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Monday, 19 December 2011






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Yeats’ passionate concerns in his poetry

William Butler Yeats was a Dubliner born in 1865. His father, J B Yeats was a distinguished artist. Yeats’ early life lacked the stimulus of formal education. But he listened to the folk tales of the local people with great interest that he imbibed mythology and the history of Ireland that became a rich resource for his poetry. In 1876 when the family moved to London Yeats started his formal education at the Godolphin School at Hammersmith. But in 1880 the family returned to Ireland and Yeats continued his studies in Dublin.

His father introduced him to a wide range of literature including that of Shakespeare and Blake. In 1884 he became a pupil in the Metropolitan School of Art, Dublin. But instead of learning art he enjoyed writing. In 1887, he returned to London where he met the great literary figures of the time - William Morris, George Bernard Shaw, W K Henley and Oscar Wilde. In 1889 he published his first poetry book ‘Wonderings of Oisin’. In 1892 he founded the Irish Literary Society. Two women influenced Yeats.

One was the wealthy artistic Lady Gregory whom he met in 1896 and spent many summers in her mansion in Coole Park. There he planned the formulation of the Irish National Theatre. The other was the pretty woman Maud Gonne. Yeats was madly in love with her. But she rejected his love. Yeats is said to have suffered from this rejection of love till the end of his life. In some of his poems he refers to Maud Gonne in metaphorical language. For instance in ‘A Prayer for my Daughter’ he has written:

“May she be granted beauty and yet not

Beauty to make a stranger’s eye distraught”.

He also refers to the Gregory’s Wood in this poem which belonged to Lady Gregory.

In 1916 he published his book of poems called ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’. In 1922 he became a member of the Irish Senate and in 1923 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. His other poetic publications were: Sailing to Byantrium (1926), Among School Children (1926), The Tower (1928), The Words on the Window Pane (1931), The Winding Stair and Other Poems (1932), The Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1936) and Last Poems (1938). In 1931 he was awarded a Dlitt degree by Oxford. After a sudden illness on January 26, 1939, he passed away after two days of the illness. His body was first buried at Requebrune in France and later in 1948 brought to Ireland.

Yeats’ language has the rhythm of common speech. It is bare, simple and direct. Every word is charged with meaning. His imagery is plain and vivid and his rhythms are simple and strong. His expressions are short witty and devoid of ornament (Hewage, 1998). Yeats was attracted to the poetry of William Blake and he has said that a symbol is indeed the only expression of some invisible essence, a transparent lamp about a spiritual flame. He often composed poetry aloud unlike Wordsworth (Currie and Handley, 1992). In his poem titled ‘When You Are Old’ we find the following verse:

When you are old, at evening candle lit

Beside the fire bending to your wool,

Read out my verse and murmur,’ Ronsard writ

This praise for me when I was beautiful’. This poem owes its inception to a sonnet by Ronsard (1578). In the three verses under the theme ‘The Sorrow of Love’ he equates Helen of Troy to Maud Gonne. - This poem is a superb condensation of a mood: love changes all. He has mentioned about Odysseus, Priam and Helen to draw parallels in his love affair with Maud Gonne.

Yeats’ poetry was influenced heavily by his country of birth, Ireland and its politics. In his early poems the myths, legends and Irish nationalism were distinct features. For him, Ireland was his dreamland and Utopia ‘To the Rose upon the Road of Time’ is a poem where the symbol of rose represents the eternal spiritual beauty of Ireland.

‘The Ballald of Mol Magie’ and ‘Down by the Salley Gardens’ are inspirations imbibed from Irish country songs.

Apart from his love for Maud Gonne, the poet was heavily influenced by magic and the occult for his poetic expression.


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