The Four Phases of W. B. Yeats's Poetry

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      The Evolution of W. B. Yeats’s Genius
It is possible to see four clearly distinct phases in Yeats’s poetic career: (i) His early poetry or poetry of the Celtic Twilight period. (ii) The transition or the realistic middle phase, (iii) The later poetry and (iv) The last phase, usually equated with An Old Man's Frenzy. Roughly, the First Phase may be seen as extending from the year 1885 to the year 1902, the Second Phase from 1903 to 1913, the Third Phase from 1914 to the middle of 1928 and the Fourth Phase from the middle of 1928 to 1939. In the Fourth Phase there is a small sub-division — the last four years from 1935 to 1939 are known as the years of the Last Poems.

      When looking at these phases in Yeats’s poetic career, one factor is always to be kept in mind. Throughout Yeats’s poetical career, there is a close relation between the formation of his work and the formation of his self or soul. The body of his poetry can thus be seen as an expression of his poetic personality where the development of thought and style is a clear index of the movement of the poet’s soul.

The First Phase (1885-1902)

      The poetry of First Phase is marked by colorful descriptions, elaborate portraits, romantic but vague epithets, decorative details and sleepy music. All these create a visionary atmosphere where human and superhuman figures glide like phantoms. Both the comparative immaturity of Yeats as a poet in his early career and his rich artistic potential are sufficiently in evidence in the poems of this phase.

      The Lake Isle of Innisfree is a lyric which is the most representative of this phase in Yeats’s poetry. In this lyric the studied simplicity of style and its surface refinement are remarkable. When You Are Old is another poem of this period which is of lasting; value. The collection, The Wind Among the Reeds (1889) is considered to be the collection which brought Yeats very close to the practice of the French Symbolists.

The Second Phase (1903-13)

      The Second Phase of ten years, from 1903 to 1913 is a kind of transitional period during which Yeats tried to move towards a more realistic, condensed, flexible and ‘brutal’ style, characteristic of the modem poetry. Two influences are to be noted around this period. The first was that of Ezra Pound and the second that of John Donne. In Donne’s poetry he found a unique example of that ‘Unity of Being’ which he was struggling to achieve - the blend of sensuality and the coldness of intellect. Donne’s poetry provided him with an example where poetic grandeur mingled with colloquial ease, and poetic rhythm was effectively mixed with speech rhythms and lyricism, and dramatic impersonality went hand in hand.

      The process of the transition during this second phase was gradual but steady and the poems of this period reflect the mixing of the old and the new style, embodying a deeper knowledge of the world around him and of his own growing stature as a major poet.

      Among the better known poems of this period are:

      The Folly of Being Comforted, The Happy Townland, No Second Troy and Upon a House Shaken by the Land Agitation.

The Third Phase (1914-1928)

      The Third Phase starting with the 1914 volume of poems called Responsibilities gives us some memorable poems; September 1913, To A Shade. The Wild Swans at Coole, An Irish Airman Foresees His Death, Her Praise, Easter 1916, The Second Coming, A Prayer for My Daughter, Meditations in Time of Civil War, Sailing to Byzantium, The Tower, Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen, Leda and the Sivan and Among School Children. In fact, it would be no exaggeration to say that the best of Yeats’s work is confined to these years. This period sees Yeats arriving at the height of his poetic power and poetic expression. The range of the subjects also becomes remarkably vast and the poems move with a compelling vigor and concentration. The. Tower and Sailing to Byzantium are great passionate poems of the tension between the sensual and the spiritual, their unity arising out of his own complexity. He uses symbolism which relies heavily on direct speech and on his own experience in life. At the same time, he came to develop his idea of 'Custom’, and ‘Aristocracy’ and he began to praise the refinement and public-spiritedness of aristocratic life.

The Fourth Phase (1928-1935)

      The Fourth and the Last Phase contained poems like A Dialogue of Self and Soul, Byzantium, the Crazy Jane Poems, An Acre of Grass, Lapis Lazuli, The Municipal Gallery Revisited, Long Legged Fly, A Bronze Head, News for the Delphic Oracle and Under Ben Bulben.

      In the Last Phase what is remarkable is the Lear-like mask of tragic abandon which Yeats assumes in many of the key poems. The impending death of civilization is accented as necessary for poems of a universal process, which symbolizes the recurring rhythm of birth, death and rebirth. Yeats believed that we begin to live only when we see life as a tragedy and the great poems of the last period demonstrate his belief.

      There is also an element of retrospection and in many of the great poems there is a visible pre-occupation with the monuments of unageing intellect which Yeats talks of in Sailing to Byzantium.

The “Last Poems” (1935-1939)

      The pattern of the Last Poems swings once again from chaos to order. Yeats here seems to be saying that all things may be meaningless but the man who comprehends the meaningless designs, has achieved the most that can be accomplished in life. Having lifted himself to the vantage point of age. Yeats is able to form a final attitude. A kind of special joy is now to be his. Not the lover’s joy but rather the reckless joy of a ‘Wild Old Wicked Man’ who, looking on all things with a careless eye., is free to enjoy them for themselves. From the height of his hard-won freedom he is able to ‘laugh in tragic joy.’ Like the poets and tragic heroes praised in Lapis Lazuli, he is able to discover ‘gaiety transfiguring all that dread’ and at least, to look out on all the tragic scene with ancient glittering eyes, that, amid many wrinkles, are gay.


“There was a gradual evolution in Yeats’s poetic powers, and the transition from the early to his later manner was achieved not abruptly, but by easy stages.” Justify.

Compare and contrast Yeats’s early and later poetry. Are the gems of the later poetry found right from the beginning?

Make a comparison of Yeats’s middle poetry with the earlier one and bring out its salient features.

“Richness and Complexity are the key notes of the poetry of Yeats’s maturity.” Elucidate.

“Bitterness and disillusionment are the key notes of Yeats’s poetry of the middle period.” Comment.

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