W. B. Yeats: as A Modern Poet

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      What distinguishes Modem poetry from Victorian poetry is not merely doing away with what is commonly known as the “Victorian compromise” but also its complexity and obscurity. Modem poetry also lays stress on the dramatic element. New developments in thought and philosophy like existentialism and the absence of complete faith in God also have their own contribution in making modem poetry what it is. The sense of despair and the shattering of values caused by the two World Wars has become an integral part of the modem consciousness.

Yeats both Traditional and Modern

      W. B. Yeats is a unique poet as he is a traditional as well as a modem poet at the same time. T.S. Eliot once said, “certainly, for the younger poets of England and America, I am sure that their admiration for Yeats’s poetry has been wholly good. Yeats had great faith in the aristocracy. In his famous poem No Second Troy, Yeats is critical of the people who stand up against the aristocracy:

.....or that she would of late
Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways,
Or hurled the little streets upon the great,
Had they put courage equal to desire?

      But though Yeats was traditional in his views and very Irish in his outlook, he was a modem poet all the same. Although he started his poetic career as a reflection for the romantics and the Pre-Raphaelites, he very soon evolved into a genuine modem poet. Even before he came in contact with the Imagist school of Pound and his friends. Yeats was writing poems which had much in common with writings of the Imagist Movement. However, Yeats’s symbolism is not derived from that movement. Thus, Yeats is a poet who is both traditional and modem.

The Realism and the Romanticism in Yeats’s Poetry

      The early poetry of W.B. Yeats is not realistic. There is a distinct echo of the Romantics in the poems of his early period. Even in his later poems, despite the realistic diction and an effort to bring his poetry to the earth, Yeats is yet not free from the spell of the fairies, ghosts magic and the mysterious world. He is indeed the last romantic, but all the same his later poetry, especially of the last two phases are very realistic. The poems like The Winding Stair, The Tower, In Memory of Major Robert Gregory and The Wild Swans at Coole etc., are very realistic.

The Pessimism in Yeats’s Poetry

      The pessimistic note is the hallmark of modem poetry. Yeats’s poetry, like that of Eliot and some of the other modem poets is marked with pessimism and disillusionment. After his disappointment with Maud Gonne and her rejection of him and his disenchantment with the Irish National Movement, Yeats started writing bitter and pessimistic poems. But he tried to dispel this feeling hy philosophizing his poems. To A Shade, When Helen Lived, and The Byzantium poems along with many more of his poems reflect this mood. The last two lines from the poem To A Shade will illustrate this:

You had enough of sorrow before death—
Away, away; you are safer in the tomb.

Religion and Mysticism

      While still at the School of Art in Dublin, Yeats had started taking interest in the occult and mystic religion. Although the modem age is essentially a scientific age, yet modern poetry has traces of mysticism and religion in it. T.S. Eliot and George Russell (AE) are the two of Yeats’s contemporaries who took interest in mysticism and religion. But Yeats is perhaps the one modem poet who built up a system of thought based on the occult and mystic religion and whose poetry was the direct outcome of it. The Last Poems of Yeats are steeped in mysticism. A Dialogue of Self and Soul is in a way a debate between ‘Atma’ and ‘Maya’. Soul says:

I summon to the winding ancient stair:
Set all your mind upon the steep ascent,
Upon the broken, crumbling battlement,
Upon the breathless-starlit air,
Upon the star that marks the hidden pole;
Fix every wandering thought upon
That quarter where all thought is done;
Who can distinguish darkness from the soul?

Yeats as a Symbolist

      Yeats was a symbolist as well; that is, he returns repeatedly to certain metaphors allegories to express his ideas. In his youth he chose religious and even amorous symbols such as roses and stars or Irish myths. Later, a whole supernatural system was worked out half believingly by himself. Helen of Troy, for instance, occurs scores of times, representing ideal loveliness (and often Maud Gonne in particular). A real specialist in Yeats’s poetry must read the Irish myths and Yeats’s own mystical work A Vision: but for most of us the symbols in the poems communicate most of their meaning easily, especially if cross-reference is made to other poems of the same period.

Obscurity and Complexity

      Modem poetry has often been described as being very complex and obscure, and it is not at all surprising that Yeats’s poems have been dubbed as some of the most obscure and complex poems. Yeats’s conscious adoption of poetic person or ‘Mask’ made his poems difficult to understand. But what made his poems (and even his plays) very complex and obscure is the ‘system of symbolism’ which he had built up in A Vision. A Vision was based on the readings of his wife’s automatic and his own probing into the field of occult and magic. This of course made it every personal and his poems naturally have a complexity of obscurity which is rather baffling to his readers.


      Yeats may be regarded as a link between the decadent aestheticism of the nineties and a new realism of the modem age. The romanticism, the mythology and the vague incantatory music of his earlier work are no longer to be found in his later poems. The poems of his later years are characterized by a terse, unadorned language and rhythm. Thus, after he had crossed the age of fifty, Yeats had evolved from a romantic and Pre-Raphaelite poet to a modern poet who was taken seriously. The Nobel Prize for literature given to Yeats in 1923 confirmed him as a great modem poet.


Give your estimate of Yeats as a modem poet.

Do you think that poetry of W.B. Yeats had an influence on the modem times?

Write an essay on the distinctive characteristics of modern poetry, illustrating your remarks from the poems of Yeats.

Attempt a short essay on “The modernity” of W.B. Yeats.

“W.B. Yeats is a unique poet in that he is a traditional as well as modem poet at the same time.” Comment.

How would you account for the tremendous influence which the poetry of W.B. Yeats came to have in the modem period?

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