“Distinctly Heard Rhythms” & “Modernity” in W. B. Yeats Poems

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      As a metrical artist, Yeats could modulate rhythm to harmonize with the spirit of his verse. His early verse has a hunting incantatory music which dulls the sense of reality. The verse is marked for its wavering, meditative, organic rhythms - the very embodiments imagination.

      The later poetry of Yeats, however, comes into close contact with reality. There is an increased tendency to uses speech rhythms, often harsh in effect. In the poems of The Tower, such as, Sailing to Byzantium, Leda and the Sivan or Among School Children, an effect of rare richness is produced by bringing daily speech into an incantatory pattern. The metaphors are fresh, taken from a wider range of reference, and there is the cultivation of subtler, more varied and more dramatically balanced cadences.

      The mature rhythms mark the poems of The Winding Stair such as A Dialogue of Self and Soul or Byzantium. In The Second Coming Yeats achieves great effect by choosing the right words to reveal the emotions sought to be represented. In the last two lines of the poem, the words beautifully convey the sense of slow shambling progress of the monster. “The measured verse, the repeated phrase, the simple and terribly effective images, convey this moment of concentrated and amazed vision.”

      Yeats came to realize the importance of the spoken word as well as of speech rhythm in poetry. He developed a manner with “an astringent, athletic quality.” The old sleepy rhythm gave way to a broken freer rhythm. However, Yeats was somewhat isolated from the modernist movement in the twentieth-century literature. He was an Irishman, and a proud nationalist.

      Yeats’s poetic style does not resemble the dry satirically style of Eliot, who to most minds best represents the sensibility of the complex modem civilization. In Yeats’s poetry, there is little echo of the experiments being made by poets of France and England. His poems are marked by, a continuous thread of logic, whereas other modem poets brought in devices such as dream technique and free association of ideas. Yeats's logic, of course, shows the mental agility of an erudite mind. Among School Children is a perfect example of logical development.

      True, Yeats too moved in the direction of speech rhythm, just as the modernist poets were experimenting with the language-based upon living vocabulary and a colloquial style. But though Yeats took the words of common speech, he “made them aristocratic.” In Lapis Lazuli for instance, the first stanza has a colloquial style of loose texture and low pitch to present the idea of “hysterical women.” The rest of the poem, however, explains “tragic gaiety” in a stately and grave manner, though it is still “stark.” If Yeats writes in a “grand manner”, it is not florid or redundant.

      Yeats’s mature style, mixing directness with the “high style”, has a classical compression and concentration and studied density of word phrase, along with the complexity of the symbolic texture. Leda and the Sloan illustrate Yeats’s ability to use the right word in the right place, economically, tersely and effectively. Rhythm itself is used to emphasize the shifting passions of the two characters. In A Prayer for My Daughter we have a set of wind and tree images holding the poem together. When he chooses to do so, he can express stark facts in a suitably stark manner:

An aged man is but a paltry thing.
A tattered coat upon a stick
(Sailing to Byzantium)

.....a drunken soldiery
Can leave the mother, murdered at her door,
To crawl in her own blood, and go scot free (Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen)

Decrepit age that has been tied to me
As to a dog’s tail.
(The Tower)

      The rhythm conveys the relentless horror in:

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
(The Second Coming)

      Conflict is the very theme of Yeats’s poetry—“between extremities man runs his course.” But he did not choose to express his theme through the verbal devices of paradoxes, irony, jarring clash of sounds and meaning, as did other modem poets. His poetry, like other good poetry, fixes moments of experience in memorable images and distinctly heard rhythms. Thus, his poetry becomes timeless.

University Questions

Discuss Yeats’s poems with reference to “distinctly heard rhythms” or “modernity” present in them.

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