The poetic works of William Butler Yeats

The Poetic Works of William Butler Yeats


W.B Yeats is considered perhaps the greatest poet of the twentieth century. His poetry remains as being modern, even though during the time where it was written. His multiple inspirations for writing and the difficult time he had to live in his country, when due to ideological and religious differences Ireland was divided into two parts, motivated him to write one of the most beautiful works in poetry in the previous century. This essay aims to analyze the poetic works of W.B Yeats; for that, some poems are going to be analyzed as well as the socio-cultural context in which they were conceived. It will be analyzed both the meaning and the structural form of his works.


William Butler Yeats was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1865. He passed his childhood moving from his hometown in the county Sligo in Ireland, where his grandparents lived, and London, where his parents moved to lived. In these landscapes in Sligo is where take place most of the scenery of his poetry. In 1889, Yeats met his greatest love, a patriot revolutionary woman, Maud Gonne, but at the same time she became one of his greatest deceptions because his love was not accepted by her. However, she became his major inspiration for his poetry and his plays in which she played the principal character in most of them; if there is an allegory to beauty in his poetry, it is the image of Maude Gonne.

Yeats lived during a difficult and troublesome time in Ireland, the period of the Irish revival, the civil war and the rise and fall of Charles Stuart, gave him the inspiration for his early writings allied to the Irish literature revival and patriotism. Despite of the fact that he came from a protestant family and a majority of Roman Catholics in Ireland, he tended to develop a new religion bringing back most of the iconography, beliefs and folklore of the ancient Celts. In 1923 he received the Nobel Prize of literature.

One of the most remarkable facts in Yeats’ career is that he reached his most brilliant period in writing poetry late in his life, between the ages of 50 and 70. The beauty of his poetry during this period of time was one of the facts that gave him the recognition of being perhaps the best poet of the twentieth century.

Yeats’ poetry is based on his personal experiences. All the poetic devices he used such themes, images, symbols, and metaphors portrayed the difficult times he lived and had to experience in Ireland. He wanted to capture within his poems, his beliefs, dreams and thoughts, because he wanted that his life became poetry itself, he didn’t looked forward to write an autobiographical work, but an allusion to life, aesthetics and beauty in his poetry.

One of the major themes in his poetry is mythology. With this, he wanted to give a different view to life, by adopting the ideas of ancient Celts he wanted to picture a different world with new imagination; yet this mystic and sometimes dark vision was always seen from his personal experiences of life and religion.

Main Themes and Symbols in his Poetry

Arts and Politics

Yeats believed that “art could serve a political function: poems could both critique and comment on political events, as well as educate and inform a population.” He wanted to express his thoughts and opinions about Irish politics through his poetry; he was completely committed to Irish patriotism and felt a great connection with his country. We can find this political view in poem such as “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” [1919], “A Meditation in Time of War” [1921]), “On a Political Prisoner” [1921], “In Memory of Eva Gore Booth and Con Markiewicz” [1933]), “Easter1916” [1916].

Fate and Divinity in History

Yeats rejected Christianism (and even Protestantism) in his early life. Nevertheless, later in his life, he wanted to discover the role that plays the divinity in mankind. However, he created a complete system of mysticism and spiritualism that wanted to understand the process of reincarnation and the nature of the soul. These divine devices took an important role in his poetry where the reader finds the relationship between divinity and human life. We may find for example: “Leda and the Swan (1923),” “The Second Coming (1919),” and “Sailing to Byzantinum (1926).”

Mysticism and the Occult

Yeats’ interests in his youth were related to religion, mythology and mysticism. His studies in theosophy and his membership in the hermetic order of the Golden Dawn gave his poetry the main motifs and symbology for writing. He was mainly interested in the reincarnation of the soul for that he develops a model in which the soul describes spiral movements in its journey. Mainly in poems like “The Second Coming” he describes this mystic view of life.

Thus, I would tend to analyze these major themes and symbols in some of his poems, as well as the structural organization of them. However I may say that this should be just an approximation to his works. To understand better his extraordinary poetry, I would invite the reader to explore more of his poems and his context.

The Lake of Innisfree

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.

This poem is written in three stanzas in a pattern of rhyme ABAB, it means that the last word in line 1 rhymes with the last word in line 3; besides, it has an Iambic meter in each line. In this poem there are special poetry devices on imagery, mainly visual and auditory, examples:

Visual Imagery: “veils of the morning, midnight’s all a glimmer,
noon a purple glow, evening full of the linnet’s wings

Auditory Imagery: “bee-loud glade, cricket sings, lake water lapping

Metaphor: “for peace (evening) comes dropping slow, Dropping from the veils of the morning”

Alliteration: “I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore

Assonance: “I hear it in the deep heart’s core

The Wild Swans at Coole


The trees are in their autumn beauty,

The woodland paths are dry,

Under the October twilight the water

Mirrors a still sky;

Upon the brimming water among the stones

Are nine-and-fifty swans.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me

Since I first made my count;

I saw, before I had well finished,

All suddenly mount

And scatter wheeling in great broken rings

Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,

And now my heart is sore.

All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,

The first time on this shore,

The bell-beat of their wings above my head,

Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,

They paddle in the cold

Companionable streams or climb the air;

Their hearts have not grown old;

Passion or conquest, wanders where they will,

Attend upon them still.

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?

In this poem he contrasts his own life and the swans, he reflects upon his own life as a subject that is aging and growing old, while swans stand still in time, so they will live for long and still be beautiful after he dies.

Visual Imagery:  “Under the October twilight the water Mirrors a still sky;”

Upon the brimming water among the stones

Auditory Imagery:  “The bell-beat of their wings above my head

Metaphor: “The bell-beat of their wings” (bell-beat is the flapping of swans)

Under the October twilight the water Mirrors a still sky” (the water is so clear that he called it a mirror)

Personification: he gives human qualities to the swans “Passion or conquest”

Alliteration: “wanders where they will

Assonance: “But now they drift on the still water mysterious, beautiful

When You Are Old

WHEN you are old and gray and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face among a crowd of stars.

In this poem, Yeats skillfully makes use of visual imagery. Besides it is written, as most of Yeats’ poems in an iambic pattern, unstressed syllable followed by stressed syllable. The poem is about love and aging; as I stated above, his muse of inspiration was always Maude Gonne so this poem is dedicated to her. Moreover, he expresses his full and unconditional love for her even though she has grown old.

Visual Imagery: “When you are old and gray and full of sleep and nodding by the fire;”  “And loved the sorrows of your changing face;” “And paced upon the mountains overhead
and hid his face among a crowd of stars”

Personification (in this case Maude Gonne as Love): “Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled and paced upon the mountains overhead and hid his face among a crowd of stars.”


1 comentario

  1. Some psts make you smile, some posts make you feel sad, this particular one made me think,
    and that is the best.


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