Culling the Poetry Classics: William Butler Yeats

Cuirimid fáilte roimh chách! Google translate tells me that's an adequate way to welcome you to our special Irish edition of "Culling the Poetry Classics." If you recall, last year around this time we discussed this month's poet in "Poetry Fun-0-1: Greetings from the Emerald Isle," which you heartily enjoyed, right? Humor me.

To celebrate everything Irish in honor of St. Patrick's Day again this year, I broke down and finally caught up on the man considered to be the greatest Irish poet—and perhaps even the greatest Irish writer—of all time. Éirinn go Brách!

The Poet

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939); Irish; born in Sandymount, County Dublin, Ireland. Towering figure in the realm of 20th-century poetry. Credited as having a tremendous influence on the Irish Literary Revival and the transition from Romantic to Modern poetry in the English language. Winner of the 1923 Nobel Prize in Literature, the first Irishman to be awarded the prize. Served two terms in the Irish Senate. Died in Menton, France, at the age of 73.

The Books

Yeats was very popular during his lifetime, both in Ireland and abroad, and he also had a habit of constantly revising his work, so his published work has taken many forms. The volume I used was The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats, a British edition I picked up while in Ireland last year. It claims to contain all of his poetry, and perhaps it does, but it certainly doesn't contain all of his poetry collections, which often overlapped depending on the edition. The volume contains the following lyrical works, which often were published under various titles and with various other narrative and dramatic works alongside; full publication details provided where possible, even if they contradict the volume somewhat:

I don't normally recommend volumes of "selected" poems, but I'd be willing to make an exception for Yeats
  • Crossways (Kegan Paul, Trench & Company, 1889 [as The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems]), Goodreads rating of 3.79/3.85 personal rating of 2;
  • The Rose (Unwin, 1892 [as The Countess Kathleen and Various Legends and Lyrics, I think]), Goodreads rating of 4.08, personal rating of 3;
  • The Wind Among the Reeds (Elkin Mathews, 1899), Goodreads rating of 4.12, personal rating of 3;
  • In the Seven Woods: Being Poems Chiefly of the Irish Heoric Age (Dun Emer Press, 1903), Goodreads rating of 3.87, personal rating of 3;*
  • The Green Helmet and Other Poems (Cuala Press, 1910), Goodreads rating of 3.85, personal rating of 4;*
  • Responsibilities: Poem and a Play (Cuala Press, 1914), Goodreads rating of 4.23, personal rating of 4;*
  • The Wild Swans at Coole: Other Verses and a Play in Verse (Cuala Press, 1917; revised and republished 1919), Goodreads rating of 4.06, personal rating of 4;
  • Michael Robartes and the Dancer (Cuala Press, 1921), Goodreads rating of 4.51, personal rating of 4;
  • The Tower (Macmillan, 1928), Goodreads rating of 4.14, personal rating of 4;**
  • The Winding Stair and Other Poems (Fountain Press, 1929; republished 1933 to include Words for Music Perhaps and Other Poems [Cuala Press, 1932], I think), Goodreads rating of 4.14, personal rating of 4;
  • from A Full Moon in March (Macmillan, 1935), Goodreads rating N/A, personal rating of 4;*
  • Last Poems and Plays (Macmillan, 1940), Goodreads rating N/A, personal rating N/A.

*As far as I can tell, these all included at least one play in the original published text, though I could be mistaken. While Goodreads ratings may reflect editions that include dramatic work, my personal ratings only cover the poems.
**The Tower was Yeats's first major poetry collection published after winning the Nobel Prize.

It also contains the following narrative and dramatic works, none of which I read (but aren't you impressed by how many of the collections I read this time?):

  • The Wanderings of Oisin (1889)
  • The Old Age of Queen Maeve (1903)
  • Baile and Aillin (1903)
  • The Shadowy Waters (1906)
  • The Two Kings (1914)
  • The Gift of Harun Al-Rashid (1923)

The Highlights

As is true with any poet, several of William Butler Yeats's poems are much better/more recognizable/more accessible than the rest. I've picked out a few of the best:

You'll Love Him

A choose-your-own adventure poetry review!

  1. Are you Irish? If yes, you already love him, so stop wasting my time; if no, proceed to 2.
  2. Were you just this morning thinking to yourself, "Self, those Robert Frost and Edna St. Vincent Millay reviews were so extreme! Isn't there poetry that happens to nestle perfectly between the two? Someone who writes about death and nature and politics and patriotism and love and death and love and death and death and death and death and love?" If yes, proceed to "Read It or Leave It"; if no, proceed to 3, although I'm not sure what I can do for you at this point.
  3. Did you ever wonder what would happen if a writer who wanted so very much to be Pioneering and/or An Influential Part of the Literary Establishment of the Day couldn't let go of his traditional forms and artistic values? If yes, proceed to "Read It or Leave It"; if no, proceed to "You'll Loathe Him."

You'll Loathe Him

Yeats is Modernism with a rhyme scheme, but then, you probably aren't interested in learning about poetry in the first place, are you? Why are you here? I can't hold your hand through this entire process; at some point you'll have to try new things, even if those new things are a century old.

Read It or Leave It

The great problem with William Butler Yeats (as far as "Culling the Poetry Classics" is concerned) is that he really isn't all that divisive as a poet. Aside from a few Irish scholars who challenge his politics and the usual curmudgeonly MFA students who are required to hate a beloved poet at random, there aren't many people who come away from reading Yeats and say, "Wow, what a waste of paper." Yeats was all about symbolism, but he was also really good at conveying mood and describing scenes and images, so his poems often layer very nicely. Nowhere is this more readily evident than in "The Lake Isle of Innisfree," arguably Yeats's most famous poem:

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

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

A read through of his entire body of work can be a bit of a slog, but mostly that's because of how often he revisits certain themes and concepts; the individual poems in a vacuum are usually delightful, a mix of homespun wisdom, sing-songy nationalist fervor, and pastoral Irish folklore...

...if you're into that sort of thing. Yeats isn't for everyone, but he's not a bait-and-switch poet like Frost who lures readers in with promises of catchy one-liners and then beats them over the head with boring forest poems in iambic pentameter. Yeats sticks to a few preferred forms and rhyme schemes, but he employs them in a variety of ways and overall does a fairly good job of pairing "poetry as craft" with "poetry as concept." There are certainly more than a few duds, but the good poems are excellent and never diminish with intensive analysis. Compared to our other point of reference (because at this point we've only ever read these three poets, right?), Yeats's entire body of work may not be as consistent as Millay's, but his highs are much, much higher. Whereas ESVM starts off pretty strong from the first collection and then sort of hovers there throughout her entire career, WBY very noticeably grows and evolves in exciting and interesting ways. His first collection is trash, but those immediately before and after his Nobel Prize win are worthy of the distinction. Plus, even if I don't always understand exactly what he's trying to say, he often drops the 19th-century equivalent of a diss track or a snarky superficial poem like "For Anne Gregory":

'NEVER shall a young man,
Thrown into despair
By those great honey-coloured
Ramparts at your ear,
Love you for yourself alone
And not your yellow hair.'

'But I can get a hair-dye
And set such colour there,
Brown, or black, or carrot,
That young men in despair
May love me for myself alone
And not my yellow hair.'

'I heard an old religious man
But yesternight declare
That he had found a text to prove
That only God, my dear,
Could love you for yourself alone
And not your yellow hair.'

Oooh, sick burn, Yeats. Or is it...?

The Final Verdict

Read those poems I mentioned in "The Highlights"—yes, all of them—and see what you think. If you like those, then chances are you'll find a lot more to like among Yeats's broader body of work. He's a poet that very often surprises the reader with a particular poem, stanza, or even turn of phrase. One of the best parts of this reading experience was stumbling on a short poem or couplet that hit exactly the right notes. These moments usually came after a descriptive poem about some ancient Irish king or a stanza that name drops Irish revolutionaries, but they were always a welcome surprise. Yeats very much invites discovery and reflection. He can be a bit dense at times, but I think it's worth it overall, and of course there are plenty of instances where he's just plain tragically romantic, like in "Down by the Salley Gardens," one of the few decent poems from his first collection.

Down by the salley gardens
   my love and I did meet;
She passed the salley gardens
   with little snow-white feet.
She bid me take love easy,
   as the leaves grow on the tree;
But I, being young and foolish,
   with her would not agree.

In a field by the river
   my love and I did stand,
And on my leaning shoulder
   she laid her snow-white hand.
She bid me take life easy,
   as the grass grows on the weirs;
But I was young and foolish,
   and now am full of tears.

Being a completionist snob, I don't normally recommend volumes of "selected" poems, but I'd be willing to make an exception for Yeats, whose lesser poems do little more than repeat the themes and concerns of the betters ones. Of course, if you go that route, then you're less likely to discover a fun random poem that hits you perfectly. Many of my favorite poems were ones that would never make it onto any "best of" lists, like "Down by the Salley Gardens" there. If you enjoy the poems I listed above, check out the rest of the poems listed on his Poetry Foundation page next, and if you're still into him, pick up a collection or two—unless you're Irish, in which case you should have already read every word he's ever written. He's your first Nobel Prize winner! What are you waiting for? Stop shaming your country!

Next Month!

Because April is so cruel, next month we'll be reading another Nobel Prize winner: T.S. Eliot. If you plan on being a part of the classiest book club ever and reading along, I'll be using the Faber and Faber Complete Poems and Plays, which I've been given to understand is the only edition that actually contains all of Eliot's poetry (the others all cut off after a certain year).

If you think I'm terrible at picking poets and would like to make a suggestion for a future CTPC legend, let me have it in the comments. You're very smart, so it's entirely possible that you know way more about poetry than I do. You're also incredibly attractive and have a lovely singing voice, and everyone thinks you're swell; have I ever told you that? It's the highlight of my month to spend this poetical time with you.

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

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Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading Library Books March 12, 2015 - 12:53pm

Really enjoying these columns, even though I have no intentions of reading any of the poets.

Brian McGackin's picture
Brian McGackin from NJ/LA is reading Between the World and Me March 16, 2015 - 3:37pm

UPDATE: I've now finished all of the "Narrative and Dramatic" poems at the back of the book, too, and they are incredible. I really wish they had been included with the rest of the poems chronologically; it would have changed my entire opinion about Yeats from the outset, because they primarily deal with/explain a lot of the Irish folklore references that Yeats makes in his work. "The Wanderings of Oisin" and "The Two Kings" are particularly good, but they're all wonderful. "The Two Kings" contains one of my favorite lines in all of Yeats's poetry, actually.

What can they know of love that do not know
She builds her nest upon a narrow ledge
Above a windy precipice?

I still haven't read Yeats's plays, but at this point they could be absolutely terrible and it wouldn't affect his standing at all in my mind. He's really, really, really good. Ignore Josh completely and pick up some of this poetry.

Brian McGackin's picture
Brian McGackin from NJ/LA is reading Between the World and Me March 17, 2015 - 10:22am

Also, I was referred to a pretty cool blog post collecting several recordings that Yeats made of his poems in the 1930s that are really interesting to hear. You should check them out!