Born William Butler Yeats in 1865, this poet can be regarded as the greatest poet of Irish Literature. As the child of protestant parents, Yeats was brought up in a time of political turmoil, during the rise of Charles Stuart Parnell, the civil war and the Irish Revival. Yeats began his literary livelihood early, at just aged twenty years, when his first work was published. It must be noted that Yeats was an unusual poet, as he defied any common expectations in relation to the climax in a poetic career; unlike many, Yeats’ career reached its heightened peak late in life, between the ages of 50 and 75.
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Perhaps due to this unusual aspect of Yeats’ history as a poet, his poetry evokes a changing nature. Yeats literature oscillates between the 19th and 20th centuries and thus, Yeats can be regarded, stylistically, as quite a unique poet. In the early years of Yeats’ poetry, he drew heavily upon Irish myth and folklore, while his later work dealt with much more contemporary issues.
“Yeats’ work shifts from the heavily ornamental, fantasy-driven early poems to the fascination with Irish myth and legend, which matured into the concerns of the Celtic Revival and the embrace of distinctly Irish culture. As an older but still unmarried man, he became more interested in contemporary social issues, though he never lost sight of the history which informed them. Late in life, his marriage revived his interest in mystical matters, accompanied by a burst in creative imagination, best exemplified by the gyres of A Vision and “The Second Coming.”” (Website 2)
Personally, I’m someone who likes to resist the notion of dividing Yeats’ work into categories of early and late poetry. However, I acknowledge that many things have certainly influenced Yeats’ style and nature as a poet and as a result, upon the examination of the changing nature of his poetry, I find it necessary to do so.
As a young poet in the 1880’s, Yeats began to write in the romantic style. Such literary pieces followed the structure and conventions of romantic poetry, including rhyming schemes and metric patterns. His poems were lyrical, mystical and romantic in style, and he placed a key emphasis on love, loss and loneliness, and Irish myth and folklore. It could be suggested that his early poetry pieces were odes to the beautiful and mystical land of Ireland.
It can be said that there are certain qualities of Yeats’ poetry which are significant to his early works. During an interview with James Flannery, Flannery expressed his love for “the early poems of Yeats with their lyricism, their yearning for transcendence and their deployment of haunting imagery drawn from Celtic folklore as well as mythic and mystical sources” and the “sheer magic of the music in early Yeats: the long, wavering breath-lines, the delicately syncopated rhythms, the lingering vowels and consonants, again directly carried over from Gaelic poetry and song.”(Website 2)
Published in 1893 in Yeats’ second book of poems The Rose, The Lake Isle of Innisfree is a prime example of this “yearning for transcendence”. This lyrical poem expresses Yeats’ desire to escape from “the pavements gray” and to elope to “a small cabin built there”. The poet is wistful and passionate as he yearns for escape to this idyllic location and through his use of imagery and tone he suggests this. The “sheer music” of the tranquil and peaceful hideaway is created by the hexameters which “recreate the rhythmic pulse of the tide”. (S. notes)
The simple imagery of the quiet life the speaker longs to lead, as he enumerates each of its qualities, lulls the reader into his idyllic fantasy, until the penultimate line jolts the speaker-and the reader-back into the reality of his drab urban existence: “While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey.” (Spark notes)
“To Yeats, tradition is oral, the continuity of voice from generation to generation” (Yeats, Denis Donoghue) “Always in his work he sought to recreate the “half-conversational quality” which was another legacy of the Gaelic tradition in singing, the recitation of poetry and in daily speech.”(Web 2) One can clearly see Yeats’ voice to the ordinary people in an ordinary language in Lake Isle of Innisfree. Yeats, himself, once said, “Think like a wise man but communicate in the language of the people”. (WB Yeats) The language elicits an almost conversational quality and by using phrases such as “I will”, “I hear”, and “I stand”, the poet’s explicit thoughts can be understood by the people, even if only the first layer of meaning is understood. Personally, I feel that this is one reason to why Yeats is regarded as one of the greatest Irish poets; his poems appeal to the ordinary.
The Second Coming is one of Yeats’ later poetry works. It was written in 1919 and it deals with the contemporary issues associated with the aftermath of First World War. Yeats believed that art could serve a political function: poems could both critique and comment on political events, as well as educate and inform a population.(Web 1) “The Second Coming” subtly includes the idea of Irish nationalism. In this poem, a sense of cultural crisis and conflict seeps through, even though the poem is not explicitly about Ireland. By using images of chaos, disorder, and war, Yeats engaged in an understated commentary on the political situations in Ireland and abroad. Yeats’ active participation in Irish politics informed his poetry, and he used his work to further comment on the nationalist issues of his day.
When compared to one of his earlier works, such as Lake Isle of Innisfree, even on the basis of topic, one can see that Yeats’ poetic career has evolved and flourished. A continuous use of such techniques of imagery and symbolism remain to be seen throughout Yeats’ work. However, the main development in his work can be said to be his development in theme and topic.
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This contemporary poem has many vivid images such as that of seas of blood and drowning, all in which reflect the aftershock effects of the war. “Blood- dimmed tide” and “Ceremony of innocence is drowned”. “Yeats is picturing in this poem a society turned upside-down and headed toward self-destruction and chaos.”(Website 1) In contrast to the romantic and lyrical poems of the early W.B. Yeats, through examination of the use of imagery only, this poem deals with a much more serious and universal issue; one of brutality and loss of life.
“A shape with lion body and the head of a man”(The Second Coming) offers no sense of personification or love in which one could be drawn to, but instead one is repelled as one feels this creature coming closer to us, like death. This offers a contrast to Yeats’ early poetry as this is quite the opposite to that of a warming and lyrical poem. Unlike Lake Isle of Innisfree, the reader is not offered a sense of hope or escape; in this poem, a sense of doom lingers.
As Yeats grew, as a poet and an individual, he acquired relationships with the Irish Republican Brotherhood, Irish National Theatre, Irish Literary Society, and indeed, Maud Gonne. Yeats evolved as a romantic poet and his focus was shifted from mythical odes to contemporary politics. This manifested a distinct political theme, as seen in “The Second Coming”, in Yeats’ poetry during this time in his writing career.
It could certainly be said that the beautiful, Irish patriot and revolutionary Maud Gonne, was a key inspiration for Yeats’ early literary works. When Yeats met her for the first time in 1889, he fell in love with her immediately, but, unfortunately, she did not return his love. It could be suggested that because of his love for the politically active Maud Gonne, Yeats devoted his energy, in the early years of his career, to the Irish Revival and Irish Patriotism.
Finally and most significantly, Yeats’ relationship with the changing nature of literature in the early twentieth century resulted in the development of Yeats as a modern writer. As a poet, he learned and incorporated modernist styles and conventions into his own poetry. Yeats was influenced by the modernist structure and form and their aggressive engagement with contemporary politics. Modernist poets challenged the previous literature traditions and they rejected the idea that poetry should be lyrical and admirable. Ultimately, modernist literature had a distinct influence on Yeats and his work and from examination of his poetry, his work from this period in his career can be described as “edgier” and more concise. A significant change overcame Yeats’ poetry as regards tone and style, but he never discarded the conventions of his earlier poetry.
In conclusion, I think that a changing nature is evident in Yeats’ poetry, and I feel that this has made him become the highly admired and regarded poet that he is today. This unique aspect of Yeats’ poetry makes his literature interesting and enticing, and thus, Yeats is one of my favourite Irish writers. As I have explored in this essay, there are many possible reasons for this change in poetic nature but ultimately, in my opinion, life experience is truly the reason behind the metamorphosis of Yeats’ poetry.
“As with most of us, life became more and more complex for Yeats as he matured. But the greater the obstacles he faced, and the more cruel and destructive the losses he suffered, so, in a miraculous way, grew Yeats’ imaginative power and his ability as a poet to give sublime expression to all that he experienced. ” (Web 2)
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