Personal Element in W. B. Yeats’s Poetry

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      Very few poets of the modem age have written as much about their family and their friends as Yeats has done. In doing so he has been remarkably successful in enlarging them to heroic proportions. An understanding of Yeats’s poetry is closely linked, with a knowledge of some of the events of his life.

      Many of Yeats’s poems are based directly upon events that actually affected him greatly. Apart from these there are quite a few poems which have reference to his friendships and relationships and bring in personal details in a big way.

His Love for Maud Gonne

      The most important factor in Yeats’s personal poetry is his love for Maud Gonne and the sense of loss resulting from his failure to marry her. When you are Old, Her Praise, No Second Troy, Among School Children, The Tower and A Prayer for My Daughter all make direct or implied references to her. All poems celebrate her as being, “the loveliest woman born out of the mouth of Plenty’s Hom.” At the same time Yeats could never fully approve of what he called Maud Gonne’s ‘intellectual hatred.’ which in her case consisted of her intense hysterical nationalistic fervor. His sense of loss of Maud Gonne informs the most powerful of his personal poems, The Tower in which he asks passionately:

Does the imagination dwell the most
Upon a woman won or woman lost?
If on the lost, admit you turned aside
From a great labyrinth out of pride,
Cowardice, some silly over-subtle thought.
Or anything called conscience once.
And that if memory recur,' the sun’s
Under eclipse and the day blotted out.

Contemporaries Mentioned in Yeats’s Poems

      Some of Yeats’s friends appear in his poetry by name. Lady Augusta Gregory, Major Robert Gregory, John Synge, John O’Leary are among a few such names. In Memory of Major Robert Gregory, he makes a direct reference to Major Gregory whereas An Irish Airman Foresees his Death, is in the form of a monologue that Yeats puts in Major Gregory’s mouth. Yeats’s poems on “Coole Park” also have a personal touch about them.

      One beautiful poem which begins on a personal note and widens its scope to formulate Yeats’s concept of ‘Ceremony’ and Innocence’ is A Prayer for My Daughter. The poem begins:

Once more the storm is howling, and half hid
Under this cradle-hood and coverlid
My child sleeps on.’ There is no obstacle
But Gregory’s wood and one bare hill
Whereby the haystack-and roof leveling wind.
Bred on the Atlantic, can be stayed:
And for an hour I have walked and prayed
Because of the great gloom that is in my mind.

      The extraordinary sense of passionate concern, these lines convey, at once reminds one of the moods of Coleridge’s poem, Frost at Midnight. A Prayer for My Daughter also ends on a personal note:

And may her bridegroom bring her to a house
Where all’s accustomed, ceremonious;
For arrogance and hatred are the wares
Peddled in the thoroughfares.

Personal Problem

      Yeats’s biography is closely interwoven in his poems. To have a full comprehension of his poems an intimate knowledge of his life is essential. There are many references to personal details in quite a number of his poems.

      The poems Among School Children and The Municipal Gallery Revisited and even Easter 1916 bring in quite a few personal touches. Then there are poem like A Dialogue of Self and Soul and Sailing to Byzantium, which try to tackle personal problems on a universal level.

      A Prayer for My Daughter is a very personal poem. It expresses Yeats’s hopes and fears about the future of his daughter Anne. But this poem is of universal significance as well. The poet disapproves of the kind of beauty which is self-centered, or which drives a lover to despair. The Poet’s paternal solicitude and his desire for stability and equilibrium in life is also reflected in this poem. Sailing to Byzantium too is a personal poem. The problem of old age always haunted Yeats which is presented very effectively in this Byzantium poem. However, this problem of old age is of relevance not to Yeats but to all men and in all ages.


      Yeats’s success in turning his personal emotions and likes and dislikes into great poetry was really remarkable. Very few modem poets have succeeded in turning the powers of poetry to such an effective personal use and yet preserve the necessary impersonality of poetry in which Yeats believed as much as T.S. Eliot did.


Discuss the personal element in the poetry of W.B. Yeats.

Discuss the role of friends and relatives in Yeats’s poetry.

Comment on the biographical element in Yeats’s poetry.

“The most important factor in Yeats’s personal poetry is his love for Maud Gonne and the sense of loss resulting from his failure to marry her.” Do you agree with this statement? Illustrate your answer with suitable quotations from Yeats’s poems.

“Yeats’s biography is closely interwoven in his poem.” Discuss.

The Role of Friends and Relatives in Yeats’s Poetry

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