Yeats – Literary Criticism

Literary Criticism of W.B. Yeats


“…the nervous romantic sighing through the reeds in the ‘eighties and ‘nineties and the worldly realist plain speaking of the ‘twenties; we have the business man founding and directing the Abbey Theatre in the broad day, the wan young Celt haunting the twilight, and the occultist performing nocturnal incantations; we can choose between the dignified Nobel Prize winner and Senator of the Irish Free State and their successors, the libidinous old man and the translator of the Upanishads.”


Richard Ellmann – Yeats: The Man and the Masks 1948


“Although Kavanagh argues that Yeats was much more a product of urban English culture than of rural Irish culture, critics in the 1960s began to wonder whether Yeats did not belong to Sligo after all – or at least County Sligo as it was in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.”
Michael Faherty – The Poetry of W B Yeats 2005


“It soon became clear to Yeats that the poetic tradition as it was being passed on to him through Ferguson and O’Grady was more of a middle-class English literary tradition than an Irish folk tradition and that his source would have to be the folk themselves rather than the collections currently available.”
Michael Faherty – The Poetry of W B Yeats 2005


“What Yeats had managed to do, in both his revivalist and postrevivalist years, was to persuade his readers that Irishness had something to do with a hatred of the modern world, especially as it had expressed itself in England during the Enlightenment and the subsequent Industrial Revolution.”

Michael Faherty – The Poetry of W B Yeats 2005


“The Big House surrounded by the unruly tenantry, Culture besieged by barbarity, a refined aristocracy beset by a vulgar middleclass – all of these are recurrent images in twentieth-century Irish fiction which draws heavily on Yeat’s poetry for them.”


Seamus Deane – Celtic Revivals 1985


“All his ideas and images of tradition and communion are predicated on the idea of spiritual loneliness. Even when he sees himself as being in some sense the inheritor of Young Ireland, he envisages the crisis of his own times as one in which the individual is liberated from conformity, in which the lonely aristocratic spirit can only survive because it lives within an organic community.”
Michael Faherty – The Poetry of W B Yeats 2005

They do not know what is at stake;

It is myself that I remake.


W. B. Yeats – Epigraph to Collected works 1908


“Mr Yeats has brought a new music upon the harp, and that one man seldom leads two movements to triumph, and that it is quite enough that he should have brought in the sound of keening and the skirl of the Irish ballads, and driven out the sentimental cadence with memories of the County of Mayo…

…Mr Yeats is so assuredly an immortal that there is no need for him to recast his style to suit our winds of doctrine; and that, all these things being so, there is nevertheless a manifestly new note in his later work that they might do worse to attend to. Is Mr Yeats an Imagiste? No, Mr Yeats is a symbolist, but he has written des images as have many good poets before him.”


Ezra Pound – The Later Years 1914



“Racine, Moliere, Congreve and Swift ask us to be interested in what they have made, Musset, Byron and Wordsworth ask us to be interested in themselves. And they ask us to be interested in themselves by virtue of the intrinsic value of the individual: they vindicate the rights of the individual against the claims of society as a whole – against government, morals, conventions, academy or church. The Romantic is nearly always a rebel.”


Edmund Wilson, Axel’s Castle – 1931


“…naturalism was simply a temporary swing in the opposite direction, back to neo-classicism and its interest in society and its belief in scientific objectivity. That only led, of course, to another swing of the pendulum and another romantic rebellion – or the movement that is usually called symbolism. However… this second rebellion was quite distinct from the first. While the Romantics rebelled by going out into the world and trying to discover something other than the middle-class society they had rejected, the symbolists simply shut their doors and pretended it did not exist.”
Michael Faherty – The Poetry of W B Yeats 2005



“Symbolism corresponds to Romanticism, and is in fact an outgrowth from it. But whereas it was characteristic of the Romantics to seek experience for its own sake – love, travel, politics – to try the possibilities of life; the Symbolists, though they also hate formulas, though they also discard conventions, carry on their experimentations in the field of literature alone; and thought they, too, are essentially explorers, explore only the possibilities of imagination and thought. And whereas the Romantic, in his individualism, has usually revolted against or defied that society with which he felt himself at odds, the Symbolist has detached himself from society and schools himself in indifference to it: he will cultivate his unique personal sensibility even beyond the point to which the Romantics did, but he will not assert his individual will – he will end by shifting the field of literature altogether… from an objective to a subjective world, from an experience shared with society to an experience savoured in solitude.”


Edmund Wilson, Axel’s Castle – 1931


“Romantic poets like Coleridge saw middle-class society as their enemy and attacked but, for symbolist poets like Yeats, that battle had been lost years ago. The poet no longer had a place in the modern industrial world so he simply withdrew from it, not fighting it or moaning about it but simply ignoring it as best he could.”
Michael Faherty – The Poetry of W B Yeats 2005



“…it is, though a poetry of withdrawal, both more subtle and more vital than any pure product of Victorian romanticism. We might, as bearing on the strength it was to Mr Yeats to be Irish, note further that with the Irish element in the poetry was associated a public and a practical aim. Early and long service in the cause of a national renaissance, and, above all, of a national theatre, might be expected to turn even a poet of the Victorian dream-world into something else; and Mr Yeats devoted to the Irish cause rare qualities of character and intelligence.”


F.R. Leavis – New Bearings in English Poetry – 1932


“The free, self-delighting intellect which knows that pain is the cost of its joy; the licence to look inward and paint …a symbolic world; to make a magical explanation of a divine order – all this represents the victory of Coleridge, of Blake and the French [Romantics]; it is the heritage, delightful and tragic, to which Yeats was born.”


Frank Kermode – Romantic Image – 1957


“Yeats, like Elliot later, came to believe in the necessary ‘impersonality’ of poetry, to believe that great poetry defines states of mind more permanent and universal than those conscious thoughts and feelings which are the expression of a single ‘personality’ in its passage amongst the accidental and the transient.”


C.K. Stead – The New Poetic 1964


“Pound, on reading the untitled last poem in Responsibilities, and especially the last lines – ‘till all my priceless things / Are but a post the passing dogs defile’ – remarked that Yeats had at last become a modern poet. An image of urination had finally brought Pound [to this conclusion]”


Richard Ellmann – Eminent Domain – 1967


“Yeats fails, rather spectacularly, to modernise, trying far too hard to fit the expressions of everyday speech into a traditional lyric form. Yeats simply plans too much and thinks too much, turning what could be an authentic, even if somewhat untidy, cry from the heart into what Stead calls a ‘cold poem’. And it was precisely this need to tidy things up, to come to some conclusion about the subjects of his poems before he actually wrote them, that prevented Yeats from taking that further step, from being merely modern to becoming open-form modernist.”
Michael Faherty – The Poetry of W B Yeats 2005


“His thought was profoundly dialectical; for nearly every truth he made or found, he also embraced a counter-truth: a proposition that contradicted the first truth, was equally true and did not negate it.”


Marjorie Howes – Introduction to the Cambridge Companion to W B Yeats 2006


“Yeats consistently combined an immense need for revelation, for belief, with an intense and critical scepticism; this makes it difficult to determine exactly what he believed and when.”


Marjorie Howes – Introduction to the Cambridge Companion to W B Yeats 2006


“He brought his poetic language closer to ordinary speech in diction and syntax, and embraced more irregular rhythms and rhymes. Failure and struggle, both personal and political, are confronted directly and defiantly… Yeats’ poems continued to locate him increasingly in a contemporary, rather than a mythic, Ireland.”


Marjorie Howes – Introduction to the Cambridge Companion to W B Yeats 2006



“His repeated efforts to cultivate the detachment of the artist or the mockery of the observer who, aware of the historical cycles of the System, understands the futility of human endeavour, are countered by calls for sincere engagement… a determination to confront, without minimizing, the pain and uncertainty generated by turbulent and traumatic historical events.”


Marjorie Howes – Introduction to the Cambridge Companion to W B Yeats 2006


“…addresses to the imagination always served both country and humanity better than mere advancement of correct opinion”


George Bornstein – Yeats and Romanticism – 2006


“Yeats elaborated a set of antithetical values that would inform all of his work… sin, argumentative, utilitarianism, reason, efficiency, vulgar, success, commonplace, the mob, puritan merchant: all of these negative terms coalesce in the unceasing Yeatsian critique of the modern commercial and secular world, and its sterile art predicated on the ethical and the utilitarian.”


George Watson – “Yeats, Victorianism and the 1890s” – 2006


“He felt that the ethical and improving bent of Victorian literature, especially when vented in poetry, adulterated the essential business of art, which was to reveal timeless truths, and that its palpable design on its readers produced a banality of rhetoric rather than the beauty of rhythm and word that alone was conducive to vision.”


George Watson – “Yeats, Victorianism and the 1890s” – 2006



“For Auden and Elliot, Yeats was false: he wrote potent, unforgettable poetry without caring whether the content was good or evil, truth or error.”


Daniel Albright – Yeats & Modernism – 2006


“Again and again, Yeats flogs the modernist poets for their sloppiness of construction – “All out of shape from toe to top”– and flatness of diction. He never pretends to understand the concept of free verse; the best that he can say of an ametrical poem that he finds reasonably attractive… is that it seems like a brilliant improvisation that “has not got all the wine into the bowl” … Most of all Yeats despises the absence of metaphor, the dead plod, in advanced recent poetry: he even offers a little caricature of a Modernist poem: “It has sometimes seemed of late years… as if the poet could at any moment write a poem by recording the fortuitous scene or thought, perhaps it might be enough to put into some fashionable rhythm – “I am sitting in a chair, there are three dead flies on the corner of the ceiling””. Yeats denigrates this rejection of imagination.”


Daniel Albright – Yeats & Modernism – 2006


“And yet, one might venture to argue that there is not a single feature that Yeats ascribes to Modernist poetry that cannot be found in Yeats’ own poetry. Vulgar diction starts to intrude in the late 1930s… Much earlier there comes experiments with something like free verse… irregular line lengths… an iambic pulse unsteadied by extra syllables in odd positions… Modernist fortuitousness, dependency on casual observation… though Yeats will invariably take the scenery as a metaphor for his spiritual state.”


Daniel Albright – Yeats & Modernism – 2006


“Of course, if Modernism is defined as the art of fugitive urban junk – posters for last weeks cabaret singers ungluing in the rain, orange peels flushing into the sewers – Yeats is the least modernist of poets… Yeats attitude towards the pavements grey was contempt.”


Daniel Albright – Yeats & Modernism – 2006



“From a symbolist point of view – from Yeats’ point of view – the objective or realistic elements exist only in a sort of colourful wrapping paper that half disguises, half reveals the bright ineffabilities within.”


Daniel Albright – Yeats & Modernism – 2006



“Symbolist art is an aesthetic of striptease, an unveiling of something (intense, devastating) that can never be shown quite naked, lest the spectator perish from over-apprehension… The art work becomes the garment of shimmering gold, the erogenous zone beneath which some bulge of meaning makes itself felt.”


Daniel Albright – Yeats & Modernism – 2006


“Yeats is always happier with symbols drawn from the traditional stock of conventions than with symbols drawn from modern life. For Yeats, such fact-scenes as a man fishing behind the gas works could never align themselves properly with a myth, a meaning… It took a later generation of Modernists to savour the dissonance between fact and myth with full appreciation of the aesthetic possibilities.”


Daniel Albright – Yeats & Modernism – 2006



“Yeats fights Modernism as hard as he can, only to find himself acknowledging that he is Modernist to the marrow of his bones.”


Daniel Albright – Yeats & Modernism – 2006


  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: