The Salient Features of Yeats's Poetry

William Butler Yeats has been recognized as a great modern poet of the 20th century. J.W. Beach calls him the finest of British poets of the modern age. Edith Sitwell, admiring his poetry, says, "It is forty years since the earliest of these great poems gave new life to the language…. . " G.S. Frazer in his widely known book entitled The Modern Writer and His World claims for Yeats the position of a major English poet, and equates him with Donne, with Milton and with Wordsworth and considers him very greatly superior to Browning, to Tennyson and to Arnold.

William B. Yeats (1865-1939)

Further, he asserts that the poetry of Yeats would be more permanent and enduringly popular than the poetry of either T.S. Eliot or of Ezra Pound, because it is more coherent, and more traditional than that of his two great contemporaries.

His poetry deals with a variety of themes ranging from ancient legend, mythology, folklore, politics, history, love and constantly creates new myths of his own. His work is uniformly good and his creations are quite extensive and he writes with ease on themes adopted from every sphere of life.

The sustained and continuous development of art and genius is the chief point in Yeats's poetry. The period of poetic activity in his case extended over fifty years, and during this long span of time he was constantly maturing and growing different from what he was at the beginning. There is no sudden change or break in continuity, but a slow evolution, and the seeds of the future are to be found in what has gone before. The seeds that are sown in the earliest phase gradually sprout and come to fruition in his later phase of poetry. Moreover The Collected Poems from an organic whole where each poem lights up its predecessor and is in turn illuminated by its successor. All obscurities disappear if Yeats's poetry is read as a whole, and such reading gives an aesthetic pleasure, such as is derived from the writings of even a few of the greatest poets.

The gradual evolution is one of the chief features of Yeats's poetry. His early poetry is romantic while the later one is realistic both in theme and treatment. He began by producing poems in the Pre-Raphaelite romantic tradition. There early poems are openly escapist, and their dreamy atmosphere is accentuated by rhythms. The use of Irish mythology and folklore electrified all Europe. It had a rare fascination for those who were fed up with overworked classic myths and legends. They became aware of a new lyrical voice that had a fay quality, a wild tenderness, something which was wanting to their souls. That is why Yeats was called the last of the great romantics. But he was soon tired and dissatisfied with this romanticism and the dissatisfaction kept increasing with his advancing age. Because of his enjoying a long life full of complexity, passion and variety of experience he could impart his poems masculine vigor and solidity which neither Keats nor Shelley nor Wordsworth could do.

With the turn of the century, Yeats changed into a great 20th century realistic poet from the 19th century romanticism. His later poetry is nakedly real in character. It is even brutal, coarse and throwing with manly vigor. There is a more and more approximation to speech rhythms and colloquial diction. Natural words in a natural order are his aim and ambition now. There is no decoration or exaggeration in style. It is made terse and epigrammatic in force and sublimity. But it is rich and complex, the simplicity of form is accompanied by the profundity of thought. The uniformly high standard of work is maintained even in the poems of the last phase. Such sustained evolution and uniformity of production is uncommon indeed.

As Yeats was caught between two worlds of romanticism and modernism, this ambivalence in his personality is reflected in his poetry. Thus, his poetry has been pronounced as a battleground for the clash of opposites. The antimonies of the human and the non-human, of the spiritual and the material, the sensuous and the artistic, physical decay and intellectual maturity, the past and the present, the personal and the impersonal, power and helplessness, constantly occur and recur in his poetry. In his later poetry, however, there is an attempt to reconcile them. In the poem No Second Troy the past and the present, the personal and the impersonal, have been linked up by the use of the Helen-Deirdre- Maud Gonne image. In the Sailing to Byzantium the opposites between physical decay and intellectual maturity have been reconciled by taking an extra-temporal view.

Symbolism is another striking feature of Yeats poetry who was regarded as the chief exponent of the symbolist movement in England. In the early stage of his career, his symbolism is simple, easy to understand, like the traditional symbol of Rose. But in the course of time his symbols became complex, personal and individual. The Swan, The Tower, The Windling Stair, the Gyres etc., is symbols that frequently occur in his later phase. They are used in different poems in different senses. They are employed to convey his inner experience and visions which cannot be communicated in any other way. At their best they are highly evocative and significant.

With advance of age and gathering of experience, Yeats acquired complete command over his material and could move quite easily from one dissimilar concept to another and also compress vast possibilities within the compass of short lyric. In the poem Leda and the Swan the whole ages of history from hoary antiquity to the present age have been compressed. In this way his lyrics acquire richness and force of personally felt emotion. The poem The Second Coming owes its intensity to Yeats's prophetic vision.

Yeats has been regarded as a great myth-maker. His prose work Vision has been assessed as the most ambitious attempt made by any poet of time to set up a myth. Yeats is forever finding analogies in the present and the personal in the past and impersonal. The present is thus raised high and gloried and imparted the universal status of a myth. In the opening stanza of Easter 1916 we are given the myth of Yeats's contemporaries coming out of the dead past to take part in the activities of the present. Yeats invents new myths or tries old ones in changed context, or invests them with new significance. In the poem Magi the old Biblical story is modified and the Magi are transported to stars looking down at "bestial floor".

Yeats's poetry  is simply obscure too. Undoubtedly, the undercurrent of mysticism running through Yeats's poetry produces obscurity because mysticism cannot be rationally interpreted. But this obscurity stems from the profundity of thought and terseness of expression rather than from the carelessness of the poet. He has also been spoken of as being arrogant and blunt sometimes. But reason for this is that inspired with absolute artistic sincerity and integrity, he does not hesitate to express himself in a blunt and straightforward manner. He may sometimes be coarse and brutal, but his brutality is an expression of his integrity of purpose.

Yeats was a great meterist as much as he experimented with various stanzas, and different forms of verse. He steered clear of the verse libra and other technical novelties of his day, but he used with conspicuous skill the traditional meters and stanza-forms. He freed the English lyric from the tyranny of the iambic meter and manipulated the stress, pause, and cadence of the long line with masterly ability and self-confidence. He specialized in octosyllabic couplet and brought out its colloquial possibilities. He made his stanza patterns correspond with the flow of thought and emotion.

Use of hyperboles can be taken as one of his poetry's features.  Phrases like "a tattered coat upon a stick," "blood and mire", "dragon-ridden" etc., are hyperbolic. Such phrases, being overworked, become wearisome and sound hollow.

Yeats poetry does not follow contemporaneity. There are few references to factories, railways, airplanes, screaming engines, automobiles, etc., which are a part and parcel of modern life. In ignoring modern contemporary scene, he ignores much of his own experience. At times when he attempts to incorporate a contemporary reference into his verse requiring the exploitation of modern imagery, the result is unhappy. Thus, modern war is not adequately pictured in the poem Lapis Lazuli. In a democratic age, he champions the cause of the aristocracy and defends their tradition; and in the age of industrialism he extols the rural way of life. He is thus strangely indifferent to the trends of modern life while contemporary poets have been influenced thereby in their verse.

With his old age progressing ahead, he isolates himself from the world and the spiritual isolation made his later verse inhuman in tone. He does not share in the sorrows and sufferings, joy and pleasures of the world. He is warm of heart and human toward personal friends, but he certainly lacks the modern humanitarian spirit. He rejects most of the things which the modern world believes in and feels for, and hence his poetry sounds inhuman, distant and remote, as if he were a voice from afar.

Features following his last poems deal with extremes of everything and there is too much of blood, dust and mud. There we have the glorification of violence and war, the celebration of sexuality, the same inner emptiness revealed either in an expression of personal futility or in the insistence upon a hysterical and nihilistic exultation. Some of these poems might have a barbaric beauty and splendor, but it is a splendor of desolation and emptiness; a cold, inhuman beauty of a political personal satire or a ballad of violence. All these excellent characteristics attends him as the great poet of all the time.

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Sharma, K.N. "The Salient Features of Yeats's Poetry." BachelorandMaster, 18 June 2017,