Obscurity Used in W. B. Yeats Poetry

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      T.S. Eliot stressed the need for poetry in the modem age to be more and more indirect and complex in order to be able to capture the complexity of life in our age. This complexity and lack of directness have led to the elements of obscurity creeping into much of the modem poetry and Yeats’s poetry is no exception.

His Complex Symbolism

      The factors that are responsible for the obscurity in parts of Yeats’s poetry are quite a few. To begin with symbolism is extremely complex and this complexity is increased substantially by the dependence of his symbolism on the system forwarded in his great prose work, A Vision. To add to all this, there are influences of occultism, mysticism and Irish mythology and legends. The fact that Yeats was keen to replace traditional Greek and Roman mythological figures from Irish folk lore also results in the comparative novelty of these figures, at least for non-Irish readers, which adds considerably to the obscurity in some of his poems.

      The fact that the symbols in his poetry were invented personally by Yeats’s accounts for the larger part of the obscurity in his poetry. Symbols like ‘the Swan’ ‘the Tower’, ‘the Winding Stairs and figures like ‘Hanrahan’ with the kinds of associations, Yeats sometimes gives were not likely to be known to the readers. In the same way the ‘rough beast’ that ‘slouches towards Bethleham to be born’, with its sphinx-like image was not a figure familiar to most Christians as a substitute for Christ.

Yeats’s Complicated System: ‘A Vision’

      What makes the situation still more complicated is that A Vision, the prose work on which Yeats’s system rests, is a long, ambitious and complex work. The reference to the system forwarded in A Vision, as and when they occur in his poetry are not likely to be intelligible to readers who are not thoroughly familiar with A Vision. Thus, the theories concerning cycles of history and theories of thesis and antithesis are not likely to be intelligible to many readers.

Role of Irish Mythology

      Yeats made the extensive use of Irish mythology, legends and historical and geographical details of the Irish country-side also add to difficulties of the non-Irish readers. Figures like Oisin, Cuchulain, Deirdre, Swan’s children, Hanrahan, Raftery, the Druids, the Sidhes and the Damon children from Irish mythology are clear examples of the difficulties that arise before the readers.

Excess of Allusion

      Many of Yeats’s poems like Lapis Lazuli, The Long Legged Fly and The Circus Animal’s Desertion makes so many allusions at a time that the reader is lost in the maze of the interaction. At the same time, when Yeats tries to voice his thoughts on what he called the “Unity of Being”, the reader’s lack of familiarity with this concept puts him into a lot of difficulty.

Obscurity of Language

      Eliot had talked of the need for a modem poet who could force ‘to dislocate if necessary, language into meaning.’ This naturally necessitates some of the connecting links from sentences being taken away. The style as result becomes cryptic and ‘telegraphic.’ Yeats also uses this device sometimes. The result is the kind of obscurity which is common to most poets.

      Not only this, as A.G. Stock has pointed out, the bigger artistic urge in Yeats’s was to ‘hammer’ his thoughts into unity. This urge also sometimes led to a lot of obscurities as it amounted to the kind of “yoking together”, that Dr. Johnson accused him.

Yeats’s Obscurity: A Result of Bringing Together of Opposites

      But we would do well to remember that in Yeats’s case obscurity is not the result of a carelessness in style but of his constant desire to attempt not only bringing together of opposites but also of his attempt to give his poetry as much of density and profundity as possible. Moreover, even when there is some dislocation of language, it is more the result of the need to keep pace with thought which develops as it moves. It is not something intentional as is the case with many poets like E.E. Cummings. The part of his obscurity results from another of the positive virtues of his poetry i.e. his condensed rich language. This sort of language; is the result of concentrating into his previous years of passionate and obsessive thought expressing in a beautiful and lucid style. Thus, in No Second Troy, Yeats has used a symbol which is the fusion of the Helen-Dierdre-Maud Gonne images—fusion of the past, present and the future within a short span. The past and the present, the near and the distant, the spiritual and the physical, the temporal and the eternal and many other such dissimilar concepts are juxtaposed in his poetry. Thus, his poetry is in the danger of becoming obscure.


      Thus, we may conclude that Yeats is a difficult poet. Part of the difficulty is caused by his condensed language which is packed with meaning even though the vocabulary is simple. A.G. Stock rightly points out: Yeats’s style is stripped of all ornament and utterly dependent on the intense life of his mind. When he is difficult it is because of the thought which is not confused, but too well-knit and too remote from most people’s preconceptions, to be followed easily.” David Daiches’s comment on this aspect of Yeats’s poetry is also worth writing: “Yeats may be obscure at places but his is that type of obscurity which enriches a poem rather than impoverishes it by giving suggestions of depth that cannot be produced in any other way.”


Trace out the causes for the obscurity in Yeats’s poetry.

“The ‘system thought’ that Yeats developed in ‘A Vision’ was mainly responsible for the obscurity in Yeats’s poetry.” Do you agree? Give your reasons.

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