W. B. Yeats: as A Lyric Poet

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      Yeats was essentially a lyrical genius. There is a strain of lyricism in most of his poems where they are poems of escape, poems of reminiscence, political poems or love poems.

      Most of Yeats’s earliest poems are pertaining to escape from reality into a dream world. They even contain day-dreaming and a longing to escape to some kind of a Utopia.

Lyrics of Escape and of Dreams

      One of his most famous poems The Lake Isle of Innisfree, probably owes its popular success to the fact that it gives substance to a daydream that many people have, of withdrawing from the bustle and worry of the world to a country retreat. This poem is a beautiful lyric remarkable for its studied simplicity of style and surface refinement:

I will arise and go now, for always night and day,
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey.
I hear it in the deep heart’s core,

      The peculiar music of the lyric which is the result of a skillful manipulation of vowel consonant sounds, is really remarkable. The lyric at once catches the reader’s attention with its condensed phrasing which is a part of its concentrated style.

Lyrics of Reminiscence

      The prominent among Yeats’s lyrics of reminiscence are poems like In Memory of Major Robert Gregory, The Municipal Gallery Revisited, Among School Children, etc. Here he draws more and more on family memories and traditions. In Memory of Major Robert Gregory is considered by many to be one of the best poems in the English language as far as poignancy of feeling is considered. Even Arden considered this kind of genuine commemorative elegy as something new and important in the history of the English lyric. The Municipal Gallery Revisited is full of poignant regret for what cannot be recovered. According to A.G. Stock, no modern poet stands anywhere near Yeats in the kind of personal and particularised generosity of feeling which finds expression in the poem’s sense of profound personal grief at the loss of friends and relatives who will never live again.

Political Lyrics

      Due to Yeats’s genius for transforming the topical into the general and investing it with a universal significance, Yeats’s political lyrics rank with the best written by him. The contemporary and the topical are turned into subjects most proper for the lyrics. The fusion of the personal and the impersonal and the particular and universal is really remarkable in these lyrics. What distinguishes these lyrics still more is the great simplicity which is mixed with intricacy of thought and intensity of emotions.

      September 1913, Easter 1916, To A Shade, Meditations in Time of Civil War, Sixteen Dead Men, Upon A House Shaken by the Land Agitation and to some extent even An Irish Airman Foresees his Death, remain among the most well-known political lyrics written by Yeats.

His Disillusionment

      Many of these political lyrics express Yeats’s disgust at the meanness and selfishness of many of the Irish people and his disillusionment with them. The fact that his political visions can cover larger areas is best illustrated by Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen, where we find lines like:

Now days are dragon-ridden, the nightmare
Rides upon sleep: a drunken soldiery
Can leave the mother, murdered at her door,
To crawl in her own blood, and go scot-free;
Tlie night can sweat with terror before
We pieced our thoughts into a philosophy
And planned to bring the world under a rule,
Who are but weasels fighting in a hole.

Love Lyrics

      A large part of Yeats’s lyric poetry, however, deals with love. Love, in fact, creeps, into many of his personal poems directly or indirectly. Thus, a poem like The Tower can pose the rhetorical question:

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.

      Even, A Prayer for My Daughter brings in a reference to Maud Gonne his lost love:

Have I not seen the loveliest woman born
Out of the mouth of Plenty’s horn,
Because of her opinionated mind
Barter that horn and every good
By quiet nature understood
For an old bellows full of angry wind?

      The four poems The Pity of Love. The Sorrow of Love, The White Birds and When You are Old, are all love lyrics. But the most famous of these is When You Are Old, written in lines of slow-moving haunting rhythm. The lyric captures his lost love in Maud Gonne’s old age with a delicacy which is characteristic of the early Yeats:

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, taken down this book.
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And love your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

Love for Maud Gonne

      His love for Maud Gonne pervades most of his poems. He visualizes her as

Tall and noble but with face and bosom
Delicate in color as apple blossom
With beauty like a tightened bow a kind
That is not natural in an age like this,
Being high and solitary and most stern?

      His love for Maud Gonne finds beautiful expressions in the poem Her Praise which begins :

‘‘She is foremost of those that I would hear praised.”


      Thus, Yeats was one of the poets who enlarged the range of the lyric by covering various subjects from politics to love and mythology. The economy of phrasing, the lyrical grace and flow, and the force of some of his lyrics is really tremendous. The passionate intensity of some of his lyrics is helped by Yeats’s passionate syntax and his great metrical variety and skill. The overall effect of most of his lyrics is that of heightened speech. Another distinguishing feature of Yeats’s lyrics is the calm assurance with which his arguments proceed.


Give an estimate of Yeats as a lyric poet.

What are the distinguishing features of the lyrics of Yeats. Illustrate your answer from the lyrics you have read.

‘‘Yeats is one of the greatest lyric poets of 20th century England.” Justify.

‘‘Yeats’s lyric poetry shows a gradual evolution from simplicity to greater complexity and intricacy. There is a corresponding gain in intensity.” Elucidate.

‘‘Yeats’s lyrics are characterized by simplicity of language, intricacy of design and pattern, depth of thought, and intensity of passion.” Elucidate.

“Simultaneous compression and expansion is the keynote of some of the finest lyrics of W.B. Yeats.” Amplify.

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