W. B. Yeats importance in the history of English literature.

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      The poetry of W. B. Yeats (1865-1939) mirrored much of the changing spirit of the years. Rarely has ever a great been so responsive to change, and shown himself as an old man so able to understand the thoughts of the young. In fifty years, he evolved from a dreamer to a realist and from a realist to a passionate metaphysical seer. He was a poet all the time and a great poet.


The poetry of W. B. Yeats (1865-1939) mirrored much of the changing spirit of the years. Rarely has ever a great been so responsive to change, and shown himself as an old man so able to understand the thoughts of the young. In fifty years, he evolved from a dreamer to a realist and from a realist to a passionate metaphysical seer. He was a poet all the time and a great poet.
W. B. Yeats


      We may distinguish two phases of his poetry. In his early poetry the influence of Irish folklore and Irish mythology is very strong; and it is a dream world peopled by fairies and shadowy figures of Irish mythology. It is a poetry of escape from life in which is expressed a craving for a simpler faith and ritual that have been destroyed by science. He comes under the influence of French symbolists, but partly rejects their naturalism and their self-introspective analysis. He uses names from mythology as symbols. He treats these mythological figures more as principles of the mind than as actual personages. The influence of the Pre-Raphaelites is also strong in his earlier poetry. In earlier poems he uses the rose as a symbol. Suffering is the sad note of most of his early poems. From the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites, and the French symbolists, he imbibed the 'Art for Art's sake' concept. The Wanderings of Oisin (1899), Crossuways, The Rose, The Wind among the Reeds (1899), The Shadowy Waters (1900), The Countess Cathleen, a poetic drama (1891), Deirdre (1907), a poetic drama belong to this aesthetic period. The Lake Isle of Iunisfree is a typical early poem of Yeats. It expresses the pastoral longing revived with a difference and intensified by his passionate clinging to the tantasy world.



      With the growing consciousness of the impact of realities upon his life and poetry, his style becomes harder and sharper, but the symbolic language is not discarded and his imagination remained wedded to old world myths and legends. In his later verse there is closer approximation to truth and reality of life. The Green Helmet and other Poems (1910) used conversational language to reveal the concrete problem of loving a beautiful political agitator. Responsibilities (1914) has been praised by Ezra Pound and other critics for a 'new robustness' in its dedicated commitments. The Wild Swans at Coole (1917) in its title poem evokes a clear image of "those brilliant creatures unwearied still... mysterious, beautiful, ever to delight men's eyes". But it is 1919-and his heart is sore, things have changed for him. The unleasing of violence made a deep impression on Yeats. The Easter rising in Ireland, the First World War and The Russian Revolution filled Yeats with gloomy forebodings. Of a sudden, all seemed "changed utterly, a terrible beauty is born. In The Secomd Coming the power of the seer came upon him and he prophesied the dawn of an evil age. He gives his view of history as a 'gyre' rotating beyond the circumference and releasing centrifugal forces. The horror of these 'dragon-ridden' days weighed upon him, but did not depress him. Michael Roberts and the Dancer (1920) treats the Easter Rebellion and resultant disorders. The proud magnificence of Byzantiam and Sailing to Byzantiam seems to declare that he has finally rejected the sensual music for the artifice of eternity. In the old age, Yeats awed the world with a late burst of creative energy, almost unique in the history of poetry. A humorous and realistic view of life is expressed in taut, complex irony. His shadowy heroes of celtic love and the dead men of the Easter Rebellion are supplanted by long time personal friends. The diction here approximates the fluency and vigour of first rate conversation. The poems of the last phase are marked by his vision of life. Yeats envisioned life as patterned after The Great Wheel (a wheel with twenty eight spokes representing the twenty-eight phases of the lunar month). In his poem The Tower (1928), the poet fears the approaching end of the two-thousand year cycle that started with Christ. The Tower sees in the structure a symbol of the turning of the cone, effecting in the ageing man a heightened spiritualisation. The Winding Stair is an astounding song of life by the sick and ageing poet Sailing to Byzantiam, the poets desire to transcend reincarnation is expressed. In his poem, The Circus Animal's Desertion, Coat, he declares his purpose to grapple with the reality - 'the rag and boneshop of the least'. His other great poems include The Wild Swans at Coole, Coole Park, Leda and the Swan, Among School Children, A Dialogue of Self and Soul.



      Yeats as early as 1892 had written in dramatic form The Countess Cathleen and in 1904 his play The Land of Heart's Desire had been acted. Then he turned for a few years from lyric to dramatic poetry as with The Shadowy Waters acted in 1904. The Golden Helmet, Deirdre, etc. Yeats's effort to revive poetic drama has a historical importance, as it inspired the later practitioners of this genre-notably T. S. Eliot. But in spite of his creative genius Yeats was not a great dramatist and the value of his plays lay chiefly in their poetry, in the way they set free the imagination to road in Ireland's mythological or historical past. But their greater value lay in the inspiration given towards the theatre by such a gifted poet who devoted his practical energy to the success of the Irish National Theatre. His plays are now seldom performed but they remain notable poetic achievements.



      Many English and American critics consider Yeats the greatest poet in English since the time of Wordsworth. Masefield has called him "the choicest poet and the greatest poetical influence of our time", and T. S. Eliot agrees.

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