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WitxiAM BUTLER YEATS / 1699

younger wife from the: shame of the noose. But Chandara had, from the police
investigation right through to the sessions trial, said the same thing repeatedlyshe
had not budged an inch from her story. Two barristers did their utmost to save her from
the death-sentence, but in the end were defeated by her.
Who, on that auspicious night when, at a very young age, a dusky, diminutive,
round-faced girl had left her childhood dolls in her father's house and come to her inlaws' house, could have imagined these events? Her father, on his deathbed, had
happily reflected that at least he had made proper arrangements for his daughter's
future;
In gaol,5 just before the hanging, a kindly Civil Surgeon asked Chandara, "Do you
want to see anyone?"
"I'd like to see my mother," she replied.
"Your husband wants to see you," said the doctor. "Shall I call him?"
"To hell with him,"6 said Chandara.
5. Jail.

6. "Death to him" (literal trans.); an expression usually uttered in jest.

WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS


1865-1939
William Butler Yeats is not only the main figure in the Irish literary renaissance but
also the twentieth century's greatest poet in the English language. His sensuously
evocative descriptions and his fusion of concrete historical examples with an urgent
metaphysical vision stir readers around the. world. Years after the poet's death, the
Nigerian Chinua Achebe borrowed three words from one of his lines as the title of a
novel, Things Fall Apart-confident that his audience would immediately recognize
the source. If the English language has a Symbolist poet, it is once again Yeats for his
constant use of allusive imagery and large symbolic structures. Yeats's symbolism is
not that of Baudelaire, Mallarm6, or other continental predecessors, however, for the
European Symbolists did not share the Irish poet's fascination with occult wisdom and
large historical patterns. Yeats adopted a cyclical model of history for which the rise
and fall of civilizations are predetermined inside a series of interweaving evolutionary
spirals. Wiui this cyclical model, he created a private mythology that allowed him- to
come to terms with both personal and cultural pain and helped to explain-^ as
symptoms of Western civilization's declining spiralthe plight of contemporary Irish
society and the chaos of European culture around World War I. Yeats shares with
writers like Rilke and T. S. Eliot the quest for larger meaning in a time of trouble and
the use of symbolic language to give verbal form to that quest.
Yeats was born in a Dublin suburb on June 13, 1865, the oldest of four children born
to John Butler and Susan Pollexfen Yeats. His father, a cosmopolitan Anglo-Irishman
who had turned from law to painting, took over Yeats's education when he found that,
at age nine, the boy could not read. J. B. Yeats was a highly argumentative religious
skeptic who alternately terrorized his son and awakened his interest in poetry and the
visual arts, inspiring at one and the same time both rebellion against scientific
rationalism and belief in the higher knowledge of art His mother's strong ties to her
home in County Sligo (where Yeats spent many summers and school holidays) introduced him to the beauties of the Irish countryside and the Irish folklore and super-

1700 './ WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS


natural legends that appear throughout his work. Living alternately in Ireland and
England for much of his youth, Yeats became part of literary society in both countries
and-^-though an Irish nationalistrwas unable to adopt a narrowly patriotic point of
view. Even the failed Easter Rebellion of.1916, which he celebrated in Easter 1916,
and the revolutionary figures who were beloved friends took their place in a larger
mythic historical framework By the end of his life, he had abandoned all practical
politics and devoted himself to the reality of personal experience inside a mystic view
of history.
for many, it is Yeats's mastery of images that defines his work. From his early Use of
symbols as private keys, or dramatic metaphors for complex personal emotions, to the
immense cosmology of his last work, he continued to create a highly visual poetry
whose power derives from the dramatic interweaving of specific images. Symbols such
as the Tower, Byzantium, Helen of Troy, the opposition of sun and moon, birds of
prey, the blind man, and the fool recur frequently and draw their meaning not from
inner connections established inside the poem (as for the French Symbolists) but from
an underlying myth based on occult tradition, Irish folklore, history, and Yeats's own
personal experience. Symbols as Yeats used them, however, make sense in and among
themselves: the "gyre," or spiral unfolding of history, is simultaneously the falcon's
spiral flight; and the sphinxlike beast slouching blank-eyed toward Bethlehem in The
Second Coming is a comprehensible horror capable of many explicit interpretations but
resistant to all and, therefore, the more terrifying. Even readers unacquainted with
Yeats's mythic system will respond to images precisely expressing a situation or state
of mind (for example, golden Byzantium for intellect, art, wisdom-all that "body"
cannot supply) and to a visionary organization that proposes shape and context for
twentieth-century anxieties.
The nine poems included here cover the range of Yeats's career, which embraced
several periods and styles. Yeats had attended art school and planned to be an artist
before he turned Fully to literature in 1886, and his early works show the influence
ofthe Pre-Raphaelite school in art and literature. Pre-Raphaelitism called for a return to
the sensuous representation and concrete particulars-fbund in Italian painting before
Raphael (1483-1520), and Pre-Raphaelite poetry evoked a poetic realm of luminous
supernatural beauty described in allusive and erotically sensuous detail. Rossetti's
Blessed Damozel, yearning for her beloved "from the gold bar of heaven," has eyes
"deeper than the depth / Of waters stilled at even; 7 She had three lilies in her hand,/
And the stars in her hair were seven." The Pre-Raphaelite fascination with the medieval
past (William Morris wrote a Defense of Guenevere, King Arthur's adulterous wife)
combined with Yeats's own interest in Irish legend, and in 1889 a long poem describing
a traveler in fairyland (The Wanderings of Oisin) established his reputation and won
Morris's praise. The musical, evocative style of Yeats's Pre-Raphaelite period is well
shown in The Lake ble oflnnisfree (1890), with its hidden "bee-loud glade" where
"peace comes dropping slow" and evening, after the "purple glow" of noon, is "full of
the linnet's wings." Another poem from the same period, When You Are Old, pleads his
love for the beautiful actress and Irish nationalist Maud Gonne, whom he met in 1889
and who repeatedly refused to marry him. From the love poems of his youth to his old
age, when The Circus Animals'Desertion described her as prey to fanaticism and hate,
Yeats returned again and again to examine his feelings for this woman, who
personified love; beauty, and Irish nationalism along with hope, frustration, and
despair.
Yeats's family moved to London in 1887, where he continued an earlier interest in
mystical philosophy by taking up theosophy under its Russian interpreter Madame
Blavatsky. Madame Blavatsky claimed mystic knowledge from Tibetan monks and
preached a doctrine of the Universal Qversoul, individual spiritual evolution through
cycles of incarnation, and the world as a conflict of opposites. Yeats was taken with her
grandiose cosmology, although he inconveniently wished to test it by experiment and
analysis and was ultimately expelled from the society in 1890.

WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS / 1701


He found a more congenial literary model in the works of William Blake, which he
coedited in 1893 with F.J. Ellis. Yeats's interest in large mystical systems later
waned but never altogether-disappeared, and traces may be seen in the introduction
that he wrote in 1916 for Gitcmjali, a collection of poems by the Indian author
Rabindranath Tagore.
*
Several collections of Irish folk and fairy tales and a book describing Irish traditions
(The Celtic Twilight, 1893) demonstrated a corresponding interest in Irish national
identity. In 1896 he had met Lady Gregory, an Irish nationalist who invited him to
spend summers at Coole Park, her country house in Galway, and who Worked closely
with him (and later J. M. Synge) in founding the Irish National Theatre (later the Abbey
Theatre), Along with other participants in what was once called the Irish literary
renaissance, he aimed to create "a national literature that made Ireland beautiful in the
memory ... freed from provincialism by an exacting criticism." To this end, he wrote,
Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902), a play in which the title character personifies Ireland,
which became immensely popular with Irish nationalists. He also established Irish
literary societies in Dublin and Ireland, promoted and reviewed Irish books, and.
lectured and wrote about the need for Irish community. In 1922 he was.elected senator
of the Irish Free State, serving until 1928.
Gradually, Yeats became embittered by the split between narrow Irish nationalism
and the free expression of Irish culture. He was outraged at the attacks on Synge's
Playboy of the Western World (1907) for its supposed derogatory picture of Irish
culture, and he commented scathingly in Poems Written in Discouragement (1913,
reprinted in Responsibilities, 1914) on the inability of the Irish middle class to appreciate art or literature. When he celebrates the abortive Easter uprisings of 1916, it is
with a more universal, aesthetic view; "A terrible beauty is born" in the self-sacrifice
that leads even a "drunken, vainglorious lout" to be "transformed utterly" by political
martyrdom. Except for summers at Coole Park, Yeats in his middle age was spending
more time in England than in Ireland. He began his Autobiographies in 1914, and
wrote symbolic plays intended for small audiences on the model of the Japanese no
theater; There is a change in the tone of his works at this time, a new precision and
epigrammatic quality that is partly owing to his disappointment with Irish nationalism
and partly to the new tastes in poetry promulgated by his friend Ezra Pound and by T.
S. Eliot after the example of John Donne and the metaphysical poets.
Yeats's marriage in 1917 to Georgie Hyde-Lees provided him with much-needed
stability arid also an impetus to work out a larger symbolic scheme. He interpreted his
wife's experiments with automatic writing (writing whatever comes to mind, without
correction or rational intent) as glimpses into a hidden cosmic order and gradually
evolved a total system, which he explained in A Visum (1925). The wheel of history
takes twenty-six thousand years to turn; and inside that wheel civilizations evolve in
roughly two-thousand-year gyres,: spirals expanding outward until they collapse at the
beginning of a new gyre, which will reverse the direction of the old; Human personalities fall into different types within the system, and both gyres and types are related to
the different phases of the moon. Yeats's later poems in The Tower (1928), The
Winding Stair (1933), and Last Poems (1939) are set in the context of this system.
Even when it is not literally present, it suggests an organizing pattern that resolves
contraries inside an immense historical perspective. Leda and the Swan, on one level
an erotic retelling of a mythic rape, also foreshadows the Trojan Warbrute force
mirroring brute force. In the two poems on the legendary city of Byzantium, Yeats
admired an artistic civilization that "could answer all my questions" but that was also
only a moment in history. Byzantine art, with its stylized perspectives and mosaics
made by arranging tiny colored pieces of stone, was the exact opposite of the Western
tendency to imitate nature, arid it provided a kind of escape, or healing distance, for the
poet. The idea of an inhuman, metallic, abstract beauty separated "out of nature" by art
expresses a mystic and Symbolist quest for an invulnerable world distinct from the
ravages of time. This world was to be found in an idealized Byzantium, where the

1702 / WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS


poet's body, would be transmuted into "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." At the end of Among School Children, the sixty-year-old "public man"
compensates for the passing of youth by dreaming of pure "Presences" that never fade.
Yeats had often adopted the persona of the old man for whom the perspectives of age,
idealized beauty, or history were ways to keep human agony at a distance. In Lapis
Lazuli, the tragic figures of history transcend their roles by the calm "gaiety" with
which they accept their fate; the ancient Chinamen carved in the poem's damaged blue
stone climb toward a vantage point where they stare detachedly down on the world's
tragedies: "Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their, eyes", / Their ancient, glittering eyes,
are gay."
But the world is still there, its tragedies still take place, and Yeats's poetry is always
aware of the physical and emotional roots from which it sprang. Whatever the wishedfor distance, his poems are full of passionate feelings, erotic desire and disappointment,
delight in sensuous beauty, horror at civil war and anarchy, dismay at degradation and
change. By the time of his death on January 28, 1939, Yeats had rejected his Byzantine
identity as the golden songbird and sought out "the brutality, the ill breeding, the
barbarism of truth." "The Wild Old Wicked Man" replaced earlier druids or ancient
Chinamen as spokesman, and in The Circus Animals' Desertion Yeats described his
former themes as so many circus animals put on display. No matter how much these
themes embodied "piire mind," they were based in "a mound of refuse or the sweepings
of a street. . . the foul rag-artd-bone shop of the heart" the rose springing from the
dunghill. Yeats's poetry, which draws its initial power from the mastery of images and
verbal rhythm; continues to resonate in the reader's mind for this attempt to come to
terms with reality, to grasp and make sense of human; experience in the transfiguring
language of art.
Edward Malins presents a brief introduction with biography, illustrations, and maps
in A Preface to Yeats (1994). Richard Ellmann, The Identity of Yeats ([964), is an
excellent discussion of Yeats's work as a whole. Norman A. Jeffares has revised his
major study, A New Commentary on the Collected Poems ofW.B. Yeats (1983); a useful
reference work is Lester I. Conner, A Yeats' Dictionary: Persons and Places in the
Poetry of William Butler Yeats (1998). Jeffares's W. B. Yeats: A New Biography (1989)
takes into account new information about the poet. Recent biographies are R. F. Foster,
W. B. Yeats: A Life, 2 vols. (1997-99), a full and balanced study, and Terence Brown,
The Life of W. B. Yeats; A Critical Biography (1999), which emphasizes the evolution
of his work within personal, and social contexts. Elizabeth Cull-ingford, Gender and
History in Yeats's Love Poetry (1993), examines aesthetic form and cultural
perspectives in the love lyrics; Deirdre Toomey,Yeats and Women (1997), discusses
Yeats's relations with women and the women in his poetry; and Marjorie Elizabeth
Howes, Yeats's Nations: Gender, Class, and Irishness (1996), stresses political and
social views. Essay collections include Harold Bloom, ed., William Butler Yeats
(1986), and Richard J. Finneran, ed., Critical Essays on W. B. Yeats (1986). Essays in
Deborah Fleming, ed., Learning the Trade: Essays on W. B. Yeats and Contemporary
Poetry (1993), discuss Yeats's imprint on various contemporary poets; and
contributions to Leonard Orr, ed., Yeats and Postmodernism (1991), approach Yeats
from different postmodernist perspectives.
PRONOUNCING GLOSSARY

The following list uses common English syllables and stress accents to provide rough equivalents of selected words whose pronunciation may be unfamiliar to the general reader.
Callimachus: ca-li'-mah-cus

gyre: jai-er

Cuchulain: coo-hu'-lin

Quattrocento: kwah-troh-chen'-toh