Yeats Love Poetry exerted great influence on 20th Century Literature
Yeats Love Poetry should need little introduction to any lover of poetry. W.B.Yeats is widely recognised as the greatest poet of the Twentieth Century, and as a love poet, his output is equally unmatched for lyrical beauty and elegant language. Thank you for visiting my page on Yeats Love Poetry, together we shall explore the best love poetry of this great Irish poet and discover why he is held in such high esteem by the literary world!
William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), Irish poet and nationalist, dramatist and prose writer was one of the greatest English-language poets of the 20th century. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923.
For a long time his works evinced mixed feelings as to his true status as a towering literary figure, until gradually recognition as the pre-eminent poet and writer came from his peers towards the last decade of his life. This was in 1928 when he published 'The Tower' arguably his finest volume.
The reason for this long standing ambivalence to Yeats is becaue Yeats himself was frequently torn by the forces that shaped and moulded him from the onset, and these opposing forces operated to create often times a confusing career wherein the sublime and the ridiculous
He had a childhood broad in education and personal experiences, and as a youth he was full of internal contradictions who subjected all he was taught to a rigorous examination and questioning. As a writer Yeats made his debut in 1885 at 20, when he published his first poems in The Dublin University Review. From 1887 on, he devoted himself to writing.
Spiritually, educationally and personally, he pulled himself in different directions, unable to decide on a clear direction until all these internal contradictions eventually shaped the complex man and the writer he eventually became.
Thus a reviewer could say of his poetry, Yeats "produces both poppycock and sublimity in verse, sometimes closely together." (Brendan Kennelly) and another would say reading him was a strange experience... "I read a line or two, they seem too simple and crude. I read them a second time, they become opaque. A third time, they yield and I feel as if playing with a kaleidoscope. Now at least I am wiser; I know I will be profoundly touched, annoyed and bored in turns, but I also know I will always return to Yeats, because a quarrel with him is better than a constant love for another poet."
It is fair to say that Yeats range was breathtaking. It covered a wide arc from from luminous reworkings of ancient Irish myths and legends to passionate meditations on the demands and rewards of youth and old age, from exquisite, occasionally whimsical songs of love, nature, and art to somber and angry poems of life in a nation torn by war and uprising.
His influences as you might imagine from the foregoing were diverse.
1. The occult, eastern mysticism, and spiritist pursuits. Reincarnation, communication with the dead, mediums, supernatural systems and Oriental mysticism fascinated Yeats through his life and defined his outlook right from youth to old age. His 1917 marriage to Georgie Hyde-Lee who turned out to be a medium, rekindled his interest in mysticism and incurred criticism from his peers. Undaunted, Yeats faced harsh ridicule by stating his belief in fairies.
2. A strong love affair with Ireland and Irish literature that eventually enmeshed him in irish mythology and folklore. Yeats was interested in folktales as a part of an exploration of national heritage and for the revival of Celtic identity. A self avowed socialist with a rabid hatred for the middle class, he also got involved in Irish politics during the Irish Revolution in 1896, and even though he was to be ultimately disillusioned by the eventual outcome of his nationalistic struggles, he was involved briefly with the fascist Blueshirts in Dublin in 1933
3. An influence which undeniably stimulated both his poetic and irish obsession, was his famed doomed love for the fiery revolutionary Maud Gonne. Gonne, the love of Yeats life, spurned his marriage proposals five times in twenty five years.
During this period, Yeats' unrequited love drove him both to distraction and some of the most beautiful love poetry ever created. When in 1903 after the fourth rejection she married Major John MacBride, an Irish revolutionary who was later executed by the English, Yeats' lines are unforgettable in his poem"No Second Troy"...
"HY should I blame her that she filled my days With misery... / Why, what could she have done, being what she is? / Was there another Troy for her to burn?"
We shall take a closer look at the influence of Maud Gonne on Yeats Love Poetry later on this page.
THE ETHOS OF YEATS LOVE POETRY
What are the universal elements that inform Yeats Love Poetry?
We know from his poetic output that Yeats was more than simply a love poet. He also wrote elegies, self-elegies, epitaphs, curses, dramatic monologues, and verse plays, as well as poems of tragedy, joy, prophecy, the sublime and the esoteric.
But is this wholly accurate? If we examine in some detail his remarkable contributions, this conclusion however understandable, may be seen to be somewhat superficial and trite bearing in mind the complexities and depth of our subject. Let me explain:
Consider: "We are at our Tower and I am writing poetry as I always do here, and as always happens, no matter how I begin, it becomes love poetry before I am finished with it."
These are his own words in a letter. It seems to Yeats, all of his poetry is in a sense love poetry! Could it be that he considers it as a fundament that love is both the subject of the love poem and also the stuff of all poetry, making love the genre closest to the psychological base of the poetic process?
So we may perhaps realise that Yeats love poetry are for as much their own production as they are for Maud Gonne or any other woman for that matter.
To understand Yeats Love Poetry aright, let us examine his methods.
THE STYLE OF YEATS LOVE POETRY
1.To Yeats, a male poet cannot achieve the two forms of love he ascribes to all love poetry, ie, possession of the woman, and also possession of the poem itself.
He approached all his love poetry from the perspective that these two goals are mutually exclusive. Consequently, the price that must be paid to inspire and sustain his poetry, is the physical loss of the beloved.
2. He implied often that the beloved must be dead, absent, or incapable of reciprocation, in order for the poet to generate the passion or desire to produce the language necessary for the love poetry. Some kind of quid pro quo or trade-off, a condition precedent without which the master baker cannot bake his sumptuous fare!
When we recollect his doomed obsessions with his most famous muse, Maud Gonne, is it any wonder that this theme of unattainable love as the incendiary for gripping love verse is a feature of Yeats Love Poetry? I think not!
To quote from his famed work, "The Tower" -
"Does the imagination dwell the most/Upon a woman won or woman lost?"
Yeats often enough in his love poetry illustrated that the answer lay in the latter.
3. In striving to give effect to this viewpoint, Yeats Love Poetry reflects not only the women they address, but also the ways and means through which they are addressed. Consequently at a deeper level we can appreciate Yeats Love Poetry as being largely about the poetic construct itself within which even the subject, the beloved, is subsumed as a side plot. Almost a by- product therein!
So Yeats Love Poetry is not merely a personal voyage showcasing his romantic experiences with the fairer sex simpliciter, its objective was also to show love as a theme in itself, as the genre fundamental to the creative base of the entire poetic process.
This all-embracing nature of Yeats Love Poetry is an inevitable conclusion you arrive at in delving into them.
Reviewer Kerry Fried agrees with this assessment... "At his best, Yeats extends the meaning of love poetry beyond the obviously romantic: love becomes a revolutionary emotion, attaching the poet to friends, history, and the passionate life of the mind."
4. The female principle for Yeats Love Poetry often takes two forms: The absent beloved who only becomes attainable after the catharsis of some cataclysm or quest attained, or a mournful dirge. Some elegy wherein the poet mourns his aching loss as an epitaph for lost love.
It is as if threatened by the growing social and cultural power of women of his time, (ironically symbolised by the archetypal free wheeling and unconventional actress Maud Gonne, to whom our subject was hopelessly enamoured) Yeats and other male poets manufactured a compensatory model of womankind for their literary purposes, wherein an opposite of the unmasterable "new woman" emerged, over which they could retain the traditional social control.
Castiglione's advise on this, well known to Yeats, was literally taken to heart. The courtier must create an image of the beloved in his "his imagination as an abstraction distinct from any material form, and thus ... enjoy it there always ... without fear of ever losing it."
Thus an imaginative picture of femininity that resists social change, was created, replacing the activist, political woman with traditional poetic images of a passive or dead beloved. Early Yeats love poetry as we shall shortly see, is redolent of this feature.
Let us look at an example of this feature of Yeats Love Poetry which showcases all we have dwelt on above, and which also illustrate Yeats's dense and self-absorbed poetry in its sombre majesty.
THE SECRET ROSE
Far-off, most secret, and inviolate Rose,
Enfold me in my hour of hours; where those
Who sought thee in the Holy Sepulchre,
Or in the wine-vat, dwell beyond the stir
And tumult of defeated dreams; and deep
Among pale eyelids, heavy with the sleep
Men have named beauty. Thy great leaves enfold
The ancient beards, the helms of ruby and gold
Of the crowned Magi; and the king whose eyes
Saw the Pierced Hands and Rood of elder rise
In Druid vapour and make the torches dim;
Till vain frenzy woke and he died; and him
Who met Fand walking among flaming dew
By a grey shore where the wind never blew,
And lost the world and Emer for a kiss;
And him who drove the gods out of their liss,
And till a hundred morns had flowered red
Feasted, and wept the barrows of his dead;
And the proud dreaming king who flung the crown
And sorrow away, and calling bard and clown
Dwelt among wine-stained wanderers in deep woods;
And him who sold tillage, and house, and goods,
And sought through lands and islands numberless years,
Until he found, with laughter and with tears,
A woman of so shining loveliness
That men threshed corn at midnight by a tress,
A little stolen tress. I, too, await
The hour of thy great wind of love and hate.
When shall the stars be blown about the sky,
Like the sparks blown out of a smithy, and die?
Surely thine hour has come, thy great wind blows,
Far-off, most secret, and inviolate Rose?
W.B.Yeats died at the height of his creative powers and at the summit of his career in 1939. His latter works were by now recognised in his lifetime as timeless masterpieces, and the earlier doubts about his genius, long since quelled.
It was said of him that he had the unique ability to take fantasy, mysticism and the unknown and use it as an analogy to examine and explain the human condition. Soon after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923, he himself recognised that when he was young, his muse was old; now he was old but his muse is young.
Confirming this assertion, critic Stanley Kunitz, had this to say: He is perhaps the only poet in history whose last work was his best. The taut bareness of the phrases, the stark beauty, the sharpness, the simplicity, the objectivity, he had never achieved in youth came to him in old age.
Click here for early Yeats Love Poetry
Click here for more Yeats Love Poetry
Click here for further Yeats Love Poetry
If you like Yeats Love Poetry and would like to receive more information directly in your inbox, subscribe to my Love Poetry of The World newsletter
Return to Love Poetry of The World