Yeats was an Irish poet of considerable renown and considerable talent. My familiarity with the man extends to a reading of an anthology spanning his life’s work. I’ll begin by conceding my own ignorance towards Irish mythology and cultural history which powerfully influence the context of many of Yeats’ poems. As such, I glided over those pieces indebted to the peculiarities of Irish history, and sought, instead, those which confronted universal truths and English sensibilities. Although this diminished the reservoir, the water was just as sweet.
The first poem I stumbled across was The Sad Shepherd, a tale of “a man whom Sorrow named his friend”. Now you might be thinking who but the most unfortunate of souls could be friends with Sorrow and you would be right, for the man portrayed in this poem meets a futile conclusion in his quest to pass his story to posterity, to impress himself onto nature. But nature, independent and free-willed as it is, moves forward indiscriminate of the tiny, ephemeral men which populate the world. A sad but real poem, I couldn’t help but learn the verse by heart, as every good poem deserves.
The title of another poem, The Coming of Wisdom with Time is also a great theme of Yeats. In many poems, the old are wise, the young, blustering. Yeats not only grants the elderly wisdom, but himself wisdom through the didactic words he imports. He confronts life, death, love – the typical, heavy topics of a man of letters – and returns to the reader with a verse or two in which to transfix them.
Though leaves are many, the root is one;
Through all the lying days of youth
I swayed my leaves and flowers in the sun;
Now I may wither into the truth.
There is in Yeats, something of the Romantics, a love of nature, of beauty, of emotion and the irrational. There is a deep yearning for a time long-gone not just in the poems of cultural history and mythology which are often his most celebrated, but in the remorse of old men and the nostalgia of First Love. It is that time old yearning for home, canonised in Homer’s Odyssey in which Odysseus makes a ten year journey to return to his home in Ithaca. Why would anyone make such a trip? What is so valuable about home? Yeats understands this most basic human feature, as well as he understands our foibles, showing, through verse, the majestic patriotism that comes with familiarity of the local and love of the home. It is impossible to read Yeats without an appreciation for his appreciation of the past. The present owes its existence to the past, the immediate and the ancient, our ancestors and nature itself, all of which has conspired to give us the grand landscape of the present. Yeats rejoiced in Irish history in all of its nuance, all of its local fables and lore which has given to Ireland much of its colour and jollity. All of this can be found in his most celebrated works, although I cannot help but feel they are undervalued by the Englishman writing this review through his own pitiful knowledge of local Irish culture and history.
I suppose I ought to pass judgement on the mastery of the structure, not just the content of the poems, albeit the least interesting aspect of a piece. Yeats is broad enough and experimental enough in his form, from short, one stanza poems to a series of pieces under the auspice of a grander poem. An equal range can be found in meter and structure of verse although Yeats is at his best when limited in both meter and length. He seems to have found much to profit from concision, and, true to the virtue, finds wisdom says more than it speaks.
The pitfall for an English reader are the occasional half- and non-rhymes which occur where they shouldn’t, a product of the difference in accent. Spilt Milk, an otherwise wonderful little verse, falls somewhat flat with the omission of rhyme,
We that have done and thought,
That have thought and done,
Must ramble, and thin out
Like milk spilt on a stone
Despite this, and my own ignorance of Irish folklore, it was a pleasant experience reading this anthology, and learning half a dozen of this great poet’s poems, which I will never forget, for more than a nugget of good grace and prudence can and must be mined from the literature of Yeats.