Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1681

The conflict that the antimonies between dream and action caused in the mind of William Butler Yeats could not be resolved in the verse tradition of the Pre-Raphaelites. This was the poetry, together with that of Shelley and Keats and the plays of Shakespeare, with which he was most familiar....

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The conflict that the antimonies between dream and action caused in the mind of William Butler Yeats could not be resolved in the verse tradition of the Pre-Raphaelites. This was the poetry, together with that of Shelley and Keats and the plays of Shakespeare, with which he was most familiar. It was also the tradition to which he was closest in time. As he did not have a background of coherent culture on which to base his poetry, nor a personally satisfying faith, Yeats throughout his life had to create his own systems of thought—create, in fact, the convention in which he was to write.

In the introduction to A VISION, he said: “I wished for a system of thought that would leave my imagination free to create as it chose and yet make all it created, or could create, part of the one history, and that the soul’s.” His search for reality in belief and feeling was aided by his knowledge that the Romantic poets expressed faith in the power of the imagination. This knowledge also strengthened his conviction that the problems of human existence would never be solved by science and that answers would have to come from quite different disciplines: therefore, both his philosophy and his actions were of paramount importance to him in the writing of poetry.

Yeats spent many years in the study of the occult: spiritualism, magic, mysticism, and theosophy. His feelings for Ireland and for the Pre-Raphaelites led him, early in his life, to the study and use of ancient Irish myths. His hopes of independence for Ireland and his periodic identification with Irish nationalism, also a part of the fabric of his verse, were influenced by his passion for Maud Gonne and his friendship with his patron, Lady Gregory. He believed the system expounded in A VISION was revealed to him by his wife’s power as a medium. Thus for Yeats, as for all poets, the pattern of his relationships, interests, beliefs, and loyalties was the material of his poetry. However, great poetry is always the expression of one man’s personality in such a way that it is generally or universally meaningful. Magic, nationalism, and myth partly formed Yeats’s complex personality, and his prose writings in these areas are undoubtedly esoteric. Although it was through these studies that Yeats was able to write as he did, it is not through them that the reader appreciates his poetry. All Yeats’s poetry can be enjoyed and understood when carefully read, without reference to any of his prose. Yeats, in fact, took care to make his work understandable, and one of the most interesting aspects in the study of his poetry is his lifelong preoccupation with clarity, simplicity, and exactness.

This clarity was the goal toward which he worked throughout his career. For Yeats, symbol was the means by which the natural and the supernatural could be fused and the antimonies be resolved. Writing in many personae, he worked toward this unified expression of reality, with the result that the continuous development of his powers and his ultimate success are both rare and exciting achievements. Yeats’s dedication to his art was such that to the end of his life his conscious goals were always in advance of the poems he had completed.

Yeats was a lyric poet, but his belief in and practice of “active virtue”—that is, following a discipline that one has forged oneself—makes his verse essentially dramatic. His first volumes of poetry express the sensibility of the Pre-Raphaelites; the lyrics are slight and the emotion, incompletely realized, often expresses his indecision between the life of dream and that of action. Twilight and longing predominate in these poems.

In his fourth volume, IN THE SEVEN WOODS, published in 1903, Yeats began to find his true voice. Emotion is particularized and he has started to speak with authority. His technique is more sure and his tone more varied. In “Adam’s Curse,” in which the poet discusses the labor of writing poetry with a woman whom he loves, he uses common words and speech idioms which firmly link the poem to reality:

Better go down upon your marrow-bonesAnd scrub a kitchen pavement or breakstonesLike an old pauper, in all kinds ofweather;For to articulate sweet sounds togetherIs to work harder than all these.

In his verse plays of this period Yeats was beginning deliberately to eschew abstraction and to introduce more direct and bold speech into his work. His 1910 volume, THE GREEN HELMET AND OTHER POEMS, shows this technique in his lyric verse, which is becoming more dramatic and assertive. In “No Second Troy” the use of Greek myth approximates a reconciliation between dream and reality.

The 1914 volume, RESPONSIBILITIES, shows an increase in force. Here Yeats uses other voices, or personae, of beggars, fools, and hermits to present his ideas. At that time he was encouraged further in his progress toward exactness of expression and the use of only the most meaningful images by his contact with Ezra Pound, who insisted that Yeats remove all abstractions from his verse. He appears to have learned quickly and well from the younger poet, and in subsequent poems he is able to integrate completely his theories of history and personality, and his feelings of despair for Ireland. He also learned to pare his images so that they are totally relevant to his emotion:

Things fall apart, the centre cannothold;Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, andeverywhereThe ceremony of innocence is drowned.

THE TOWER, published in 1928, contains several of Yeats’s finest poems. The most brilliant and complex of these is “Sailing to Byzantium.” The dazzling civilization of Byzantium which had successfully withstood the power of Rome as Yeats would probably have liked Ireland to withstand that of England, became for him the symbol of eternal art and of the fusion of the creator with the work of art. The reconciliation of youth and age, passion and intellect, is effected by the symbolic representation of the wisdom of the inspired soul in a supernatural form. In this poem, natural birds sing of the cycle of human life and the created birds of Byzantium, of the cycle of history. The glory of the old and of the young is here presented with a single steady vision, and the conflict between them has been resolved:

This is no country for old men. TheyoungIn one another’s arms, birds in the trees—Those dying generations—at theirsong,The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowdedseas,Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all sum-mer longWhatever is begotten, born, and dies.

He continues:

An aged man is but a paltry thing,A tattered coat upon a stick, unlessSoul clap its hands and sing, and loudersing. . . .

The poet has sailed to Byzantium that he may thus sing. His soul after death will not take “bodily form from any natural thing” but will be one of the singing birds of metal and enamel that the goldsmiths make to amuse the Emperor,

Or set upon a golden bough to singTo lords and ladies of ByzantiumOf what is past, or passing, or to come.

Another unified vision of life which is not dependent upon the supernatural is communicated in the poem “Among School Children.” The mastery of technique which gives “Sailing to Byzantium” its tour de force brilliance, enables Yeats in this poem to communicate the feeling of peace after storm. The poet visits a convent school where the children see him as an old man, and as the children stare in mild curiosity, he is reminded of the “Ledaean body” of a woman he had loved, and this vision causes him to feel so joined in sympathy with her that he can visualize her as she must have been as a child:

For even daughters of the swan shareSomething of every paddler’s heritage.

The vision of the childhood of the woman who caused him much pain leads him to the thought that women would not think motherhood worth while if they could see their progeny at sixty. His suggestion that mothers as well as nuns worship images returns the poem to the convent school setting. In the last stanza of the poem Yeats, by a unifying image of continuity and completeness, reconciles the opposing forces of age and youth at the level of reality.

The poems written in the three years before Yeats’s death at seventy-four show no diminution of power. He was still intent on his search for unity and reality of expression. In “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” he reviews his poetic output and says that until he was an old man the machinery of his poetry was still in evidence:

My circus animals were still on show,Those stilted boys, that gilded chariot.

He lists his old themes: the Irish myths, his lost love, and his preoccupation with the theater, and he tells how he dramatized his love in his plays. He faces his own delight in dreams which he feared would inhibit him from reality: “This dream itself had all my thought and love.” He speaks of the personae in which he wrote and of the characters of Irish history:

Players and painted stage took all my loveAnd not those things they were theemblems of.

The reversal and resolution of these ideas comes in the last verse where he evaluates the use of images in his poetry, by questioning their origin and finding that they indeed had their bases in reality.

Thus his adolescent faith in the imagination had been justified and he could join the ranks of those whom he admired and who had fused the subjective and objective self into a meaningful whole: “The antithetical self comes to those who are no longer deceived, whose passion is reality.”

The philosophy that Yeats so carefully constructed was the basis for a personal vision of life, which by unswerving dedication to craftsmanship and constantly renewed emotional and intellectual vitality he presented in his poetry in all its varied facets, and with always increasing significance.

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