in a favorable light, which adjusts the force of “motley” in the opening stanza.
The first two stanzas’ emphasis on personality and society is replaced in the third stanza. There, a more fundamental conception of life, the natural order, is considered. According to this conception, life may be compared to a stream: Living things continually change as they grow and mature. The rebels differ from this order in the way that a stone is the opposite of a stream. Not only is a stone the stream’s opposite; it also deflects or “troubles” the stream’s free and direct flow. Similarly, there seems to be something unnatural about those who do not participate spontaneously and naturally in life. Yet by the opening of the fourth stanza, this view of the rebels is itself challenged, just as the original view of them as clowns was both acknowledged and corrected in the opening two stanzas.
It is impossible, the poem argues, to know how much must be given in the name of a cause. One’s human nature, “the heart,” may turn to stone, but only a higher power, “Heaven’s part,” can determine how great a sacrifice is necessary in order to redeem a given situation, in this case the Irish nation. Meanwhile, all that can be done is to ensure that the magnitude of the sacrifice is recognized for what it is. Yeats conveys this sentiment through an appeal to language. Poetic fancy, such as the metaphor of mother and child, is inadequate to register what has taken place, as the stark, “No, no, not night but death” makes clear. Even the fact that “England may keep faith” does not diminish the rebels’ impact.
England is mentioned because a version of Irish independence had been passed into law in 1914. Its application was suspended, however, until the end of World War I. According to Yeats, however, one must bear in mind that not only did the rebels take action, but their activism also cost them their lives. This inescapable and shocking fact is the poem’s inspiration and the birth of what it calls “a terrible beauty.” The rebels’ sacrifice is that terrible beauty, an act as awe-inspiring and overwhelming as the greatest art.
“The Second Coming”
First published: 1920 (collected in The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats, 1996)
Type of work: Poem
This work is Yeats’s fullest artistic statement of his apocalyptic theory of history.
The continual broadening of Yeats’s scope as a poet and thinker is demonstrated by “The Second Coming.” This poem was first published in what was one of the most important literary magazines of the day, The Dial, in November, 1920, and first appeared in book form the same year in Michael Robartes and the Dancer.
Some technical knowledge is required in order to understand the opening line of the poem. The “widening gyre” (pronounced with a hard “g”) describes not only the circular, ever-widening course of the falcon’s flight. It also refers to an important aspect of Yeats’s theory of history. Influenced by Giambattista Vico and Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophies of eternal recurrence, Yeats sees history as a cycle of declines and regenerations. Each historical era is replaced by its opposite. Gyres describe the interacting and conflicting eras.
In “The Second Coming,” the end of the Christian era is thought to be at hand. The poem’s title is intended, first, to bring to mind the Second Coming of Christ. Yet this association, with its promises of salvation, gives way to the monstrous image of the “rough beast,” suggesting barbarism. In the New Testament, the Second Coming rescues the faithful from the dreadful conditions that accompany the end of the world. In the poem, the second coming means being condemned to those dreadful conditions. The fact that the “rough beast” is to be born in Bethlehem underlines the enormous changes that the poet believes to be on the way.
Yeats was not the only early twentieth century poet who believed that the historical events of his day suggested profound and disturbing change. The impact of World War I was still being felt in every aspect of public and cultural life at the time “The Second Coming” was written. In addition, conditions in Ireland were deteriorating at a rapid rate. Old political and social forces in the country were giving way to the will of the people. In addition, the victory of the Bolsheviks in Russia came as a shocking reminder of the vulnerability of certain social classes in the rest of Europe. Although none of these conditions is mentioned by name in “The Second Coming,” the poem’s themes of violence and disruption are reinforced by its historical context.
The opening two lines of the poem provide an image of cultural breakdown. The falcon represents those forces that function productively only when disciplined. By as early as the fourth line of the poem, the consequences of this breakdown are being described in violent terms. The word “mere” in this line is not used in its familiar sense and should be understood in its original meaning of “nothing but.” Everything that makes life valuable is being drenched in blood. “The ceremony of innocence” refers not to one particular ceremony but is intended to suggest the grace and order of civilized society. Moreover, there is nobody to fight “the blood-dimmed tide.”
Such conditions can only mean that the end of the world is imminent. In keeping with the violent imagery of the first stanza, a nightmarish embodiment of what is occurring reveals itself to the poet. The image comes from “Spiritus Mundi.” This phrase refers to a belief that individual minds are connected to a collective mind, and that the images that occur in one’s imagination are reflections of that greater consciousness. One effect of this reference is to show that the poet himself is vulnerable. The admission of this vulnerability gives “The Second Coming” an urgent, dramatic force, which is most clearly felt in the last line. By concluding with a question, Yeats not only crystallizes the sense of doubt and dread that fills “The Second Coming.” He also draws attention to the dangerous and unresolved contemporary historical conditions. Yeats makes a powerful case for the relevance of poetry as a means of addressing pressing public issues and of preserving historical awareness.
“Sailing to Byzantium”
First published: 1928 (collected in The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats, 1996)
Type of work: Poem
Yeats opposes youth and age, body and spirit, and art and artifice in this important poem.
“Sailing to Byzantium” was first published in Yeats’s 1928 collection, The Tower. Critics generally acknowledge that Yeats produced some of his best work after he received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1923; certainly, “Sailing to Byzantium” demonstrates the power of that later work.
The poem is comprised of four stanzas of eight lines each. Both rhyme and meter are regular, following an abababcc rhyme scheme and an iambic pentameter metric pattern throughout. In the first stanza, Yeats speaks of a place that is “no country for old men.” In this country, the young, along with “fish, flesh, or fowl” engage in the procreative, generative energy of summer. Caught up in “sensual music,” the inhabitants of this country do not consider intellectual or spiritual concerns. Rather, they are caught up in life itself, not considering that which is eternal. Yeats reminds readers, however, that whatever is “begotten” and “born” ultimately dies. This is the country of fleshly incarnation, the country of life, but also a place where the joy of life opposes the certainty of death. A country such as this is no place for an old man moving inexorably toward death.
Yeats continues his exploration of old age in the second stanza, presenting an image of an old man as a scarecrow, “a tattered coat upon a stick.” This empty vessel is no more than a “paltry thing” without the singing of his soul. Through the soul’s singing, Yeats believes, he can create art, something that will survive physical death. He says, therefore, that he has sailed to Byzantium, a place where he will be able to learn the art of singing. Byzantium, now known as Istanbul, serves an important symbolic function in this poem and in some of Yeats’s other works.
In the third stanza, Yeats requests the “sages” of Byzantium to come and teach his soul to sing. He uses the phrase, “perne in a gyre” to describe the way the sages will come from the “holy fire.” Yeats uses the word “perne,” literally a spool, as a verb here; gyre means a circular course. The sages thus spin in a spiral of holy fire, a fire that will burn away the poet’s heart, allowing Yeats to enter the “artifice of eternity.” The transformation from fleshly incarnation (the “dying animal”) to the eternity of art becomes a kind of eternal life for the poet.
In the final stanza, Yeats asserts that once he escapes nature (the natural world of fleshly creation), he will never again be incarnated into the world of nature. Rather, he will assume an artificial form, that of a golden bird. For Yeats, “artificial” does not carry a negative connotation; rather, he connects the artificial with art and with artifice as an improvement on the natural. With this image, Yeats alludes to both “The Nightingale” (1844) by Hans Christian Andersen, as well as to John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” (1819). Unlike these writers, Yeats finds the artificial bird to be superior in that it offers the singer a form of immortality. The bird can sing of “what is past, or passing, or to come.” For Yeats, the transformation from natural, mortal human being into artificial, immortal singer is a fate to be highly desired.
“Under Ben Bulben”
First published: 1939 (collected in The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats, 1996)
Type of work: Poem
Yeats surveys his artistic origins and influences and makes his poetic last will and testament.
“Under Ben Bulben” was first published in three of Ireland’s national daily newspapers within a week of Yeats’s death and first appeared in book form in Last Poems and Two Plays (1939). Its newspaper publication was a mark of respect to the dead poet and a call for public recognition of his contribution to Irish life and literature. A similar, less self-centered call is what “Under Ben Bulben” itself communicates. As a result, the poem was long considered to be Yeats’s last will and poetic testament.
The poem’s title refers to the table mountain that overlooks the town of Sligo. If “Under Ben Bulben” may be read as the poet’s will, part of his bequest is that he be interred in the landscape of his childhood. Doing so would achieve a long-sought unity, not only with his ancestors but also with much that inspired his poetry. The location and character of the poet’s final resting place are given a privileged position at the end of the poem. Here, Yeats argues for the significance of being at one with the enduring presences of place and family. It is by its concluding lines, therefore, that “Under Ben Bulben” most resembles a will, since these arrange the terms and conditions of both the poet’s death and his legacy.
Yet these lines constitute a relatively small part of what Yeats wants to hand down. The emphasis on landscape and lineage must be seen as the end product of the poem’s various other significant emphases. “Under Ben Bulben” ranges far and wide over a large number of Yeats’s interests. The poem amounts to a condensed version of the poet’s intellectual autobiography. Yet rather than view the poem as a series of six interlinked episodes, it is more appropriate to note how different the parts are from one another and then to notice what they have in common.
The poem opens, as Yeats’s poetic career began, with allusions to pre-Christian deities and forces and then interprets what these forces represent. The Witch of Atlas, renowned in mythology for her beauty, and “That pale, long visaged company” of Irish gods and heroes have been identified as agents of vision and passion. These two qualities Yeats then claims as constants that make both individual existence and the history of Western civilization valuable. The connection between intensity of feeling, even violence, and liberating insight is asserted in the third part of the poem. The link between artistic accomplishment and passionate involvement is made in part 4,though Yeats regrets that this connection has not endured since the middle of the nineteenth century, when the last-mentioned artist, Samuel Palmer, lived. Yeats’s message to the Irish poets who follow him is, likewise, a wish that they combine spiritedness and a sense of form. Again, as throughout all of “Under Ben Bulben,” the persistent thought is of the unification of different and opposed elements. As part 5 affirms, “Porter-drinkers’ randy laughter” is as important as “the holiness of monks.”
In form, meter, and language, “Under Ben Bulben” has the flexibility, directness, and verve of Yeats at his best. At the same time, the poem’s range of allusions and complexity of thought also make it typical of Yeats’s intellectual ambition. Yet it is this combination of complex thought and simple method that gives the reader a direct experience of the poet’s struggle for unity. The combination also confirms what the poet himself realized: that art, not life, is the means of attaining this unity.
“The Circus Animals’ Desertion”
First published: 1939 (collected in The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats, 1996)
Type of work: Poem
In this retrospective poem, Yeats reflects on his career as a writer.
Yeats wrote “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” in 1939, shortly before the end of his life. The poem was published first in Dublin and then included in the collection Last Poems and Two Plays (1939). This poem has grown in reputation and interest within Yeats’s studies, surpassing “Under Ben Bulben” as the poet’s final statement about his artistic life.
The poem has five stanzas of eight lines each. In addition, Yeats divides the poem into three parts: part one comprises stanza one; part two comprises stanzas two through four; and part three comprises the last stanza. Like “Sailing to Byzantium,” the poem follows a regular rhyme scheme of abababcc and is entirely composed in iambic pentameter.
In this poem, Yeats laments that he has lost his gift for poetry, although, paradoxically, this might be one his finest poems. In the first stanza, he tells the reader that he has unsuccessfully “sought a theme” daily for about six weeks. He calls himself a “broken man” who must be “satisfied with [his] heart.” He next refers to his “circus animals,” a metaphor for the stylistic tricks and techniques of his early poetry. In other words, Yeats suggests that his earlier work was for show, and that the images, metaphors, and symbols that impress his readers are no more than animals trained to do tricks for people. Now, however, as an old man, all he has left is his heart, without pretense and without masks.
In the next three stanzas, Yeats elaborates on earlier periods of his literary career. Because he has been unable to identify a new theme for himself, he must “enumerate old themes.” He first mentions “that sea rider Oisin.” The title poem of one of Yeats’s earliest collections, published in 1889, was “The Wanderings of Oisin,” which recounted the adventures of the mythic and historic Irish hero, Oisin. “The Wanderings of Oisin” can be identified with Yeats’s Celtic Twilight period, when he mined pre-Christian Celtic folklore for subject matter.
In stanza three, Yeats turns to his play The Countess Cathleen (pb. 1892, pr. 1899). Yeats dedicated this play to Maud Gonne, who also acted in it. His love for her and for her political activism became the “dream” Yeats writes of in the final line of the stanza. Tellingly, Yeats writes that the “dream itself had all my thought and love,” implying that it was the dream, rather than reality, that occupied his mind and heart.
Likewise, in stanza four, Yeats refers to his play On Baile’s Strand (pr. 1904, pb. 1905). He writes in the final two lines of the stanza, “Players and painted stage took all my love,/ and not those things that they were emblem of.” Yeats here comes to the realization that figurative language, images, wordplay, and all of the trappings of poetry and literature are what he has loved and created. He has not, however, loved what such language stands in for.
In the final stanza, Yeats reveals himself in the months before his death to be deeply concerned with the concrete reality of life. As he nears death, he understands that all of the “masterful images” have their origins in the sometimes ugly real world. The heart does not exist in isolation from physical reality, nor does poetry spring from abstraction. Rather, the heart exists in the “foul rag-and-bone shop,” a metaphor for the fleshly body.