Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 557

Most criticism on Yeats addresses his poetry, and many critics believe him to be the greatest poet in the English language. However, Yeats’s prose has received similar praise. Edmund Wilson, in his book, Axel’s Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870–1930, wrote that Yeats’s prose matured as the writer himself matured. Writing when Yeats was still alive, Wilson praised the poet’s prose as disciplined, adding, ‘‘Yeats is today a master of prose as well as a great poet.’’

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Speaking specifically of one of the essays in Autobiographies, ‘‘The Trembling of the Veil’’ (originally published as a separate work in 1922), Wilson viewed Yeats’s prose style almost with relief, as if it were a gift from a more artful past. ‘‘Yeats has achieved a combination of grandeur with a certain pungency and homeliness,’’ he wrote. ‘‘The prose of Yeats, in our contemporary literature, is like the product of some dying loomcraft brought to perfection in the days before machinery,’’ he noted. He added, however, that Yeats’s prose style indicates that he has ‘‘a mind that is not naïve, as the heart that feels is not insensitive.’’

Diane Tolomeo Edwards, in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, noted Yeats’s deliberateness in ‘‘The Trembling of the Veil,’’ even though, according to Edwards, Yeats argues in the essay that genius comes from something that is ‘‘beyond one’s own mind.’’ Many of Yeats’s essays, Edwards maintains, ‘‘seek to demonstrate this belief,’’ but Yeats was not always successful because of the essays’ deliberate and intentional tone. Edwards suggests, ‘‘Yeats’s essays need to be read together. Many ideas get repeated, and their cumulative effect helps one focus more clearly on ideas that may seem elusive.’’

In his prose, as well as his poetry, Yeats freely incorporates occult symbols and mysticism combined with Irish nationalism; these elements are certainly present in Autobiographies. Critic Theodore Spencer, writing in the book Literary Opinion in America, expressed gratitude for Yeats’s handling of these challenging subjects in his writings. ‘‘Any one of these might have been the ruin of a lesser talent,’’ argues Spencer, but Yeats surmounts any difficulty in this area. ‘‘Perhaps a life of action, and the anger it has sometimes generated . . . has helped to put iron into his style,’’ Spencer reasons.

Also lauding Yeats’s handling of mysticism in his writing is B. L. Reid, writing in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Reid noted the preponderance of the ‘‘visionary’’ over the visual in Yeats’s work, which may express the poet’s poor eyesight as well as his ongoing interest in the supernatural. ‘‘The gauzy, veiled effects of visual observation down past the turn of the century in Yeats’s writings . . . doubtless owed something to poor eyesight,’’ wrote Reid. However, Yeats ‘‘always seemed to be able to see what mattered to him . . . [and] his essential seeing was more visionary than visual,’’ Reid adds.

In the end, Yeats’s essays, including Autobiographies, have been generally praised and respected nearly as much as his plays and poems. In an overarching statement, Edith Stillwell, in her Aspects of Modern Poetry, notes her admiration for Yeats’s comprehensiveness in Autobiographies. ‘‘Few artists can have given us so complete a record of the life of their soul—a record which is clothed in reticence and moves with supreme dignity,’’ she writes.

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Essays and Criticism

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