William Butler Yeats

The music of Yeats's early poetic efforts was in part derived from Morris and Shelley. The earliest poems, published in the Dublin University Review in 1886, paid youth's tribute to romantic subjects and foreign landscape: Spain, India, Arcadia. The poems in The Wanderings of Oisin, published in 1889, celebrated Irish landscape as well. Actual Sligo place names appeared in them, and, along with imaginary words put into mouths of legendary Irish figures, Yeats had built poems on the single line of a song, or around a few words heard from peasants. Sligo continued to be the home of his imagination during the next ten years, when he was much away from Ireland, working as a journalist in London. His best-known early poem, "The Lake Isle of Innisfree," came to his mind in a London street, and expressed his homesick memory of an islet in Lough Gill, a lake near the town of Sligo.

In England he not only was drawn into the end-of-the-century literary movement, but played an active part in shaping it. With Ernest Rhys he founded, in London, the Rhymers Club, to which Lionel Johnson, Ernest Dowson, and Arthur Symons belonged. He knew Wilde and was published by W. E. Henley in the National Observer. Yeats went to Paris in 1894, at a time when Villiers de l'Isle-Adam's Axel was exerting its power over the young for the first time. This poem, "the swan song of romanticism," a mixture of Gothic gloom, Rosicrucian occultism, and Symbolist poetry, was to influence more than one generation of young writers. "Axel or its theme," Yeats wrote thirty years later, "filled the minds of my Paris friends. I was in the midst of one of those artistic movements that have the intensity of religious revivals in Wales and are such a temptation to the artist in his solitude. I have in front of me an article which I wrote at that time, and I find sentence after sentence of revivalist thoughts that leave me a little ashamed." Contact with such enthusiasm, however, did much to confirm Yeats's own belief in the importance of standing out for l'art pour l'art. He had been exposed, at exactly the proper moment in his young career, to literary excitement heightened into a kind of religious fervor. He brought back seeds of this stimulation to Ireland: to a soil which had lain fallow for a long time.

Meanwhile, in Ireland, an interest in Gaelic was growing. Douglas Hyde, a brilliant student at Trinity in Dublin, had learned Gaelic and had begun to translate Gaelic songs and legendary material into the beautiful Tudor English still spoken in the West. Gaelic idiom had been brought over into this speech, and Yeats immediately recognized the language, English yet un-English, in which he wished to write. His poetry soon took to itself not only Gaelic effects of alliteration and assonance, but Gaelic effects of rhythm: that "gapped music" so delicate that it seems to come from the rise and fall of intonation in the Irish voice.

Many Irish people, particularly the young (as Joyce has testified), were haunted by the harp-like fluidity of these songs, and imaginatively stirred by the traditional symbols, the heroic Druid figures Yeats revived. But political societies and the press turned against his aesthetic purposes. The poems in The Wind among the Reeds (1899) were termed "affected," "un-Irish," "esoteric," "pagan," and "heretical." Yeats in later years was to admit a "facile charm, a too soft simplicity," in his early work. He soon began to clear his style of its symbolic trappings, to make it austere, flexible, resonant—an instrument of great lyric and dramatic range. Had he clung to the early style, with its long swing, almost like incantation, its heavy imagery, he would have limited himself unduly. Coming when they did, however, these evocations of Celtic beauty, heroism, and strangeness wakened, as more severe music could not then waken, Ireland's ears to the sound of its own voice speaking its own music.

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