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3.5: William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

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    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.

    clipboard_e9b5238cdb4267806da84380f3b9153c5.pngYeats’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

    Eighteenth-century houses.

    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,

    Transformed utterly:

    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?

    3.5.8: “Byzantium”

    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

    1. Do any of Yeats’s poems reflect ideals of the Aesthetic Movement? Why, or why not? How do you know?
    2. 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?
    3. 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?
    4. Why does Yeats use the image of the dancer to embody the perfection of art at Phase 15?

    This page titled 3.5: William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Bonnie J. Robinson (University of North Georgia Press) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform.