Yeats and the Romantic Tradition

William Butler Yeats is regarded as one of 'the last romantics' who successfully bridged the gap between the romantic tradition of the 19th century and the modernist literature of the 20th century which was produced in direct opposition to that tradition. He was considered both a Romantic and a modern poet. His poetry falls into three distinct categories of phrases.

William B. Yeats (1865-1939)

His first period, sometimes known as the 'Celtic Twilight' is one of self-conscious romanticism, highly influenced by Spenser, Blake and Shelley. His early works were full of melody and decoration, often based on Irish myth and folklore, had a strong mystical and dreamlike element in it. The poetry composed during this time was in the Romantic and late-Romantic style. His second stage starts roughly from 1914 to the late 1920s. During this period, his style becomes precise considerably, and dreams and melody are increasingly banished in favor of psychological reality and politics. His poems were more nationalist and concerned about the liberation of Ireland from the grip of British rule.  His third and final period takes and reconciles elements from both his earlier periods, but adds something new. Poetry from this period is less, public than earlier work, and often highly personal, but it also develops Yeats' theories of anarchy, violence and tragedy in human history. The works of poetry during these period talks more about the truths of fragmentation of human and effects of modern inventions in humanity.

Yeats comes under the group of the last generation of the romantic poets. He was the members of the Rhymer's Club and the poets and painters of the pre-Raphaelite school, and his early writings were fabricated by this association. From the poets of these eras, he learnt the necessity of form and pattern of art and craft, the devotion to ideal beauty, which may doom an artist to a life of loneliness in the modern materialistic society. He of course later dwelt on the basic limitations of the art for art's sake cult, as also of the divided personalities of the young artists of 'the tragic generation', and bent all his efforts towards the devising of effective ways of avoiding their fate. His youthful imagination was nourished on the poetry of Shelley and in his 'day-dreaming' childhood, he was apt to pose as Manfred, Prince Athanase and Alastor. Moreover, the first poet whom he studied and edited was Blake, the poet painter who fabricated a mythology of his own to keep his originality and uniqueness intact, and his own early poetry has all the characteristic flavor and limitation of the typical romantic verse-a tendency to escape into the land of romance or peaceful bosom of nature, flirtations with lovely phantoms or figures of folk-lore and superstition and fondness for poetic words, for 'pale' and 'yellow' color and vague epithets and descriptions as well as wavering rhythm.

Tennyson was heavily impressed by Keats's romantic tradition in poetry. Tennyson later influenced Rossetti, and WB Yeats followed the romantic tradition of Rossetti. All these poets: Keats, Tennyson, Rossetti, had a remarkable eye and an ear for verbal music.  Rossetti is a decadent poet, but the seeds of his decadence are to be found in Tennyson and, before that, in Keats. Keats, Tennyson and Rossetti have a common way of dealing with love in a frustrated way. Their frustrated love in the poetry is idealized and sensual, a self-mortifying love.

Yeats, under the spell of this grim magnificence, began by writing poems which were similarly dreamy, weary, and nostalgia. His early poems were based on Victorian individualism and he desperately wrote on love frustrated theme:

Although our love is waning, let us stand

 By the lone border of the lake once more,

Together in that hour of gentleness

When the poor tired child, Passion, falls asleep:

How far away the stars seem, and how far

Is our first kiss, and ah, how old my heart.


This personification of Passion was almost a Romantic cliché the  phrases like, 'man whom Sorrow named his friend', 'odorous twilight', and 'Dim powers of drowsy thought' and also his facile grammatical inversions are full of depression towards love and women. In later life, when revising these poems, he removed the inversions, purged the epithets, and modified the Keatsian dullness. The later version is harder, less 'poetic' in the Romantic sense, less sentimental.

His first book of poems, The Wandering of Oisin, contains no political implications; the Irish poems in it, according to Yeats himself, are not truly Irish. Down by the Salley Gardens is an exception, being merely a trimmed version of an Irish folk song. And the fairies which appear in certain poems here, later suppressed, are trumpery little English fairies, degenerate descendants of Oberon and Titania. Similarly the Irish ballads in this collection are, like some of the ballads of Rossetti and Swinburne, the copybook exercises of an intellectual-

But Father John went up,

And Father John went down;

And he wore small holes in his shoes,

And he wore large holes in his gown.

 The naive simplicity of this poem is not vital and true to the poet's personality than the simplicity of Rossetti's Stratton Water.

As for the long narrative title poem, The Wandering of Oisin itself, it is very derivative (he later considered it to be full of the Italian color of Shelley) and no more Irish than Tennyson's Voyage of Maeldune. The epithets are often clichés and the rhythms are sometimes the more vulgar rhythms of the Romantics, sometimes feeble--especially when he is using the rhyming couplets of Morris.

Yeats, who received the Romantic inspiration largely through the more enervated verse of Morris, ran the risk of being deprived of vigor and crude simultaneously. The dangerous influence of Morris is noticed in Gilbert Murry's verse translations of Greek tragedy which have made something evasive, languid, and feminine out of an original that was masculine, hard, and direct. Morris, on receiving The Wanderings of Oisin, said to Yeats, 'You write my sort of poetry'.

Yeats' later poems all show a zest, and this zest is something distinct from Romantic enthusiasm, something more virile and less contaminated with self-pity. There is plenty of self in it, but it takes the form not of a young man's escapism, which hankers for the wings of a dove, but of an old man's self-confidence who thinks he has the wings of an eagle. A new Yeats emerges with the publication in 1910 of The Green Helmet, a collection of poems purely free from any taint of romantic myth and legend. There is no dreaminess, no abstractness in the presentation of material. His style became leaner, more refined and more austere. With Responsibilities, published in 1940, we get Yeats, who can handle issues of public affairs with a shrewd personal detachment, somewhat touched with irony. His later poetry is tinged with realism and rings a modern note. He was now dealing fairly directly with contemporary experience, some of it historical, some of it casual and personal. As well as admitting contemporary matter into his poetry, he was also admitting moral or philosophical problems. And he was expressing many more moods, not only the 'poetic' ones. He was writing at one moment as a cynic, at another as an orator, at another as a sensualist, at another as a speculative thinker. His poetry was sometimes critical, sometimes near to nonsense. The critical poetry pleased us because we demanded that a poet who had meddled with the world should admit it. The nonsense elements pleased us too, for nonsense poetry was the one nineteenth-century Romantic self-indulgence that had escaped stigmatization. But on the whole it was Yeats's dryness and hardness that excited us. Like a typical romantic poet, he started with personal problems and conflicts and sought to create a general philosophy of life and history out of it.

Cite this Page!

Sharma, K.N. "Yeats and the Romantic Tradition." BachelorandMaster, 18 June 2017,