Characteristics of W. B. Yeats’s Poetry

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      William Buttler Yeats (1865-1939) was the eldest son of John Butler Yeats. John Yeats wanted his son to enter the Church of Ireland but the younger Yeats was destined to become an artist—a great poet and a playwright of repute. While studying at the School of Art in Dublin, a fellow student, George Russell (AE) became his friend. AE shared his friend’s interest in mystic religion and the supernatural. In his late teens, Yeats had begun to write poetry. Though the early poems of Yeats remind us of Shelly and Spenser and the Pre-Raphaelites, his intention was to create a specifically Irish literature.

Yeats’s Irish Background

      W. B. Yeats was brought up under the spell of the folk-tales and myths of older Ireland. He would sit with the peasants and listen to their rustic songs and ballads. The fairy and folk tales which he had heard in the west of Ireland, he published in book form later on. The Gaelic legends, the Cuchulain saga and the tales of the Fianna, etc., which he had become so familiar were going to help one day to create his own systems of thought in which he was to write. In the introduction to A Vision, he wrote, “I wished for a system of thought that would leave my imagination free to create as it chose and yet make all it created or could create, part of the one history, and that the soul’s.”

Continuous Evolution

      The key-note of Yeats’s poetry is the sustained and continuous, development of his art and genius. His poetic career spans the period of over fifty years. During this period he was constantly becoming mature and his poetry evolved accordingly. There has been no sudden change or break in continuity. T. S. Eliot paid his tribute to W.B. Yeats in The Criterion, of July 1935, in the following words: “But it must be apparent that Mr. Yeats has been and is the greatest poet of his time. I can think of no poet, not even among the greatest, who has shown a longer period of development than Yeats.” But this development is more in the nature of inherent continuity than' dramatic change. The seeds of the greatness of Yeats’s later poetry can be seen in his earliest poems. And the charge that Yeats’s poetry is obscure will vanish if we read his work as a whole.

The Celtic Twilight: Early Pre-Raphaelite Poetry

      Yeats began writing poems in the romantic, and Pre-Raphaelites tradition. There was an echo of Shelley & Spenser & the Pre- Raphaelites in his poetry. Had Yeats stopped writing at the age of forty, it is quite probable that English literature would have had in: Yeats just one more minor poet. “There is no precedent in literary history, of a poet who produces his greatest work between the age of 50 and 75” says prominent critic. “The work of this period takes its- case of being from his long and dedicated apprenticeship to poetry: so that finally ‘words obey my call’,...” However, his earlier poetry is a world of Celtic Twilight—the imagery used in the poems of this period is vague and subdued in color. But even at this stage of his career, his use of Irish mythology and folklore took all Europe by storm. It came as whiff of fresh air for those who were fed up with, the stale classical myths and legends. So much so that Yeats was called in the words of Graham Hough, “the last of the great Romantics.” But Yeats very soon became disillusioned with this romanticism and came to distrust it more and more as he aged.

Later poetry: The Dawn of Realism

      With the passage of time, Yeats’s poetry became steadily more elaborate and more “mysterious and inscrutable.” The Celtic Twilight period had reached its fullest and most elaborate development in his poetry of The Wind Among the Reeds in 1899. But style changed gradually to a more personal and realistic style. This new tone is; indicated in the love poetry of his next volume In the Seven Woods (1903).

      Yeats was deeply hurt at the marriage of his beloved Maud Gonne to John MacBride. In a series of excellent poems he paid; tribute to her beauty. The poems like No Second Troy, A Worn, Homer Sung, etc. established him as a great poet. At last Yeats had achieved poetic heights.

The Clash of Opposites: Their Reconciliation

      There is in Yeats’s poetry a clash of the opposites. The contradiction of the human and the non-human, of the spiritual and the physical, the sensuous and the artistic, physical decay and intellectual maturity, the past and the present, the personal and the impersonal; power and helplessness are always present in his poetry. In the early poetry, such opposites are merely presented but in the later poems, Yeats had tried to reconcile them. Thus, in No Second Troy, the past and the present, the personal and the impersonal have been fused, together by the use of the Helen-Deirdre—Maud Gonne image.

Symbolism in Yeats’s Poetry

      In October 1917, Yeats married Georgie Hyde-Lees. This marriage proved, to be the starting point for an unexpected conjunction of his realistic and his romantic strains of poetry. From the automatic writing of his wife, Yeats took help in writing A Vision and he seemed to believe, even though temporarily, in the system thus built up.

      A Vision is ‘a system of symbolism.’ It deals with various types of human personality, the supernatural and the ‘gyres’ of historical change.

      Arthur Symons considers Yeats to be the chief exponent of the Symbolist Movement in England. The symbols used in his earlier poems are elementary and cause no obstacles in the way of the readers. The ‘rose’ symbol of his earlier poems is largely traditional and is therefore easy to understand. But gradually his symbols became more complex, personal and individual. Particular symbols keep recurring in his later poems but in a different sense. Symbols like the tower, the winding stair, the gyres and the swan, etc., are highly evocative and suggestive but they convey different meanings in different poems. It is due to this, that his later poems leave the impression of exceptional complexity, richness and intensity.

Yeats as a Myth-Maker

      Yeats was a great myth-maker. All through his poetic career he experimented with different systems of thought, created his own myths or adapted them from the mythological tales of old Ireland. Cleanth Brooks feels that Yeats’s was “the most ambitious attempt made by any poet of our time to set up a myth.” He found analogies for the present and the personal in the past and the impersonal. Thus, he managed to glorify and exalt the present and impart to it the universal significance of a myth. It would not be wrong to say, therefore, that Yeats had a mythopoetic imagination. He invented new myths or used old ones in a changed context and invested them with a new significance. In No Second Troy and in many of his other poems, the old Helen myths have been infused with unique personal significance. And at other times, he has created new myths by using fictitious personages as symbols of personal moods and emotions.

Obscurity in Yeats’s Poetry and its Causes

      The complexity of the symbols and their personal and individual nature has made Yeats’s poetry somewhat obscure. There is a streak of mysticism in his poetry as well and the different meanings that a particular symbol takes on in the various poems of Yeats create difficulties in the way of the readers. But the obscurities and the difficulties result from the profundity of thought and terseness of expression rather than from any carelessness on the part of the poet.


      Yeats experimented with a variety of stanzas. verse-forms. He used the traditional meters and stanza forms with consummate skill. He manipulated the stress, pause and cadence of the long line. With great mastery and self-confidence, he freed the English lyric from the tyranny of the iambic. He also managed to bring out the full colloquial possibilities of the octosyllabic couplet.

Hyperbolism and Self-Dramatisation

      W.B. Yeats has been accused of indulging in hyperbolic and exaggerated statements. To him, an old man is a “tattered coat upon a stick”, and the days grow “dragon-ridden.” The poet’s imagination is “fantastical” and he sees “blood and mire” everywhere. Such hyperbolic words and phrases crop up every now and then in his poetry: “the repeated use of hyperbolic phrases and of resounding words whose effect is to inflate the meaning” (D.S. Savage). Besides using hyperbole, Yeats is in the habit of self-dramatization as well. He strikes poses and one can never be certain whether he really means what he says. He is often “flaunting his personality” in his verse but it may well be a mask, a dramatic convenience for the writing of verse.

Lack of Human Interest

      One of the shortcomings in Yeats’s poetry is the lack of contemporary life in it. His imageries are not drawn from modem life. As a critic puts it: “Yeats ignores the contemporary scene, which means that he ignores much of his own experience and when he attempts at times to incorporate a contemporary reference into his verse, requiring the exploitation of modem imagery, the result is not fortunate.” Thus, Lapis Lazuli, an admirable poem otherwise, does not present the modem war adequately. It is really surprising to see him uphold the values of the aristocratic tradition in a democratic age.

Coarseness and Brutality

      As D.S. Savage puts it: “In the last poems and plays, we have the glorification of violence and war, the celebration of sexuality, the same inner emptiness revealed either in an expression of a sense of personal futility or in the insistence upon a hysterical exultation.” It seems there is no human mean between the supernatural and the bestial. In his poems we can either find the inhuman purity of the moon or the animal ragings of the blood.

      Yeats’s poetry has created so much controversy that the critics continue to wrangle about someone or the other aspect of his poetry. Passion, intensity and fervor are the key-notes of the greatest poetry. Yeats has these aspects in ample measure. I. A. Richards may find in his poems a total rejection of life but an eminent Indian critic B. Rajan feels that “instead of life disdained, we have life raged against, hut also eagerly accepted.” Again, in the words of B. Rajan, we would like to conclude that “Yeats is a supreme poet of what an earlier century would have called the passions; it is through these passions, worked upon by the organizing power of poetic language, that Yeats is able to enter the center of conflict within a man, and to re-create the conflict as the substance of poetry.”


      Yeats offers a wide range, a substantial body of major work, and a mastery of verse: he also manifests an exceptionally long and impressive development. From early success as a vague sentimental late Victorian, he progressed partly under the influence of the American poet Ezra Pound and partly under that of the playwright, Synge, to a tougher and terser writing and then to vastly ambitious and powerful symbolic visions of time, history, man, and mythology. Few writers have been so harsh on themselves. Yeats was repelled by dissatisfaction with his earlier work; he refers to his body, in his later poems, as ‘a tattered coat upon a stick’, ‘a dying animal,’ and to his heart as a ‘foul rag-and-bone shop.’ This self-criticism, coupled with an arrogant faith in his potential, carried him through fifty years of ceaseless development.


Write a critical note on the distinctive characteristics of the poetry of W. B. Yeats and illustrate your points from any of the poems you have read.

“Yeats’s greatness as a poet is seen in the feet that he can enclose vast immensities within little space.” Comment.

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