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William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

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William Butler Yeats (1865-l939)

The biography of William Butler Yeats is inseparable from the history of Irish nationalism. Both in turn provide major themes for his poetry. Born in Dublin in 1865 into a professional middle-class family, he inherited the dilemma of the Anglo-Irish Protestant minority to which his parents belonged, feeling Irish as much as British, and remaining largely aloof from the Catholic population.

He spent his childhood in London where hods family had moved, though he continued to spend his school holidays with his grandparents in Sligo, a country in the rural west of Ireland whose scenery,

folklore, and legends later appeared in many of his works.

His father was an artist and free thinker who influenced his son in love for art, particularly painting.

When he left school he decided to become an artist, but soon discovered that his real vocation was poetry, and published his first poems in the Dublin University Review, in 1885. Yeats was also extremely attracted to mystical doctrines, and went on studying them until his death. In 1889 his first book, The Wanderings of Oisin, was published; he was now a professional writer and was soon involved in the literary life of London. He was introduced to the French Symbolist movement and to the aesthetic ideas of Mallarmé, Baudelaire and Verlaine.

In 1889 he met a beautiful actress and a fervent nationalist, Maud Gonne, with whom he fell in love and who was to dominate his life and poetry. She led him into the politics of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and later disillusioned him by marrying the nationalist John McBride. This marriage was a terrible blow to Yeats's romantic dreams. His art changed. His style became hard and bitter, without the decorative images of his early poems; he turned to drama and his main topics became politics, metaphysics and art.

In 1899, Yeats founded the Irish Dramatic Movement, which settled in the Abbey Theatre and staged plays written by Yeats himself, John Synge and Sean O'Casey. His aim was to establish a permanent context for encouraging the writing of plays with a national theme, which he did himself. He believed that the role of the artist was the creation of a new culture, based on Ireland's past, in which all the Irish people alike could share. But, little by little, he grew more and more frustrated and depressed. His disillusionment with Irish politics increased. Only with the Easter Rising (1)of 1916 his faith in the heroic character his country was restored.

In 1917 he married Georgie Hyde-Lees. During their honeymoon, she made experiments in automatic writing, supposedly dictated by mysterious communicators from the supernatural world. Yeats worked out these communications into the elaborate pseudophilosophical system set out in A Vision (1925), a prose work theories which were revealed to him by supernatural beings through his wife's extra sensory faculties. This work provides a key  to understanding his poems, for Yeats made much use of imagery and symbols, which are so personal and esoteric that they often become obscure.

In 1922 Yeats was appointed a Senator of the Irish free State, and in 1923, he received the Nobel Prize. In his last years, although suffering from heart and lung disease, he wrote his greatest poems. He died in 1939.


It is difficult to divide Yeats's literary production into clearly defined periods, since all works centre around the same theme (man and time) and they all use recurrent symbols and images. His poems are

nevertheless conventionally grouped into three periods.

The early period (1889-l900) includes the poems of The Rose (1893) and The Wings among the Reeds (1899). Yeats was able to reproduce the exotic, languid atmospheres of the Romantic as well as the mood of the decadent artists. His use of Irish folklore went together with an original and complex symbolism, influenced by his reading of the French Symbolists and mysticism of William Blake. His best-known poem of this period is The Lake Isle of Innisfree, included in The Rose.

The middle period includes the collections In the Seven Woods (1903), The Green Helmet and Other poems (1910), The Wind Swans at Coole (1917). Under the influence of Ezra Pound, Yeats's style became more modern and he conceived his symbols as means to evoke the universal myths and archetypes contained in what Jung defined as the racial memory. A famous poem of this period is The Magi.

The later period covers the years of maturity, when he wrote A Vision (1925), in which he described his philosophy, and other collections of poems: Michael Robartes and the dancer (1921), The Tower (1928), The Winding Stairs (1929), A Full Moon in March (1935) and Last Poems (1939). In these works Yeats manages to blend all the major themes of his poetry through an intense symbolism. Only in the last ten years of his life he returned to a greater simplicity, without too much elaborate symbolism. He looked at the world with the cold detached serenity of the man who has seen the final truth and looks at life with sad but deep acceptance.

The use of symbols

Yeats frequently alludes to events and characters in myth and history or in the world around him; this includes not only the more familiar territory of classical, Greek and Roman culture, but also Irish legend and history, esoterism and philosophy, and his own elaborate symbolic system.

The ideas of symbols and images are  central to understand Yeats's poetry. They are not only means he uses to present his themes, but they are also themes in themselves, in which truths are embodied. To Yeats the symbol has a "visionary" dimension, it offers "revelation" since it has the power to "evoke indefinable and yet precise emotions".

Yeats's imagery

Some of his most frequent images include bird imagery: the falcon, which may stand for a violent and cruel rapacity which has broken free from control; the swan, which symbolizes the soul of man, life and youth. Other recurring images are the house and the tower. The house is no necessarily a symbol of security. But the most powerful and rich symbol is the Norman Tower in Galway, which became a major element of his mythology, a symbol of the cycles of history as well as the image of Ireland haunted by its past. The Rose is the symbol of beauty, harmony, the union of real and ideal, of spiritual love and of Ireland as well. The stone symbolizes eternity and sterility, whereas the tree is the symbol of life and fertility. Finally Byzantium represents the eternal world of art, but it is also the antithesis of modern Ireland.

Main themes

Yeats's esoteric thought often remains obscure but his greatness rest on:

His mastery of life.

His bitter vision of man's destiny.

His pessimistic view of the empty modern world.

His love for life.

His belief in the eternity and beauty of art.

The myth of death becomes urgent; the poet distinguishes between animal and human experiences of death. The animal is unaware of death and simply dies. Man, instead, dies many times before his death Every defeat, such as the unhappy experiences of love, but also every victory, are a series of deaths and rebirth preuring the end of life. The central idea is that of preparing oneself with dignity for that instant.

The idea of heroic individual also held Yeats's imagination. His heroes are alone because they are superior for his qualities, which set them apart and distinguish them from the public men and the common mob. Such heroes by their deeds and deaths, enter a mythical world.

Yeats's concept of history

For Yeats, in the sequence of historical ages, history mirrors the life of man, which develops from childhood to youth and to old age, and finally ends in death. Supported in his theory by neoplatonic doctrines, Yeats sees history as formed by a series of opposite cycles (something like Vico's repetition of historical phenomena or corsi e ricorsi), each cycle which Yeats calls Magnus Annus or Great Year, lasting about 2000 years. Each age is the opposite of the previous one; an age of rule and authority will be followed by an age of anarchy and violence. He conceived history as composed of two cones, rotating in opposite directions, the gyre. This theory is graphically represented by interpenetrating cones, the point of one cone touching the base of the other.

The gyre combines a rotating movement with a forward one. These movements represent the flow of a life cycle towards its end and the beginning of a new cycle. The gyre thus symbolizes the course of both mankind and history.   

the gyre

Style and language  

As a poet whose imagination works through the conflites and resolution of opposites, he is naturally drawn to the stylistic devices of antithesis, oxymoron and paradox. He employs alliteration, assonance, and especially repetition of a word or a phrase. He used many poetic forms, such as the ballad, the sonnet, the dramatic monologue and meditative or reflective poems. His poetry is full of rhetorical questions used to allow the intrusion of fantastic, mythical or supernatural elements. Another feature of Yeats's verse is irony, that can run through a whole poem or be revealed in a casual aside or by imagery and allusion.

Yeats's vocabulary contains many words of sensual and sensory experience, with a physical, tactile quality. He not only writes of the body but also of the mind, the imagination, the soul, though he rarely thinks of them as abstract things. Rather, the and for him is the body thinking. While his early poetic diction, written in over-refined language, lacked this vitality, his later poetry recovered the idioms of everyday speech.

The second coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity

Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out

When a vase image out of Spiritus Mundi

Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it

Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again; but now I know

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

This is a key poem in Yeats's production. The title derives from the belief in the second coming of Christ (St Matthew, 24). It was written in 1919. Remember  that 1917 had marked the beginning of the Russian revolution, 1918 had seen the end of the First World War, and these were also the years of the conflicts between Irish patriots and English soldiers. It is perhaps the poem that best illustrate Yeats's theories of history and its cycles. The poet, in fact, depicts each cycle of history as a gyre, departing from a fixed point and widening in spiralling circles. When the gyre has reached its maximum width, it disintegrates and another cycle (and consequently another gyre) begins; so the death of one civilisation is interconnected with the birth of another.

In the first stanza Yeats represents the present state of our civilisation; the Christian era, which is now approaching its 2000th year, seems to be failing in pieces. Like the falcon that has flown too high and can no longer hear the call of the falconer, our civilisation has lost its fixed centre, its principles, the Christian ideas of peace, order and love. "The centre cannot hold": the consequences are political disorders and anarchy on one side and moral disorder on the other. The poet is probably thinking of the horror of the Russian Revolution, the bloodshed of the First World War and of the Irish struggle for independence. Innocence and truth are destroyed by brutality and cynicism. Confusion and doubt have killed the faith of the best, while the worst reveal all their brutal passions.

The cycle of the present age is at its end, and an antithetical civilisation is approaching. At the beginning of the second stanza the tension is mounting; there is a sense of dreadful inevitability; a second coming is near, a new cycle is starting, opposed to the one that is closing. The first coming was the birth of Christ in Bethlehem: what will the shape of the next revelation be? Yeats believes in a great memory, which is not the individual one, but a racial memory, which he calls "Spiritus Mundi". From this racial memory he draws a recollection of a horrible creature "with lion body and the head of a man". This sphinx-like being slowly advances, with cruel and pitiless gaze, inexorably breaking the silence of the desert. Then the vision vanishes, but the poet realises that, just as twenty centuries of the pre-Christian era were transformed by the coming of Christ, now the hour has come of another revelation, of another coming. An age of violence and blood is in fact approaching, represented by a rough beast, which is slowly going to Bethlehem to be born there and to desecrate the holy place.

This nightmarish vision shows how deeply Yeats feared revolutions, wars, moral and political disorders. This seems to be only a vision, but had Yeats lived a few years longer, to see the horrors of the Second World War, of its concentration camps, and of the burning hell caused by atomic arms, he would probably have said this his vision come true.

The lake isle of Innisfree

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.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,

Dropping from the veils of twilight to where the cricket sings;

There midnight's all a-glimmer, and noon a purple glow,

And evening full of the linnet's wings.

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 pavement grey,

I hear it in the deep heart's core.

The poem was composed in 1888, published in "The National Observer" in 1890 and afterwards included in the collection "The Rose". It begins with the word of the prodigal son in St. Luke's Gospel, XV, 18: "I will arise and go to my father." Yeats was then living in London, and was overcome by nostalgia for the simple, quiet life of rural Ireland where, in the poem, he dreams of building a small cabin and living alone. The language is elaborate, but there is a keen observation of the colours and noises of midnight and noon, the movement of nature, such as the song of the cricket, the glimmer and purple glow of evoked through auditive rather than visual devices: the droning of the bees, the song of the cricket, the sound of the linnet's fluttering wings, the noise of the water lapping the shore. Rather than "seeing" his island, Yeats seems to "feel" it inside himself. The poem is dreamy and nostalgic, written in the fashion of the time. It is a romantic escape poem. Though the metre is not new, there is such a variety of stressed vowels as to male it extremely musical, a quality which is reinforced by the use of alliteration (II. 3, 4, 7, 10)

in 1916 at Easter, the Sinn Fein extremists, who demanded complete independence, rebelled in Dublin. The rebellion was crushed, and sixteen rebels executed, thus inflaming the deeply rooted passions of Irish nationalism. The Sinn Fein party thought that only through the use of force could the Irish obtain full independence, they formed an army, the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and used terrorist methods against the British police


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