William Butler Yeats 101
It is possible that no other 20th-century poet has had as much of a singular and lasting impact on his nation and national literature than William Butler Yeats (1865–1939). Yeats’s wide range of styles and subjects reflected the changing world he inhabited and influenced generations of writers who came after him. He once wanted to “hammer his thoughts into unity,” but his best writing was borne of his own personal conflicts and ideological contradictions in order to engage the full complexity of life.
On the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Yeats’s birth, the editors celebrate the man and the myth by looking back at his long and varied career, with samples from our poetry archive.
Yeats showed an interest in poetry from an early age. His first works, many written before he turned 20, show the influence of Romantic poets, especially William Blake and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Notable examples include “The Song of the Happy Shepherd,” featuring elements of mysticism, and “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” an idealized and nostalgic poem that fantasizes about rural living. Some characteristics of these early poems, such as a focus on unrequited love and a fascination for dreams and visions, remained common themes throughout Yeats’s long and multifarious career.
Irish Folklore and Revivalism
Fascinated by the Ireland of centuries past, Yeats wrote poems about Irish history and figures of Celtic mythology, including “To the Rose upon the Rood of Time,” “To Ireland in the Coming Times,” and “The Song of Wandering Aengus.” These poems in particular engage in legends and folklore while evoking traditional ballads and songs. Yeats’s endeavors into the Irish Literary Revival movement were not limited to poetry alone: he founded the National Literary Society in 1892, cofounded the Irish Literary Theatre in 1899, and years later founded and wrote plays for the Abbey Theatre, which showcased works of contemporary Irish playwrights and authors and found great success. Some of his plays, including Ego Dominus Tuus, appeared in Poetry magazine.
A Dramatic Shift
In poems such as “Adam’s Curse,” Yeats’s earlier, more formal and elevated language of Romanticism begins to evolve into a more colloquial and direct style of speech. This shift continued after Yeats met the highly influential poet and critic Ezra Pound in 1909. Pound became Yeats’s secretary and helped dramatically reshape Yeats’s writing. Poems from this time, such as “To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing” and “September 1913,” are widely seen as Yeats’s first Modernist poems. As evident in the drastic stylistic changes between “To Ireland in the Coming Times” and “September 1913,” Yeats and other artists and writers were beginning to realize that the language they used to describe ancient battles, among other things, was inadequate in the face of the actual upheaval of the early 20th century. There could be no more talk of “The weak worm hiding down in its small cave, / The field-mouse running by me in the grass … ”, as he writes in an earlier poem, because now “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone, / It’s with O’Leary in the grave.”
Poetry and Politics
Yeats’s new, Modern way of seeing the world, matched with a rapidly changing political landscape, led to some of his best-known works. Chief among them is “Easter, 1916,” a reaction to the Easter uprising, a violent and failed attempt by Irish nationalists to overthrow British rule. In the poem, Yeats, himself a strong supporter of the nationalist cause, commemorates the dead insurgents without idealizing them as he struggles to make sense of the event, repeating the lament “A terrible beauty is born.” Yeats felt conflicted about whether violence was the best (or necessary) route to Irish independence, and this ambivalence marks many of his poems. In “An Irish Airman foresees his Death,” Yeats envisions a WW I pilot embarking on a fatal flight, knowing that “Those that I fight I do not hate, / Those that I guard I do not love;” and ruminating on his decision to enter a war in which “No likely end could bring them loss / Or leave them happier than before.” In another poem from the same book, “On being asked for a War Poem,” Yeats is even more ambivalent, suggesting poetry ought to stay out of politics altogether.
Aging and Mysticism
Yeats had always been interested in mythology and mysticism, and even the occult, but these worlds began to influence his work profoundly in the middle of his career. In 1917, Yeats married Georgie Hyde-Lees, and the couple soon began experimenting with automatic (or unconscious, spirit-driven) writing. These activities led to a renewed and expanded interest in magic and mysticism clearly visible in his book A Vision (1925). From this collaborative work with his wife, Yeats developed complicated theories about life and history, believing that certain recurring patterns existed. Yeats took up this idea in “The Second Coming,” which is seen as a masterpiece and a critique of post–WWI Europe: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” Perhaps inspired by war’s constant reminder of mortality, Yeats remained, at other times, reflective on his own life in Ireland, as in “A Prayer for My Daughter.” His poem “Sailing to Byzantium” is a more subdued reflection on aging: “An aged man is but a paltry thing, / A tattered coat upon a stick. … ”
Despite his laments about aging, Yeats continued to write and publish at a feverish pace in his 60s and 70s. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1923 and served in the Irish Senate from 1922 to 1928 to further his attempts to encourage the artistic vitality of Ireland. The poems and plays he produced during his Senate terms and beyond are simultaneously local and general, personal and public, and Irish and universal. His writing then became even more reflective as he contemplated not only the world around him but also his role as contemplator. An avid editor of his own collections, Yeats chose to end his final volume, Last Poems (1939), with “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” and “Politics,” which both record Yeats’s own evaluation of his career and his four great subjects: youth and old age and the head and the heart. In “Politics,” the speaker cannot focus on world events when he notices a girl and concludes, “But O that I were young again / And held her in my arms.”
At the time of his death in 1939, Yeats was not only a national favorite in Ireland but also a major literary figure around the world.