Write an essay in which you give your reasons for liking/not liking the poetry of W. B Yeats. Support your points by reference to or quotation from, the poems that are on your course. In my opinion and from the sample of his poetry which I have studied, I would say that the poetry of W. B Yeats is very enjoyable to read. The themes of his poems are often easily identified with and his simple style of writing makes his poetry easy to interpret and understand. Although easily engaging with the themes of his poetry contributes to my liking of Yeats’ poetry, it is his gift of writing that has an impact on me.
His use of powerful contrasts and breath-taking imagery easily make Yeats one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century. His poetry is interesting and thought provoking. As Seamus Heaney once said, Yeats “had this marvellous gift for beating the scrap metal of the day-to-day life into a ringing bell”.
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One the themes of Yeats’ poetry which interested me quite a lot was the theme of escapism. This theme is apparent in two of the poems which I have studied, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” and “Sailing to Byzantium”. The Lake Isle of Innisfree” expresses Yeats’ longing to return home as he was in London at the time when he wrote it. The poet desires to escape from the world of grim reality to a pastoral utopia. In “Sailing to Byzantium”, Yeats’ once more is longing to escape but in contrast to “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”, he longs to escape the process of ageing as opposed to escaping from a physical place. The poet’s desire to return home is made clear in “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” as the poet describes the idyllic life of self-sufficiency “nine bean rows will I have there” and “a hive for the honey bee”.
A place of great tranquillity is created in this poem, a place which we all aspire to go to “ And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow”. There is a sharp contrast in this poem, between the pastoral utopia of Innisfree and the dull, drab, urban world suggested by the image of “pavements grey”. The poem, “Sailing to Byzantium” concerns a voyage to perfection. In ordinary life, there is no perfection, a fact that Yeats recognises in the phrase “dying generations”. He rages against the weakness of an old man “a paltry thing” and claims that the body is “a dying animal”.
Yeats intends to turn his back on the ageing process and seek immortality, hence his journey to Byzantium. Similar to “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”, Yeats believes that the place he wants to escape to is a place of perfection. Another similarity between these two poems is the use of contrast. In “Sailing to Byzantium” we are given a chilling image of the thin, wasting frame of an old man as a scarecrow in tattered clothes “A tattered coat upon a stick” and in contrast to this, we are shown the wonders of intellect as the poet tells us that all schools of art study what they compose and what they produce “Monuments of unageing intellect”.
I found this theme particularly interesting as I could easily identify with it. Yeats longed for a retreat from all the pressures of civilisation (such as in “The Lake Isle of Innisfree) and from a process which we are subject to, ageing (such as in “Sailing to Byzantium”) and I feel we all can identify with him. Linking on from the previous theme was another theme which I found quite remarkable, the process of ageing. This theme is shown in the Yeats’ poems, “The Wild Swans at Coole” and “Sailing to Byzantium”. The Wild Swans at Coole” is an intensely personal poem of Yeats’, which conveys the poet’s sadness as he approaches the autumn of his life and the beauty and continuity of nature. The swans in this poem remind Yeats that he is ageing. This fact upsets him quite a lot. The swans are counted carefully “nine-and-fifty”, and are all paired off but one. Perhaps this lonely swan represents Yeats himself, another contributing factor to his loneliness. The poet laments the loss of his youth, when he “Trod with a lighter tread”, nineteen years earlier he earlier he was much more carefree.
There is a strong contrast in this poem between the old, weary, lonely poet and the apparently ever-youthful, energetic and powerful swans. Yeats’ journey to Byzantium in “Sailing to Byzantium” is due to the fact that he wishes to become immortal, to flee the dreaded progression of ageing. He rejects Ireland as it is “no country for old men” and criticizes those who get too caught up in the wonders of life and who have no concerns about growing old “Caught in that sensual music all neglect, Monuments of unageing intellect”.
The poet claims that one, namely, “an aged man”, can only break free from the spell of ageing if he is allow his spirit to break free “A tattered coat upon a stick, unless soul clap its hands and sing and louder sing”. Yeats obviously wants to bypass old age and become immortal in this poem and begs the “sages” to allow him to break away from his body, “a dying animal”, and to gather him “into the artifice of eternity”. In both “The Wild Swans at Coole” and “Sailing to Byzantium, a strong contrast is made.
However, in “The Wild Swans at Coole”, Yeats merely seems envious of the youthful swans, in contrast to “Sailing to Byzantium” where he seems angry with the young who appear to waste their youthfulness. I found this theme very thought-provoking and therefore an entertaining theme to read about. A final theme which appeared in the poetry of Yeats which I studied was that of historical events. This theme appears in “September 1913” and “Easter 1916”. September 1913” is a quite harsh and critical poem by Yeats in which the key theme is Yeats’ profound disillusionment with the materialism and cynicism of middle-class Ireland. Yeats condemns those who “fumble in a greasy till” and who “add the halfpence to the pence”. There is a sharp contrast in this poem between the inspiring heroic past for which “all that blood was shed” and the dispiriting, mean spirited present where Yeats is waiting until the working class have “dried the marrow from the bone”. Each stanza of the poem represents a different idea.
The first stanza begins with a derisive attack on a materialistic society which Yeats sees as being both greedy and hypocritical. Stanza two develops the contrast between past and present as Yeats considers the heroism and generosity of an earlier era. The reflective and sentimental tone is evident in stanza three in the rhetorical question about all “those exiles”, “All that delirium of the brave? ”. Finally, the last stanza continues on this romanticised appreciation as Yeats imagines the “loneliness and pain” of the heroic dead.
The repeated refrain in this poem “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone, It’s with O’Leary in the grave” which alters slightly in the final stanza “But let them be they’re dead and gone, they’re with O’Leary in the grave” highlights Yeats bitter cynicism towards his contemporaries. “Easter 1916” displays Yeats’ admirable capacity for self-criticism in acknowledging his underestimation of those men who went to sacrifice their lives in the rising. This poem is a strong endorsement and a memorial to the rebellions.
Yeats revokes his scornful opinion of Irish nationalists as he declares “All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born”. Yeats goes on to single out individual martyrs killed or imprisoned for their activities in association with the rebellion. He even mentions Major John Mac Bride “who had done (him) most bitter wrong” and whom he has always considered a “drunken vainglorious lout” and recognises that he too has been distinguished by his bravery and heroism.
Although Yeats praises the rebellions in this poem for their bravery in contrast to his previous statements in “September 1913”, in my opinion Yeats overall disapproved of the Easter 1916 Rising. Yeats was a committed nationalist but he generally disapproved of violence as a means to securing Irish independence. The poet’s great respect for the revolutionaries is clearly shown throughout the poem but he still refers to the rebellion as “a terrible-beauty”.
The poems “September 1913” and “Easter 1916” are similar in that they both reflect the political, cultural and societal atmospheres that were found in Ireland around the 1900’s. However, there is a huge contrast between them as in “September 1913” Yeats shows is great disapproval of the working class of middle Ireland, comparing them to the great heroes of the past who did everything to fight for an independent Ireland whereas in “Easter 1916” Yeats shows his appreciation for what the rebels have done in order to win back a free country.
I have quite an interest in Irish history and so it is no wonder how Yeats recurring theme of historical events interests me. I found these two poems quite interesting as we see how Yeats view of Irish society changed from discontentment to admiration. In addition to the themes of Yeats being quite appealing and thought-provoking, I also found his style of writing quite likeable. The major features of Yeats style which I noticed throughout the sample of his poetry which I studied were his use of contrast, imagery and symbolism, repetition and finally, his evocation of sound and colour.
The feature of style which I recognised most in the poetry of Yeats which I studied was his use of contrast. One example of this is in “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” where the poet contrasts a pastoral utopia and the grim reality of his urban surroundings. Yeats describes Innisfree as a seemingly perfect, magical place where “peace comes dropping slow” and where “midnight’s all a glimmer”. This contrasts with the only contemporary detail of the poem, “pavements grey”, suggesting the relentless concrete of the city.
Another example of contrast in Yeats poetry is in “The Wild Swans at Coole” where Yeats creates a strong contrast between mortality and youthful vitality. The swans’ beauty and apparent seeming immortality are differentiated with Yeats’ ageing, mortal self. Yeats talks about how the swans are “unwearied still”, as their hearts “have not grown old” unlike his own. Yeats seems very envious of the swans and this is made clear throughout the poem. A strong contrast is also created between the merchants and the heroes in “September 1913”.
The greed of the merchants who “fumble in a greasy till” seems quite pitiful when juxtaposed against those heroes who “weighed so lightly what they gave”, their lives for the freedom of Ireland from British rule. A final contrast between the imperfect physical world and the perfect timelessness of art is made in “Sailing to Byzantium”. Ireland is “no country for old men” while Byzantium is a “holy city” worthy of great art. Yeats uses of sharp contrasts throughout his poetry strongly show and emphasise his own opinions and emotions towards different subject matters.
Contrast is used in almost all of the poems which I have so far studied by Yeats and so I now associate the use of contrast strongly with Yeats. I like this feature of Yeats style as it makes him a unique, memorable poet in my opinion. A second feature which I recognised in the poetry of Yeats was the use of imagery and symbolism. The imagery of beauty and tranquillity in “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” really appealed to me as a reader and I found myself aspiring to go to a place similar to this one day.
This first image which appealed to me in this poem came from the second stanza, “There midnight’s all a glimmer and noon a purple glow”. I find this image very peaceful, beautiful and calming. I can easily imagine a beautiful starry night and a magical noon with a “purple glow”. A second image which attracted me in this poem came from the third stanza, “I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore”. Although this line appeals more to our sense of hearing, an image of a picturesque shoreline where the lake is gently lapping to and fro still appears in my mind.
The tranquil sounds in this line further enhance this wonderful image. We see the use of metaphors in “Sailing to Byzantium”. The title of this poem itself is a metaphorical journey, one of the mind. “A tattered coat upon a stick” creates the metaphor of a scarecrow as a worthless of an old man, who is “but a paltry thing”. Symbolism is also used in this poem, as the poet would prefer to take the form of an inanimate piece of artwork, a beautiful golden bird “set upon a golden bough” rather than being “fastened to a dying animal”.
We see another example of symbolism in “The Wild Swans at Coole” as the swans themselves are a symbol of eternity. The swans, as a species, have not aged; they are “unwearied still”. The spiral imagery of the “great broken rings” is reminiscent of the spirals seen in ancient carvings representing eternity. Yeats use of imagery and symbolism throughout his poetry contributes to making his poetry so memorable and unique. I find that sometimes the images which he has created in my head remain in my head for some time after reading a poem of his.
I like when the things I read, like novels and poetry, remain in my head for some time after I have read them as I see it as a sign of being good writing which I have enjoyed reading. Repetition was also another effective feature of Yeats’ style in my opinion. The use of repetition in poems such as “September 1913” or “Easter 1916” strongly conveys the emotions which the poet was feeling at the time. The repeated refrain “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone, It’s with O’Leary in the grave” in “September 1913” gives further emphasis to the poet’s profound disillusionment with the values of middle-class Ireland.
This is the same case as in “Easter 1916” but with a refrain of “All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born”. Repetition is also used in Yeats’ poetry to emphasise the importance of the point being made. This is the case in the poems “Sailing to Byzantium” where there is repetition of the word “sing”, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” where there is repetition of “I will arise and go now” and in the poem “Easter 1916” where there is the repeated refrain at the end of every stanza. A final feature of Yeats’ style is the evocation of colour and sound in his poetry.
Alliteration, assonance and onomatopoeia contribute both to the memorable images and musical quality of “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”. Also, the carefully chosen adjectives and effective use of alliteration helps to create the meditative mood of “The Wild Swans at Coole”. Both these features of style appeal to me as a reader as they make the poetry easier to engage with and easier to understand in my opinion. Overall, I would say that I strongly like the poetry of Yeats as I find it a pleasant, thought provoking read. As Robert Louis Stevenson said, “Yeats’ poetry is simple and eloquent to the heart”.