William Butler Yeats

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In what sense did Yeats's early poetry epitomize Romanticism? How did he go beyond Romanticism?

Yeats's early poetry epitomized Romanticism in the sense that it represented a kind of escape into the world of the imagination. In due course, Yeats would eventually go beyond Romanticism in dealing with the real, everyday world, with all its chaos, variety, and imperfections.

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One could say that Yeats was always a Romantic in that he never stopped believing that reality as we perceive it has been forged by the imagination. This applies to all of us, whether or not we're poets.

To Yeats, there was no real difference between the imagination of the poet and the ordinary person. It was simply the case that for too many people, custom and habit had prevented the imagination from asserting itself.

In his early work, Yeats's Romanticism can be seen most strongly in his retreat into the weird and wonderful world of the Celtic Twilight, with its countless myths and legends drawn from ancient Irish mythology. Yeats was always fascinated by the old myths and stories of his native land, but it was only really in the early stages of his career that they exerted much influence on his plays and poems.

To some extent, Yeats's Romanticism, in its early stages, represented an escape from the everyday world with all its cares and worries. The speaker's heartfelt desire to leave behind the urban life and live out a solitary existence close to nature in "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" is a prime example of this.

In due course, Yeats would leave the Celtic Twilight behind and embrace a more earthy subject matter in his poetry. To be sure, Yeats was no less concerned with what was eternal, but instead of locating it in another world, a fairy-tale world of Irish mythology, he found it deeply embedded in everyday existence.

The temporal and the timeless, the body and the soul, the spirit and the flesh—the later Yeats is insistent that all these binary opposites cannot be separated and are all part of a world of constant flux, the world in which we all live our daily lives. The last lines of "Among School Children" are a perfect illustration of this:

O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Yet Yeats's belief that the eternal can still be found in life—and, what's more, that it can only be found by the imagination as it shapes our perceptions of the everyday world—can be held up as a residue of the Romanticism that he never completely abandoned. Yeats remained a Romantic until the day he died, albeit a very different Romantic from what he'd been in the past.

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