As with Tennyson and Browning, Eliot and Yeats were long considered a pair of poets who best represented their age. As with Browning, Yeats now is considered far less important than his more enduring contemporary. This judgment is largely true, but nevertheless Yeats like Browning was a considerable writer and well deserves to be read even now.
Though more orthodox than Eliot in style and subject matter, Yeats too had a wide range. Yet many of his best poems deal with the subject of age and transition. The beautiful Wild Swans at Coole exemplifies the manner in which he transits from scenic description to cognizance of the years passing.
The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.
The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.
I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.
Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.
But now they drift on the still water,
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?
More direct is my favourite amongst his poems, Sailing to Byzantium. Here Yeats juxtaposes with the sense of advancing age the concept of artistry that goes beyond time and provides not just consolation but enduring satisfaction. Nevertheless, the most striking image in the poem is that of a fecundity in which the writer, of a dying generation, can no longer share
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unaging intellect.
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.
O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
A calmer approach to the cycle of life is found in A Prayer for my Daughter, one of the few poems of a parent that does not come across as mawkish or sentimental. The various elements Yeats wishes for come across as sensible and desirable, and the manner in which they are fleshed out has an enormously wide appeal, though I fear I can cite only the opening stanzas of the poem –
Once more the storm is howling, and half hid
Under this cradle-hood and coverlid
My child sleeps on. There is no obstacle
But Gregory’s wood and one bare hill
Whereby the haystack- and roof-levelling wind,
Bred on the Atlantic, can be stayed;
And for an hour I have walked and prayed
Because of the great gloom that is in my mind.
I have walked and prayed for this young child an hour
And heard the sea-wind scream upon the tower,
And under the arches of the bridge, and scream
In the elms above the flooded stream;
Imagining in excited reverie
That the future years had come,
Dancing to a frenzied drum,
Out of the murderous innocence of the sea.
May she be granted beauty and yet not
Beauty to make a stranger’s eye distraught,
Or hers before a looking-glass, for such,
Being made beautiful overmuch,
Consider beauty a sufficient end,
Lose natural kindness and maybe
The heart-revealing intimacy
That chooses right, and never find a friend.
Yeats also had a strong romantic or rather sensual streak, as can be seen in Leda and the Swan, based on the Greek myth of the seduction of Leda by Jupiter in the form of a swan. Yeats’ treatment of this subject, in sonnet form, moves beyond a pretty scene, and suggests the terror as well as the excitement such coupling would have entailed. But he also introduced the idea of the aftermath of this coupling, for Leda’s children were Helen of Troy and Clytemnestra, who killed her husband Agamemnon when he came back victorious from the Trojan war.
A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?
A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?
Yeats could also however be romantic in the conventional way, as in the lyrical Lake Isle of Innisfree which combines natural beauty and the poet’s reaction to this in a manner that recalls Wordsworth. The second verse with its skilful use of rhythm to alter the pace (there’ in the first line to slow things down, the repeated participle ‘dropping’ in the second line that means we have a trochee (strong/weak) followed by an anapaest (weak/weak/strong) which creates tremendous fluidity), the ‘and’ in the third line that changes the regular two syllable feet, which happens again in the last line, all help to create a sense of peace that is still vibrant with the activity of nature and also the responsive mind.
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 the morning 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 pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
It would not do however to discuss Yeats without also mentioning his political poetry. He did not see himself as a republican in the sense that had taken over Ireland by the time of his maturity, but he was certainly an Irish nationalist and believed in the need for greater political power to the Irish. His celebration then of some elements in the nationalist struggle was an integral part of his political identity, and needs to be registered
O but we talked at large before
The sixteen men were shot,
But who can talk of give and take,
What should be and what not
While those dead men are loitering there
To stir the boiling pot?
You say that we should still the land
Till Germany’s overcome;
But who is there to argue that
Now Pearse is deaf and dumb?
And is their logic to outweigh
MacDonagh’s bony thumb?
How could you dream they’d listen
That have an ear alone
For those new comrades they have found,
Lord Edward and Wolfe Tone,
Or meddle with our give and take
That converse bone to bone?
The poem was published in February 1921, when the British were talking about a negotiated solution, their regular hypocrisy when their own brutal acts of repression had failed. In the same month Yeats delivered a blistering speech at the Oxford Union in which he compared British atrocities to those of the German’s in Belgium, and demanded an independent inquiry – which of course is not something the British ever allow in their own case.