THE POET WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS
1. Life and Works :
Willam Butler Yeats was born in Dublin on June 13, 1835. His father was J.R. Yeats, an Irish portrait-painter. He was educated at the Godolphin School, Hammersmith, in London. But he went back to Dublin where he began to study art at Erasmus School for three years. But the formative influence on his character was provided not so much by academic training as by his wanderings in the wild mountains, secluded hills and lakes of the Irish province of Connaught. The dreamy, highly imaginative bent of his nature found in these wanderings of his early youth a store of legends and Irish folklore which gave a shape to his future poetical career. Yeats gave up the art of painting ultimately and at twenty-one adopted literature as his profession. In the meantime he had come under the influence of the Gaelic movement, and imbibed the patriotic spirit for his native land. Gradually, he became a powerful voice in the Irish national movements. His interest in the cause of Irish freedom led him first to an active role in the disturbances of 1916 and then to a public career which culminated in his election to the Senate of the Irish Free State(1922-28). In 1923 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He died in the South of France (1939) and his body was reinterred in Ireland in 1948.
2. His Poetry :
One of the most remarkable names in modern English poetry is W.B. Yeats. His poetry, with its clear and bright imagery, pure and impulsive statements, and haunting melody is one of the chief glories of modern English literature, particularly Modern English poetry. His significance, like Eliot’s, is truly much and he seems to epitomise the history of English poetry in his time.
The literary works of Yeats is found to fall distinctly into three groups. He wrote his earlier poems under the influence of the romanticists like Spenser, Shelley, Rossetti and particularly of the late Victorian romantic escapists. His earlier works bear testimony to the note of romantic escapism that haunted him in the early phase. The second stage of Yeats’s poetry comprises his symbolic and mystical poems, like The Wandering of Oisin and The Wind among the Reeds. The influence of Blake is found particularly distinct in his poetry of this period. His later works, including The Wild Swans at Coole and Other Poems, The Tower and The Winding Stair are more realistic, and bear out his serious, philosophic views. His two well known Byzantium poems-Sailing to Byzantium and Byzantium-may be particularly mentioned as the specimens of his reflective, intricate poetry of the later period. Infact, he has thirty to forty poems of outstanding merits, including The Tower, The Winding Stair and the Byzantium poems.
As a poet, Yeats is, indeed, great. In the opinion of Crompton Rickett, ………….in sheer poetic quality, he stands certainly superior in his age. As a music-maker and dreamer, as a lyricist and symphonist, Yeats is without ‘a peer among the poets of his generation and here ‘his significance in modern English literature is definite, immense.
Yeats is essentially a romanticist. His poetry, particularly his earlier poems, bear a dreamy grace, and is haunted with a romantic fancifulness. He is a rare figure among the modern poets of sensibillity. In his earlier works, as noted already, he appears to be a pure romanticist, following the tradition of the pre-Rephaelites. His interest in simple folk-life and sincere love and in the world of nature and the supernatural truly indicate his romantic genius, that is marevellously echoed in his poems, like The Lake Isle of Innisfree :
“I will arise and go now, for always night and day, I hear lake water tapping with low sounds by the shore; While I stand on the road way, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.”
The romantic temper, so clearly evident in Yeats, is a rare possession in modern English poetry. Here his contribution to one particular aspect of modern poetry is well marked.
Of course, Yeats, as stated already, is an escapist in his earlier works. It seems that he is a visionary, who tries to escape from the hard realities of life and to seek refuge in the realm of romance and fancy. Here, again, Yeats appears a romanticist, and his affinity with Keats—with his graceful imagination and subtle sensuousnessis much felt. Of course, he is found to have an intimate kinship with Rossetti in this respect. He has significance here, too. His lyrical escapism is found to have affected the later English poets, like Dylan Thomas.
Yeats’s later poems, of course, mark a definite change in his entire poetic creed and outlook. The contents of these poems are quite serious. He dwells here on human sorrows and sufferings, aims and aspirations. There is a distinct trend to humanitarian aspect in his later poetry, and this goes very close to the interest of the romantic poets, like Wordsworth, in humanity. Humanism is superbly restored in modern English poetry through his great poetic efforts. His ‘Byzantium poems are serious enough, not merely about life and death but also about permanence and mutability and about relation between life and art, in the manner of art and the way of life :
“Marbles of the dancing floor Break bitter furies of complexity Those images that yet Fresh images beget. That dolphin-torn, that going-tormented sea.”
The influence of French symbolists is found abundantly exhibited in Yeats’s poetry. He here is more than a romanticist. He is, in fact, here a truly modern poet. Symbolism is a peculiar gift of modern poetry, and his poetry stands very high as the ideal specimen of modern symbolic poetry. He has evoked a variety of emotions not by any direct statement but by a multitude of indirect strokes. Mythology is harmonised with natural imagery in his comprehensive symbolic art. In fact, Yeats, along with T.S. Eliot, occupies a most distinctive place in the range of modern symbolic poetry.
Yeats is a true poet. The flowing melodies of his lines are never found missing. He is, like a wandering voice of the woods, a lyric cry, an unending harmony. His language is the language of common life. His poetry may be considered a long experiment in the pattern of the common speech of men and women. His cherished genius is to have music in the natural order of natural words.
Yeats is essentially a dreamer-artist. His poetry, rich in originality and artistry, evokes sound, sweet dreams, yet deep feelings. In the ultimate analysis, Yeats remains a vigorous, original melodious poet, who dreams and sings and gives the true poetic pleasure to numerous readers, circumscribed by the rambles of machines and the ruffle of commerce in this dreary mechanised modern life.
Yeats is, without any doubt, a very outstanding poetic genius of the twentieth century, and stands prominently among the great modern English poets. He seems to harmonize romanticism and modernism. In imagination and impulsiveness, in style and form, he seems to bear the tradition of romanticism. But his theme and his presentation and treament of the same have the instinctive inspiration from modernism. He is found to be an original poet whose deviation from any other poet of his time is distinctly clear. Except in his earlier poems, Yeats never looks like any other contemporary poet. His voice, profound enough, is typically his own, and establishes his identity as a poet of eminence.