William Butler Yeats 1865-1939

“I have believed the best of every man,
And find that to believe it is enough
To make a bad man show him at his best,
Or even a good man swing his lantern higher.”

One of the greatest English poets of the 20th century. He was a member of the Rhymers’ Club, a group of writers who met at the Cheshire Cheese in the 1890’s. The group characterized as “singers banished by the world and banishing the world.” To Yeats “life was a matter of conscience to turn from every kind of money-making that prevented good writing…” and “to cultivate emotion which had no relation to any public interest”. Of the group only Yeats had “the courage and intellectual integrity to carry through their intent” or as the Scottish playwright John Davidson remarked, “the blood and guts.”

Born into an old Irish-Protestant family. His father was a successful painter, rationalist and follower of the Pre-Raphaelites. His mother’s passion was religion. Yeats did study art briefly but unsuccessfully. His mother, on the other hand, had a more lasting influence - a bag of Irish lore. It was Irish lore, Celtic love of color, melancholy, humor, and disregard for cause and effect that followed Yeats as he passed from one sphere of influence to another. He spent holidays with his mother’s family in County Sligo on the Isle of Innisfree where “men were valued rather for what they were than for their possessions.” Encouraged by his father Yeats took up writing.

In 1885 Yeats fell under the influence of the Brahmin and greatest novelist of Bengali literature, Mohin Chatterjee, when Chatterjee visited Dublin. It is reported that Yeats wrote the dramatic poem Masada as a result of that encounter. The epilogue was renamed at a later date with the title The Song of the Shepherd. [There is an extraordinary one movement string quartet on the Yeats text by Jeanne Rudolph]. However, Eastern theosophy was not a hot topic, so Yeats’ father came to the rescue and published it in 1886. A few months later the next influence came in the form of an old Irish revolutionary, John O’Leary. It was under O’Leary’s influence that Yeats became an Irish nationalist and began to forge a grand plan whereby the two religious sides of Ireland would be joined together and produce a great and lasting literary period. A plan that even Yeats had to admit was hardly viable since “the modern world is more powerful than any propaganda, no nation can isolate itself from the crisis of the modern world” … “and that even a small nation with a living folk culture was too deeply penetrated by the vulgarity of commercialism…emptiness of the industrial age…to recover the integrated life of which he dreamed.” He wrote in To Ireland in the Coming Times:

“Know, that I too accounted would be
True brother of the company,
That sang to sweeten Ireland’s wrong,
Ballad and story, ran and song;
Nor be I any less than of them,
Because the red-rose-bordered hem
Of her, whose history began
Before God made the angelic clan,
Trails all about the written page.”

The family moved to London in 1887 and Yeats came under the influence of a band of writers from the fin-de-siecle or tragic poets of France and aestheticism “art for art’s sake” from the seeds of the Pre-Raphaelites in England. These Decadents included Arthur Symons, Lionel Johnson (1867-1902) whose Poetical Works were edited by Ezra Pound and Ernest Dowson (1867-1900). The latter Yeats credited with his own “technical development.” Of this group Yeats wrote:

“Poets with whom I learned my trade,
Companions of the Cheshire Cheese.”

He also acknowledged the group in The Grey Rock:

“You had to face your ends when young
‘Twas wine or women, or some curse
But never made a poorer song
That you might have a heavier purse,
Nor gave loud service to a cause
That you might have a troop of friends.
You kept the Muses’ sterner laws,
And unrepenting faced your ends,
And therefore earned the right and yet
Dowson and Johnson most I praise
To Troop with those the world’s forgot,
And copy their proud steady gaze.”

The one trait that was unique to Yeats was a real knowledge of Irish folk and their stories and lyric poems such as Down By the Sally Gardens. Yeats went through a “lyric” period with poems sprinkled here and there with Greek mythology and in rhymed quatrains as in When you are Old:

“bending down beside the glowing bars
Murmur, a little sadly, how love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face aid a crowd of stars.”

This was an attempt to imitate the French poet Ronsard in

“Vous serez au fouyer une Vielle accroupie,
Regrettant mon amour et vostre fier descain.
Vives, si m’en croyez, n’attendez a demain:
Cueillez des aujourd’hue, les roses de la vie.”

See in translation yet another imitator – a much more famous one.

“Crouching beside your fire, a poor old crone, one day,
You will recall my love and your disdain with sorrow:
Ah, be advised, and live your life; heed not the morrow.
Henceforth resolve to pluck live’s roses while you may.”

[Emerson once wrote that “a man, having once shown himself capable of original writing, is entitled thenceforth to steal from the writings of another at discretion”]

Followed by The Lover Tells of the Rose in his Heart:

“All things uncomely and broken, all things worn out and old,
The cry of a child by the roadway, the creak of a lumbering cart,
The heavy steps of the ploughman, splashing the wintry mould,
Are wronging the image that blossoms a rose in the deeps of my heart.

The wrong of unshapely things is a wrong to great to be told;
I hunger to build them anew and sit on a green knoll apart,
With the earth and the sky and the water, remade, like casket of gold
For my dreams of your image that blossoms a rose in the deeps of my heart.

Sorrow of Love (1893)

“The brawling of a sparrow in the eaves
The brilliant moon and all the milky aky
And all that famous harmony of leaves,
Had blotted out man’s image and his cry.

A girl arose that had red mournful lips,
And seemed the greatness of the world in tears,
Doomed like Odysseus and the laboring ships
And proud as Priam murdered with his peers;

Arose and on the instant clamorous eaves,
A climbing moon upon an empty sky,
And all that lamentation of the leaves,
Could be compose man’s image and his cry.”

And this octave Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven:

“Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But, I, being poor, have only my dreams’
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”

Arthur Symons, English champion of the French Symbolist poets and musicians, and his work Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899) introduced Yeats to impressionism an “inexpressible reality”, “a dark and confused unity.” and a new wave of poems where allegory replaces symbolism and abstract language replaces realism. The Song of Wandering Aengus is a simple story of a poet in search of an unattainable beauty:

“Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon.
The golden apples of the sun. “

In the last two lines Yeats symbolizes subjectivity (moon) and objectivity (sun) F.A. Wilson writes “Yeats’s symbolism is not…fluid, but it isfor the most part fixed and constant, so that the interpretation of any given image has an alterior value. The read who undersytands the symbol in one context should be able to understand it in all contexts…”

The Cap and the Bells is the recounting of a dream; the symbolism is left to the reader.

“I have cap and bells”, he pondered,
“I will send them to her and die”;
And when the morning whitened
He left them where she went by.

She laid them upon her bosom,
Under a cloud of her hair,
And her red lips sang them a love-song:
Till stars grew out of the air.”

The end of Yeats’ symbolist period came with The Shadowy Waters he wrote “this was the road I and others of my time went for certain furlongs. It is not the way I go now…”

“Better go down upon your marrow bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper in all kinds of weather’
For, to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of hankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs fall the world.”

In The Happy Townland Yeats bade adieu to symbolism and turned to an Irish tale for his farewell.

“There’s many a strong farmer
Whose heart would break in two,
If he could see the townland
That we are riding to.
Boughs have their fruit and blossom
At all times of the year;
Rivers are running over
With red beer and brown beer, (by rewriting “red and brown beer” avoids the sing song iambic)
An old man plays the bagpipes
In a gold and silver wood;
Queens, their eyes blue like ice,
Are dancing in a crowd.”
The little fox he murmured,
‘O what of the world’s bane?
The sun was laughing sweetly,
The moon plucked at my rein; [we read of the “sun” and “moon” often in Yeats symbolism]
But the little red fox murmured’
‘O do not pluck at his rein
He is riding to the townland
That is the world’s bane.
Michael will unhook his trumpet
Froma bough overhead,
And blow a little noise
When the supper has been spread. [in earlier verse he would have been written “suppers’ been spread”]
Gabriel will come from the water
With fish-tail, and talk
Of wonders that have happened
On wet roads where men walk.
And lift up an old horn
Of hammered silver, and drink
Till he has fallen asleep
Upon the starry brink
The little fox he murmured,
‘O what of the world’s bane?
The sun was laughing sweetly,
The moon plucked at my rein,
But the little red fox murmured,
‘O do not pluck at his rein,
He is riding to the townland
That is the world’s bane.”

Yeats fell next under the influence of two Irish women Maud Gonne, political agitator, and Augusta Gregory, a wealthy landowner, and John Millington Synge made up what resulted in the great Irish literary renaissance. Like some seed that had been floating in the air and suddenly took up root and sprung anew Yeats came forth with works that were to “bring folk life to Dublin”. There was The Wandering of Ossian followed by a series of plays, unsuccessful with the exception of the tragedies On Baile’s St Rand (1904) and Deirdre (1906). After several years of struggling to legitimize a people’s theater, The Abbey, they were offered a collection of modern paintings to establish an Irish Gallery of Modern Art - the proposal was rejected by the Dublin meritocrary and the dream ended.

This last influence came without Gaelic mythology romanticism, or platonic idealism but with a more contemporary intent. In 1910 Yeats published a series of poems dealing with the trials of daily life. Gone now is the romance of “pearl pale hands” the “cloud-pale eyelids” and “the vagueness of a Sophocles drama.” Among this collection was The Green Helmet and a strange lyric love poem, at least strange to me, titled No Second Troy.

“What could have made her peaceful with a mind
That nobleness made simple as a fire,
With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind
That is not natural in an age like this,
Being high and solitary and most stern?
Why, what could she have done, being what she is?
Was there another Troy for her to burn?”

Yeats was not finished yet and out of the ivory tower of symbolism comes reality into the Celtic twilight and in 1914 he wrote a volume of poems, Responsibilities, described by critics as “his first tinker-beggarman poems”.

“What need you, being come to sense,
But fumble in a greasy till
And add halfpence to the pence
And prayer to shivering prayer, until
You have dried the marrow from the bone;
For men were born to pray and save:
Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,
It’s with O’Leary in the grave.”

The Rebellion of Easter 1916 brought out new heroes and martyrs it was no longer Celtic mythology but contemporary politics, in his penultimate period of influence Yeats asks:

“Was it for this the wild geese spread
The grey wing upon every tide;
For this that all that blood was shed,
For this Edward Fitzgerald died,
And Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone,
All that delirium of the brave?”

And his great ballad The Rose Tree where the “Tree” becomes the symbol for the dying political movement and the hero questions whether it can bloom again.

“But where can we draw water”
Said Pearse to Connolly
“When all the wells are parched away?”
O plain as plain can be
There’s nothing but our own red blood
Can make a right Rose Tree.”

(In a powerful 1999 historical-fiction novel, Morgan Llyuelyn tells the story of the Easter Rising when an armed insurrection of Irish nationalists attempted to end British rule in Ireland. It was organized by members of the Military Council of Irish Volunteers led by Padraic Pearse, a village schoolmaster, James Connolly, leader of the Irish Citizen Army, and Cumann na Ban. The plan was to take advantage of the English government and military while they were engaged in World War I.)

The final last phase and best of his works came when Yeats was in his fifties. World War I ended and with it a return “of the ugliness and vulgarity” of the Whigs (Whiggery as Yeats called it). For Yeats and the new group of British and American writers: Pound (The Tomb of Akr Caar), Masters (Spoon River), Tennyson (My Last Duchess) and Eliot (Prufrock) it was the revival of the dramatic monologue. His The Second Coming written in 1920 was an inspiring work and served as seed for Chinua Achebe’s 1958 novel Things Fall Apart. In 1922 he was elected senator of the Irish Free State and when his term ended in 1928 he sailed to Byzantium. Yeats wrote of his best known the Byzantium poems . The first poem is a description of traveling from the material world to that of the artworks of the holy city in an attempt to visit both Purgatory and Hell whereas Byzantium written four years later concerns timeless existence. Yeats falls under the influence of the recent work of John Locke and speaks to the conflict between the real and the ideal.

“O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.”

He was elected senator of the Irish Free State in 1922 and was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1923.

Our first characteristic is the conflict of opposites:

“By the help of an image
I call to my own opposite, summon all
That I have handled least, least looked upon.” Ego Dominus Tuus

“I call to the mysterious one who yet
Shall wallk the wet sands by the edge of the stream
And look most like me, being indeed my double,
And prove of all imaginable things
The most unlike, being my anti-self.” Yeats Psychological Design

“So the Platonic Year
Whirls out new right and wrong,
Whirls in the old instead.” Historical design

“I call to the mysterious one who yet
Shall walk the wet sands by the edge of the stream
And look most like me, being indeed my double,
And prove of all imaginable things
The most unlike, being my anti-self.” Yeats Psychological Design

Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself:

“All things are mde of the conflict of two states of two states of consciousness.” Yeats

“Heroes are heroic because their degree of energy is high; timid people are miserable in Yeat’s eyes because their degree of energy is low.” Donoghue

“Opposites are everywhere face to face, dying each other’s life, living each other’s death” On the Boiler Yeats

“Immortals become mortal, mortals, become immortals; they live in each other’s death and die in each other’s life.” Yeats

“The origin of Yeats’ duality may also be observed in the atmosphere of the late nineteenth century. The prevailing aesthetic theory separated art from reality.” Berryman

“The doctrine of evolution by the fusion of opposites was very much in their intellectual current of the early nineties.” Bennett

“The antithesis that is the foundation of human nature being ever in my sight…” Yeats

Our second characteristic is lyrical love poetry:

“Tell them who walk upon the floor of peace
That I would die and go to her I love;
The years like great black oxen tread the world,
And God the herdsman goads them on behind,
And I am broken by their passing feet.” The Countess Cathleen a dramatic tragedy

“But a coarse old man, am I,
I choose the second-best,
I forget it all awhile
Upon a woman’s breast.”

“I have what no young man can have
Because he loves too much.
Words I have that can pierce the heart,
But what can he do but touch? Crazy Jane

“I bring you with reverent hands
The books of my numberless dreams,
White woman that passion has worn
As the tide wears the dove-grey sands,
And with heart more old than the horn
That is brimmed from the pasle fire of time:
White woman with numberless dreams,
I bring you my passionate rhyme.” A Poet To His Beloved

“All the heavy days are over;
Leave the body’s coloured pride
Underneath the grass and clover,
With the feet laid side by side.
One with her are mirth and duty;
Bear the gold-embroidered dress,
For she needs not her sad beauty,
To the scented oaken press.” Dream of a Blessed Spirit

“One that is ever kind said yesterday:
‘your well-beloved’s hair has threads of grey,
And little shadows come about her eyes;

Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself:

“We are at our Tower and I am writing poetry as I always to here, and as always happens, no matter how I begin, It becomes love poetry before I am finished with it.” Yeats

“The savior of English lyric poetry.” W. H. Auden

“In the new concreteness of this pase of Yeats’s poetry…the poem [No Second Troy] is not a contemplation of abstract love but a successful attempt to show what it is like to love a particular beautiful woman who is also a political agitator.” Pinto

“In his poems he uses the vague and beautiful images of flowers, stars, birds…as an escape from the ugliness of his age.” Pinto

In a lyrical treasure about an old loved woman who is growing old Yeats “combines the loss with the gain; there is no comfort for what is lost; there is no need for comfort, because of what is gained.” Bennett

Our third characteristic is the cyclical movement of human history:

“Everything that man esteems
Endures a moment or a day.
Love’s pleasure drives his love way,
The painter’s brush consumes his dreams;
The herald’s cry, the soldier’s tread
Exhaust his glory and his might;
Whatever flames upon the night
Man’s own resinous heart has fed.” Two Songs from a Play

“These masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?”

“Each age unwinds the thread another age had wound, and it amuses one to remember that before Phidias…Persia fell and that when full moon came round again…brought Byzantine glory, Rome fell; and that at the outset of our westward-moving Renaissance Byzantium fell; all things dying each other’s life, living each other’s death.” A Vision

Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself:

“Yeats accepts the pattern of symbolic opposites… The cycles are synonymous in Yeats’ mind with perpetual conflict.” Berryman

“He held a cyclical view of history, in terms of which about every two thousand years an old civilization dies and a new one begins to take its place.” Unger

Our fourth characteristic is a world of symbolism, mysticism, and Irish lore:

“I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.” The Lake of Innisfree “the Celtic twilight” period

“You shall go with me, newly-married bride,
And gaze upon a merrier multitude.
White-armed Nuala, Aengus of the Birds,
Feachra of the hurtling form, and him
Who is the ruler of the Western Host,
Finvara, and their Land of Heart’s desire.
Where beauty has no ebb, decay no flood,
But joy is wisdom, time an endless song.” Land of Heart’s Desire

“I saw pass from love to love;
and yet the pure allowed his claim
To be the purest of the pure,
thrice holy, stainless, without blame,
I saw the open tavern door
Flash on the dusk a ruddy glare
And saw the King of Kings outcast
Reel brawling thorough the starlit air.
And yet He is the Prince of Peace
Of whom the ancient wisdom tell.”

“That he might set at rest
A boy’s turbulent days
Mohini Chatterjee
Spoke these, or words like these.”

“And toads, and every outlawed thing,
With eyes of sadness rose to hear,
From pools and rotting leaves, me sing
The song of outlaws and their fear.
My singing sang me fever-free.
My singing fades, the strings are torn;
I must away by wood and sea
And lift a ulalo forlorn,
And fling my laughter to the sun
For my remembering hour is done
In all his evening vapours rolled.” The Madness of King Goll

“When I play my fiddle in Dooney,
Follk dance like a wave of the sea;
My cousin is priest in Kilvarnet,
My brother in Moharabuiee. The Fiddler of Dooney

“He who hath made the night of stars
For souls, who tire and bleed,
Sent one of His great angels down
To help me in my need.

He who is wrapped in purple robes,
With planets in His care,
Had pity on the least of things
Asleep upon a chair.” The Ballad of Father Gilligan

Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself:

“A race is a communion of souls: a poet who writes in these terms must be, in Yeats’s sense, a Symbolist. Donahugh

“Yeats remained a symbolist in his later poetry but he now moved to a far wider and deeper conception of symbolism…Two of the most impressive are Byzantium as an idealized Ireland and himself as a terrible and dynamic old man for whom old age is decrepitude but a spiritual adventure.” Pinto

“The poet of essences and pure ideas must seek in the half-lights that glimmer from symbol to symbol as if to the ends of the earth , all that the epic and dramatic poet finds of mystery and shadow in the accidental circumstances of life.” Yeats

“It is only by ancient symbols by, symbols that have number less meanings besides the one or two the writer lays an those childhood days I discovered the world of fantasy, and I still spend all my spare moments in that land of endearing enchantment.” Yeats

“We had no Gaelic but paid great honour to the Irish poets who wrote in English, and quoted them in our speeches.” Yeats - Speaking of the Young Gaelic Society

“He was severe upon himself and said of his poetry ‘almost all a flight into fairyland from the real world…’ he promised himself that he would one day write ‘poetry of insight and knowledge.’” Donoghue

We close with this poem Old Men Admiring Themselves in the Water:

“I heard the old, old men say, ”
‘Everything alters,
And one by one we drop away.’
They had hands like claws, and their knees
Were twisted like the old thorn trees
By the waters.
I heard the old, old men say,
‘All that’s beautiful drifts away
Like the waters water.”

And this quote from Yeats: “the arts are founded on the life beyond the world, and that they must cry in the ears of our penury until the world has been consumed and become a vision.”