A Vision and the Seer's Mantle: Reassessing the Poetry of W.B. Yeats

Introduction: The Poetry


Student summaries put the mainstream view admirably:

'Yeats is the greatest poet in the history of Ireland and probably the greatest poet to write in English during the twentieth century; his themes, images, symbols, metaphors, and poetic sensibilities encompass the breadth of his personal experience, as well as his nation's experience during one of its most troubled times. Yeats's great poetic project was to reify his own life — his thoughts, feelings, speculations, conclusions, dreams — into poetry: to render all of himself into art, but not in a merely confessional or autobiographical manner; he was not interested in the common-place.' {1}

Though Symbolism was a French movement in art and literature, formally introduced to English readers by Arthur Symons's The Symbolist Movement in Literature, {2} Yeats had anticipated its themes by his first collection.

Crossways (1889) opens {3} with:

The woods of Arcady are dead,
And over is their antique joy;
Of old the world on dreaming fed;
Grey truth is now her painted toy. (The Song of the Happy Shepherd)

Already there is the appeal to a lost world of ancient imaginative truth — superior to drab reality (sick children of the world, as he calls it later in the poem) — the appearance of esoteric symbols in the Rood and Chronos, and indeed in W.B. Yeats's views throughout his life:

There is no truth
Saving in thine own heart

For words alone are certain good

My songs of old earth's dreamy youth

And he called loudly to the stars to bend
From their pale thrones to comfort him

In the guise of the simple countryman, WBY has adopted the robes of the magus: the natural world will submit to him, and that magic he will perform through his sorcery of words.

Yeats had drawn on earlier English traditions, notably Blake, Shelley and Rossetti to say more than immediately meets the eye through an imagery of symbols. Some were traditional — rose, sea, tower — and others were of his own devising, becoming more complex and interrelated in later poems. Through the works of Madame Blavatsky and others, by attending séances and by mixing in theosophical circles, Yeats came to see the Anima Mundi as a reservoir of everything that has touched mankind, aspects of which may evoked by symbols. Inherent in these views was the doctrine of correspondences, the doctrine of signatures, and the doctrine of magical in connotations and symbols which have power over spiritual and material reality. {4}

When Modernism conquered academic and literary opinion after WWII, there was a natural desire to enlist WBY in its forward-looking movement. His larger views on Ireland and its social emancipation were emphasized, as were his increasing use of everyday language and speech rhythms, and of cinematic approaches, one image following another without much connecting text. All are well documented. The pre-Raphaelite detail is pruned back and made more effective.

There was man whom Sorrow named his friend,
And he, of his high comrade Sorrows dreaming,
Went walking with slow steps along the gleaming
And humming sands, where windy surges wend: (The Sad Shepherd)

Midnight has come, and the great Christ Church Bell
and many a lesser bell sound through the room;
And it is All Souls' Night,
And two long glasses brimmed with muscatel
Bubble upon the table. A ghost may come; (All Soul's Night)

The exquisite music of the earlier verse with its subtle phonetic patterning and word inversions becomes more natural, the diction more matter of fact — The Song of the Happy Shepherd and:

When the wave of moonlight glosses
The dim grey sands with light,
Far off by furthest Rosses
We foot it all the night. (The Stolen Child):

I met the Bishop on the road
And much said he and I,
Those breasts are flat and fallen now,
Those veins must soon be dry; (Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop)

The first twenty lines of In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz simply float images on the screen of memory:

The light of evening, Lissadell,
Great windows open to the south,
Two girls in silk kimonos, both
Beautiful. One a gazelle . . .

But at a deeper level, Yeats becomes a Modernist in his championing of the artist's viewpoint unmediated by social understanding, and by his use of private memory and mythology to assert that artistic creations do not represent reality but in some sense embody reality.

Poems should not express anything but themselves. They should simply be. {5}

'When I try to put it all into a phrase I say, "Man can embody truth, but he cannot know it." I must embody it in the completion of my life.' {6}

With recognition also came less attractive aspects: an entrenched belief in his own judgement and an aristocratic disdain for the common herd:

'When I excluded Wilfred Owen, whom I consider unworthy of the poet's corner of a country newspaper, I did not know I was excluding a revered sandwich-board Man of the revolution and that somebody has put his worst and most famous poem in a glass-case in the British Museum . . .'{7}

'I have a distaste for certain poems written in the midst of the great war . ..' {8}

But, despite the studies and critical outpourings, Yeats didn't look modern, and to the last he remained committed to a Symbolism that was peculiarly his. Most verse writers compose in verse, moreover, when the lines already on paper serve to direct, shape and give birth to future lines. In contrast, Yeats pondered matters deeply by writing innumerable drafts in prose and then verse, and nothing he started was ever abandoned. The approach gave him freedom to arrange thoughts, but also posed difficulties in finding appropriate metrical expression. Thoughts were often replaced by images, therefore, without connecting explanation, so that even his best poems can suffer from abrupt changes of direction, tone and concluding thought.

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

I will arise now and go, for always night and day
I hear lake water rippling with low sounds on the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey, //
I hear it in the deep heart's core.

Anticlimax: adding little to poem.

The Wild Swans at Coole

But now they drift on the still water,
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build, //
By what lake's edge or pool
Delight men's eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away.

Rather lame ending: more, surely, could be said of the country house that had supported and culturally nourished the poet through his middle years.

The Second Coming

A generally successful poem, though there are thematic breaks at these line endings:

Are full of passionate intensity //
Surely the Second Coming is at hand. //
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds //
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle, //

And a few problems. Why 'ceremony of innocence' and 'vexed'?  'Indignant desert birds' is a vivid phrase, but few birds, alas, throng the desert wastes.

Sailing to Byzantium

There are many problems with this celebrated piece, {9} notably: Because 'commend' is a transitive verb, to what or whom are the fish, flesh, or fowl being commended? What are the monuments exactly? Why celebrate bodily decrepitude? 'Perne in a gyre' makes sense only in Yeat's A Vision. The next phrase — 'It knows not what it is;' — seems innocuous, until we ask what the 'It' is — the heart, the dying animal, the aged man? Why 'artifice of eternity'? Byzantine artists did not make mechanical birds. 'Of what is past, or passing, or to come.' About everything, presumably: how? What knowledge or insight does the poet possess that the lords and ladies would want to hear?

I consider these to be flaws, shortcomings that keep intelligent readers from fully enjoying the poem, and which a little more work would have corrected. An example: in the first stanza:

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.

any half-decent verse writer would evade the problems with something like:

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, the companies
Of dying generations, at whose song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
In fish, flesh, or fowl, dispute all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

Where we keep 'Monuments' by supposing the word stands for concerns (unclear, but repeated in the second stanza) that oppose the ephemeral nature of 'sensual music'.

But why did Yeats create these problems in the first place? Because, I suspect, he saw himself the medium at a seance, receiving important messages that had to be conveyed verbatim. In time, when Yeats continued to ignore the matter, (as did the other founders of Modernism in their own work), the difficulties became a distinctive and necessary part of modern poetry. The poet wasn't at fault. It was language itself that was faulty. A vast critical movement sprang up in later decades to show that this was necessarily the case, when poets were simply being more perceptive and honest than writers in more mundane professions.

But let's continue with the better-known poems.

Leda and the Swan

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.

How does the air have blood? The poem ends just when beginning to say something interesting.

Byzantium

For Hades's bobbin bound in mummy-cloth
May unwind the winding path.

Is comprehensible only through 'A Vision'.

That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.

Has a power that every verse-writer will envy, but doesn't make sufficient sense. Even readers' guides can be more ingenious than persuasive. {10} The dolphin apparently represents fidelity, sex and joy of life in Greek mythology. Very well, but why torn? How is mortal life torn by fidelity, sex and/or the joy of existence? Dolphins often appear in Greek art and legend, of course, but their significance is in fact various and contested. 'Because the sea represents mortal life, it is tormented by the awareness of time passing which is marked off by the gong.' {10} For most poets and readers, however, the sea is a symbol of restless eternity, and gong, unfortunately, evokes only the call to lunch or dinner in old-fashioned hotels, though we could perhaps imagine, thinking of Javanese music, some sonorous ritual in Byzantium if we don't take our history reading too far.

The Circus Animals' Desertion

Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder's gone
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

The poem, usually regarded as Yeats looking back on his career now that his poetic gifts (ladder) were failing, {1} is difficult to square with what we know of the man. He was writing strongly to the end, and remained an anti-materialist, where symbols and emblems continue to exist in a larger spiritual world, whatever the preceding lines might suggest:

Players and painted stage took all my love
And not those things that they were emblems of.

What is Yeats saying? That he was beguiled into loving the emblems rather than the things themselves, or that he still had some love left over for these things, presumably the masterful  images of pure mind? The heady ideals of youth may decline into a mound of refuse in a material sense, moreover, but they most certainly did not begin so. And were the brute animal passions ('rag and bone shop of the heart') all that the aged Yeats had left? He was certainly active in pursuing woman through his later years, so that 'lie down' clearly doesn't mean quiet acceptance.

But the larger difficulties are these: If we have to consult specialist guides to understand the poems, they will not make immediate sense to most readers. If those guides, furthermore, suggest readings that make even less sense, we must either give up attempts to fully understand the poem and happily ignore the difficulties:

'It only seems obscure if we try to interpret what we should be content to enjoy. And he added, "It is precisely this desire to interpret instead of to feel, to look for a meaning which is not there, that leads the critics to call symbolist poetry obscure."' {11}

Or look deeper. Possibly Yeats's A Vision held the key. Until recently, A Vision remained a literary curiosity, an embarrassment to academics and fellow poets, a hocus pocus whose sole importance had been to keep the man magisterially alive and writing. A Vision is now receiving scholarly interest, {12-13} though rather as an anthropologist will explore the myths and rituals of an Amazonian tribe — with informed and critical interest, but not belief. But was Yeats really so gullible as to believe in séances and astrology? He didn't quite say. The 1937 version of the book includes, 'Some will ask whether I believe in the actual existence of my circuits of the sun and moon. . . To such a question I can but answer that if sometimes, overwhelmed by spectacle as all men must be in the midst of it, I have taken such periods literally, my reason has soon recovered; and now that the system stands out clearly in my imagination I regard them as stylistic arrangements of experience comparable to the cubes in the drawing of Wyndham Lewis and to the ovoids in the sculpture of Brancusi. They have helped me hold in a single thought reality and justice.' {10} Real only when overwhelmed by spectacle, symbolically real, a geometric skeleton or convenient mental prop? For all his gifts as talker and revolutionary, Yeats the thinker could be remarkably elusive.

A Vision

Occult matters were nonetheless central to W. B. Yeats, justifying the select audience and providing depth to his imagery. By 1892 he was saying 'If I had not made magic my constant study I could not have written a single word of my Blake book, nor would The Countess Kathleen ever have come to exist. The mystical life is the centre of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write.' {14}

Yeats's interests were of his time, but still influence how we read his poetry. Most scientists are adamant that psi activities cannot occur, and that the evidence must therefore be nonexistent or fraudulent. Yet the evidence does exist, in many thousands of well-documented studies. {15} Astrology is likewise flatly rejected by science, though the supposedly damning research {16} may be flawed. {17} Or rest on doubtful bases: personality measurement, for example, against which astrologer's analyses are often compared, itself suffers from severe problems of theory {18} and application. {19-20} Astrology does not see itself as a science, moreover, as readings are not independent of participants, time or outside circumstances. {21} Some see astrological readings as a form of divination. {22} Small but statistically significant confirmations have been found by Michel Gauquelin {23} (also contested by the scientific establishment) and by John Addey, {24} but they only marginally support astrology. Astrologers tend to see their art as a language, however, a highly technical language with its own belief sets, skills and accepted practices — not in these respects unlike literary criticism, the reader may be bemused to learn.

Then there is the personal element. Evading the difficulties, a text for students sensibly calls A Vision 'a mystical theory of the universe, which explained history, imagination, and mythology in light of an occult set of symbols', {1} but that vision was put together from only those of Georgie's automatic writings that would generate a complete system, {25} which is a dangerous way of proceeding. The world views of Spengler or Toynbee, long since passed from vogue, did at least marshal evidence, and the more speculative astrological systems, which can be found in any good New Age bookshop, are closely documented with references to authorities and extensive case notes. A Vision has none of these.

Yeats was a Symbolist poet, and those symbols enabled Yeats, it is generally held, {9} to give fresh expression to complex meanings, widen his frame of reference, and fuse intellect with imagination in a concrete image. But how seriously are we to really take the symbols? As my introduction on TextEtc {26} puts it:

'Symbolism in literature was a complex movement that deliberately extended the evocative power of words to express the feelings, sensations and states of mind that lie beyond everyday awareness. Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-98), the high priest of the French movement, theorized that symbols were of two types. One was created by the projection of inner feelings onto the world outside. The other existed as nascent words that slowly permeated the consciousness and expressed a state of mind initially unknown to their originator.'

'Mallarmé painstakingly developed his art of suggestion, what he called his "fictions". Rare words were introduced, syntactical intricacies, private associations and baffling images. Metonymy replaced metaphor as symbol, and was in turn replaced by single words which opened in imagination to multiple levels of signification. Time was suspended, and the usual supports of plot and narrative removed. Even the implied poet faded away, and there were then only objects, enigmatically introduced but somehow made right and necessary by verse skill.'

But Yeats the poet never faded away, and indeed his symbols grew more evocative, precise and rich in associations, (as does astrological language, incidentally: no doubt one reason for its appeal to the poet). Yeats's symbols are also of two types, universal and personal and it is the second — the rose (women, beauty, Ireland) and the tower (Yeat's home, loneliness and retreat) — that can baffle the uninitiated, though they also give depth to poems featuring Helen, Maude Gonne, swans, his daughter and future of Ireland. But all operate through Yeats the seer and arbiter of spiritual significance. That seems to me the secret of his power. By themselves, the subjects of his poems are less than revelatory, inconsequential even, but that dreamy voice of authority invests them with something that lies beyond everyday experience. {4}

To find his symbols, Yeats went to romantic literature, folklore, mysticism, theosophy, spiritualism, astrology and Neo-Platonism before devising a symbolic system of his own. A Vision sees time as 'gyres' representing opposing cycles, each lasting two thousand years. The Second Coming therefore relates to the antithetical civilization which will come with the third millennium, personified in the rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem as anarchy, horror and the drowning of innocence overrun the world. That 'coat of mythological embroidery' in the last poems is accordingly where a colloquial but ceremonial nakedness prevails. {4}

Is this true? The Tower exhibits a close consistency of outlook and theme, each poem benefiting from others in the collection, but postulating the tower as an esoteric but empowering symbol may be overstating matters. Art, after all, in its most general conception, aims at fullness and fidelity to human experience, and Symbolism can hardly claim that with the uninstructed common reader. Even 'The New Criticism', which discounts anything but the bare words on the page, and does not require poetry to provide truth, must concede that some outside criteria will be relevant: to be successful, a serious poem cannot entirely affront common sense. {27} Naturally, because modern poetry is on school and university syllabuses in the English-speaking world, it is right and proper that Yeats's name should appear, with reasons for that appearance, but the reasons given can seem special pleading, more hagiography than critical analysis. We can say that A Vision makes sense of Yeats's later poems, and that the work itself is important because it encouraged Yeats to go on writing strongly, but that is a purely circular argument. If Yeats was deluded in writing A Vision he was deluded in writing his later, supposedly more important poems that call on A Vision for their sense.

The essential point, I think, is that Yeats' poetry is an adjunct of the man himself. It works within certain parameters, one of which is the circle of Yeats's beliefs, these being derived from his reading and occult experiences. The authoritarian personality, which served him well as manager of the Abbey Theatre, gave him the necessary self-confidence, and he was never a modest man, indeed taking himself so seriously that his more uncharitable contemporaries called him a poseur, which his poet's dress and mannered readings rather illustrated. Only the greatest of thinkers would understand him:

There is not a fool can call me friend,
And I may dine at journey's end
With Landor and with Donne. (To a Young Beauty)

It seems that must bid the Muse go pack,
Choose Plato and Plotinus for a friend (The Tower)

Translation

Yeats lacked the humility that characterizes the good translator. He made very free use of his own interests in translating from the Greek of Sophocles, though often with striking, indeed beautiful lines:

Pray I will and sing I must,
And yet I weep — Oedipus' child
Descends into the loveless dust.

But the translations could take on a character quite foreign to the original.  {28} The famous stasimon of Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus (lines 668-719). which is close {29} to: {30}

Colonus, stranger: here is calm
in limestone white and woven shade:
a land of horses, thick with tales
of loveliness that none dispute.
Far from sun’s or tempest’s harm,
in wine-dark ivy through the glade,
our constant guests, the nightingales,
pour out their ever joyful sound.
Sacred too is each leafed thing
endowed with berries and with fruit
as, nymphs attending, revelling,
Dionysus walks this ground.

Here bloom the crocuses in gold,
and on their graves the white narcissus
guards the Goddesses of old
from dewed awakening, dawn to dawn.
And through this flows the Cephisus,
unendingly, from fountains drawn:
its stainless waters daily trace
their fecundations on the plain,
so blessing it with quick increase.
The Muses cannot hide their face
nor Aphrodite ever cease
to visit us with golden rein.

There is a gift more versatile
than famed in Asian countries grows
or on the Dorian Pelop’s isle:
we speak of grey-leafed olive trees
those self-renewing nourishers
of children, giving us our ease
but terror to our spearmen foes.
Our youths are not its ravagers
nor may the aged with their hand
destroy this bounty of our land.
Inviolate, they’re never felled
but in Athena’s eye’s are held
sleepless in her grey-eyed stare,
as too in Morian Zeus’s care. 

Another praise we have to tell
is for our mother city, writ
in glory of the son of Cronus,
with might of horses, might of sea,
the god Poseidon, such is he
who to master horse has shown us
how to keep with iron bit
their powerful anger in our thrall.
More prodigal to us as well
he's given us the oar to meet
the hand that hauls us over seas,
giving it a wondrous ease
to follow on the rise and fall
of the Nereids' myriad feet.

Became, in Yeats' rendering: {31}

Come praise Colonus' horses, and come praise
The wine-dark of the wood's intricacies,
The nightingale that deafens daylight there,
If daylight ever visit where,
Unvisited by tempest or by sun,
Immortal ladies tread the ground
Dizzy with harmonious sound,
Semele's lad a gay companion.

And yonder in the gymnasts' garden thrives
The self-sown, self-begotten shape that gives
Athenian intellect its mastery,
Even the grey-leaved olive-tree
Miracle-bred out of the living stone;
Nor accident of peace nor war
Shall wither that old marvel, for
The great grey-eyed Athene stares thereon.

Who comes into this country, and has come
Where golden crocus and narcissus bloom,
Where the Great Mother, mourning for her daughter
And beauty-drunken by the water
Glittering among grey-leaved olive-trees,
Has plucked a flower and sung her loss;
Who finds abounding Cephisus
Has found the loveliest spectacle there is.
Because this country has a pious mind
And so remembers that when all mankind
But trod the road, or splashed about the shore,
Poseidon gave it bit and oar,
Every Colonus lad or lass discourses
Of that oar and of that bit;
Summer and winter, day and night,
Of horses and horses of the sea, white horses.

Yeats rearranged lines, and many of his couplets are somewhat contrived: 'Who finds abounding Cephisus / Has found the loveliest spectacle there is.' Then, to introduce his Irish preoccupations with horses of the sea, he continued with 'Because this country has a pious mind / And so remembers that when all mankind,' which is fairly disastrous, adding a Sunday school note to the rendering. There follows 'lad and lass', which has a Shakespearean echo (and needs the unhappy discourses-horses rhyme), and is not found in the original, though doubtless working towards the white horses. Yeats was probably attracted to the white or shining with which the chorus opens, and, rather than relate it to the white limestone country of Greece, delved back into Irish mythology and conjured up waves breaking in sea horses. 'The wine-dark of the wood's intricacies' conjures up the interplay of dark and light in the woods' depths very well, but 'The nightingale that deafens daylight there' is an astonishing image that unfortunately produces the opposite effect of what's needed, which is a sense of quietness and safety.

In short, the play became more Yeats than Sophocles, but effective poetry all the same while we accept and respond to its author's mythologies.

Weaknesses

I have been trying to say where the greatness of WBY's poetry lies, which seems often in what is attempted rather than achieved. He was not particularly prolific, and many of the better pieces are still  somewant flawed or incompletely realised. As a craftsman, Yeats had had obvious weaknesses to overcome. He was not an inventive rhymer:

To rhyme with 'crowd':
Whereon a thing once walked that seemed a burning cloud (Fallen Majesty)

To rhyme with 'hag':
The moon in a silver bag.

To rhyme with 'hoof'
At Kyle-na-no under that ancient roof

And with 'while':
Are but a post that passing dogs defile (Both from A Coat).

He was not always a good critic of his work: lines surviving into collections could be remarkable inept.

Run till all the sages know.
We the great gazebo built,
They convicted us of guilt. (In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz)

But on the credit side, Yeats had a gift for exquisite phrasing, often varying the pacing within the iambic metre:

The woods of Arcady are dead,
And over is their antique joy; (Crossways)

Who dreamed that beauty passes like a dream? (The Rose of the World)

Far-off, most secret, and inviolable rose (The Secret Rose)

The woods mirror a still sky; (The Wild Swans at Coole).

One that is ever kind said yesterday:
Your well-belovèd's head has threads of grey. (The Folly of Being Comforted)

And for the memorable phrase:

For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand. (The Stolen Child)

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands, (The Song of the Wandering Aengus)

Which became more enigmatic later:

Ignorant and wanton as the dawn. (The Dawn)
Come build in the empty house of the stare. (Meditations in Time of Civil War)
Man's own resinous heart has fed. (Two Songs from a Play)
The nightingale that deafens daylight there, (from Oedipus at Colonus)
Monuments of its own magnificence (Sailing to Byzantium)
Mad as the mist and Snow (Mad as the Mist and Snow)

And sometimes didn't come off:

Colder and dumber and deafer than a fish. (All Things Can Tempt Me)

But most telling is the muffled thunder of threatened violence:

And clamour in drunken frenzy for the moon. (Blood and the Moon)
The swan drifts upon a darkening flood (Coole and Ballylee 1931)
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea (Byzantium)

And grandiloquence:

Nor know that what disturbs our blood
Is but its longing for the tomb. (The Wheel)

The old perplexity an empty purse,
Or the day's vanity, the night's remorse. (The Choice)

My mind, because the minds that I have loved,
The sort of beauty that I have approved. (A Prayer for My Daughter)

The mature poetry of W.B. Yeats is couched in that solemnity, verging on grandiosity. Much seems unwarranted, a cheque drawn on his future status, the great magus, Nobel laureate and foremost poet of his time, but also part of the self-created personality of William Butler Yeats, and one that readers simply have to accept.

But always about Yeats, as about many of the Modernist poets — to the extent that Yeats is truly a Modernist {32} — there hang suspicions of pretence, doubtful scholarship and unearned authority. Passing events, even the inconsequential, became portentous, heavy with significance. {33} Later poems with their elaborate symbolism of the rose, tower and the like grew more ambitious, certainly, but arguably not better. From the outset, Yeats's poems tended to pronounce on matters, albeit magnificently, rather than to probe or persuade. The dialogue was with himself, with his inner musings. We have to read each poem with his whole corpus in mind, i.e. see the attitudinising as foibles of an irascible but often impressive old friend. The Crazy Jane poems in particular are enjoyable because they are by Yeats: they do not stand well on their own merits: a clipped, unmusical style and in questionable taste, though Yeats had no reason to bless the Catholic Church. Later poems are generally denser, but not necessarily better, and The Second Coming, for example, which is largely successful, was in fact written 16 years before its publication in 1921. Yeats was an unusually conscientious writer, and that so few poems are not without flaws points to large blind spots in his self-critical abilities, to that authoritarian sense of infallibility that his growing success encouraged.

The Symbolist movement itself is harder to assess. It has few proponents today, outside devotees of the occult world. Yeats was its last important representative in English poetry. Some parallels are provided by metaphor theory, where metaphors organize our experience, uniquely express that experience, and therefore create necessary realities. {34} Though such realities are not grounded in logic, but in the beliefs, practices and intentions of language users, these metaphors are overt and universally used, and in that respect quite unlike the rarefied symbols of Yeats and other Symbolists. Nonetheless, in some much-contested way, through the many different belief-worlds that poets inhabit, language is the enabling mechanism: as Yeats put it, 'words alone are certain good'. That innocent proposal, severing expression from rational content, would create much mischief in the various poetry schools that followed.

References


1. SparkNotes Editors. (2002). SparkNote on Yeats's Poetry. Retrieved December 9, 2017, from http://www.sparknotes.com/poetry/yeats/
2. Symons, Arthur. (1919) The Symbolist Movement in Literature. Dutton and Compant. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/53849
3. For ease of reference I have used The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats (Macmillan, 1935) throughout, though many poems that Yeats wrote were omitted. Of the 66 poems making up The Winding Stair (1933), for example, only 28 appear in the Collected Poems.
4. Batchelor and Master Editors. William Butler Yeats as a Symbolist. Retrieved December 13, 2017 from https://www.bachelorandmaster.com/britishandamericanpoetry/yeats-as-a-symbolist.html#.Wi_GGE36upo
5. Abrams, M.H. Poetry, Theories of entry in Alex Preminger's (Ed.) The Princeton Handbook of Poetic Terms (1974).
6. Yeats, W.B. (1939) Letter to Lady Elizabeth Pelham 4 January 1939, Letters p.922 in Press, John. (1969) A Map of Modern English Verse. O.U.P. 21.
7. Press, John. (1969) 147.
8. Press, John. (1969) 147.
9. Holcombe, C.J. (2016) Sailing to Byzantium. Posted December 22, 2016 at http://www.textetc.com/blog/sailing-to-byzantium/
10. Bushrui, Suheil B and Prentki, Tim (1990) An International Companion to the Poetry of W.B. Yeats. Rowmn and Littlefield.
11. Jeffares, Norman A. (2013) W.B. Yeats. Routledge 40 Google Books.
12. Mann, Neil. The System of W.B. Yeat's A Vision by Neil Mann. Retrieved December 12, 2017 from. http://www.yeatsvision.com/
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