A master of the themes of nation, love and art
Yeats turned creative difficulty into opportunity at every turn
Published 09/05/2015 | 00:00
WB Yeats left a rich artistic legacy to Ireland and the world. Arguably the most significant poet of the twentieth century, Yeats lived at a pivotal period in Irish history and his poetry is inextricably linked to the struggle for national self-definition, both artistically and politically.
His immense creative energy was expressed not only in his poetry but also in his theatre work, occult interests and political engagement. These diverse yet interconnected passions are vital to an understanding of his poetry and shed light on the complex relationship between private and public realms in his work.
The material of Yeats's own life was from the start foundational to his creativity: from his long love affair with Maud Gonne to the physical infirmity of his old age, personal experience shaped the imaginative worlds of his poetry.
Born in 1865 to an artistic family, WB Yeats inherited the visual creativity of his father together with his mother's attachment to the landscape and stories of the West of Ireland. These were fused in the vivid and otherworldly power of early poems such as 'The Stolen Child' and 'The Song of Wandering Aengus'.
Yet already Yeats was beginning to think about the power of art to shape both individual and national experience. Myth and folklore were central to his understanding of the process of writing as both solitary and collaborative. His leadership role in the Irish Literary Revival intensified these links between personal and shared expression.
By the time Yeats had published his third collection, The Wind Among the Reeds (1899), his poetry was already beginning to change. Under the influence of his work with the Irish Literary Theatre and his friendship with modernist Ezra Pound, Yeats's poetic style would become sparer and his idiom closer to everyday speech. Yet rather than marking an essential change, this reflected the simplicity Yeats had always desired - "In my poetry I tried to keep to very simple emotions, to write the natural words, to write them in the natural order".
The demands of his many projects left less time for quiet composition, however, and Yeats's struggle to forge a new cultural identity for Ireland brought frustration at "the day's war with every knave and dolt".
Yet this irritation gave rise to the energetic work of Responsibilities (1914). Both at this time and later, Yeats would show how deftly he could turn creative difficulty into opportunity.
The years immediately following this publication were turbulent ones for Yeats. The Easter Rising both surprised and moved him, and his response to it is among his most famous poems. As well as capturing his own feelings, 'Easter, 1916' also reflects the care with which Yeats handled his treatment of controversial public events.
Yeats was now at a personal and artistic crossroads. His troubled relationship with Maud Gonne had yielded memorable love poems but left the poet without a settled existence, as he bitterly acknowledged - 'Although I have come close on forty-nine / I have no child, I have nothing but a book /Nothing but that to prove your blood and mine'.
This situation was soon to change, however. In 1917 Yeats married George Hyde-Lees, a woman 28 years his junior whom he had known for some years through occult circles. This decision, about which Yeats felt considerable apprehension, would revitalise his creative life.
While on honeymoon, George revealed her capacity as a spiritual medium. The 'automatic writing' that resulted would have a profound effect on Yeats's poetry. Through this creative collaboration the poet was able to reach a new understanding of the relationship between the individual life and the course of history.
These insights would be of crucial importance in the next phase of his artistic life when the violence of the civil war tested Yeats's views on the redemptive energies of revolution. His great sequence 'Meditations in Time of Civil War' demonstrates the reach of his moral vision and his capacity to combine political and personal themes by his innovative use of poetic form. His awareness of the historic implications of events in Ireland is combined here with his own immediate perspective on events, expressing the importance of the individual sensibility amidst the vast cycles of history.
Wracked with ill health and fears of his loss of vitality, Yeats's poetry in the last decade of his life contemplates the widening gap between physical strength and creative power. This work expresses his capacity to draw opposing impulses together without reducing their complexity; poems of philosophical depth can be found alongside work of easy sexual frankness.
Unusually, many of Yeats's greatest poems were written in old age, emphasising his ability to reinvent himself as a poet at the same time as he explored the key continuities of his life - his themes of nation, love and art itself.
Dr Lucy Collins is a lecturer at the UCD School of English