William Butler Yeats

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William Butler Yeats Poetry: British Analysis

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

The complexity and fullness of William Butler Yeats’s life was more than matched by the complexity and fullness of his imaginative thought. There are few poets writing in English whose works are more difficult to understand or explain. The basic problems lie in the multiplicity and intricacies of Yeats’s own preoccupations and poetic techniques, and all too often the reader has been hindered more than helped by the vagaries of criticism and exegesis.

A coincidence of literary history is partly responsible for the latter problem. The culmination and conclusion of Yeats’s career coincided with the advent of the New Criticism. Thus, in the decades following his death, some of his most important poems became exercise pieces for “explication” by commentators whose theories insisted on a minimum of attention to the author’s cultural background, philosophical views, personal interests, or even thematic intentions (hence their odd-sounding term “intentional fallacy”). The consequence has been critical chaos. There simply are no generally accepted readings for some of Yeats’s major poems. Instead, there have been ingenious exegeses, charges of misapprehension, countercharges, alternative analyses, then the whole cycle starting over again—in short, interpretational warfare.

Fortunately, in more recent years, simultaneously with decline of the New Critical movement, there has been increasing access to Yeats’s unpublished materials—letters, diaries, and especially the manuscript drafts of poems and plays—and more scholarly attention has been paid to the relationships between such materials and the probable themes or meanings in the completed works. Even so, critical difficulties of no small magnitude remain because of continuing widespread disagreement among even the most highly regarded authorities about the basic metaphysical vision from which Yeats’s poetic utterances spring, variously interpreted as atheism, pagan theism, quasi-Christian theism, Theosophy, sheer aestheticism, Platonic dualism, modern humanist monism, and existentialism.

Shifting philosophies

Added to the problems created by such a critical reception are those deriving from Yeats’s qualities as an imaginative writer. Probably the most obvious source of difficulty is the highly allusive and subtly symbolic mode in which Yeats so often expressed himself. Clearly another is his lifelong practice of infusing many of his poems and plays with elements of doctrine, belief, or supposed belief from the various occult sources with which he was so thoroughly imbued. Furthermore, as to doctrine or belief, Yeats was constantly either apparently or actually shifting his ground (more apparently than actually). Two of his better-known poems, for example, are appropriately titled “Vacillation” and “A Dialogue of Self and Soul.” In these and numerous others, he develops and sustains a running debate between two sides of an issue or between two sides of his own truth-seeking...

(The entire section is 10,296 words.)