William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

William Butler Yeats was Irish. He was the great figure in the poetry of the early part of the 20th century. When he began writing, an important concern of his poetry was to praise and glorify the nature of his native land and its people. He revived the myths and legends, and made a great contribution to the new literary traditions linked with the national liberation movement. His work covered fifty years: his first poems were written in 1889 and his last were written in 1939. He was a symbolist who had his roots in the aesthetic movement of the 80’s— 90’s of the 19th century. His earlier poetry is an attempt to escape from his age to the “Lake Isle of Innisfree”, a self-created world of loveliness:

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,

Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;

There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,

And evening fall of the linnet’s wings.

Yeats wants to get away from the reckless world and plunge into the dreamy, mythical world of stars:

Be you still, be you still, trembling heart;

Remember the wisdom out of the old days:

Him who trembles before the flame and the flood.

And the winds that blow through the starry ways,

Let the starry winds and the flame and the flood

Cover over and hide, for he has no part

With the lonely, majectical multitude.

The most important col­lections of verse belonging to Yeats’s first period are “The Wind among the Reeds” (1899), “The Rose” (1903), “Green Helmet and other Poems” (1912).

Yeats wrote over twenty volumes of poetry in his long career as well as many plays. His best-known plays are “Cathleen Ni Houlihan” (1902) where the poor old woman symbolizes the misfortune of Ireland, and “Deirdre” (1907) based on Celtic mythology. Yeats was very important in the revival of Irish drama in the early age of the century, known as the Celtic Revival, and his plays were staged at the famous Abbey Theatre in Dublin. He described himself as among “the last of the Romantics” in 1931, and wrote some of the best poems, “Sailing to Byzan­tium”, describing Ireland as “no country for old men”.

From love poems to poems of political crisis, the range of Yeats’s work makes him one of the great poets of the century. Later he denied the sentimental and romantic trends of his earlier work. The style of his verse became more intricate, where his personal memories prevailed. He disappointed with a world unfit for sensitive people:

We had fed the heart on fantasies,

The heart’s grown brutal from the fare,

More substance in our enmities

Than in our Love.

(“The Tower”)

In his poem “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” the airman knows he will die in a war which does not affect his village in Ireland. Still he will die because of the pleasure of danger and excitement of fighting in the air:

I balanced all, brought all to mind;

The years to come seemed waste of breath,

A waste of breath the years behind,

In balance with this life, this death.

In his last poem Yeats comes back to the unheroic place where they all began. He uses a metaphor to underline the idea that he doesn’t try to pretend now to use grand language to describe great themes:

Now that my ladder’s gone.

I must lie down where all the ladders start,

In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.

William Butler Yeats managed to form a link between two epochs of English Literature by his evolution from the romantic Symbolist of the very end of the 19th century to the sophisticated Realist of the 20th century.

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