William Butler Yeats

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William Butler Yeats World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The major preoccupation of Yeats’s imagination was expressed in a statement he made at the beginning of his career: “Hammer your thoughts into unity.” These words suggest the various ways in which Yeats perceived the raw materials of his poetry; they also point to the sense of totality that he wished to derive from those materials. Yeats’s raw materials include personal history, family history, cultural history, ancient and modern Irish history, friendship, mysticism, and personal and academic philosophy. There is no denying the complexity of some of Yeats’s poetry. Some of his poems challenge readers to become better acquainted with Irish history and culture. To a large extent, however, the difficulty of Yeats’s poetry resembles the poetry of William Blake, whose work requires readers to hold paradoxical notions of the universe in their minds at the same time. Throughout his work, Yeats struggled with the tensions between the concrete and the abstract, between Irish identity and human commonalities, between things falling apart and things coming together.

The range of Yeats’s poetic resources is also comprehensive; his work covers the gamut of possibilities provided by lyric poetry. Beginning with ballads and songs that are almost naïve in their expression of simplicity, Yeats’s poetry quickly evolves into nuanced, layered works. The allusive symbolism of his collection, The Wind Among the Reeds (1899), for example, has by the time of The Green Helmet, and Other Poems (1910) given way to a more explicit, personal tone, drawing on more obviously autobiographical material. This tone, in turn, becomes more assertive and public in the first collection of major importance, Responsibilities (1914). The increasingly distinctive character of Yeats’s verse also can be seen in his poetry’s progressively more flexible use of verse structure, rhyme, and, particularly, rhythm.

In addition, Yeats’s development is also noteworthy for its reinvigorating effect on certain poetic forms. These forms, particularly the elegy and the dramatic lyric, had received extensive attention from both Romantic and Victorian poets. The elegy was a form renewed particularly by Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was an important influence on the youthful Yeats, as was Blake, whose reformulation of lyric in terms of spirit and dream made a deep impression on Yeats’s early efforts to establish a poetic identity. Yeats’s dramatic lyrics intensify that particular form’s possibilities in a manner not envisaged by its chief exponent, Robert Browning. Again from a formal standpoint, Yeats’s attempts to reproduce in somewhat condensed form the epic ambitions of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and William Morris reveal his often overlooked interest in form. His use of Irish materials in the elegy and the dramatic lyric is an important example of continuity and change in literary history.

Although Yeats significantly renewed some of the forms of nineteenth century English verse, it would be misleading to consider him an experimental poet. His traditional qualities can be illustrated through a comparison of his work with that of his two most important modernist contemporaries, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Yeats’s use of form expresses a sense of radical continuity. This concept reveals the poet’s understanding of tradition, an understanding that is a major source of duality in Yeats’s thinking. In poetry, however, duality can be hammered into unity by reconciling content to form. In addition, emphasizing the formal aspect of his work draws attention not only to the forms themselves but also to the restlessness that their renewal contains. It is this restlessness, this excitation of psychic energy, that is the driving force of Yeats’s verse.

This sense of restlessness, of ardor, intensity, longing, and continuity comes to the poet from an awareness of loss. Many of Yeats’s most significant experiences are associated with loss. He grew up in a period when loss of...

(The entire section is 5,107 words.)