The Poetry of William Butler Yeats: An Essential Influence
A quick study of 3 classic poems becomes a revelatory experience
The work of Yeats is very important to me; though I don’t often go back and recite (probably, better for everyone!) well over 30 years ago, the purity of his poetic vision held me in awe (and endless impersonation). So this article is a very personal account of the influence that Ireland’s arguably greatest poet had on me. His linguistic expression affected my own style, while the subjects of his poetry – including the invocation of the legendary, of ancient Greece and Irish history – affected my own life and travels.
Briefly about William Butler…
W.B. Yeats (13 June 1865-28 January 1939) is a larger-than-life figure in Irish literature, poetry and theatre, whose life and work spanned the country’s seminal national political and literary awakening.
He was one of the key figures in this, and his role in the Abbey Theatre that highlighted Irish plays is mentioned as often as are his strong political vies and mysticism, which involved establishing a theosophical organization in Dublin in 1885, plus participation in séances. He took a vocal stance on the turbulence gripping revolutionary Ireland, yet as a true poet, never in a simplistic or obvious way. His themes included love, love lost, otherworldliness, aging and remembrance, and much that is still debated. Towards the end of his life, he even served in the Senate of the Irish Free State.
(De)Selecting the Poems- My Short List
In preparing for the podcast-that-was-not, I went through Yeats’ entire catalog, which is fortunately enough available in chronological order online. I wanted to avoid the most famous poems, such as “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” (1890), “Under Ben Bulben” (1939), “The Second Coming” (1920), or “Sailing to Byzantium” (1928), even if the last of these was probably partly what eventually had set me sailing for Byzantium (or at least, the Byzantine Studies program at Oxford). They say most of our decisions are irrational, don’t they? Poetry is more important than we think.
Instead, I scoured the catalog for a mix of old favorites and more overlooked gems, and I came down to a short list of six, out of which I would discuss three.
The poems can all be found on the Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats page on the California State University-Northridge website, in chronological order.
The first finalist, which I am too sentimental to overlook, is the very fine short lyric poem, “The Fall of the Leaves” from Yeats’ youthful 1889 collection, Crossways.
From the same collection was another formidable and long-beloved contender, “The Song of the Happy Shepherd,” which is distinguished by having one of the greatest opening lines of all poems (‘The woods of Arcady are dead, and over is their antique joy…’) I would have liked to do it but it was a bit long for me to read aloud comfortably, all technology and scrolling considered, and I thought I could only wreck it.
The second lucky winner from Yeats’ back catalog is the poem “At Galway Races,” from The Green Helmet and Other Poems (1910). A runner-up from this same collection was “No Second Troy,” which is much more famous. But it did not grab me as much, perhaps on account of it being so personal to the poet, whereas “At Galway Races” plays with more universal concepts.
Finalist number three was a historically- and politically-oriented poem, “The Rose Tree,” from Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1920). I chose this to feature over another contender from The Wild Swans at Coole (1919), “The Dawn.”
Of course, all the selected poems are now in the public domain in the UK, Ireland and US, and presumably everywhere, so I will carry on with featuring them here in print for the general educational purposes of this adventure.
Poem 1: “The Fall of the Leaves”- Pure Pop, Late 19th-century Style
What I always loved about this very short poem was its rhythm and the perfect balancing of the long and short syllables. It was obviously quite a favorite growing up, and its lovely yet melancholic air, so often repeated in Yeats, is his cautionary sense towards love.
Anyhow, here’s how the poem goes:
THE FALLING OF THE LEAVES
AUTUMN is over the long leaves that love us,
And over the mice in the barley sheaves;
Yellow the leaves of the rowan above us,
And yellow the wet wild-strawberry leaves.
The hour of the waning of love has beset us,
And weary and worn are our sad souls now;
Let us part, ere the season of passion forget us,
With a kiss and a tear on thy drooping brow.
I had always admired this poem for its perfect musicality, but re-reading it today made me consider that it was essentially an Irish folk song. In fact, I figured, I might as well just as well set it to music. It seemed to me that the poem was begging to be played in three-four time, and a simple major scale – perhaps, G Major – would perfect its melody.
Of course, this made me curious to see whether anyone had the same thought; and lo and behold, the wonders of YouTube reveal that a whole band and singer have set the poem to music- exactly as I had expected, in three-four and in the key of G Major. A small world!
Poem 2: “At Galway Races”- Not Really about the Track
I’ve long had a fondness for Galway and lately, I’ve developed a thing for Galway horse-racers. The latter comes from a so-called ‘throw-away’ comment in the beginning of the 1942 play Thirst by Flann O’Brien (Brian O’Nolan).
In any case, the fact of Yeats having produced a poem which seems to anticipate O’Brien’s own view of the eternal repetitions of life (as perfected in the hell he would craft in The Third Policeman, written in 1940 but published only after his death, in 1967) made it rather good timing to examine the poem. So here it is.
AT GALWAY RACES
THERE where the course is,
Delight makes all of the one mind,
The riders upon the galloping horses,
The crowd that closes in behind:
We, too, had good attendance once,
Hearers and hearteners of the work;
Aye, horsemen for companions,
Before the merchant and the clerk
Breathed on the world with timid breath.
Sing on: somewhere at some new moon,
We'll learn that sleeping is not death,
Hearing the whole earth change its tune,
Its flesh being wild, and it again
Crying aloud as the racecourse is,
And we find hearteners among men
That ride upon horses.
We first note the sophistication in the language, which twenty-odd years after Yeats’ first collection has become more experimental- and harder to orate. The sound of the line resembles its meaning, as with the great opening phrase: ‘There where the course is.’
It seems simple and yet it is hard to keep on the tongue- just like the circular track around which the horses are raced at ever-dizzier paces… and one can only imagine the pounding the hearts of the punters who put down bets on them all.
But the concepts become more serious than a mere day at the track. Yeats steps back in time with lines like ‘We, too, had good attendance once,/ Hearers and hearteners of the work…’
The conclusion is more vintage Yeats, with obscure and transformative image of a different world, yet perhaps one realizable here, or somewhere close to here. With poems like this, his esoteric side stands out, but is always sufficiently cloaked that he does not irritate with the obvious.
Poem 3: “The Rose Tree”- Martyrdom as a Form of Hydration
The third and last poem to scrutinize is 1920’s “The Rose Tree,” which is written in the form of a dialogue between two 1916 Easter Rising leaders Patrick Pearse and James Connolly.
While the poem is fairly simple, I wanted to keep it close for future research, as the conclusion may have been noted by O’Nolan in his writing of Thirst, in which the main character (a publican) recalls the great heat and ensuing thirst that gripped his British Army brigade while (allegedly) on the Mesopotamian Campaign in 1915. (This is a level of minutiae, I know, but it may bear fruit in the future course of research, much like the blood-soaked rose tree of the poem.
The poem is like this.
THE ROSE TREE
'O WORDS are lightly spoken,'
Said Pearse to Connolly,
'Maybe a breath of politic words
Has withered our Rose Tree;
Or maybe but a wind that blows
Across the bitter sea.'
'It needs to be but watered,'
James Connolly replied,
'To make the green come out again
And spread on every side,
And shake the blossom from the bud
To be the garden's pride.'
'But where can we draw water,'
Said Pearse to Connolly,
'When all the wells are parched away?
O plain as plain can be
There's nothing but our own red blood
Can make a right Rose Tree.'
Some Yeats-Related Travel Tips
As part of the enduring TLS effort to keep track of both literature and travel, I will conclude this essay with a few tips for travelers in Ireland seeking out traces of William Butler Yeats.
This neat article from the Ireland on a Budget blog has a selection of the poet’s “most beloved” places across the Emerald Isle, accompanied by photos.
The Yeats Society in Sligo, the site of so many of his great summers, also has a lot of information and is a must-visit place.
And of course, in the capital of Dublin, the VisitIreland site directs travelers to the National Library, which has the largest collection of Yeats’ works.
Wherever you may happen to be, I hope that the foregoing essay has contributed to your knowledge and enjoyment of one of the greatest poets the English language has ever seen. And the fact that all of his works are so easily available should be a reminder for all poetry-lovers to once again dip into the great river of his works.