English Literature » Notes » Yeats as a Modern Poet

Yeats as a Modern Poet

William Butler Yeats was one of the modern poets, who influenced his contemporaries as well as successors. By nature he was a dreamer, a thinker, who fell under the spell of the folk-lore and the superstitions of the Irish peasantry. He felt himself a stranger in the world of technology and rationalism. He is a prominent poet in modern times for his sense of moral wholeness of humanity and history.

Yeats was a realistic poet though his early poetry was not realistic. His later poems, despite realistic accent, are not free from magic and the mysterious world. The First World War and the Irish turmoil gave Yeats a more realistic track. This can clearly be seen in his poem, “Second Coming”, when he says;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Obscurity in Yeats’ poetry is due to his occultism, mysticism, Irish mythology, use of symbolism and theory of ‘Mask’. Yeats was keen to replace traditional Greek and Roman mythological figures with figures from Irish folk lore which results in obscurity. The juxtaposition of the past and the present, the spiritual and the physical, and many such dissimilar concepts and his condensed rich language make his poetry obscure.

Like Eliot, Yeats’ poetry is marked with pessimism. After his disappointment with Maud Gonne and his disenchantment with the Irish National Movement, Yeats started writing bitter and pessimistic poems. But he tried to dispel this feeling by philosophizing in his poems. “To A Shade”, “When Helen Lived”, and two Byzantium poems along with many more of his poems reflect this mood.

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Yeats’ mysticism is also a modern trait. Although modern age is scientific, yet modern poetry has traces of mysticism in it. Yeats is the only modern poet who initiated occult system and mysticism in his poetry. Mysticism runs throughout his poetry in which the gods and fairies of the Celtic mythology live again. To Yeats, a poet is very close to a mystic and poet’s mystical experience give to the poem a spiritual world. The state of spiritual exaltation is described in “Sailing to Byzantium”:

———————–, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing,

Yeats believed in magic as he was anti-rationalist. By ‘Magic’ Yeats meant the whole area of occult knowledge. Occult was very much common in modern poetry for numerology was lately been introduced in 19th century. Most of his symbols have a touch of the supernatural about them. Number 14 is his typical occult number which symbolizes decline. In “The Wild Swans at Coole”, he says:

Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

Being disillusioned by lack of harmony and strength in modern culture, Yeats tried to revive the ancient spells and chant to bring unity and a spirit of integration in modern civilization torn by conflicts and dissensions. Modern man was a disillusioned due to mechanism. All the romances were coming to an end and people were getting brutal. In “Easter 1916” he highlights the disillusionment of modern man. He says:

What is it but nightfall?

Yeats was an anti-war poet and does not admire war fought under any pretext. In his last years, he wrote poems dealing with the crumbling of modern civilization due of war. He believed that a revolutionary change is in the offing. In “The Second Coming” he describes what lies at the root of the malady;

Things fall apart; the entire cannot hold ….
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Humanism is another modern trait in literature. The threat of war cast a gloomy shadow on the poetic sensibility of the modern poets. The sad realities of life paved the way of humanitarian aspect in modern literature. Yeats’ poetry also abounds in humanism. In “Easter 1916”, he feels even for his rival. He says:

He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,

Yeats believed that much chaos has entered in Christianity as it has lost its effect and now it is about to end. The good people sadly lack conviction, while the bad pursue their wicked ends with passionate intensity. The second coming is at hand. This coming prophet will be the prophet of destruction. The falcon, symbolizing intellectual power, has got free of the control of the falconer, representing the heart or soul.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Yeats’ later poetry is typified by a stark, naked brutality and bluntness. His poems present the truth about the human state and he does not hesitate to use blunt and brutal terms to express it. He called spade a spade. He calls the world “the frog-spawn of a blind man’s ditch”. He says that a man is:

All mere complexities,
The fury and the mire of human veins.

Yeats’ use of symbols in poetry is complex and rich. He was the chief representative of the Symbolist Movement. He draws his symbols from Irish folklore and mythology, philosophy, metaphysics, occult, magic, paintings and drawings. Several allusions are compressed into a single symbol. His symbols are all pervasive key symbols. His key-symbols shed light on his previous poems and “illuminates their sense”. ‘The Rose’, ‘Swan’ and ‘Helen’ are his key-symbols. Symbols give ‘dumb things voices, and bodiless things bodies’ in Yeats’ poetry.
One of Yeats’ concerns was old age which is seen as a symbol of the tyranny of time. Rage against the limitations of age and society upon an old man occurs frequently in his poetry. In “Among School Children” he considers himself a comfortable scarecrow. The heart becomes ‘comprehending’, unfortunately attached to a ‘dying animal’. In “The Tower”, Yeats calls the aged body an ‘absurdity’. A powerful expression of Yeats’ agony facing old age appears at the beginning of “Sailing to Byzantium”:

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the tress
Those dying generations – at their song.

Yeats attitude to old age cannot be typified. Old age is certainly a handicap to the still strong sensual desires. He talks of the limited choices available to an old man who is simply a torn coat upon a stick:

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, —-

He was both romantic and modern and so talks about balance. In the age of industrialization, man was losing the equilibrium between science and religion. They were destroying their physical beauty by injuring it for the elevation of soul. The balance was lost.

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Eliot was contemporary and had a great influence on Yeats. Both have certain things in common. Both are intensely aware of man in history and of the soul in eternity. Both at times see history as an image of the soul writ large. Both see an uncongenial world disintegrating and an unknowable future taking shape in the surrounding dark. Both call in eternity to redress the balance of time.

Yeats is a unique poet as he is a traditional and a modern poet at the same time. Though he started his poetic career as a Romantic and the Raphaelite, he very soon evolved into a genuine modern poet. All the romantic traits found in Yeats early poetry collapsed in his later poetry. Before coming in contact with the Imagist school, he was writing poems, common with the writings of the Imagist Movement. But Yeats symbolism is not derived from that movement. Thus, Yeats is a poet who is both traditional and modern.