W. B. Yeats’s Poetic Development

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      Yeats poetic development is the history of his evolution of style, which could handle themes of wider importance than those of in personal dream world. Yeats’s early poetry echoes Spenser, Shelley and the Pre-Raphaelites. At the stage when Yeats joined the Rhymers Club, he agreed with their insistence upon emotions that had no relation to any public interest. His search at that time was for “certain qualities of beauty, certain forms of sensuous loveliness, separated from all the general purposes of life.” As such, Yeats was able, in his early poetic career, to approach everything with a mind unclouded by current opinion.

In the Nineties

      During the nineties, Yeats’s poetry became more elaborate, more mysterious and inscrutable as he distilled the essence of mournful spiritual beauty. By the time of the publication of The Wind Among the Reeds (1899), Yeats had already moved a long way. He had gone through a period of learning his craft and discussing the techniques with his fellow members of the Rhymers Club—poets like Lionel Johnson, John Davidson, etc.

      At the time Arthur Symons told him of the French symbolists like Verlaine, and Mallarme, Yeats was still trying the early work of the Celtic Twilight period to its fullest and most elaborate development. The change in his style first came with the publication in 1903 of the volume In the Seven Woods.

Realizes the Need for Change

      Substantial changes in his poetry started showing up only around the year 1910. By 1910, Yeats had schooled himself sufficiently to be safe from what he considered the stylistic vices of his predecessors. He was ready to broaden the scope of his poetry and this made him impatient with his achievements. He began to feel dissatisfied with the world’s weariness and the un-dynamic voice which was characteristic of most of the poems he had written till then.

      The part of the credit for the emergence of Yeats’s poetry! its narrow confines goes to John Synge, the writer of The Playboy of, the Western World. Synge’s work excited Yeats. It had precisely the worldly vigor he envied in the seventeenth-century poets. Moreover, I Synge’s work had none of the Victorian tendencies of promise.

A New Kind of Poetry: “Responsibilities” (1914)

      Published in 1914, Responsibilities is the volume of poems in which, as T.S. Eliot correctly said, Yeats’s mature style “violent and terrible” is first fully evinced. One can recognize a new authority in the poems of this volume. What we get here is an almost entirely changed poetry stripped of the decoration and mystery of his earlier works. Yeats, in the words of Ezra Pound, had achieved “a new quality of hard light” in the poems and was seeking greater hardness of outline. The difference between a poem by the early Yeats and the late Yeats came to be the difference between a poem’s rhythm and vocabulary.

Dissatisfaction with the Earlier Poetry

      Yeats had come to consider his early unsatisfactory not so much because its themes were unsatisfactory but more because its manner of realizing these themes was unsatisfactory. Yeats now wanted not only to present his theme but present it in terms of the “real” world. He wanted his poem to be true not only to the dreams where his responsibility began but also to the facts.

      Yeats’s poetry, now onwards, started becoming more subtle? complex and allusive and started thinking through its images whereas the stress in the language of poetry was on power, passion and energy. Because of thinking through images. Yeats’s poetry faced a very complex problem as well.

The Problems Faced by Yeats

      The problem with which Yeats came to grip marvelously in a number of poems, was to get the rival claims of the image and. of life stated in all their fullness and exclusiveness.

      Added to these problems was the problem of what Graham Martin in his essay titled The Later Poetry of W. B. Yeats called the necessity of maintaining a consistently public tone. This public tone was not to be merely maintained. There was also the need to make this public tone suitable for accommodating an extraordinary range of feelings, self-mockery, visionary exhilaration, contemptuous defiance and elegy.

      On the level of poetic language, there was the problem of raising the syntax and idiom of ordinary discourse to cope with occasional moments of intensity. At the same time there was the problem of providing the Irish National Movement with finer motives than mere hatred of the English. But the biggest problem, Yeats, the poet, faced was the poetic problem of making a masterful style without denying or even compromising his doctrine of Symbolism.

Yeats’s Solution

      Yeats faced and solved all these problems very admirably. Retaining the poet’s intensity he directed his poems towards more of power. Thus, every poem draws towards a center of power through passion, energy, will or imagination. Experience provided the themes with the poetic matter, and imagination worked over this material, drawing it into definition and form.

      What helped Yeats most in facing these problems, was his use of and awareness of the poetic possibilities inherent in conflict. In the process of conflict, actions incited reaction and statements called forth counter statement. Each voice is given its due, but a rival voice is always heard. The poetry in these poems is not defined by internal logic or his position but by the reaching of positions; the act of struggle rather than that of conclusion. The struggle is helped by energy which turns pathos into passion and passion into power. The mind also acts by conflict, sometimes accepting the opposition provided by the external world but more often seeking its own antithetical image and constantly renewing its choice.

The Nature of the Change

      Yeats’s poetry, after 1914, passes from decorative beauty through eloquence and magniloquence to a condition beyond eloquence—almost spare and high and free. In the final phase, his poetry maintains a kind of balance. It is at times magniloquent and at times stripped and singing.

      Yeats now comes to rely on languages suddenly turned ‘poetic’ in the midst of its simplicity. There is also an added reliance on metaphor. His ambition now became “to dramatize myself and to express not the traditional poet but the normal active man.”

A New Majesty

      The new kind of majesty the poems came to acquire are the result of the language of a man’s conversation with himself sufficiently shaped by devices of versification to acquire the strength of statements which have a finality of their own. The poetic line now becomes more terse and the movement has more of assurance.

      All the volumes of his poems after 1914 show Yeats gaining a final authority and self-possession. It would be no exaggeration to say that the majority of his poems in The Wild Swans at Coole (1919) Michael Robartes and the Dancer, (1920) The Tower (1928), and The Winding Stair (1933) constitute Yeats’s central achievement.

      In most of these poems, there is a process at work which turns them into articulated meditations in which the identity of things is constantly being raised to a new power by the activity of thought, Yeats now was able to transform his contemporaries and friends into constituent parts of the own conflicts without losing a sense of their living presence.

The Last Phase

      In the Last Phase of Yeats’s poetic development there is a double movement one in the direction of greater complexity and integration of his symbols, soaked in the private association of his “system”; the other trend leads to the revival and. refinement of the old ballads. Symbolic Complexity

      As Yeats developed into a mature poet, his symbols become more and more complex, inconclusive and economical. They came to be identified with the collective consciousness of mankind. Questions of old age, of the relation between the artist and his art and the way of imaginative works are the main themes of his later poems.

      As the range of his poems starts covering wider and wider areas of human experience, his poetry becomes more and more concentrated and concrete. This concentration, complexity and range are seen at their best in poems like Easter 1916, Among School Children and Leda arid the Swan. On the other hand, the extraordinary power and thrust of the late poetry is seen best in poems like the Second Coming; A Prayer for My Daughter and The Tower. These are superb examples of the personal concerns of the poet growing and developing into more general ones. What makes these poems so appealing and lasting is their simple and direct centrality to mankind’s basic experience.

Concreteness and Immediacy of the Later Poetry

      The most remarkable thing about Yeats’s later poetry is that it has marvelous concreteness and immediacy which is the result of his presenting with the maximum specification of sensuous detail, a startling variety of objects which were attached to his general beliefs- He now desired reality, simplicity, order and concreteness and was longer satisfied simply to dream of pictures in which his desires were realized. He now wanted to realize them in fact. The poetry of The Tower is much concrete, much more skillful in rhetoric and more crowded with that Yeats found solid in life, than the poetry of The Rose.


      Yeats’s poetic development starts from the romantic themes and is carried from the dreamy rhythms to the treatment of any and every theme inactive, inspiring rhythms and a diction perpetually refreshed by contact with common speech. The change in his poetry is gradual and continuous and the two elements behind his transformation from a dreamy young man into the vigorous ironic great poet of the 1920’s and 1930’s are the Easter Rebellion of 1916 and his passion for Maud Gonne.


Trace the evolution of Yeats’s poetic genius and bring out clearly the sustained and continuous growth of his poetic genius.

Show that Yeats’s later poetry “is the result of a continuous development and shows the final consummation of the poet’s early endeavors.”

“No poet, not even the greatest, has shown a longer period of
development than Yeats. Development to this extent is not merely genius, it is character.” Comment on the truth of this statement with suitable examples from the text.

“Yeats’s poetic powers underwent a process of slow but steady
evolution.” Discuss with reference to his early poetry.

Indicate how the later poetry of Yeats reveal the development of his thought and style.

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