About the poems of W.B. Yeats



'If a powerful and benevolent spirit has shaped the destiny of this world, we can better gather that destiny through the words that have shaped the heart’s desire of the world.' And that’s exactly what William Butler Yeats did: he caught the heart’s desire. He caught it in language which is beautiful and which is dripping in imagery - and, particularly in the early poems - mysticism. The Song of Wandering Aengus, The Stolen Child. Joyce said of him that he had a surrealist imagination few painters could match. He was born in 1865 to John Butler Yeats the son of a rector in the Church of Ireland and to Susan Pollexfen whose shipbuilding family came from Sligo- where Yeats at his request is buried, beneath Ben Bulben's head. His epitaph? 'Cast a cold eye/ On life, on death/ Horseman, pass by'. Yeats learned early that art is what matters. His father was a solicitor and he gave up his practice to study painting in London. Indeed Yeats later studied art in Dublin before in one of literature's luckiest volte - face he decided on poetry. The publication in 1889 when Yeats was twenty-four of The Wanderings of Osian was a seminal moment, not only in Irish literary history, but also its political history. Yeats's book, based on the Fenian cycle, brought Irish mythology to the Irish people in English -'the language' as he pointed out 'in which modern Ireland thinks and does its business’. This was at a time in Ireland when there was a powerful movement to rescue the Gaelic language.

In Irish literature Yeats resembles a tidal wave. And the tide was not only poetical. In 1904 Yeats set up the National Theatre of Ireland - The Abbey Theatre with Lady Gregory and he worked unceasingly as playwright and director in its cause.  In his Nobel speech to the Swedish Academy he chose as his subject ‘The Irish Dramatic Movement ' I would not be here were I not the symbol of that movement...the nationalism we called up was both romantic and poetical.' Well, up to a point. Yeats had a genius - a generous genius for discovering genius in others and amongst those he discovered were two of Ireland's greatest, Synge and O' Casey .Their plays were poetical certainly - romantic? not necessarily. The Abbey audience, probably the most hyper sensitive in history, rioted - enraged by the portrait of themselves in Synge's The Playboy of the Western World and O' Casey's The Plough and the Stars. Yeats harangued them from the stage - 'you have disgraced yourselves again' - and he persevered. This strength of character and courage in the face of prejudice which was noted by Eliot is fundamental to his astonishing achievements. He once tried to get a 'bill of divorcement' through the Irish Senate. He failed. That he tried at all is remarkable. Finally he refused to allow himself to be destroyed by the agony of his unreciprocated, life-long obsession with Maud Gonne, an obsession that would have felled lesser men.

She exploded into his life in 1889 - just after the publication of The Wanderings of Osian. She was young, twenty-two, tall with flaming red hair but it was her passion that 'began all the trouble of my life’. She took possession of his soul and when the soul is lost, all is lost. He had found the love of his life, she, an ardent republican, had perhaps found a poet for the cause. She was a magnificent creature - brave but dangerous. 'She lived in storm and strife,/ Her soul had such desire/ For what proud death may bring/ That it could not endure /The common good of life'. And therein lies the pity. Her fanaticism swept away much that was good in her life. His enduring love, expressed in poems of genius, gave us the haunting poetry of the exultant yet broken heart - A Woman Homer Sung, No Second Troy, He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven, The Folly of Being Comforted and many, many more. She married the revolutionary Sean Mac Bride. The confirmation of their marriage was, Yeats said, 'like lightning through me'. Yeats, in his fifties, finally married Georgie Hyde-Lees with whom he had two children.

Easter 1916, his greatest political poem, of which he wrote many (Parnell's Funeral, September 1913, The Ghost of Roger Casement) was inspired by the tragic military failure of the rebellion led by Patrick Pearse who, with other leaders of the rebellion including Sean Mac Bride, was executed. The iconic line 'A terrible beauty is born' contains both a warning and a blessing. The rhythms and repetitions in this poem seem to keep pace with the destiny of the men: 'Hearts to one purpose alone / Through summer and winter seem/ Enchanted to a stone/ To trouble the living stream'…Too long a sacrifice /Can make a stone of the heart/O when may it suffice?’ Yeats, uniquely amongst poets, wrote some of his greatest poetry in his sixties and seventies. Eliot wrote of this late work: 'Maturing as a poet means maturing as a whole man... out of his intense experience he now expressed universal truths. An artist by serving his art with his entire integrity, is at the same time rendering the greatest service he can to his country and to the whole world.' The late poems include the The Municipal Gallery Revisited, The Statues and The Circus Animals Desertion - a poem in which the thread is pulled taut between life and art 'Maybe at last being but a broken man/ I must be satisfied with my heart’ and continues, 'Now that my ladder's gone/ I must lie down where all ladders start/ In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.' Where else?

Books by Josephine Hart     The Josephine Hart Poetry Hour

Josephine Hart's books, Catching Life by the Throat and Words That Burn are available to buy in the British Library shop.