William Butler Yeats

"We should write out our thoughts," Yeats has said, "in as nearly as possible the language we thought them in, as though in a letter to an intimate friend." And again: "If I can be sincere and make my language natural, and without becoming discursive, like a novelist, and so indiscreet and prosaic, I shall, if good or bad luck make my life interesting, be a great poet; for it will no longer be a question of literature at all."

If we grant naturalness, sincerity, and vigor to Yeats's late style, we still have not approached its secret. Technical simplicity may produce, instead of effects of tension and power, effects of bleakness and poorness. What impresses us most strongly in Yeats's late work is that here a whole personality is involved. A complex temperament (capable of anger and harshness, us well as of tenderness), and a powerful intellect, come through; and every part of the nature is released, developed, and rounded in the later books. The early Yeats was, in many ways, a youth of his time: a romantic exile seeking, away from reality, the landscape of his dreams. By degrees—for the development took place over a long period of years—this partial personality was absorbed into a man whose power to act in the real world and endure the results of action (responsibility the romantic hesitates to assume) was immense. Yeats advanced into the world he once shunned, but in dealing with it he did not yield to its standards. That difficult balance, almost impossible to strike, between the artist's austerity and "the reveries of the common heart,"—between the proud passions, the proud intellect, and consuming action,—Yeats finally attained and held to. It is this balance which gives the poems written from (roughly) 1914 on (from Responsibilities, published in that year, to poems published at present) their noble resonance. "I have had to learn how hard is that purification from insincerity, vanity, malignance, arrogance, which is the discovery of style."

Technically, the later style is almost lacking in adverbs—built on the noun, verb, and adjective. Its structure is kept clear and level, so that emotionally weighted words, when they appear, stand out with poignant emphasis. The Wild Swans at Coole (1919) opens:—

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.

Equipped with this instrument, Yeats could put down, with full scorn, his irritation with the middle-class ideals he had hated from youth:—

What need you, being come to sense,
But fumble in a greasy till
And add the halfpence to the pence
And prayer to shivering prayer, until
You have dried the marrow from the bone;
For men were born to pray and save:
Romantic Ireland's dead and gone,
It's with O'Leary in the grave.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Was it for this the wild geese spread
The grey wing upon every tide;
For this that all that blood was shed,
For this that Edward Fitzgerald died
And Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone,
All that delirium of the brave?
Romantic Ireland's dead and gone,
It's with O'Leary in the grave.

On the other hand he could celebrate Irish salus, virtus, as in the poem "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death," and in the fine elegies on the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rebellion.

And Yeats came to be expert at the dramatic presentation of thoughts concerning love, death, the transience and hidden meaning of all things, not only in the form of a philosopher's speculation, a mystic's speech, or a scholar's lonely brooding, but also (and this has come to be a major Yeatsian effect) in the cracked and rowdy measures of a fool's, an old man's, an old woman's song. The Tower (1928) and The Winding Stair (1929) contain long meditations— some "in time of civil war"—upon his life, his times, his ancestors, his descendants; upon the friends and enemies of his youth.

The short plays, composed on the pattern of the Japanese No drama, which Ezra Pound had brought to Yeats's attention,—Four Plays for Dancers (1921), Wheels and Butterflies (1934), The King of the Great Clock Tower (1935),—Yeats made the vehicle for the loveliest of his later songs, for all his later development of pure music:—

Come to me, human faces,
Familiar memories; I have found hateful eyes
Among the desolate places,
Unfaltering, unmoistened eyes.

Folly alone I cherish
I choose it for my share,
Being but a mouthful of air I am content to perish.
I am but a mouthful of sweet air.

The opening song in the play Fighting the Waves illustrates the variety of stress, the subtlety of meaning, of which Yeats became a master:—

A woman's beauty is like a white
Frail bird, like a sea-bird alone
At day-break after a stormy night
Between two furrows of the ploughed land;
A sudden storm and it was thrown
Between dark furrows of the ploughed land.
How many centuries spent
The sedentary soul
In toil of measurement
Beyond eagle and mole,
Beyond hearing or seeing,
Or Archimedes' guess,
To raise into being
That loveliness?

A strange unserviceable thing,
A fragile, exquisite pale shell,
That the vast troubled waters bring
To the loud sands before day has broken.
The storm arose and suddenly fell
Amid the dark before day has broken.
What death? what discipline?
What bonds no man could unbind,
Being imagined within
The labyrinth of the mind,
What pursuing or fleeing
What wounds, what bloody press
Dragged into being
This loveliness?
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