W. B. Yeats is one of the greatest poets of the English language. He had in common two main methods of writing poetry: one spontaneous and the other a laborious process involving much alteration and substitution. However, it was only in the early phase of his poetic career that he relied entirely on inspiration giving himself upto “the chief temptation of the artistic creation without toil”. In the later phase he became a conscious artist who took great pains and re-polish his verse. He was very painstaking artist and tried to say what he has to say in the best possible words. Following lines from “Adams’s Curse” throw valuable side light on his artistic methods:
I said, “All line will take us hours may be;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.”
One of the most admirable things about Yeats was that he continued to grow and mature as a craftsman throughout his long poetic career. His early poetry has a dreamy luxuriant style full of sleepy languorous rhythms. The tone is mostly wistful and nostalgic in these poems. There is an abundance of ornate word pictures as in Spenser.
It is a great tribute to Yeats craftsman that he soon grew dissatisfied with verse of this sort and tried to bring his versification nearer to the day to day speech. Along with this he tried to give a new directness and precision to his poetic language. He did away with archaism and poeticism. His imagery also became more definite and accurate and acquired a new pithy quality. Verbiage and superfluity start giving way to vigour and intensity. His diction now became terse and his poetry grew in density.
Simultaneously, Yeats tried to develop what may be called “passionate syntax” and he came to have remarkable skill in modulating his rhythm so as to be in time with the spirit of the poem. This skill is greatly evident in poems like “The Second Coming”, “Sailing to Byzantium”, “The Tower”, “Easter 1916” and “Among School Children” and even in one of his earliest poems “When You are Old”.
The confidence and assurance found in his poetic style in the later years is astounding. His rhythms were very definite and accurate and above all he could now do justice to demands of grandeur and sublimity with effortless ease. His language became very functional. It has now grown trenchant and adaptable to wide range of ideas. When he chooses he can put the starkest facts into the starkest words. As he says in “Sailing to Byzantium”:
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick
Starkest words as used in “Vacillation”:
“What theme had Homer but original sin?”
He was now able to use poetry for a variety of effects – whether it was exhortation or calm comment, philosophizing or passionate condemnation, lamentation or celebration, nostalgia or prophesy. This does not mean that Yeats’ command over versification and metre was in any way less remarkable during his early poetic career. Even at the time he was able to have close correspondence between the mood of those escapist poems and the language he chose for them. In keeping with the other-worldly atmosphere of his early poetry, his rhythms also were half-entranced. In a collection like “The Wind Among the Reeds” he was able to manipulate wavering and meditative rhythms to great effect.
In his later poetry, again in keeping with his thematic content, Yeats was able to develop subtler, more varied and dramatically more adjustable cadences. His vocabulary had also become more inclusive. As a result, the metaphors were fresher and their range of reference wider. We also find that he employs the metaphorical aphorism. His use of epigram is a properly poetic one, giving the reader a shock of surprise. For example:
Out of Ireland have we come.
Great hatred, little room,
Maimed us at the start.
The imaginative structure of the poem and its actual manifestation came to be more firmly worked out and more spontaneous and natural in effect.
As an artist Yeats continued to mature and grow right upto the end of his poetic career. His confidence and assurance grew more and more and he handled words with perfect ease like a master. However, this very self-assurance accounts for his tendency to indulge in hyperboles and exaggerations. This tendency to exaggerate and use hyperboles has been considered a serious fault in his style by a number of critics. D. S. Savage criticizing this weakness in Yeats’ poetry writes:
This exaggeration and over-heightening, this indulgence in dramatics, is exemplified in the repeated use of hyperboles phrases and of resounding words whose effect is to inflate the meaning.
To sum up Yeats was a conscious and gifted craftsman who has few equals in the whole range of English poetry. It is true that there are some serious faults in his poetry but they do not detract in any way from his true greatness as an artist. He wrote from inner compulsion which gave to his poetry “its peculiar inner glow, as of inspiration, and classes it among our political monuments, if not precisely among “monument of unaging intellect”.