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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Douglas Archibald’s contribution to the admirable Irish Studies series of Syracuse University Press is a brilliant volume on Yeats—compact but definitive. Drawing upon an idea from Yeats’s introduction to The Words upon the Window-Pane (1934), Archibald proposes to examine the process by which the “originals” of the poet’s thought—each source “in its first language”—changed and evolved to become the achievement of “an ideal expression.” This process involved both the modification of the poet’s art and the influences of changing life experiences that molded his temperament. In his study, Archibald attempts more than a close reading of certain poems or other works by Yeats; instead, he searches into the sources of artistic growth, development, and final expression of crucial patterns in Yeats’s writings. To discover these sources in the poet’s life, Archibald studies as well the evolution of Yeats’s thinking about problems that served repeatedly as his subjects.

To organize his material, Archibald treats in chapters topics that are individually self-contained essays but cumulatively give the reader a full understanding of the poet’s development. These chapters, arranged from general or introductory to more specialized, usually center on one or more major poems. In “The Last Romantic,” Archibald shows how Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s meditative lyrics, especially “Frost at Midnight,” relate to “A Prayer for My Daughter.” In “Father and Son: John Butler and William Butler Yeats,” Archibald provides an account, both illuminating and compassionate, of a paternal influence that lasted beyond the father’s death and, for the son, achieved touching final expression in “Beautiful Lofty Things.” “Friends and Friendships” treats the impact upon Yeats’s sensibility of his relationship with Mabel Beardsley, Maud Gonne, and Lady Augusta Gregory. Selecting from numerous poems, Archibald shows how Yeats modified through the years his attitudes toward these women, usually reaching an ultimate sentiment of reconciliation.

From these chapters treating the formative inuences of certain personalities upon Yeats’s work, the author turns to a larger scene of social intercourse. In “Anglo-Ireland and Celtic Ireland: 1865-1913,” he explains the role of the Ascendancy—the Protestant minority of Ireland—in shaping Yeats’s thought; the author treats Yeats’s Celtic-inspired poems and plays and concludes with “A Coat.” Following this background historical chapter, his next subject is “Politics and Public Life: 1913-1939,” an account of the “Troubles” and centering on perceptive analyses of “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” and “The Tower.”

The final chapters of the book treat specialized topics, again in the context of Yeats’s developing (and sometimes changing) attitudes toward his subjects. In “The Occult—A Vision,” Archibald explains in language notably lucid the complex subject of Yeats’s research into spiritism; together with minor poems, some prose works, and plays treated in this chapter are the central poems “Sailing to Byzantium” and “Byzantium.” In “The Antimonies,” Archibald’s most penetrating (and difficult) essay, the writer turns to Yeats’s “Whole System,” involving an approach to the ultimate realities; among a number of works examined in this chapter are the Crazy Jane poems—linking sex, death, and the dance—as well as “Among School Children” and “Lapis Lazuli.” Archibald’s study concludes with “Valediction,” which treats Last Poems, particularly “Long-Legged Fly” and “The Circus Animals’ Desertion.”

Searching out the “originals” of Yeats’s thought, Archibald accepts the poet’s assertion that he seeks “more than idioms, for thoughts become more vivid when I find they were thought out in historical circumstances . . . or . . . were thought out first by men my ancestors may have known.” In...

(The entire section is 1,505 words.)