Is Yeats’s Poetry a Perpetual Effort to Escape Reality?

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      The early poetry of Yeats can, indeed, be described as an expression of an escape from reality. He was then engrossed in fairyland and his heroes were constantly leaving this world of reality for the land of fairies.

      To this period belong the poems of Oisin, Red Hanrahan, and the ‘Man who dreamed of fairyland.’ The Stolen Child, for instance, tells of a fairy tempting child to leave this world of weeping and sorrow for a beautiful other-world full of eternal laughter and strange music. In Lake Isle of Innisfree, there is blend of realism and romantic escapism.

      When we come to Yeats’s later poetry, however, things are different. As early as 1910, in “The Green Helmet” poems, a new phase of immediacy and concreteness can be discerned. The prevailing tone ranges from bewilderment to contempt, but is always realistic. With “Responsibilities” published in 1914, Yeats’s subject matter widens to include ironic commentary on contemporary happening. September 1913 evolved out of the contemporary scene and speaks strongly against the sordid spirit of money-making. A Coat expresses the new art which will face realities—“there’s more enterprise in talking naked.” In the poems of the volume, “The Wild Swans at Coole,” Yeats has already chosen his central poetic theme—that intensity is the supreme quality of life, and that actual life is intrinsically superior to any substitute for it.

      “Michael Robarts and the Dancer” the volume published in 1921, includes several poems which disprove the contention that Yeats was escaping reality or being aloof from experience. He cannot help it if he had mixed feelings about the Easter Rising. He certainly admires the sacrifice and the heroic intensity of the rebels—“a terrible beauty is born.” But he also wonders if the sacrifice was necessary. Easter 1916 is, however, no escape from reality; nor does it show aloofness from experience. In The Second Coming, Yeats expresses his view of political fanaticism and the surging disorder in the contemporary scene:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

      Realism marks A Prayer for My Daughter which expresses the poet’s wish for his daughter’s safety in a world tom in strife and threatened by storm. He hopes that traditional values will continue to give her the necessary strength.

      In the volume, “The Tower,” (1928), we have s supreme mixture of realism, symbolism, metaphysical speculation and contemporary social comment. Sailing to Byzantium can, on one level, be regarded as “escapist” for, the poet wants to leave this world of flesh and mire in search of a timeless existence free of sensuous experience. But the images and the concrete picture of life evoked in the poem throbs with real vitality. “An aged man is but a paltry thing” he says. The line vividly brings out the frightening absurdity of being old. In Byzantium, Yeats suggests that art is a means of finding tranquility and permanence in a world torn by purposeless agitation and subject to decay and death. Again, one might make the mistake of calling this escapist. However, artists and several other people of sensitivity have experienced the feeling that in art lies as a means of making permanent certain human feelings and thoughts and ideas. In that sense, art is a golden bird singing timeless tunes.

      In “The Tower” and “The Winding Stair” groups of poems, Yeats concentrates on two themes—both of which are basic to human experience and both of which he felt intensely on a personal level also. One theme is the pre-occupation with age and the vanishing of youth and beauty. The other is the crisis of the present civilization. While is Byzantium he prefers to leave this sensual mire behind, in 4 Dialogue of Self and Soul, the poet’s self triumphantly asserts the worth of life with all its “fecund” ditches. Yeats is not escaping reality here. In the “Crazy Jane” poems, we again have evidence of Yeats’s deep interest in life’s realities. Lapis Lazuli speaks of the tragic gaiety born out of insight into life. Amidst the ruins of civilization one gains true wisdom.

      Conflict was certainly Yeats’s basic theme in thought as well as poetry. The life of the senses and the life of pure thought battled in his mind, and he expresses it in his poetry. But he is not aloof from his own experience or that of others. He never wrote with passion about the World War with horrors of modem warfare (except for a passing reference to Aeroplanes and Zeppelins in the first stanza of Lapis Lazuli). But that does not make him an escapist. He wants to show that art has validity even in times of crisis—it is a false sense of realism to cry that art has no relevance and only drastic action is called for.

      Yeats was a realist, if we leave aside his very early poetry, besides being a symbolist and philosopher. He weaves his own experience especially his love for Maud Gonne and its frustration into his poems. Indeed, the content of his poems lies in his reaction to life and reality, and in his shattering emotional experiences. These personal reactions and experiences are transmuted into the impersonal; the Maud-Helen-Deirdre image is both a personal and an universal symbol. The Irish situation becomes readily linked to the world-situation and the contemporary phase is seen as a part of the revolving cycles of history.

University Questions

“I do not think we can describe Yeats as alienated or even as aloof, either from his own experience or from other peoples.” Discuss.
Is the whole of Yeats’s poetry a perpetual effort to escape reality? Give reasons for your answer.

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