William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) was born in Dublin, but grew up in County Sligo, where he learned a great deal about peasant folklore. “Religious by temperament but unable to believe in Christian orthodoxy,” he “sought all his life to compensate for his lost religion,” turning to “various kinds of mysticism, to folklore, theosophy, spiritualism, and neoplatonism. He said he had ‘made a new religion, almost an infallible church of poetic tradition'” 2019. In London in the 1890s, Yeats adopted a Pre-Raphaelite belief in the dreamy, evocative tone of poetry and in symbolism and the occult. Finally, in Dublin, “where he founded the National Literary Society, he was influenced by Irish nationalism,” and saw poetry as potentially reinvigorating to Irish culture, even if he did not think it should explicitly serve political ends.
Yeats began as a self-conscious Romantic, influenced by Spenser, Shelley, and Blake. He called “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” his “first lyric with anything in its rhythm of my own music” 2020. He created hybrids of British and Irish tradition, reclaiming and reimagining Irish space, but also “insisting on the trandnationalism of the collective storehouse of images he calls ‘Spiritus Mundi’ or ‘Anima Mundi’… cross-pollinating forms, ideas, and images from Ireland and England, Europe and Asia” 2020. An early interest in Irish nationalism led Yeats to the simple, concrete image, free of cliche and abstraction.
In his middle period, at the turn of the century, Yeats attempted a more holistic aesthetic, combining passion and reason, the colloquial and the formal, a “will to leave behind the poetic ’embroideries’ of his youth and walk ‘naked” 2020. (Ezra Pound wintered with Yeats from 1913-16 and encouraged a stripped-down style.) He preferred the working classes and the aristocracy to the middle class for their traditions. Yeats founded the Abbey theatre in 1904 under Lady Gregory’s influence. He wanted to bring the two religious halves (Protestant and Catholic) together, but was abandoned by both sides and moved to England. In 1916, the Easter Rising drew Yeats back to Ireland. Torn between two political experiences, much of Yeats’ poetry “mediates between contending aspects of himself – late Romantic visionary and astringent modern skeptic, Irish patriot and irreverent antinationalist, shrewd man of action and esoteric dreamer. As he said, ‘We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry” 2021.
After marrying in 1917, he wrote prolifically, namely A Vision (1925), which he believed dictated by spirits and which held a theory of the movements of history and personality as dictated by phases of the moon. “At the center of the symbolic system were the interpenetrating cones, or ‘gyres,’ that represented movement through major cycles of history and across antitheses of human personality” 2021. In the later poems of the 20s and 30s, spirals, staircases, gyres, and tops allowed Yeats to explore what he had seen as contradictions as continuities. Yeats believed, like Robartes, that “The mind, whether expressed in history or in the individual life, has a precise movement, which can be quickened or slackened but cannot be fundamentally altered, and this movement can be expressed by a mathematical form, and this form is the gyre.” They gyre can be pictured as a single structure, widening and then narrowing back on itself, but the concatenated double-gyre is more often used in portrayals of Yeats’ theory, since his thought in many ways was fundamentally dualistic. Yeats called this “the Diamond and the Hourglass.” Much of the raw style he had cut from early work as ‘unpoetic’ appears in later poems, which focus on the mortal world as imbricated with the visionary one. (He was also influenced by Nietzsche, who led him to consider ruin as a key to creativity.) In some ways, this later work returns to the early through its spiritualism, but it remains more bodily and grounded, an influence of his middle period.
Formally, Yeats is both “a literary traditionalist, working within such inherited genres as love poetry, the elegy, the self-elegy, the sonnet, and the occasional poem on public themes. But he is also a restless innovator who disrupts generic conventions, breaking up the coherence of the sonnet, deidealizing the dead mourned in elegies, and bringing into public poems an intense personal ambivalence” 2022. Yeats’ idealization of feudal society and opposition to colonialism and the bourgeoisie led him toward authoritarianism and fascism toward the end of his life. Finally he was “appalled by all political ideologies” 2022. “Man can embody truth but he cannot know it,” Yeats said late in life of his poetry.
THE ROSE (1893)
“THE LAKE ISLE OF INNISFREE,” 1890
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree, And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made: Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee; And live alone in the bee-loud glade. 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 full of the linnet's wings. I will arise and go now, for always night and day I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore; While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey, I hear it in the deep heart's core.
Typical of Yeats’ early style, influenced by peasant folklore, the poem employs a more cumbersome reversed syntax and stylistic tropes like the lovely kenning “bee-loud glade” in the first stanza. In the second stanza, peace, an abstraction, drops from the morning, and the different times of day are made magical and symbolic. The final stanza seems to return the viewer to the actual space of experience, in the urban setting of London. The overall tone of the poem is characterized by longing and resolve – I will arise and go now, I shall have, etc., perhaps to emphasize the dreamy, reparative work the symbolic Ireland has on the heart.
IN THE SEVEN WOODS (1904)
“ADAM’S CURSE,” 1902
“A COAT,” 1914
I MADE my song a coat
Covered with embroideries
Out of old mythologies
From heel to throat;
But the fools caught it,
Wore it in the world’s eyes
As though they’d wrought it.
Song, let them take it,
For there’s more enterprise
In walking naked.
The first line, “I made my song a coat” abuts the two objects, song and coat, as predicates. In covering the poem “with embroideries/ out of old mythologies/ from heel to throat,” Yeats crafts an image of his earlier work, festooned with mythology as ornament, from beginning to end. The “fools caught it,/ Wore it in the world’s eyes/ As though they’d wrought it,” the speaker complains. This reminds me of the story of Joseph and the many-colored coat in the Bible, where Joseph has 2 dreams of leadership that, in addition to the gift of the coat, make his brothers envious, so they sell Jacob, naked, for 20 pieces of silver, dip his coat in blood, and tell their father he has died. In the final sentence, the poet addresses poetry itself with an apostrophe: “Song, let them take it,” he says, “For there’s more enterprise/ In walking naked.” Again, the presence of the word “enterprise,” as well as the image of the “naked” poet, stripped bare but retaining what is essential to him, is reminiscent of the story of Joseph. Perhaps Yeats saw the visionary act of poetry as something that engendered fear and jealousy in others, though this poem could also be simply about Yeats’ transition out of a phase of more symbolic work and into a more material, stripped-down era, one Ezra Pound encouraged in this period (1909-1913 or so). Yeats also maintains an interest in patchwork in “Easter 1916,” where someone wears “motley,” the patchwork of a jester.
THE WILD SWANS AT COOLE
“THE WILD SWANS AT COOLE,” 1917
MICHAEL ROBARTES AND THE DANCER (1921)
“EASTER, 1916,” 1916
“THE SECOND COMING,” 1919
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
The poem was written after World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, as the stirrings of the Anglo-Irish war intensified. It is perhaps the clearest expression of Yeats’ historical theory of the gyre, a series of interlocking cones which meet as one historical cycle closes and another is at its peak. Yeats believed that one 2,000-year cycle had begun with the birth of Christ, and the time for the next was therefore nigh upon the 20th century. “The ceremony of innocence” may be religion or simply the facade of society, and it is thought that perhaps Yeats’ fondness for the feudal system, with its historical roots and rituals, is implied in “the best [the aristocracy] lack all conviction, while the worst [the lower classes]/ Are full of passionate intensity.” The invocation of “surely” twice seems to suggest a desire for revelation, for the arrival of Christ; instead, an image appears – a vision, almost a hallucination in the desert – of the rough sphinxlike beast “slouching towards Bethlehem to be born.” As the poem ends in an uncertain question, the birds that circle over the creature seem poised to eat the spoils of the Christian era.
“A PRAYER FOR MY DAUGHTER,” 1919
The poem, rather long to reproduce here, posits the speaker looking at his firstborn child sleeping through a howling storm. He is “Imagining in excited reverie/ That the future years had come,/ Dancing to a frenzied drum,/ Out of the murderous innocence of the sea.” Thus vision arrives in the same eerie way so many of Yeats’ visions do, even when concerned with the personal fate of his child. “May she be granted beauty and yet not…” he begins. He is concerned that if she is too beautiful she will “make a stranger’s eye distraught” or herself “Consider beauty a sufficient end.” He thinks of women who have suffered for beauty and wishes instead that she “live like some green laurel/ Rooted in one dear perpetual place” (the eerie thing here is how reminiscent this is of Daphne turning into a laurel in Ovid when her brother tries to rape her…) “An intellectual hatred is the worst,/ So let her think opinions are accursed.” Still fixated on Maud Gonne, he critiques her losses as based on her opinionated nature. “And may her bridegroom bring her to a house/ Where all’s accustomed, ceremonious…/How but in custom and in ceremony/ Are innocence and beauty born?/ Ceremony’s a name for the rich horn,/ And custom for the spreading laurel tree.” Something about old-world society and tradition still have the greatest values in Yeats’ highly gendered hopes for his daughter.
THE TOWER (1928)
“SAILING TO BYZANTIUM,” 1926
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unaging intellect.
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.
O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
Yeats idealized the world of Byantium in the 6th century C.E. In A Vision, he writes: “I think that in early Byzantium, maybe never before or since in recorded history, religious, aesthetic, and practical life were one, that architect and artificers… spoke to the multitude and the few alike… almost impersonal, almost perhaps without the consciousness of individual design, absorbed in their subject matter and that the vision of a whole people.” The poem has 4 stanzas, each of 8 lines. Each octet holds the rhyme scheme abababcc. The space of Byzantium is frozen in time, almost like the world of Keats’ Grecian Urn – it is ageless, full of food and life, with unageing monuments (all ironic, of course, since all has disappeared). In the second stanza, we get a sharp comparison of that world with the modern one, which once again invokes the image of a tattered coat and of old age (“an aged man is but a paltry thing,/ A tattered coat upon a stick”), and “therefore I have sailed the seas and come/ To the holy city of Byzantium.” In the third stanza, the religious dream of purity by fire is united with the aesthetic representation of gold-leaf mosaic (Yeats visited Ravenna in 1907), and he feels them “perne in a gyre,” or whirl in the spiral of history toward him, to “be the singing-masters of my soul.” His thick desire to be subsumed: “Consume my heart away; sick with desire… Into the artifice of eternity” rings with sadness and nostalgia. In the final stanza, the speaker vows that when he loses his body, he will not take a natural form again, but a hammered-metal body of a bird like Grecian sculptor would make “To keep a drowsy Emperor awake/ Or set upon a golden bough to sing/ To lords and ladies of Byzantium/ Of what is past, or passing, or to come.” The interchangeability of this role reaffirms the unity of aesthetic vision Yeats sees in this period – he can visually keep an emperor awake or sing as a poet – thus form and content unite in the ageless, frozen moment of “what is past, or passing, or to come. In this sense, too, Yeats enacts the timelessness of aesthetics, both by invoking and viscerally portraying Byzantium, but also by tying his poem to Keats and other poets of the past, and by providing nuances that gesture towards a poetic future. His friend Sturge Moore critiqued the idea that “a bird made by a goldsmith was just as natural as anything else,” so he wrote “Byzantium” as “an exposition” on that idea.
“LEDA & THE SWAN,” 1923
“NINETEEN HUNDRED AND NINETEEN,” actually written 1922 or later?
The poem, quite long, bemoans losses: “Many ingenious lovely things are gone/ That seemed sheer miracle to the multitude” – idols, toys, decency, justice: “We pieced our thoughts into philosophy,/ And planned to bring the world under a rule,/ Who are but weasels fighting in a hole.” “Man is in love and loves what vanishes.” “Some moralist or mythological poet/ Compares the solitary soul to a swan;/ I am satisfied with that,/ Satisfied if a troubled mirror show it,/ Before that brief gleam of its life be gone.” “We who, seven years ago/ Talked of honour and of truth,/ Shriek with pleasure if we show/ The weasel’s twist, the weasel’s tooth.” The speaker enjoins us to mock the great, the wise, the good, and the mockers: “for we/ Traffic in mockery.”
“AMONG SCHOOL CHILDREN,”1926
I walk through the long schoolroom questioning;
A kind old nun in a white hood replies;
The children learn to cipher and to sing,
To study reading-books and histories,
To cut and sew, be neat in everything
In the best modern way — the children’s eyes
In momentary wonder stare upon
A sixty-year-old smiling public man.
Remarkable for Yeats’ interest in genealogy, mythology and folklore in the material bodies of the children, the references to Platonic and Aristotelian ideas about phenomenology and love unions, and ending with the famous aesthetic query, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” – in a perverse way, a precursor to Marshall McLuhan’s “the medium is the message.”
THE WINDING STAIR (1933)
THE unpurged images of day recede;
The Emperor’s drunken soldiery are abed;
Night resonance recedes, night walkers’ song
After great cathedral gong;
A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains
All that man is,
All mere complexities,
The fury and the mire of human veins.
Before me floats an image, man or shade,
Shade more than man, more image than a shade;
For Hades’ bobbin bound in mummy-cloth
May unwind the winding path;
A mouth that has no moisture and no breath
Breathless mouths may summon;
I hail the superhuman;
I call it death-in-life and life-in-death.
Miracle, bird or golden handiwork,
More miraclc than bird or handiwork,
Planted on the star-lit golden bough,
Can like the cocks of Hades crow,
Or, by the moon embittered, scorn aloud
In glory of changeless metal
Common bird or petal
And all complexities of mire or blood.
At midnight on the Emperor’s pavement flit
Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit,
Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame,
Where blood-begotten spirits come
And all complexities of fury leave,
Dying into a dance,
An agony of trance,
An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.
Astraddle on the dolphin’s mire and blood,
Spirit after Spirit! The smithies break the flood.
The golden smithies of the Emperor!
Marbles of the dancing floor
Break bitter furies of complexity,
Those images that yet
Fresh images beget,
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.
As previously mentioned, Yeats’ friend Sturge Moore critiqued the idea in “Sailing to Byzantium” that “a bird made by a goldsmith was just as natural as anything else,” so Yeats wrote “Byzantium” as “an exposition” on that idea. This “exposition” seems to fix again on the eternal nature of artifice – as flame that does not burn,” and “those images that yet/ Fresh images beget” – an artistic tradition that culminates with dolphins (who would carry the dead to the Isles of the Blessed) and gong-tormented sea (reference again to that ceremony that Yeats so values?). The repetition of complexities is interesting too – first as men who are “mere complexities” (recall the “mere anarchy” of “The Second Coming”) then as aesthetic miracle and release.
“CRAZY JANE TALKS WITH THE BISHOP,” 1931
I met the Bishop on the road
And much said he and I.
‘Those breasts are flat and fallen now,
Those veins must soon be dry;
Live in a heavenly mansion,
Not in some foul sty.’
‘Fair and foul are near of kin,
And fair needs foul,’ I cried.
‘My friends are gone, but that’s a truth
Nor grave nor bed denied,
Learned in bodily lowliness
And in the heart’s pride.
‘A woman can be proud and stiff
When on love intent;
But Love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement;
For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent.’
From the perspective of the persona Jane in 3 6-line stanzas, this poem is shaped by allusions Jane herself never actually makes – to Macbeth (fair and foul and the witches), to the Bible, and even in its violence, to Yeats’ own “Leda and the Swan.” As in “Leda,” too, woman is an important symbol for Yeats – while other figures are abstracted into swans and symbols, woman, by virtue of her reproductive power, already seems to be symbolic. While the bishop condemns Jane for her appearance and lifestyle, she is intent on “making hay while the sun shines,” as it were. Yeats was 70 when he wrote it.
NEW POEMS (1938)
“LAPIS LAZULI,” 1936
The poem concerns a piece of lapis lazuli from China depicting an ascetic, a servant, and a pupil climbing a mountain. For Yeats, “the east has its solutions always and therefore knows nothing of tragedy. It is we, not the east, that must raise the heroic cry. In the final stanza, Yeats ruminates on how perfect its accidents appear: “Every discolouration of the stone… Seems a water-course or an avalanche… On all the tragic scene they stare… Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,/ Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.” There is also a bird flying over, “A symbol of longevity,” doubling the symbolism of long-held knowledge and solution that Yeats seems to peer on here.
LAST POEMS (1939)
“THE CIRCUS ANIMALS’ DESERTION,” 1939
I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,
I sought it daily for six weeks or so.
Maybe at last, being but a broken man,
I must be satisfied with my heart, although
Winter and summer till old age began
My circus animals were all on show,
Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot,
Lion and woman and the Lord knows what.
What can I but enumerate old themes,
First that sea-rider Oisin led by the nose
Through three enchanted islands, allegorical dreams,
Vain gaiety, vain battle, vain repose,
Themes of the embittered heart, or so it seems,
That might adorn old songs or courtly shows;
But what cared I that set him on to ride,
I, starved for the bosom of his faery bride.
And then a counter-truth filled out its play,
‘The Countess Cathleen’ was the name I gave it;
She, pity-crazed, had given her soul away,
But masterful Heaven had intervened to save it.
I thought my dear must her own soul destroy
So did fanaticism and hate enslave it,
And this brought forth a dream and soon enough
This dream itself had all my thought and love.
And when the Fool and Blind Man stole the bread
Cuchulain fought the ungovernable sea;
Heart-mysteries there, and yet when all is said
It was the dream itself enchanted me:
Character isolated by a deed
To engross the present and dominate memory.
Players and painted stage took all my love,
And not those things that they were emblems of.
Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. 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.
Yeats’ last poem, it traces his career in interesting ways. The speaker begins by lamenting the lack of a theme; he must settle for his heart instead. With “Lion and woman and the Lord knows what,” Yeats looks back on the Irish folklore of his early poems, which are his “circus animals.” He reviews his early-middle period, from the poems and the play that retell old stories and legends to the more political play about Maud Gonne, in which she is idealized as a self-sacrificing heroine. “When all is said/ It was the dream itself enchanted me:/ Character isolated by a deed/ To engross the present and dominate memory./ Players and painted stage took all my love/ And not those things that they were emblem of.” Here Yeats claims his characterological and historical interests over his symbolic ones. In the final stanza, Yeats wonders where his “masterful images” originated – “A mound of refuse” that is reminscent of 1922’s “The Waste Land” with its “These fragments I have shored against my ruin.” He ends with a meditation on how bodily and spiritual his death is at once: “I must lie down where all the ladders start/ In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”