Major Themes in the Poetry of W. B. Yeats

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      The fifty years between the publication of Yeats’s first volume of poems The Wandering of Oisin and Other Poems (1889) and his death in 1939 saw many ups and downs in Yeats’s own life as well as in Ireland and the world. Yeats tried to record most of these ups and downs and tried to interpret them in his own unique poetic way. The result is that his themes cover such wide-ranging areas as love, old-age, politics, art and aristocracy, violence and prophecy, history, myths, unity of being and courtesy, intellectual hatred, innocence, anarchy and nostalgia.

Yeats’s Belief in the Aristocracy

      Yeats believed in the aristocracy and all that it stood for. For him Augusta Gregory was a living symbol of the old Irish Aristocracy. He gradually drifted away from the contemporary trends of Irish politics. In practical life he had seen the selfishness, the irrational fury and low aim of the common multitude. At times, he seemed to prefer a benign dictatorship to the modem democracy. And any way the romantic Ireland of his imagination was dead for him and was in the grave along with John O’Leary. The country aristocracy became for him the fostering mother of culture, art and courtesy. It grieved his heart to think of the vandalism of the Irish partisans in the Civil War, who had burnt down the great houses and estates where art was actually protected and nurtured. The poem In Memory of Major Robert Gregory is a commemorative poem on the death of Lady Gregory’s son, whom Yeats admired as a kind of symbol of aristocratic good breeding.

Yeats’s Nationalism

      Yeats had actively participated in the Celtic Renaissance—“I had a conviction, which indeed I have still.” Yeats wrote in 1902, “that one’s verses should hold, as in a mirror, the colors of one’s own climate and scenery in their right proportion.” And he goes on to add, “we should make poems on the familiar landscapes we love not the strange and rare and glittering scenes we wonder at.” Yeats was convinced that the Irish folk literature was not only old but also priceless. His attempt to revive the oldest of the aristocracies of thought; the folk art, ‘the golden dream of king and peasant’ was prompted by this patriotic conviction.

      Although Yeats was temporarily dragged into politics and patriotic activities by his lady love Maud Gonne, his nationalism was primarily literary and artistic, not political. He was concerned more with the cultivation of the taste of his people than the political activities. As a matter of fact he did not see eye-to-eye the Irish revolutionaries and lamented their political fanaticism in some of his poems and letters.

Irish Mythology

      Irish mythology, legends and personalities form one of Yeats’s major themes. Yeats has fully exploited the Saga of Ireland and the Celtic legends. His poems Cuchulain’s Fight with the Sea, An Irish Airman Foresees His Death, Easter 1916 and some others are based on Irish mythology and Irish politics. Reference to Hanvahan, to Coole Park, to Parnell and John Synge and Sligo in the west of Ireland, where he spent a good deal of time as a child are to be found in his poetry. At first, Yeats drew upon the fairy and folks tales of the Western Ireland which he had heard as a child and a young man. In the poems of The Roses, he made use of the Gaelic legends, the Cuchulain Saga and the tales of the Fianna. By the eighties, Yeats had become interested in spiritualism and even in magic.

Yeats and Magic (Occultism)

      An attempt to discover the laws of the working of the imagination was a constant concern with Yeats and thus makes occultism another of his themes. Yeats’s adventures in magic and occultism had a great impact on his poetic career. Yeats himself had once written to John O’ Leary, his friend and political guide in the following words: “If I had not made magic my constant study, I could not have written a single word of my Black book, nor The Countess Cathleen ever have come to exist. The mystical life is the center of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write.”

      But it was only after his marriage that Yeats could shape and organize his own system of thought. The obscure messages got from the automatic writing of his wife helped Yeats in constructing his system which he later published in book form under the title Vision. This system which we get in A Vision became Yeats’s mental stronghold against the pressing chaos of life and provided the principal themes and symbols of his later poetry on which his reputation as a major poet rests.

Romantic Longing and Escape

      The earlier poetry of Yeats is that of a Romantic longing to escape, and the best example of that is the beautiful poem The Lake Isle of Innisfree. However, matters of life and death, of the body and the spirit also form another of Yeats’s themes, and poems like, A Dialogue of Self and Soul are representative in this regard.

Nostalgia for the Past

      Another of Yeats’s themes is nostalgia for the old Ireland and the poem that expresses it best is September: 1913. Even The Tower conjures images of people from Ireland’s rich past:

Before that ruin came, for centuries,
Rough men-at-arms, cross-gartered to the knees
Or shod in iron, climbed the narrow stairs,
And certain men-at-arms there were
Whose images, in the Great Memory stored,
Come with loud cry and panting breast
To break upon a sleeper’s rest

      This concept of aristocracy finds illustration in almost all of Yeats’s poems and specially in the poem, Major Robert Gregory. Major Gregory is seen by Yeats to be an example of all the qualities which his concept of aristocracy envisages.

Art and the Artist

      Art is another of Yeats’s major themes and the poems which beautifully tackle this theme are Sailing to Byzantium and Lapis Lazuli and to some extent Among School Children.

His Sense of History

      Yeats’s sense of history is another of his major themes and the best expression of this comes in the great poem The Second Coming where the whole of history is seen as gyres of alternating cycles. Yeats’ awareness of the anarchy in the contemporary world finds expression in poems like Easter 1916 and An Irish Airman Foresees His Death which give expressions to these themes. At the same time like Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen widen the scope of Yeats’s political vision with reference to the effect of war. The poems like, To A Shade give poignant expression to Yeats’s disgust with some of the ugly realities of the politics of contemporary Ireland.

Some Other Themes

      Many of Yeats’s poems have his love for Maud Gonne as their theme and among the most well known of these poems are When You Are Old, No Second Troy, and Her Praise. Very poignant passing references to his loss of Maud Gonne and her beauty are made in A Prayer for My Daughter and The Tower. The Lover tells of the Rose in his heart, He wishes his Beloved were Dead and He gives His Beloved Certain Rhymes are among his other love poems.

      Old age is theme of many of Yeats’s poems, the most notable being Sailing to Byzantium, The Tower and Why Should not Old Men Be Mad. The opening lines of Sailing to Byzantium are memorable.

That is no country for old man. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the tree
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon—falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music of all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

      The poignancy of the opening lines of The Tower is really touching in its reference to the plight of an old man:

“What shall I do with this absurdity
O heart, O troubled heart—this caricature,
Decrepit age that has been tied to me
As to a dog’s tail.”

‘Among School Children’—Synthesis of the Theme

      Most of Yeats’s themes, like love for Maud Gonne, his views on the relation between art and the artist, his views on education and the concept of Unity of Beings find a complex and synthetic expression in Among School Children which is remarkable for its thematic, textural art and symbolic richness. It is a poem where Edmond Wilson asserts: “The actual sense in the convent, the personal emotions it awakens and the general speculations which these emotions suggest, have been inter-woven and made to play upon each other at the same time that they are kept separate and distinct.” A complex subject has been treated in the most concentrated form, and yet without confusion. Perceptions, fancies, feelings, and thought, all have their pl,ce in the poet’s record. It is a moment of human life, masterfully seized and made permanent in all its nobility, its mastery and its actuality, its direct personal contact and abstraction:

Whose images, in the Great Memory stored,
Come with loud cry and panting breast
To break upon a sleeper’s rest
While their great wooden dice beat on the board,


      Thus, after having made this survey, we find that Yeats chose various themes for his poems. He patiently probed into different fields of learning to find the appropriate theme and the means of presenting it to his readers. Even if he took up personal themes he made it universal by relating it to the Irish folk-lore and mythology. Like any true artist his aim was to reach the ultimate truth and he resorted to magic and mysticism in his poetry to come to this truth.


Give a brief account of Yeats’s major themes.

Trace out the development of Yeats’s major themes.

Mention some of Yeats’s major pre-occupations in poetry and comment on their treatment in the poems you have read.

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