Elements of Romanticism in the Poetry of W. B. Yeats

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      In the poem Coole Park and Ballylee, Yeats declared himself to be one of ‘the last romantics.’ Though the modern tradition to which the later Yeats belonged, takes a direction essentially opposite to ''romanticism. There is enough in Yeats’s early poetry and also in his later poetry which is unmistakably romantic.

Romantic Influences

      Yeats’s poetry began by echoing Shelley and Spenser and the Pre-Raphaelites, and Blake remained a dominant influence throughout his poetic career. All the characteristic features and flavour of romantic poetry are present in most of Yeats’s poems. The tendency to escape to far off lands of romance or to nature is present in Yeats’s poetry. Characters from folk-lore, imagined wanderings with lovely phantoms, and occasionally a Keatsian richness of the sensuous are all there in his early poems. Even the titles of the early poems like The Song of the Happy Shepherd and The Sad Shepherd are suggestive of the Romantic traits and The Lake Isle of Innisfree remains one of the best romantic poems of all times:

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there,

      The Lake Isle of Innisfree was one of the dreamy romantic lyrics which first brought him fame. There were other lyrics like, To an Island in the Water, The Sorrow of Love and When You are Old which are essentially romantic in mood.

      These poems owed their success to the fact that they gave substance to the kinds of dreams that most people have and expressed the sentiments most popular with people escaping the realities of the world.

Poetry of Escape

      It is, thus, that heroes of most of his earlier poems—Oisin, Hanrahan etc. are fond of going in for an ideal world, thus, escaping from the real world. The fairlyland is talked of as a place to which mortals escape and dance on twilight lawns to the accompaniment of strange music. So well was Yeats able to carry his readers into a kind of Celtic Twilight that R.L. Stevenson commented on the Lake Isle of Innisfree in these words: “It is so quaint and airy, simple; artful and eloquent to the heart.”

      The poems like these established the early Yeats’s image as a late Pre-Raphaelite, a poet writing in the vein of William Morris, a poet of escape, a singer of music in the deep recesses of the heart. The Wanderings of Oisin thus, is a long romantic narrative poem with echoes of Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, and Morris. Yeats himself was to admit that the poem had an over-charged color of romanticism in it. The poems like The Stolen Child and The Man Who Dreamed of Faeryland, with their special kind of escapism are also predominantly romantic. A poem like The Happy Town Land deals with a place where:

“Boughs have their fruit and blossom
At all times of the year,
Rivers are running over
With red beer and brown beer.
And old man plays the bagpipes
In a golden and silver wood ;
Queens, their eyes blue like the ice,
Are dancing in a crowd.”

Yeats’s Mysticism

      Yeats’s mysticism like that of Blake, is also a romantic trait. To Yeats, a poet was very close to a mystic and the poet’s experience like the mystics is capable of giving to the poem a spiritual world whose existence is very real. Much of the power, even of his later poetry has to do with what he talks of in that mystical work, A Vision. A Vision, in many ways touches upon the supernatural realities from which a poet can choose his imagery.

Yeats’s Occultism

      The system of thought that Yeats constructed in A Vision was a substitute for religion. He was a religious man and as he himself confessed in The Trembling of the Veil, he was unlike others belonging to his generation as he was very religious. This is what he has to say on this score: “I was unlike others of my generation in one thing only, I am very religious and deprived by Huxley and Tyndall, whom I detested, of the simple-minded religion of my childhood. I had made a new religion, almost an infallible church of poetic traditions, of a fardel of stories and of personages and of emotions, inseparable from their first expression, passed on from generation to generation by poems and painters, with help from philosophers and theologians.”

      Thus, Yeats substituted magic and mysticism for religion and wrote poems which were greatly influenced by this newly found faith in the occult. Most of his symbols have a touch of the supernatural about them.

Romantic Love

      It is not only When You are Old which shows Yeats talking of romantic love but The Lover tells of the Rose in his Heart is also an intensely emotional poem of romantic love. The Song of Wandering Aengus is also a poem of romantic love. Other poems treating romantic love are—He Wishes his Beloved were Dead, Hears the Cry of the Sedge, He tells of a Valley Full of Lovers, He thinks of Those Who have Spoken Evil of His Beloved and The Lover Asks Forgiveness, etc.

      One of Yeats’s most beautiful poems, A Prayer for My Daughter is unmistakably reminiscent of Coleridge’s Frost at Midnight.

The Romantic Strain in Yeats’s Poetry

      A sense of melancholy is a subject, most romantic poets (like Keats in his Ode to Melancholy and Coleridge in Dejection: An Ode) treat in their poems. A kind of lament at the disappearance of the good things of life is also there in most of the romantic poets (many of Wordsworth’s shorter poems serve as an example). This sense of nostalgia and languor is there in Yeats’s poetry also:

The woods of Arcady are dead
And over is their antique joy

      Apart from this Yeats’s love for mythology is also a romantic trait. Many of his poems repeatedly refer to Helen of Troy, Leda, Zeus, Venus, Aphrodite and Byzantium. There are dolphins, nightingales, mythological beasts, sphinx-like figures and fairy-like figures.

      Revival of the ballads and other song forms was also a part of the romantic revival. Yeats wrote quite a few ballads and songs


      Self-revelation too is a romantic element and Yeats’s poetry, especially the earlier poems are not free from this trait. Like some of the great romantic poets’ works, Yeats’s poetry too related to his own personality, his inner conflicts, his friendships, etc. A Prayer for My Daughter, Among School Children, A Dialogue of Self and Soul, are all deeply personal poems. But even though they are personal poems, they do express certain profound thoughts which have their importance for others as well.

Not Wholly a Romantic

      But while keeping in mind these romantic characteristics of Yeats’s poetry we are never for a moment to forget that beginning with the publication of the collection of poems called Responsibilities in 1914, Yeats’s career as a poet took a direction essentially opposite to these romantic tendencies. To the later Yeats, poetry was rarely what it was to most of the Romantics—“a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” Even when he relies on magic, mythology, beauty, religion and philosophy—things on which the Romantics also relied greatly, he is making these at once necessary and compelling. Even when most of his poems begin in personal feelings or emotions he is able to subject those feelings or emotions to an impersonalisation which changes them into what Eliot would have called “art emotions.”

The Personal Touch (A Romantic Trait)

      There is no doubt that like a typical Romantic poet, Yeats sought to formulate a general philosophy of life and history from personal problems and conflicts but he always took care to give these philosophies a broader, and more generally applicable basis. It is true that in the poem of The Tower, he is able to sublimate his loss of Maud Gonne into a general rhetorical question:

Does the imagination dwell the most
Upon a woman won or woman lost?

      Yeats’s passion for order and his stress on form made him correct and polish his poems again and again and this love of craftsmanship puts him nearer to the classicists.


      To sum up, there are clear romantic qualities in the poetry of Yeats and some aspects of his poetry retained trace of romanticism till the end but he was such a dynamic poet that neither romanticism nor any other ‘ism’ could have held him long enough. Romanticism associated with the lyricism and the escapism suited Yeats well when he was a young poet, but he was quick enough in outgrowing these and stepping into a maturer, more economical and orderly poetic mode which was a synthesis of the best that was available to poet at the beginning of the modem era in poetry.


“Yeats’s early poetry is in the thinned out romantic tradition of the 19th century.” Clearly bring out the romantic element in the early poetry of Yeats.

How does the poetry of Yeats attempt an “escape from the sordid materialism” which he found in his age?

“Yeats described himself as one of that ‘last romantics’.” Discuss with reference to his early poetry.

Discuss W.B. Yeats as the “last romantic.”
What elements of romanticism do you find in Yeats’s poetry? Illustrate your answer from the poems of Yeats.

Do you agree with Edmund that the whole of Yeats’s poetry is a perpetual effort to escape reality? Give your reasons.

How far was Yeats justified in describing himself as the last romantic?

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