Metaphysical Elements in W. B. Yeats Poetry

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Thinking Through Images

      Yeats always has something of the Metaphysical poets about himself and about his poetic practice. The Metaphysical poets proved a great influence in the twentieth century not only due to what has been called by Eliot and Leavis their rough reasonableness beneath a slight lyric grace but also for their fusion of thought and passion. This fusion of thought and passion, and this ability to think through images and to use a passionate syntax in the best poetical way is what brings Yeats so close to the Metaphysical poets.

Juxtaposition of Opposites

      Another similarity to be noted is that, both Yeats and the Metaphysical poets tried to achieve something like bringing together of opposites whether it is opposite states of mind or things which move in opposite directions. Thus, the human and the non-human, age and youth, physical decay and intellectual maturity, the temporal and the eternal, and the subjective (symbolized in the moon and the sun) are constantly brought together in Yeats’s poetry. Examples can be easily multiplied.

      In Sailing to Byzantium, Yeats tackles the question of old age and youth, and of temporal as opposed to permanent art. He says:

.....The young
In one another arms, birds in the trees
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

      He juxtaposes this sensual music, with ‘unageing intellect.’

Caught in the sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

      When You are Old talks of the opposition between physical and spiritual love; A Prayer for My Daughter juxtaposes intellectual hatred with ‘natural kindness’, heart-revealing intimacy and ‘glad kindness’, as they find expression in his concept of ‘Ceremony’ and ‘Innocence.’ In the same way The Second Coming juxtaposes the best ‘who lack all conviction’ and the worst who are full of passionate intensity and The Tower which is one of his best personal poems talks of the bringing together of old age and the urge to create. Easter 1916 brings together the cold stone and the living life all around it.

Dramatic Element

      This tendency to juxtapose things and states of mind has a lot to do with the dramatic element in poetry and one of the greatest contributions of Donne and his followers was to give to English poetry more of this dramatic element. In the case of Donne and his followers this dramatic element is helped to a great extent by qualities of epigrammatic terseness, vigor and colloquial rhythms. Yeats is also a master of all these stylistic devices.

Variety of Tone

      In addition to that he is quite good at shifts of tone and moods which were handled in such a masterly way by Donne. This ability of shifting tones helps him to startle and shock in the same way as Donne was able to do it.

      Apart from this, Yeats was very fond of metrical experiments and this is something the metaphysical poets tries to do all the time.

His Thought Content also Metaphysical

      Above all, Yeats’s thought content is mostly metaphysical and he is as much concerned with matters of the spirit as the metaphysicals were. This comes out brilliantly in the poem The Tower:
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?

      Yeats’s hard intellectual tone alternating with great lyrical intensity places him at once with the Metaphysical poets. More than that his attempt to give expression to ‘personality as a whole’—“The normal passionate, reasoning self is very close to the unification of sensibility” which according to T.S. Eliot, the Metaphysical poets attempted and achieved. There is also, occasionally, an obscurity very much like that to be found in Donne’s poetry. But even when Yeats is so close to the Metaphysical poets and even when he matches them well in his complexity, density, intricacy and richness, he remains very much as original poet and that is the main trait of his artistic genius.


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