William Butler Yeats Yeats, William Butler - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

William Butler Yeats 1865–1939

Irish poet, dramatist, essayist, critic, short story writer, and autobiographer. See also Sailing to Byzantium Criticism and The Second Coming Criticism.

Yeats is considered one of the greatest poets in the English language. He was devoted to the cause of Irish nationalism and played an important part in the Celtic Revival Movement, promoting the literary heritage of Ireland through his use of material from ancient Irish sagas. Further, Yeats employed national themes in his poetry, thereby attempting to restore the cultural unity that he felt was needed to bring an end to Ireland's internal division and suffering. Magic and occult theory were also important elements in Yeats's work. Yeats viewed the poet as kindred to the magician and the alchemist; thus he was deeply interested in spiritualism, theosophy, and occult systems. Many of the images found in his poetry are in fact derived from Rosicrucianism as well as from his own occult researches, which are described in his prose work A Vision.

Biographical Information

Yeats was born in Dublin to Irish-Protestant parents. His father was a painter who influenced his son's thoughts about art. Yeats's mother shared with her son her interests in folklore, fairies, and astrology as well as her love of Ireland, particularly the region surrounding Sligo in western Ireland where Yeats spent much of his childhood. Yeats's formal education began when he was eleven years old with his attendance at school first in England, then Ireland. As a youth he was erratic in his studies, shy and prone to daydreaming. In 1884 Yeats enrolled in the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin. There he met the poet George Russell, who shared Yeats's enthusiasm for dreams and visions. Together they founded the Dublin Hermetic Society for the purposes of conducting magical experiments and "to promote the study of Oriental Religions and Theosophy." Yeats also joined the Rosicrucians, the Theosophical Society, and MacGregor Mather's Order of the Golden Dawn. He frequently consulted spiritualists and engaged in the ritual conjuring of Irish gods. In 1885, Yeats met the Irish nationalist John O'Leary, who was instrumental in arranging for the publication of Yeats's first poems in The Dublin University Review and in directing Yeats's attention to native Irish sources for subject matter. Under the influence of O'Leary, Yeats took up the cause of Gaelic writers at a time when much native Irish literature was in danger of being lost as the result of England's attempts to anglicize Ireland through a ban on the Gaelic language. In 1889, Yeats met the actress Maud Gonne, an agitator for the nationalist cause, whose great beauty and reckless destructiveness in pursuit of her political

goals both intrigued and dismayed him. He accompanied her to political rallies, and though he often disagreed with her extremist tactics, he shared her desire to see Ireland freed from English domination. Although Gonne's repeated refusals to marry Yeats brought him great personal unhappiness, their relationship endured through many estrangements, and nearly all of Yeats's love poetry is addressed to her. In 1917 when he was fifty-two years old, Yeats married Georgiana Hyde-Lees. Through his young wife's experiments with automatic writing, Yeats gathered the materials on which he based A Vision, his explanation of historical cycles and his theory of human personality based on the phases of the moon. In 1922, after decades of struggle by the Irish nationalists had finally culminated in the passage of the Home Rule Bill, Yeats became a senator forthe Irish Free State. He left the senate in 1928 because of failing health and devoted his remaining years to poetry. He died in France in 1939.

Major Works

Yeats's poetry evolved over five decades from the vague imagery and uncertain rhythms of The Wanderings of Oisin, and Other Poems, his first important work, to the forceful, incantatory verse of the Last Poems. Throughout his career, Yeats found occult research a rich source of images for his poetry, and traces of his esoteric interests appear everywhere in his poems. "The Rose upon the Rood of Time," for example, takes its central symbol from Rosicrucianism, and "All Souls' Night" describes a scrying, or divination, ceremony. In his earliest poetic works, such as Mosada, Yeats took his symbols from Greek mythology; however, after meeting John O'Leary, he turned instead to Irish mythology as a source for his images. The long narrative poem, "The Wanderings of Oisin," was the first he based on the legend of an Irish hero. In spite of its self-consciously poetic language and immature imitations of Pre-Raphaelite poetic technique, the poem's theme—the disagreement between Oisin and St. Patrick—makes it important to an understanding of the later Yeats. The sense of conflict between vision and corporeal realities, as symbolized by the saint and the hero, is the essential dichotomy in Yeats's poetry. Additionally, Yeats recog nized that only through imagination could the raw materials of life be transformed into something enduring. For Yeats, the role of the artist was the same as that of the alchemist: he must effect a transformation that obscures the distinction between form and content, between the "dancer and the dance." This theme is most effectively expressed in the later poems "Sailing to Byzantium" and "Byzantium." As Yeats grew older and more sure of his themes, his approach to the techniques of poetry changed. Recognizing that faerie songs were less suited to the tragic themes that preoccupied him than were more realistic narratives, he began, with the poems of In the Seven Woods, to write verses describing actual events in his personal life or in the history of Ireland, One of his most famous lyrics, "Easter 1916," about a rebel uprising that resulted in the martyrdom of all who participated, belongs to this later group. In his maturity, Yeats wrote little narrative poetry. Instead he adopted the dramatic lyric as his most characteristic form of expression. Influenced by Ezra Pound, he simplified his diction and modified his syntax to reflect more closely the constructions of common speech, and in works such as Responsibilities, and Other Poems, The Wild Swans at Coole, and Michael Robartes and the Dancer, his verses began to take on the rhetorical, occasionally haughty tone that readers today identify as characteristically Yeatsian. Critics agree that Yeats's poetic technique was impeccable. It was this mastery of technique that enabled him to perfect the subtle, forceful, and highly unusual poetic meter that he used to create the effect of a chant or an incantation in such poems as "The Tower." His remarkable creative development in his final years illustrates a lifelong determination to remake himself into his ideal image of the poet: a sacerdotal figure who assumes the role of mediator between the conflicting forces of the objective and subjective worlds.

Critical Reception

Yeats's interest in Irish politics and his visionary approach to poetry often confounded his contemporaries and set him at odds with the intellectual trends of his time. His intent interest in subjects that others labeled archaic and perceived as an affront to their modernity delayed his recognition among his peers. Nonetheless, Yeats's poetic achievement stands at the center of modern literature. By the beginning of the twentieth century he was recognized as the best English-language, Symbolist poet while also considered to be the foremost Celtic revivalist poet. Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1923, though at the time of his death in 1939, his views on poetry were regarded as eccentric by students and critics alike. This attitude held sway in spite of critical awareness of the beauty and technical proficiency of his verse. Yeats had long opposed the notion that literature should serve society. As a youthful critic he had refused to praise the poor lyrics of the "Young Ireland" poets merely because they were effective as nationalist propaganda. In maturity, he found that despite his success, his continuing conviction that poetry should express the spiritual life of the individual estranged him from those who believed that a modern poet must take as his themes social alienation and the barrenness of materialist culture. As Kathleen Raine wrote of him: "Against a rising tide of realism, political verse and University wit, Yeats upheld the innocent and the beautiful, the traditional and the noble," and, as a consequence of his disregard for the concerns of the modern world, was often misunderstood. However, as critics became disenchanted with modern poetic trends, Yeats's romantic dedication to the laws of the imagination and art for art's sake became more acceptable. Indeed, critics today are less concerned with the validity of Yeats's occult and visionary theories than with their symbolic value as expressions of timeless ideals, considering his interest in arcana as a manifestation of the truth of Wallace Stevens's statement that "poets are never of the world in which they live."

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)


Mosada: A Dramatic Poem 1886

The Wanderings of Oisin, and Other Poems 1889

The Countess Cathleen, and Various Legends and Lyrics 1892

Collected Poems 1895

The Wind among the Reeds 1899

In the Seven Woods 1903

The Green Helmet, and Other Poems 1910

Responsibilities, and Other Poems 1914

The Wild Swans at Coole 1917

Michael Robartes and the Dancer 1920

Later Poems 1922

The Cat and the Moon, and Certain Poems 1924

The Tower 1928

The Winding Stair 1929

Words for Music Perhaps, and Other Poems 1932

The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats 1933

The King of the Great Clock Tower 1934

A Full Moon in March (poetry and dramas) 1935

New Poems 1938

Last Poems and Two Plays (poetry and dramas) 1939

On the Boiler (poetry and essays) 1939

Last Poems and Plays (poetry and dramas) 1940

The Poems: A New Edition 1983

Other Major Works

The Celtic Twilight (folklore) 1893

The Land of Heart's Desire (drama) 1894

The Secret Rose (short stories) 1897

The Shadowy Waters (drama) 1900

Cathleen ni Houlihan [with Lady Gregory] (drama) 1902

The Hour Glass [with Lady Gregory] (drama) 1903

Ideas of Good and Evil (essays) 1903

The King's Threshold [with Lady Gregory] (drama) 1903

On Baile's Strand (drama) 1904

Stories of Red Hanrahan (short stories) 1904

Deirdre [with Lady Gregory] (drama) 1906

Discoveries (essays) 1907

The Unicorn from the Stars [with Lady Gregory] (drama) 1907

The Golden Helmet (drama) 1908

Poetry and Ireland [with Lionel Johnson] (essays) 1908

At the Hawk's Well (drama) 1916

Per Amica Silentia Lunae (essay) 1918

The Player Queen (drama) 1919

Four Plays for Dancers [first publication] (dramas) 1921

Four Years: 1887-91 (memoir) 1921

A Vision (essay) 1925; also published as A Vision [enlarged edition] 1937

*Autobiographies (memoir) 1926; also published as The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats [enlarged edition] 1938

The Dreaming of the Bones (drama) 1931

The Collected Plays of W. B. Yeats (dramas) 1934; also published as The Collected Plays of W. B. Yeats [enlarged edition] 1952

Wheels and Butterflies (drama) 1934

The Herne's Egg (drama) 1938

Purgatory (drama) 1938

The Death of Cuchulain (drama) 1949

The Letters of W. B. Yeats (letters) 1954

W. B. Yeats: Essays and Introductions (essays) 1961

*This work includes the memoirs Reveries over Childhood and Youth and The Trembling of the Veil. The enlarged edition of 1938 also includes the memoirs Dramatis Personae, Estrangement, The Death of Synge, and The Bounty of Sweden.

Lionel Johnson (review date 1892)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of "The Countess Kathleen and Various Legends and Lyrics," in The Academy, Vol. 42, No. 1065, October 1, 1892, pp. 278-79.

[Johnson, an English poet of Irish descent, was a friend of Yeats. In the following excerpt, Johnson praises Yeats for his use of Celtic themes and his ability to seize his readers emotionally.]

Mr. Yeats has published two volumes of verse: The Wanderings of Oisin and The Countess Kathleen. Doubtless it is difficult to speak with perfect security about the first books of a living writer; but I feel little diffidence in speaking of these two volumes. In the last two or three years much charming verse has been published...

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William Butler Yeats (essay date 1900)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Symbolism of Poetry," in Essays and Introductions (reprint), Macmillan, 1961, pp. 153-64.

[This essay, which first appeared in The Dome in 1900, presents Yeats's views on symbolic poetry. In the excerpt which follows, Yeats discusses the emotional and intellectual associations of symbolism and the power of rhythm to evoke a state of meditation in poetry.]

Symbolism, as seen in the writers of our day, would have no value if it were not seen also, under one 'disguise or another, in every great imaginative writer,' writes Mr. Arthur Symons in The Symbolist Movement in Literature, a subtle book which I cannot praise as I would, because it has been...

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William Archer (essay date 1902)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "William Butler Yeats," in Poets of the Younger Generation, John Lane/The Bodley Head, 1902 (reprinted by Scholarly Press, 1969), pp. 531-57.

[In the following excerpt, Archer notes that Yeats's early Celtic themes were an outgrowth of his personality and beliefs and not affectations of a current style.]

It is with Mr. Yeats that, so far as I know, the genuine spirit of Irish antiquity and Irish folk-lore makes its first entrance into English verse. Irish poets before him have either been absorbed in love, potheen, and politics—as Mr. Yeats himself puts it, they have "sung their loudest when a company of rebels or revellers has been at hand to applaud"—or...

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Times Literary Supplement (review date 1919)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Tunes Old and New," a review of The Wild Swans at Coole, in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 896, March 20, 1919, p. 149.

[In the following review, the critic praises Yeats's masterful use of sound and suggests that Yeats emphasizes both ephemeral and malignant themes in The Wild Swans at Coole.]

Mr. Yeats is like a fiddler taking down his old dust-covered violin and lazily playing an old tune on it; or it seems an old tune at first that he is taking liberties with. How often one has heard it; and yet, suddenly, it is as new as the sunrise—or the moonlight. Go on, go on, we cry. No one can play like that; and then he ceases carelessly, and puts the...

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William Butler Yeats (essay date 1937)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "A General Introduction for My Work" (1937), in Essays and Introductions (reprint), Macmillan, 1961, pp. 509-26.

[In the following excerpt, Yeats discusses the nature of his poetry and the influences of Celtic legend, his Irish heritage, and other poets on his work.]

A poet writes always of his personal life, in his finest work out of its tragedy, whatever it be, remorse, lost love, or mere loneliness; he never speaks directly as to someone at the breakfast table, there is always a phantasmagoria. Dante and Milton had mythologies, Shakespeare the characters of English history or of traditional romance; even when the poet seems most himself, when he is Raleigh...

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Louis MacNeice (review date 1940)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Yeats's Epitaph," a review of Last Poems and Plays, in The New Republic, Vol. 102, No. 26 (1334), June 24, 1940, pp. 862-63.

[In the following excerpt, MacNeice remarks on the resilience of the aging Yeats's poetic voice and observes that the poet's native Ireland features prominently in the works collected in his Last Poems and Plays.]

During the last ten years, Yeats has had more bouquets from the critics than any other poet of our time. It was refreshing to see these critics and also many of the younger poets committing themselvesto enthusiasm for an older contemporary; their praise, however, was sometimes uncritical and sometimes, on a long-term...

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Donald A. Stauffer (review date 1951)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Half Century of the High Poetic Art of William Butler Yeats," in The New York Herald Tribune Book Review, Vol. 27, No. 38, May 6, 1951, p. 3.

[In the following review, Stauffer praises The Collected Poems and briefly summarizes Yeats's poetic career, observing that in his poems, Yeats champions the integrity of the individual against society's pressure to reform.]

For the first time in an American edition, all of the lyrics William Butler Yeats cared to own, and some of his narrative-dramatic poems, are available in one volume. In prose or poetry, probably no single volume can compete with this one if a reader seeks to understand Western literature of...

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Max Wildi (essay date 1955)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Influence and Poetic Development of W. B. Yeats," in English Studies; Vol. 36, Nos. 1-6, 1955, pp. 246-53.

[In the following excerpt from an overview of Yeats's work, Wildi asserts that Yeats's poetic influence was reciprocal: even as he helped such writers as Arthur Symons, Thomas Sturge Moore, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and W. H. Auden, he was himself helped by them.]

Any poet whose gift survives the first impulse of youth must not only learn to practise the craft of verse as a conscious discipline, he must also be capable of inward renewal. Among modern English writers both D. H. Lawrence and T. S. Eliot each in his own way show this power of transcending...

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Charles A. Raines (essay date 1959)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Yeats' Metaphors of Permanence," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 5, No. 1, 1959, pp. 12-20.

[In the following excerpt, Raines examines Yeats's later poems and arques that they contain metaphors which represent order amid chaos and which consequently unify Yeats's later work.]

One of the constant themes in modern poetry, the search for permanence, grows primarily out of the idea that the twentieth century is a time of utter chaos and continual disruption, both spiritual and material, or, as Yeats describes it in a note to his poem "The Second Coming," "our scientific, democratic, fact-accumulating, heterogeneous civilization." Yeats, as a modern poet, is...

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Yvor Winters (essay date 1960)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Poetry of W. B. Yeats," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 6, No. 1, April 1960, pp. 3-24.

[In the following excerpt, Winters criticizes selections from The Collected Poems, finding fault with many aspects of them including Yeats's philosophy, his use of symbolism, his elevated style, and the rhythm of his lines.]

We have been told many times that we do not have to take the ideas of Yeats seriously in order to appreciate his poetry; but if this is true, Yeats is the first poet of whom it has ever been true. We need to understand the ideas of Donne and of Shakespeare in order to appreciate their works, and we have to take their ideas seriously in...

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A. G. Stock (essay date 1965)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "From the National to the Universal," in The Dublin Magazine, Vol. 4, Nos. 3 & 4, Autumn/Winter 1965, pp. 28-35.

[In the following excerpt, Stock concentrates on Yeats's concern for Ireland and his involvement with magic, tracing the presence of both in his poetry throughout his career by focusing on a selection of poems that unites these interests.]

"I am persuaded," says Yeats in Autobiographies, "that our intellects at twenty contain all the truths we shall ever find, but as yet we do not know truths that belong to us from opinion caught up in casual irritation or momentary fantasy. As life goes on, we discover that certain truths sustain us in...

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Marjorie G. Perloff (essay date 1969)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "'Heart Mysteries': The Later Love Lyrics of W. B. Yeats," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 10, No. 2, pp.

[In the following excerpt, Perloff provides explications of structure, semantics, and sound and uses biographical information about Yeats's feelings for Maud Gonne during the last two decades of his life to analyze lyrics of Yeats's second Maud Gonne cycle.]

In the love lyrics of his last decade, Yeats, the critics would have it, finally turned from a disembodied and sterile courtly ideal to "desecration and the lover's night." The last stanza of "Among School Children," for example, with its famous assertion that "Labour is blossoming or dancing where/...

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Joyce Carol Oates (essay date 1969)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Yeats: Violence, Tragedy, Mutability," in Bucknell Review, Vol. XVII, No. 3, December 1969, pp. 1-17.

[In the following excerpt, Oates asserts that the violent events and "farfetched and grotesque" images of Yeats's work are a result of his view of life as a dynamic chaos that needs to be shaped and controlled through art.]

In his last poems Yeats moves toward a contemplative and dispassionate assertion of the joy that can arise out of tragedy, and the poem that ends his career, "Under Ben Bulben," leaves us with the image of a cold eye looking upon life and death equally, unmoved, like the golden bird of "Sailing to Byzantium" that sings equally of what is...

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Desmond Pacey (essay date 1970)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Children in the Poetry of Yeats," in The Dalhousie Review, Vol. 50, No. 2, Summer 1970, pp. 233-48.

[In the following excerpt, Pacey discusses the evolution of Yeats's allusions to children from those of a Romantic modified by touches of "irony" and "humour" to those of a realist who recognized that children are not ideal creatures but are in fact human beings with bad as well as good traits.]

Yeats' multiplicity of powerful poems about sexual love, old age, and Irish society has distracted attention from his poetic treatment of children. Apart from a number of articles and essays on "Among Schoolchildren", the subject remains literally unexplored. And yet...

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Thomas L. Byrd, Jr. (essay date 1978)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Environment of the Quest: The Poetic Dream," in The Early Poetry of W. B. Yeats: The Poetic Quest, Kennikat Press, 1978, pp. 11-38.

[In the following excerpt, Byrd interprets animal and plant imagery as important aspects of Yeats's poetry, suggesting that such images authenticate the "poetic dream" of art's eternal power.]

Directly connected with Yeats's use of specific landscapes are his references to the animals and plants that inhabit these areas. Yeats's poems are very heavily populated with various forms ofanimal and vegetable life, and in such a natural way that the reader is not so much aware of their importance as he is conscious of their presence,...

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William O'Neill (essay date 1983)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Yeats on Poetry and Politics," in The Midwest Quarterly, Vol. XXV, No. 1, Autumn 1983, pp. 64-73.

[In the following excerpt, O'Neill suggests that Yeats's poetical interpretation of political events evolved from bitterness to acceptance as Yeats tried to impose order on chaos by applying the theories of historical cycles which he explains in his collection of poems entitled A Vision.]

William Butler Yeats came of age during the Parnell era, a time of great political excitement in Ireland. By the mid-eighties Charles Stuart Parnell and his supporters had, by obstructionist tactics, forced the issue of home rule upon the English Parliament. Seven hundred years...

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Elizabeth Butler Cullingford (essay date 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Anxiety of Masculinity," in Gender and History in Yeats's Love Poetry, Cambridge University Press, 1993, pp. 11-24.

[In the following excerpt, Cullingford examines Yeats's personality and his love poetry, suggesting that Yeats possessed feminine qualities which enabled him to write untraditional poems in praise of the women he loved.]

Love poetry, the discourse of sexuality in verse, is inflected by the gender of the subject position adopted by its author. In this respect Yeats's work is problematic. As an Irish nationalist poet he was expected to produce "manly" verse in order to counteract the colonial stero-type of the Irish as effeminate and childish....

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Cross, K. G. W., and Dunlop, R. T. A Bibliography of Yeats Criticism 1887-1965. London: Macmillan Press, 1971, 341 p.

Lists reviews, essays, articles, whole books, dissertations and theses about Yeats and includes a chronology of Yeats's works.

Jochum, K. P. S. W. B. Yeats: A Classified Bibliography of Criticism, 2d ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990, 1176 p.

Extensive bibliography listing approximately 12,000 items. Jochum notes that his aim is to be "complete" rather than "selective."

Wade, Allan. A...

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