The development of W.B. Yeats: "Early Poems" and a response to Louis MacNeice

by Anna Blanch on July 27, 2009

Louis MacNeice argues that a study of W.B Yeats’s development is a study in his self-rejuvenation. He argues that Yeats was influenced by Walter Pater in doctrine and practice, though he diverged from this as he matured as a poet. He observes that Yeats revised his poetry often in his later career, trying to endow his earlier poems with “strength and precision” in addition to dignity. He suggest that Yeats’s early poetry is in the Victorian tradition, particularly in the context of Keats and Shelley.

Even as Yeats drew upon traditional, literary, political, musical, or mythological associations in his choice of symbols, that the reader might do also to imbue their own meanings in reading his poetry, he stripped, or at least altered, some of those associations even as invoked. For example, the image of the Rose had strong implications of Christ in Medieval literature, and though Yeats invokes some of these associations in “The Rose upon the Rood of Time” Yeats intent was not to evoke a meditation on biblical theology. Similarly Yeats employs the “Tree of Life” as a symbol which equates with “the hazel-tree of ancient Irish Poetry” but denies any biblical association from having primacy (66). Yeats searched for a “highly ritualistic” religion, but rejected the ritualism of the institutional church (77). Yeats searched for a “highly ritualistic” religion, but rejected the ritualism of the institutional church (77). If, as MacNeice, and even Yeats himself, contends that poetry itself is Yeats’s religion, and the act of creation of poetry is a sacrament, while the study of form and aesthetics is worship in this system, the religion.

Yeats did, as Louis MacNeice suggests, utilise the symbols of Irish sagas in contexts alien of their factual – historical – circumstances. But, Yeats does this knowingly, for he relies upon the reader’s knowledge of those sagas to imbue the symbols with power on the basis of the associations made by readers. Similarly, while MacNeice finds it impossible to understand how Yeats can relate to “the people” while employing mythological symbolism. However, this argument involves a false assumption, that the mythology employed by Yeats was unfamiliar or foreign to his readers. In Dramatis Personae Yeats acknowledges that he actually underestimated the personal associations his Irish readers would make in reading his symbols:

“In using what I considered traditional symbols I forgot that in Ireland they
are not symbols but realities” (Dramatis Personae, 252).

MacNeice contends that, for Yeats, passion was incompatible with rhetoric (80). Indeed, it can be demonstrated in “Easter 1916” and “September 1913” that when rhetoric becomes imbued with a “passionate intensity” it becomes terrible. However, this shows that rhetoric can be incredibly powerful, that it can evoke extraordinary responses and compel individuals to exceed socially acceptable limitations. It would be more specifically correct to say that the kind of rhetoric Yeats admired was rhetoric in which images and symbols built upon one another to evoke ageless and permanent ideas, and the kind of passion which was “incompatible” with Yeats’s preferred rhetoric was a passion which corrupted or turned the most rational man or woman into an irrational and shrill sycophant.

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