William Butler Yeats Analysis

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Throughout a literary career spanning a half century, William Butler Yeats distinguished himself principally by means of the production of some dozen volumes of lyric poems. His early work is most clearly indebted to the English Romantics, but his commitment to the cause of the Irish Literary Revival, of which he was the leader, and to the management of its showcase, the Abbey Theatre, gave him an increasingly public voice. The poetry of his last twenty years contains his most complex, modernist, and profound work and is often considered the highest achievement in that genre during the twentieth century.

Yeats was also the author of a considerable body of essays, reviews, and introductions during a career of literary journalism and theatrical management: Essays and Introductions (1961), Explorations (1962), and Uncollected Prose by W. B. Yeats (two volumes; 1970, 1976). He collected and edited writings and promoted the work of such collaborators as Lady Augusta Gregory and John Millington Synge. Yeats’s early excursions into short fiction are collected in Mythologies (1959). Autobiographical fragments are found in Autobiographies (1926, 1955) and Memoirs (1972). A Vision (1925, 1937) sets forth a symbolic ordering of history and human character in a manner chiefly useful in explicating his poetry, while The Senate Speeches of W. B. Yeats (1960) gathers some of his public statements from the 1920’s. The Yeats correspondence is partially collected in The Letters of W. B. Yeats (1954) and in Ah, Sweet Dancer: W. B. Yeats, Margot Ruddock—A Correspondence (1970).


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

William Butler Yeats’s reputation as one of the masters of modern literature rests mainly on his achievements in poetry, and his dramatic work has long been regarded less favorably as “poetry in the theater.” This aspect of his uvre has, however, been reassessed, and he has come to be regarded as one of the boldest and most original dramatists of the twentieth century. As one of the founders, first playwrights, and lifetime directors of the Abbey Theatre , Yeats was the central figure of the Irish Literary Renaissance . The example of efforts to develop a modern and national literature that drew on Celtic mythology, folklore, and the oral tradition of Ireland provided incentives for the latent talents of such dramatists as Lady Augusta Gregory, John Millington Synge, Padraic Colum, and Sean O’Casey.

Although Yeats experimented with several dramatic styles, including peasant realism, farce, and naturalism, his genius found its true métier in a highly sophisticated drama that combined poetry, dance, mask, and symbolic action to represent a world of ideals and pure passion. These plays, borrowed from the tradition of the Japanese N for their form and from Celtic heroic tales for their subjects, expressed Yeats’s views of the primacy of imaginative or spiritual realities of which historical change and the differentiation of human character are emanations. Yeats was therefore at odds with modern realism and with its interest in individual character and social relations: An attitude of detachment and impersonality shaped his works into intensely ritualized expressions, having affinities both with religious drama and absurdism.

Yeats lived through revolutions in politics and sensibility. Most important, through a lifelong remaking of dramatic and lyric form and style, Yeats achieved a continuous renovation of his own spirit. Thus, he became one of those primarily responsible for the restoration to Ireland of its cultural heritage, at the same time forging an idiom that the modern world at large considers its own.

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

William Butler Yeats, a prolific writer, composed hundreds of lyrical, narrative, and dramatic poems. It was not unusual to find characters from his short stories appearing in his poems; Michael Robartes and the Dancer , a collection of poems published in 1920, is one example. In addition to writing poetry, he contributed to the Irish dramatic movement, which culminated in the...

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