William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) has the distinction of being a significant poet of both the 19th and 20th centuries. Had he died in 1900—or, blurring the century line to include 1904's In the Seven Woods—he might not have been considered a major poet, but he certainly would have been remembered. “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” would have been the same anthology favorite that it has been, I suppose, since it was published. And there are at least half a dozen more poems in those early books that would have lived on similarly, and many more than that to reward the reader who looked further than anthologies.
The early work is decidedly 19th century. Yeats was Irish and very much involved with the revival of Celtic art and culture that was sometimes called the “Celtic Twilight” movement, and he was sympathetic (at least) to Irish nationalism. Both these facts now seem a little surprising to me, since he was of Protestant ancestry. But I don't actually know much about Irish history beyond the very broadest outlines, and perhaps they shouldn't be surprising.
The Celtic Twilight poems are romantic in every sense. The first poem, “The Song of the Happy Shepherd,” in the first book, Crossways, states the position:
The woods of Arcady are dead,
And over is their antique joy;
Of old the world on dreaming fed;
Grey Truth is now her painted toy...
The poems are lush and dreamy and often attempt to get at an ecstatic or visionary state. Yeats was fascinated—an understatement—by esoteric mystical doctrines and was among those who seemed to regard poetry as a quasi-religious gateway to spiritual experiences. That's a questionable—no, a downright unhealthy—view of what poetry is and what it is for, and it caused the orthodox T.S. Eliot to sniff that Yeats in his early career was “trying to get as poet something like the exaltation to be obtained, I believe, from hashish or nitrous oxide.” (I quote that because it's funny; Eliot was all in all a great admirer of Yeats.)
But whatever may have been amiss with the theory, it produced (or Yeats produced in spite of it), some beautiful and haunting verse, although often of a somewhat misty nature. He tended toward two themes. One was the allure of the pagan supernatural world that he believed, or wished to believe, still existed alongside the mundane Ireland. All you really need to know of the names in this poem is that the Sidhe are a kind of fairy folk.
The Hosting of the Sidhe
The host is riding from Knocknarea
And over the grave of Clooth-na-Bare;
Caoilte tossing his burning hair,
And Niamh calling Away, come away:
Empty your heart of its mortal dream.
The winds awaken, the leaves whirl round,
Our cheeks are pale, our hair is unbound,
Our breasts are heaving, our eyes are agleam,
Our arms are waving, our lips are apart;
And if any gaze on our rushing band,
We come between him and the deed of his hand,
We come between him and the hope of his heart.
The host is rushing twixt night and day,
And where is there hope or deed as fair?
Caoilte tossing his burning hair,
And Niamh calling Away, come away.
You may have read in school another poem on a similar theme, “The Song of Wandering Aengus.” If you don't remember, he was the fellow who hoped to
...pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.
But I think the Sidhe weave a more powerful spell. The lines beginning “We come between him...” never fail to touch me: is that not what happens to anyone any time he feels the touch of unattainable beauty?
The other theme was love, romantic love, and until he was well into middle age the subject of these poems was a woman named Maud Gonne and his unrequited love for her. The complications of his love life continued for many years, and included, in 1916 (or 1917—I'm having trouble finding the exact date), a proposal of marriage from the fifty-something poet to Maud's twenty-something daughter, Iseult.
Oh yes, you are [happy], because you make beautiful poetry out of what you call your unhappiness and are happy in that....The world should thank me for not marrying you.
Yeats's later style became sharper, drier, less mellifluous, more angular. His subject matter became sex, death, politics, and philosophy (not necessarily in order of emphasis). His rhetoric was often blunt. You might say that he became a modernist, but he never abandoned traditional form. Maybe it would be more accurate to say that he responded to modernism, and availed himself of some of the freedom it brought. It occurs to me as I write this that he is comparable to Sibelius, who was born the same year. Both had their roots in Romanticism, and without abandoning those roots adopted what they found useful and appealing in modern innovations, producing work that satisfies both those who were thoroughly impatient with the art of the 19th century and those who thought free verse, atonal music, and abstract painting were ridiculous.
It is this later work that makes us describe him not simply as a major poet, not even simply as a great poet, but as, in the view of many, the great poet in English of the 20th century—that three-quarters or so of the Lyric section of the Collected Poems that lie past a finger holding the book open at the beginning of Responsibilities, which appeared in 1914. Yeats was then almost fifty years old, and would write profusely for another twenty-five years, until his death in 1939. “The Second Coming” appeared in 1921, and as lovely as the early romantic work can be, this is of another and greater order. And he has many poems that can be ranked with it.
I myself am not entirely with those who would call him the greatest of the century. Greatest in pure gift, yes: but I mentioned that philosophy became one of his subjects, and there lies a problem. Yeats was a naturally religious man with no religion. And so he invented his own. That's an over-simplification, but not unfair. The interest in occultism became an attempt to invent, or discover, a set of esoteric doctrines that would explain for him “life, the universe, and everything.” The search included something called “automatic writing” practiced by his wife (he had married not long after his proposal to Iseult Gonne). This involved what sounds like a Ouija-board sort of procedure in which her hand was guided by purported spiritual entities. Concerns about the dangers aside, this does not strike one as a promising approach to understanding the world. His accumulated thought and lore were expounded in A Vision, published in 1926. I read this book many years ago. I couldn't make much sense of it (though there were interesting passages) and have no desire to read it again. Unfortunately there is a good deal of symbolism in his later poetry which is drawn from A Vision and renders some of the work pretty obscure, or perhaps even unintelligible without the key.
A little over ten years ago, in the first year of the Sunday Night Journal, I compared Yeats and Eliot, coming down on the side of Eliot as the greater artist, and this gnosticism of Yeats was a big part of the reason. You can read that piece here.
But as I admit in that piece, the making of these comparisons is a bit silly, and I've already dwelt on them too much. So back to the poetry: as far as I can recall I first encountered Yeats when I was a freshman in college, in the Sound and Sense anthology. If I read anything by him in high school, I don't remember it. The pieces in Sound and Sense are mostly from his later work, but I wasn't aware of the distinction at the time. All I knew was that certain lines of certain poems gave me an electric thrill. “The Second Coming” is the one that remains in my mind as the first of Yeats's poems to produce that sensation. I didn't understand it in any detail, but the overall statement, and especially those final lines, were clear enough. In recent years that magnificent work has been abused by politicians and journalists applying certain aspects of it (“The center cannot hold”) to current politics. I might even say it has been over-exposed. But then perhaps it has come to the attention of people who might not otherwise know it. Ten years or so ago there was a Volkswagen commercial that used a Nick Drake song, and I've come across more than one account of someone hearing it there for the first time, and immediately seeking out more of Drake's work.
After that freshman introduction, I graduated to a Selected Poems, which for many years was all the Yeats I knew. Later, when I finally purchased the Collected Poems, I didn't have much time for reading, so it is the Selected Poems that really formed my view of him, and there is no doubt some undiscovered gold in the Collected. But I haven't discovered it, in part because I always seek out the same favorites. Glancing through the book now, having read little of Yeats over the past fifteen or more years, I see poem after poem that I recognize as an old friend, and line after line that still comes to me often. Almost every day, for instance, and every moonlit night, when I walk through the little stand of trees near my house, I hear
And pierce the deep wood's woven shade.
And there are a number of things that bring up a line or a few lines from Yeats when I think of them. When I think of family, and place, and roots, for instance, I hear
Rooted in one dear perpetual place.
(“A Prayer for My Daughter”)
Of the strange and mysterious phenomena of sex and generation:
“A shudder in the loins engenders there...”
(“Leda And the Swan”)
Of radicals who might do violence:
“...had they but courage equal to desire”
(“No Second Troy”)
Of young lovers:
“...the young in one another's arms...those dying generations”
(“Sailing to Byzantium”)
Of old age:
“An old man's eagle mind”
(“An Acre of Grass”)
Of old age:
“Now may I wither into truth.”
(“The Coming of Wisdom With Time”)
Of the sorrows that must inevitably come to children:
“For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.”
(“The Stolen Child”)
Of all too many politicians and journalists:
Who, were it proved he lies,
Were neither shamed in his own
Nor in his neighbours' eyes...
(“To A Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing”)
Of the wisdom that outlasts rulers:
Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.
Of friends I've known since youth:
But think about old friends the most
(“The Lover Pleads With His Friends For Old Friends”)
Of my wife:
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.
("When You Are Old")
Of the end of things:
A measureless consummation that he dreamed.
(“In Memory of Major Robert Gregory”)
Of the vanities of the passing scene:
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!
(“Under Ben Bulben”)
Those are the last lines of the last poem in his last book, and also his epitaph.
Without the poems, of course, we would hardly remember Yeats's name, but I want to mention a few of his other works as well. The Autobiography was fascinating to me when I read it in my twenties, and I think it might still be worth reading. Also, I suspect that some of his plays may be unjustly neglected. I had a memorable experience, also in my twenties, with recordings of a couple of them—the late plays, in which he attempted to emulate some aspects of the Japanese Noh drama. I plan to listen to them again soon and will report my findings.
Here is a "video"--audio with a photograph--of Yeats reading a few of his poems. See this page for details. I heard that first recording of "Innisfree" back when I was in college and the way he reads that first line, especially the way he says "Innis. Frree.", has remained in my mind ever since.