The Poems

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Why should there be a new edition of the poems of William Butler Yeats? Should a scholar or a librarian who has on the shelf The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (definitive edition, with the author’s final revisions, 1956) purchase this new edition? The answer will depend on the reader, specifically on the reader’s interest in the history of the publication, revision, selection, and reordering of Yeats’s poems.

In compiling this new edition, Richard J. Finneran, editor of the Yeats Annual and one of the editors of Letters to W. B. Yeats (1977), has written ninety-five pages of annotations to the poems, and, to establish accurate texts, he has consulted manuscripts, typescripts, corrected proofs, and the correspondence pertaining to publication. Finneran has chosen to print the later, revised versions of poems rather than the versions first published. He has also chosen to regularize very minimally Yeats’s punctuation and spelling, a decision that alters the texts long familiar to Yeats scholars. He divides the familiar group of late poems, which in earlier editions began with “The Gyres” and ended with “Under Ben Bulben,” into two distinct collections, the first now labeled New Poems (1938), and, for five of those poems, he includes musical settings. He substantially rearranges the very last poems Yeats wrote, not following chronology, but according to the poet’s final ordering, as Finneran interprets it from the correspondence and manuscripts. The major change, in this new edition, is the inclusion, in an appendix, of 125 additional poems which Yeats himself had chosen not to publish in his own The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats.

As might be expected, this new edition does not substantially alter the reputation or the stages in the career of the poet. Yeats published his poems over a span of some fifty years; his fame grew during his lifetime and has not diminished significantly since his death. His poetic life can still be divided into four major periods: the Celtic twilight, the nationalist violence, symbolism, and the origins of art. His concern with Irish folklore, mythic history, and occult mysteries dominates his early poems. During the early twentieth century, he wrote extensively on the conflict between personal history and public history, and his poems from that second period comment movingly on the nationalist violence in Ireland. During World War I, he began drafting “The Second Coming,” and his poems published after the war explore the interrelations between personal history and symbolic historical cycles. His last poems celebrate the origins of imaginative art in carnal knowledge of real life. The impressive beauty, power, and complexity of his verse remain evident in this new edition, and his sound critical judgment is evident in his choosing not to reprint the 125 poems Finneran has added.

The additional poems echo the themes of Yeats’s better-known poems. The major ideas within Yeats’s body of poetry remain his fascination with the approaching end of the world; his melding together of Eastern religious, Rosicrucian, Celtic, and Christian images; his desire to portray reincarnation; his belief that a soul can become changeless and eternal; and his fervent exploration of individual, personal ethics. Yeats, who in his late career became fascinated with the nature of art, reshaped his earlier poems to emphasize the artifice of creation. By choosing to reprint Yeats’s revisions in place of his earlier versions of poems, Finneran homogenizes the poetry.

The revisions and reshaping do, however, seem appropriate for the posthumously published Last Poems, now dated by Finneran 1938-1939. In the earlier The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats, there were actually several different collections grouped together under the title Last Poems, then dated 1936-1939. Finneran wisely separates New Poems (1938) from Last Poems (1938-39). New Poems follows the same order as the earlier edition, from “The Gyres” through “Are You Content,” but Finneran substantially reorders the final group of poems.

Last Poems (1938-39) now presents to the reader Yeats’s own final work of art, carefully structured to be a self-portrait of the dying artist. This ordering begins with “Under Ben Bulben,” in which Yeats writes his epitaph. The earlier edition, by concluding with “Under Ben Bulben,” had emphasized his paradoxically sentimental and stoic approach to death. This new edition, by beginning with the same poem, sets up the pattern of antithesis that governs the altered order of poems. In their revised order, the poems recapitulate Yeats’s career in a formal, carefully structured pattern of juxtaposition. “Under Ben Bulben” alludes to the legendary supernatural creatures who inhabit the Irish landscape and thus recalls not only Yeats’s Celtic twilight period but also reaffirms his identity as an Irish poet. “Three Songs to the One Burden” reminds one of “Easter, 1916,” Yeats’s most famous poem on the nationalist violence, and concludes with a grim acceptance of bloodshed and death. “The Black Tower” portrays soldiers loyal to the British king who scorn an old man’s suggestion that their own Irish king deserves their loyalty; counterpointing this drama is a refrain suggesting an apocalypse. “Cuchulain Comforted” takes up the legend after the great hero has been mortally wounded and is near death. “Three Marching Songs” celebrates Irish rebels of...

(The entire section is 2271 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Choice. XXI, March, 1984, p. 982.

Christian Science Monitor. LXXVI, April 19, 1984, p. 22.

Library Journal. CIX, January, 1984, p. 97.

The New York Review of Books. XXXII, January 31, 1984, p. 29.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, March 18, 1984, p. 1.

Times Literary Supplement. June 29, 1984, p. 731.