W. B. Yeats is a fascinating poet who fills his poems with creative techniques and themes that set him apart stylistically and in terms of content. These stylistic and thematic tendencies also evolved during Yeats's long poetic career. Let's look at some of the most common characteristics of Yeats's poems through the years.
Yeats's early poetry falls largely within the Romantic tradition of Shelley and Blake. He enjoys focusing on nature and love, dreams and nostalgia. Look, for example, at “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” in which the speaker proclaims that he will have peace in nature on the island. Yeats uses a traditional rhyming pattern here as well, as is often the case in the earlier poems. Also in his earlier years, Yeats began to explore the history, folklore, and mythology of Ireland in poems like “The Song of Wandering Aengus” with its lyrical form and haunting legend.
As Yeats's career progressed, however, he moved away from Romanticism and more toward modernism. His language shifted from the formal heights of the Romantic to the simpler, more common speech of ordinary people. Look, for instance, at “September 1913” with its claim that “Romantic Ireland's dead and gone.” Yeats also started blending politics into his poetry. “Easter, 1916” is a prime example of this, for it focuses on the Easter uprising in which the Irish tried to overthrow British rule. It is a poem filled with pain and bitterness at the long oppression of Ireland.
In the 1920s, many of Yeats's poems turned toward the mystical. He began to incorporate complex and obscure symbolism into his work that was sometimes mostly unintelligible to readers. Examine the complexities of “Sailing to Byzantium,” for example, with its blend of history and mysticism and its reflection on aging (another characteristic of Yeats's work at this time). Notice, too, that Yeats also began to write more and more in free verse rather than in standard rhythmic and rhyme patterns. Both his content and his forms have become freer.
In his final years (Yeats died in 1939), the poet tended to look back upon his own work, reflecting on the contrasts between the old and the young, the heart and the head. In “The Circus Animals' Desertion,” for instance, Yeats feels like he has lost his “circus animals,” the themes and images he once wove into his poetry. Now he is relegated to the “bone shop” of his heart. Notice the metaphors and the hyperbole here. Both are characters of Yeats's poems throughout much of his career.