William Butler Yeats was born into an artistic Protestant family in Dublin, Ireland. Though his family was sympathetic to English rule, Yeats early on interested himself in Irish history, culture, politics, and governmental autonomy. His earliest poetry drew upon Celtic mythology, culminating in a literary movement called The Celtic Twilight that promoted Irish fairy tales and folklore.
In 1885, Yeats’s family moved to London, where Yeats established himself in the literary life there. He and fellow writer Ernest Rhys (1859-1946) founded the Rhymers’ Club, the other members of which included Ernest Dowson (1867-1900), Lionel Johnson (1867- 1902), John Gray (1866-1934), and Arthur Symons (1865-1945). The club published two anthologies in 1892 and 1894, mainly, as Yeats later claimed, to share Dowson’s poetry with the world.
Another group in which Yeats participated was the Theosophical Society, founded by Madame Blavatsky (1831-1891). This spiritualist group studied the occult, the cabala, and Eastern religions. Yeats expanded his interest in spiritualism and the occult when he left the Theosophical Society and joined the Order of the Golden Dawn, a society purporting to practice ancient magic.
Yeats’s personal interests in Ireland and the occult found beautiful expression in his early and middle periods of writing, with the publication of such collections of poetry as The Secret Rose (1897) and The Wind Among the Reeds (1899). Another subject of his poetry was his unrequited love for Maud Gonne (1866-1953), an Irish nationalist who eventually married the Irish Revolutionary John MacBride (1868- 1916), one of the fifteen Irish rebels executed by the British for participating in the Easter Rising.
The Easter Rising inspired both Yeats’s poem “Easter, 1916” and his return to Ireland. He had been living there sporadically through his co-founding—with Lady Gregory (1852-1932) and Edward Martyn (1859-1923)—and managing of the Abbey Theatre, a nationalist theater in Dublin. Besides poetry, Yeats wrote several dramas, the later ones of which were influenced by the Noh drama of Japan. Many features of this drama found their way into Yeats’s poetic work, particularly the image of the dancer, symbolism, and the use of the mask.
Yeats’s later poetry remained personal; however, he developed his own System of symbols that conveyed his spiritualist vision in concrete terms. He established his System in his book A Vision (1925), which drew upon the automatic writing of the woman he ultimately married, Georgiana Hyde-Lees (1892-1968). His System conflated individual and historical development. With the Wheel, Yeats diagrammed the opposing forces that determine individual and historical progress and change: primary and antithetical, objective and subjective, a moral cycle and an aesthetic cycle, the Christian God and pagan nature, the pulpit and the altar. Within these forces, the individual struggles to find personality, taking life at certain phases that follow the phases of the moon. Art, the perfection of art that balances spirit and body, movement and stasis, occurs at Phase 15, the Full Moon. At Phase 15, all thought is perfectly embodied. According to Yeats’s system, the Renaissance era and Byzantium are at Phase 15.
As one phase/era ends, another begins, a process Yeats symbolizes through the turning of a perne in a gyre. A civilization has its distinctive character only at its height. When it declines, it crumbles into its opposite, just like human personality. But gyres refer more to civilizations than to people. Gyres are the equivalent of the Wheel. Revelation, the union of god and woman (Mary, Leda), brings in a new civilization. Many of Yeats’ poems draw upon this System, including “Leda and the Swan,” “The Second Coming,” “Among School Children,” “Sailing to Byzantium,” and “Byzantium.”
Yeats’s life and work received increasing attention as he aged, with his being appointed as Senator to the Irish Free State in 1922 and his winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923.
3.5.1: “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
3.5.2: “The Wild Swans at Coole”
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.
The nineteenth Autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.
I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.
3.5.3: “Easter 1916”
I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
That woman’s days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When, young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our wingèd horse;
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
A terrible beauty is born.
Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road,
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute to minute they live;
The stone’s in the midst of all.
Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven’s part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
3.5.4: “The Second Coming”
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
3.5.5: “Leda and the Swan”
A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?
A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?
3.5.6: “Sailing to Byzantium”
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.
O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
3.5.7: “Among School Children”
I WALK through the long schoolroom questioning;
A kind old nun in a white hood replies;
The children learn to cipher and to sing,
To study reading-books and histories,
To cut and sew, be neat in everything
In the best modern way -- the children's eyes
In momentary wonder stare upon
A sixty-year-old smiling public man.
I dream of a Ledaean body, bent
Above a sinking fire. a tale that she
Told of a harsh reproof, or trivial event
That changed some childish day to tragedy --
Told, and it seemed that our two natures blent
Into a sphere from youthful sympathy,
Or else, to alter Plato's parable,
Into the yolk and white of the one shell.
And thinking of that fit of grief or rage
I look upon one child or t'other there
And wonder if she stood so at that age—
For even daughters of the swan can share
Something of every paddler's heritage—
And had that colour upon cheek or hair,
And thereupon my heart is driven wild:
She stands before me as a living child.
Her present image floats into the mind—
Did Quattrocento finger fashion it
Hollow of cheek as though it drank the wind
And took a mess of shadows for its meat?
And I though never of Ledaean kind
Had pretty plumage once—enough of that,
Better to smile on all that smile, and show
There is a comfortable kind of old scarecrow.
What youthful mother, a shape upon her lap
Honey of generation had betrayed,
And that must sleep, shriek, struggle to escape
As recollection or the drug decide,
Would think her son, did she but see that shape
With sixty or more winters on its head,
A compensation for the pang of his birth,
Or the uncertainty of his setting forth?
Plato thought nature but a spume that plays
Upon a ghostly paradigm of things;
Solider Aristotle played the taws
Upon the bottom of a king of kings;
World-famous golden-thighed Pythagoras
Fingered upon a fiddle-stick or strings
What a star sang and careless Muses heard:
Old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird.
Both nuns and mothers worship images,
But those the candles light are not as those
That animate a mother's reveries,
But keep a marble or a bronze repose.
And yet they too break hearts—O Presences
That passion, piety or affection knows,
And that all heavenly glory symbolise—
O self-born mockers of man's enterprise;
Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul,
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
The unpurged images of day recede;
The Emperor's drunken soldiery are abed;
Night resonance recedes, night-walkers' song
After great cathedral gong;
A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains
All that man is,
All mere complexities,
The fury and the mire of human veins.
Before me floats an image, man or shade,
Shade more than man, more image than a shade;
For Hades' bobbin bound in mummy-cloth
May unwind the winding path;
A mouth that has no moisture and no breath
Breathless mouths may summon;
I hail the superhuman;
I call it death-in-life and life-in-death.
Miracle, bird or golden handiwork,
More miracle than bird or handiwork,
Planted on the starlit golden bough,
Can like the cocks of Hades crow,
Or, by the moon embittered, scorn aloud
In glory of changeless metal
Common bird or petal
And all complexities of mire or blood.
At midnight on the Emperor's pavement flit
Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit,
Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame,
Where blood-begotten spirits come
And all complexities of fury leave,
Dying into a dance,
An agony of trance,
An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.
Astraddle on the dolphin's mire and blood,
Spirit after spirit! The smithies break the flood,
The golden smithies of the Emperor!
Marbles of the dancing floor
Break bitter furies of complexity,
Those images that yet
Fresh images beget,
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.
3.5.9: Reading and Review Questions
- Do any of Yeats’s poems reflect ideals of the Aesthetic Movement? Why, or why not? How do you know?
- Even though “The Wild Swans at Coole” was written before Yeats published A Vision, does it herald or use any symbols from Yeats’s System? If so, to what effect?
- Why does Yeats write about Leda, a mortal woman from Greek mythology who was raped by the god Zeus? Why would Yeats consider that subject of significance?
- Why does Yeats use the image of the dancer to embody the perfection of art at Phase 15?