*Yeats, William Butler
Yeats, William Butler
William Butler Yeats, though best known for his poems and plays, composed a significant body of essays and reviews illuminating his own work by applying his views concerning appropriate literary content and style to the work of other writers. His reviews cover half a century, beginning with a review of “The Poetry of Sir Samuel Ferguson” (1886) and concluding with one of “Poems: by Margot Ruddock with Prefatory Notes on the Author” (1936). They promoted Irish nationalism, the development of an Irish national theater, and the use of Irish folklore to develop a new and vigorous symbolism, among other subjects.
The essays primarily offer an expanded discussion of the attitudes found in his reviews, particularly the relationship Yeats felt existed between the supernatural or occult and literary symbolism. His essay “Magic” (1901) describes his participation in seances, and his belief that he could send and receive images telepathically. This ability, he felt, existed because all people are linked through the supernatural. He had briefly described a seance in “Invoking the Irish Fairies” (1892) to suggest that folklore was not just imaginative, but reflective of a storyteller’s connection to the occult. In “Symbolism in Painting” (1898) and the companion essay “The Symbolism of Poetry” (1900), he uses Jungian concepts of archetypes to explain why great poets and painters use symbols that have nearly universal effectiveness. He states in “The Philosophy of Shelley’s Poetry” (1900) that any writer sensitive to the supernatural will share “the sudden conviction that our little memories are but a part of some great Memory that renews the world and men’s thoughts age after age, and that our thoughts are not, as we suppose, the deep, but a little foam upon the deep.” The connection between artist and audience that makes symbolism resonate is explained, to Yeats, by our common link to the supernatural, not by genetics or other scientifically explainable means.
Yeats therefore preferred the Romantics and the symbolist writers to the Victorians, arguing in “The Symbolism of Poetry” that Tennyson was hobbled by “brooding over scientific opinion.” The Romantics, with their emphasis on nature for inspiration, were more sensitive to the occult forces that Yeats associated with forests, lakes, and other natural settings. He particularly admired Shelley and Blake, the latter as much for his painting as for his poetry. Shelley is a central example in “The Symbolism of Poetry,” as well as the focus of “The Philosophy of Shelley’s Poetry” and “Prometheus Unbound” (1932). Blake is examined in detail in “William Blake and the Imagination” (1897) and “William Blake and His Illustrations to The Divine Comedy” (1924). Blake also provides frequent illustrations for Yeats in many of his shorter reviews. Yeats credits both poets with forming their own mythology, and, as poet- philosophers, using this myth to explain matters gained through intuition, not taught through science. In “William Blake and the Imagination” he describes Blake as “a man crying out for a mythology, and trying to make one because he could not find one to his hand.” Yeats, of course, would also create his own mythology to provide a context for his symbols.
Among his contemporaries, Yeats most admired the symbolists and the Irish writers who were attempting to use Irish folklore to provide texture to their narrative poems. In “The Celtic Element in Literature” (1902) he associates folklore with an appreciation of nature. He argues that people close to nature are always aware of the supernatural, whereas people who rely on science and technology and live huddled in cities have lost their awareness of the occult. He credits the works of Standish O’Grady with first showing him how Irish folklore was a rich vein for inspiration. He describes in “A General Introduction for My Work” (1937) first discovering O’Grady’s work as a teenager. Yeats attempted to provide greater visibility for Irish writers in a series of four articles in the Bookman on Irish National Literature (July–October 1895). The essay “Poetry and Tradition” (1907), written on the occasion of the death of John O’Leary, is the most complete explanation of Yeats’ belief that he, and others, could reform Irish poetry by “keep[ing] unbroken the thread up to [Henry] Grattan which John O’Leary had put into our hands…” Grattan, as one of the founders of the Irish Parliament, represented the Irish nationalism that Yeats promoted as a source for inspiration.
The theater also fascinated Yeats. He argues in “The Theatre” (1899) that dramatic writers needed to use small, intimate theaters, and write plays for small, intellectually discriminating audiences. Such plays would not be successful in larger settings, but could build a loyal audience. In the same year he helped begin the Irish Literary Theatre, and became connected with the Abbey Theatre in 1904. Many of his review articles dealt with programs at the Abbey.
In his essays and reviews, Yeats’ style is direct and robust. In “The Symbolism of Poetry” Yeats notes that we have little record of what Shakespeare discussed when talking with other writers and actors, but that they must have talked about drama.
Writing, for Yeats, was an all-consuming passion, leaving no other suitable topics for discussion. His essays, therefore, tend to be polemical as he weaves his interests in art, poetry, drama, Irish nationalism, and the occult into interconnected patterns. For Yeats, an awareness of the supernatural was necessary for producing great works of literature, and such literature develops the national pride he promoted. He uses quotations extensively in his discussions; in many cases more than half the text of an essay is quoted examples. Yeats wrote in “The Symbolism of Poetry” that great writers “have had some philosophy, some criticism of their art; and it has often been this philosophy, or this criticism, that has evoked their most startling inspiration…” For readers interested in the inspiration of Yeats’ poems and plays, his essays are a valuable resource.
Born 13 June 1865 in Sandymount, County Dublin. Studied at Godolphin School, Hammersmith, London, 1875–80; Erasmus Smith School, Dublin, 1880–83; Metropolitan School of Art, Dublin, 1884–86; Royal Hibernian Academy School, 1886. Lived mainly in London, from 1887, spending part of each year in Ireland, 1890–1921.
Cofounder of the Rhymers’ Club, London, 1891, and member of the Yellow Book group; helped found the Irish Literary Society, London, 1891, and the National Literary Society, Dublin, 1892. Met Lady Gregory, 1896, and thereafter spent many of his summer holidays at her home in Sligo. Cofounder, with Lady Gregory, Edward Martyn, and George Moore, Irish Literary Theatre, 1899 (the Irish National Theatre Society at the
Abbey Theatre, Dublin, from 1904); director of the Abbey Theatre, 1905–39. Editor, Beltaine, 1899–1900, Samhain, 1901–08, and the Arrow, 1906–09. Lectured in the United States, 1903–04, 1913, 1919–20, and 1932. Married Georgiana Hyde-Lees, 1917: one daughter and one son. Lived in Oxford, 1920–21, and Ireland, mainly Dublin, from 1922. Senator of the Irish Free State, 1922–28. Awards: Nobel Prize for Literature, 1923; honorary degrees from four universities. Died in Cap Martin, France, 28 January 1939.
Essays and Related Prose
Discoveries: A Volume of Essays, 1907
Poetry and Ireland: Essays, with Lionel Johnson, 1908
Essays (Collected Works 4), 1924
Essays 1931 to 1936, 1937
On the Boiler (essays and poetry), 1939
Essays and Introductions, 1961
Uncollected Prose, edited by John P.Frayne and Colton Johnson, 2 vols., 1970–76
Prefaces and Introductions: Uncollected Prefaces and Introductions by Yeats to Works by Other Authors and to Anthologies Edited by Yeats, edited by William H.O’Donnell, 1988
Vision Papers, edited by George Mills Harper and Mary Jane Harper, 3 vols., 1992
Writings on Irish Folklore, Legend and Myth, edited by Robert Welch, 1993
Later Essays (vol. 5 of The Collected Works), edited by William H. O’Donnell and Elizabeth Bergmann Loizeaux, 1994
Other writings: poetry, many plays, and correspondence (collected in The Collected Letters, edited by John Kelly and Eric Domville, 3 vols., 1986–94 [in progress]).
Collected works edition: The Collected Works, edited by Richard J. Finneran and George Mills Harper, 8 vols., 1989–94 (in progress).
Jochum, K.P.S., W.B.Yeats: A Classified Bibliography of Criticism, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990 (original edition, 1978)
Wade, Allan, A Bibliography of the Writings of Yeats, London: Hart-Davis, 1951; revised edition by Russell K.Alspach, 1968
Ellmann, Richard, Yeats: The Man and the Masks, New York: Norton, 1978; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979 (original edition, 1948)
Ellmann, Richard, The Identity of Yeats, New York: Oxford University Press, and London: Faber, 1964 (original edition, 1954)
Finneran, Richard J., editor, Critical Essays on W.B.Yeats, Boston: Hall, 1986
Gwynn, Stephen L., editor, Scattering Branches, New York and London: Macmillan, 1940; as William Butler Yeats: Essays in Tribute, Port Washington, New York: Kennikat Press, 1965
Hall, James, and Martin Steinmann, editors, The Permanence of Yeats, New York: Macmillan, 1950
Henn, Thomas R., The Lonely Tower: Studies in the Poetry of W. B.Yeats, London and New York: Methuen, 1979 (original edition, 1950)
Hone, Joseph M., W.B.Yeats, 1865–1939, London and New York: Macmillan, 1962 (original edition, 1942)
Jeffares, A.Norman, W.B.Yeats: Man and Poet, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996 (original edition, 1949)
Jeffares, A.Norman, A Commentary on the Collected Plays of W. B.Yeats, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, and London: Macmillan, 1975
Jeffares, A.Norman, A New Commentary on the Poems of W.B. Yeats, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, and London: Macmillan, 1984
Marcus, Phillip L., Yeats and the Beginntng of the Irish Renaissance, Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1987 (original edition, 1970)
O’Neili, Charles, “The Essay as Aesthetic Ritual: W.B.Yeats and Ideas of Good and Evil,” in Essays on the Essay: Redefining the Genre, edited by Alexander J.Butrym, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989
Skelton, Robin, and Ann Saddlemyer, editors, The World of W.B. Yeats: Essays in Perspective, Dublin: Dolmen Press, and Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1965
Tuohy, Frank, Yeats, London and New York: Macmillan, 1976
Whitaker, Thomas R., Swan and Shadow: Yeats’s Dialogue with History, Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1989 (original edition, 1964)
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