William Butler Yeats (1865 — 1939) #

When we quarrel with others, we make rhetoric;
When we quarrel with ourselves, we make poetry.

Born in Ireland, William Butler Yeats wrote most of his major poetry from l9l4 until his death in 1939. This was a period of extreme terror, hysteria and violence, not only in Ireland, but also in Europe and the rest of the world. Yeats is a notable poet worthy of study not because he provides historical answers we might ask about this period, nor does he provide an accurate detailed account of the historical process, but because of his brilliant insights in our western culture and because of deep sympathy he has for the tragedy and pathos of human life. To appreciate his poems we must forget his political bias and errors in judgement and facts and allow his art to prevail by its technical perfection and its detached, serene and optimistic outlook on the drama of life.

Yeats straddled the Romantic and Modern Age of Poetry. Yeats was heavily influenced by the French Symbolists, indicated by his transition from traditional styles, concrete images and diction. His search for “the right words in the right order” was always also a search for words that would sing and for a passionate syntax for passionate subject matter and the pure and simple diction of his later poetry is the result of his desire “to think like a wise man yet to express ourselves like the common people”. (H.W. Piper, The Beginnings of Modern Poetry)

The Romantic Movement was a reaction against the Age of Reason and the Metaphysical period. It affected many areas of human thought, influenced by the Philosophers and spreading to other genres in the arts such as painting, music, novels, drama and poetry as well as politics especially the rise of Nationalism. Romantic Art flourished following the French Revolution, when all things seemed possible and life was on a trajectory of unlimited improvement heading towards perfectibility and the ultimate triumph of good. It believed that Nature was good and therefore the ideal of goodness was a natural state achievable by man.

As in most areas of thinking, a dialectic emerges where each dominant ideology (the thesis) is challenged by a reaction (The antithesis) resulting in a conflict resolved by a compromise (the synthesis) which eventually achieves domination to become the new thesis. Then the whole process begins again with a conflict of opposites.

Among many things, it was the Industrial Revolution and later the ferocity and wanton destruction of WWI that rocked the sensibilities of the Romantics forcing them to reevaluate their fanciful assumptions, creating doubt and disillusionment on a massive scale.

For Yeats there was a subtle relation between the historical process and the creative arts. Great art, for him, was a tribute to the spirit of a great age. All great art originates in the tragedy of history. Thus the art produced in the antiquity of Greece and Rome, Byzantium, and in Renaissance Italy was great because it emanated from a period when tension was high and when the history of man was in the making.

Irish heritage #

While Yeats sought his sources in the wider western origins, he later focused on his Irish heritage.

The Ireland of William Butler Yeats encompasses both dream and waking actuality. He does not see the life of everyday in allegorical terms; rather he passes from a phase of indulgence in what we broadly call ‘dreams’ to one in which his poetry was won from sharp and profound contemplation of actuality:

Though leaves are many, the root is one;
Through all the lying days of my youth
I swayed my leaves and flowers in the sun;
Now I may wither into the truth.

His growth out of the poet of the ‘Celtic Twilight’ into one of the great modern poets evolved slowly as he broadened his horizons. He had, of course, great pleasure in the Celtic dream, but ultimately ancient Ireland with its myths and legendary heroisms of kings and queens, its beggars and fiddlers and fairies, its misty mountains and bogs and lakes, while it was incomparably more real to the lore- steeped Irish poet than it can be to the man-of-the-world and to foreigners, failed to satisfy. He never inhabited it with the naïve completeness with which some kinds of poet dwell in their created worlds of fantasy.

*The note of dissatisfaction and yearning in the earlier poetry indicates something of a self-critical bent, and when this grew sharper and the poet became aware that he was not expressing his deepest self, he turned for much of his material to the world of actual friends and lovers, his family, real houses and existing works of art, incidents and personages of civil war, politicians idealistic or base, national or civic affairs, newspapers, the theatre. H. Coombes – English Literature

Ideologies #

To interpret history and the immediate scene Yeats develops an intricate system of private mythology, largely Gaelic and Greek in origin. Yeats’ eccentric theory of history arises from an apocalyptic “vision” he feels he has received. History is built up on a system of cone-shaped gyres. Though not really cyclic it develops in a rotating spiral expanding at each turn of the cycle. When a civilization has reached its utmost expansion, the cone explodes and a new age is brought about. In “The Second Coming” written during the 1921 Black and Tan troubles in Ireland he uses the symbol of Ireland as microcosm of the rest of the world. The cone has reached its utmost expansion and the age is one of political discord.

The role of the artist in politics, according to Yeats, is to remain aloof and detached from the immediate scene of discord. When he confronts a specific issue of politics in his poetry he retreats to his tower and contemplates a beautiful work of art. In his poem entitled “Politics” he decides to leave the cares of state to politicians while he contemplates the beautiful form of a girl who has attracted his attention.

Yeats’ Mysticism #

In reaction to his father’s atheism, Yeats flirted briefly with traditional Christianity but eventually was attracted to various occult spiritual movements such as Theosophy, ..”professing to acquire knowledge of God by spiritual ecstasy, direct intuition, or special individual relations…

Rosicrucianism named after the Rose Cross, (includes awareness of the inner worlds and the subtle bodies, and to provide safe guidance in the gradual awakening of man’s latent spiritual faculties toward the coming Age of Aquarius.) and Neo-Platonism.

He was opposied to modernity, populism and change. His was a nostalgia for the ancient Ireland/World that remained aristocratic and authoritarian –an Oligarchy:

We Irish, born into that ancient sect
But thrown upon this filthy modern tide
And by its formless spawning fury wrecked,
Climb to our proper dark, that we may trace

The lineaments … Yeats, The Statues (l. 28-32).

The threat to order came not from Nazism or Communism (he supported fascism and Mussolini) but from Democracy – “the mob” – “this filthy modern tide” and he also supported eugenics to protect us from “its formless spawning”.

Violence #

WWI marked a seismic shift in how we viewed heroic death. The classical depiction is tragic, but celebratory; willingly and joyfully sacrificing yourself for a greater cause.

Confronted, suddenly and starkly with the senseless and meaningless slaughter of thousands who died “like cattle”, in the face of industrialised war, a new immersive picture emerged of the brutal ugly non-heroic nature of young men needlessly giving up their lives because the Generals had little idea of the real conditions and consequences of their war strategies.

Yeats, cocooned in his classical mindset, rejected the WWI war poets because he:

“felt they had made their suffering their own. Passive suffering is not a theme for poetry. In all the great tragedies, tragedy is a joy to the man who dies. In Greece the tragic chorus danced. If war is necessary it is best to forget the suffering, as we do the discomfort of fever, remembering our comfort at midnight when our fever fell.”

On the contrary, according to Warwick McFadyen, the war poets proved Yeats comprehensively wrong, by demonstrating that their was art in death and suffering. The soldiers found in the desolation of France and spirits in the war hospital wards, a voice transcendent.

Soldiers who have come back from duty, soldiers who saw their mates killed and had other horrific experiences commonly suffer shock, generally develop symptoms of traumatic illness.

Yeats’ response to his audience is perhaps best illustrated in this poem:

A Coat

I MADE my song a coat
Covered with embroideries
Out of old mythologies
From heel to throat;
But the fools caught it,
Wore it in the world’s eyes
As though they’d wrought it.
Song, let them take it,
For there’s more enterprise
In walking naked.

This site will discuss three historically relevant themes that are found in Yeats’ poetry; the artist as historian, the artist and politics, and the artist and violence. As well we will look at the transition from the innocence of youth to the disillusion of old age.

There are many excellent sites for further information on Yeats, the best in my view: