See below for the key points and quotations for W.B. Yeats (organised under style and themes); and below that again for a sample question and answer.
William Butler Yeats BCCNSEnglish.com
“Yeats’s poetry is driven by a tension between the real world in which he lives and an ideal world that he imagines.”
Write a response to the poetry of W.B. Yeats in the light of this statement, supporting your points with suitable reference to the poems on your course.
The name W.B. Yeats is one that is known to all Irish people. He is the man who chronicled the revolution period of our history, a man who put our infant state on the world stage with his Nobel prize for literature, a man who was described at the time as writing ‘inspired poetry’ that gave ‘expression to the spirit of a whole nation’. His is an extraordinary legacy, but to be honest, despite knowing his name and knowing his status in Irish culture, I still wasn’t sure what to expect from his poetry. However, the more I delved into his work, the more I began to appreciate the talent of the man. Of all the things I started to become aware of in his poetry, it was the tension between Yeats’ dream or ideal world and the real world that he was forced to live in that was the most consistent aspect of his work. The poems that I studied that I feel best captured this aspect were ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’, ‘The Wild swans at Coole’, and ‘September 1913.’
The tension between Yeats’ internal dreams and the harsh reality of daily life is probably most obvious in what is one of his most popular poems, ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree.’ The contrast here is very striking as Yeats finds himself slipping into a utopian fantasy of ‘clay and wattles made.’ This is a poem that I really enjoyed. After all, the idea of being in one place and wishing you were somewhere else entirely is not exactly irrelevant to the average Leaving Cert student, especially after a day spent trapped in a world of books. I’m not quite sure if living in a ‘bee-loud glade’ would be quite my thing, I’m more the sun-lounger and cocktail type! Still, the tension between a difficult and unforgiving reality and the lure of a fantasy world which can provide comfort and hope, is one that I certainly can really get. Everybody has some kind of fantasy escape in their ‘deep hearts core.’ In the end of course, this is a poem that has a particular Irish resonance to it – the contrast Yeats feels between his new life on the ‘pavements grey’ in London and the rugged beauty of his home country, brilliantly captured with the beautiful alliterative sound of ‘lake water lapping by the shore’, reflects the particular type of homesickness that so many Irish emigrants experienced over the years. It is no wonder that this is a poem loved by so many Irish people.
I found myself also feeling quite sorry for Yeats in his poem, ‘The Wild Swans at Coole.’ Here again Yeats is contrasting the difficulties of his world with the seemingly perfect lives of the swans. He feels that these ‘brilliant creatures’ have achieved some kind of perfect existence. I felt the tone was almost despondent as he considers that their ‘hearts have not grown old’. There’s something terribly tragic about the fact that in nineteen short years he has gone from being a young man who ‘trod with a lighter tread ‘, a man with all the possibilities of the world stretching before him, to one whose ‘heart is sore’. I definitely felt like there was a lesson for me there somewhere! Certainly I think that part of Yeats’s problem was that he was idealising the world of the swans and indeed the world of nature in general. Seeing them as perfect and somehow immortal was bound to create a certain amount of tension when it came to looking at his own life. In reality, I’m sure those swans had their own problems!
I definitely feel that the poem that best highlights the tension created by Yeats’s frustration with the real world contrasting with an idealised version is ‘September 1913’. In this poem all Yeats’ s frustrations are evident. The bitter tone that he adopts from the start certainly got my immediate attention. The vivid image of the merchant classes as they ‘fumble in a greasy till and add the halfpence to the pence’ is deliberately harsh. To me Yeats seemed to see these people as against all that was important in life – the sort of people who have squeezed others for profit and sucked the joy out of life, drying ‘the marrow from the bone’. For me the line ‘for men were born to pray and save’ is one that is not only dripping with sarcasm, but is also one of the most memorable in all of his poetry. I couldn’t believe the force of the cynicism in those words. The problem of course for those who Yeats is taking aim at in this poem is that they are being compared and contrasted to the great figures of the past, a comparison which is bound to create a certain amount of tension. However, to me it seems very unfair of Yeats to compare his contemporaries to the glorious heroes of the past. I always find that it’s a particularly Irish thing that the longer a person is dead, the higher they are thought of. These are the ‘wild geese’ and the great patriots who ‘stilled your childish play’; Yeats idealises them and the world they came from. Much as I feel that he had a point, the repetition of ‘Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone’ sounds a little too similar to a refrain I often hear from my own dad about how things were better/ different in the past and how the Ireland of today is ‘gone to hell.’ I can’t help but feel that Yeats is a being a bit hard on the world he lived in and those who inhabited it
William Butler Yeats is an extraordinary poet. I really enjoyed hearing his unique perspectives on nature, nationalism and the passing of time. One of the most striking aspects of his work is his obsession with contrasting his own life and world with more idealised versions. The results of this comparison create a fascinating tension which I feel really gives the poetry its particular power. In the end though, as both a person and a history student, it was the fascinating perspectives on life and on this country that he loved so much that made him my favourite of all the poets I’ve encountered during my school years. Yeats is truly a poet for the ages.