The Poetry of Dylan Thomas

Dylan-thomas

Dylan Thomas, oil on canvas, by Augustus John, 1938.

THE POETRY OF DYLAN THOMAS

(with particular focus on ‘Fern Hill’ and ‘A Refusal to Mourn’)

Dylan Thomas’s poetry has always attracted diverging views, attracting some readers and repelling others.  In certain ways he is the last of the Romantic poets, and like most poets in that tradition he liked to experiment with words.  He was perhaps the only modern poet to experiment persistently, hence the bewilderment of his audience when his early poems were published in the mid-1930’s.

The poetry of the twentieth century can be divided roughly into two main categories.  There is, first of all, the tradition established by Yeats and Eliot which attempted to comment on and influence major social issues in an effort to bring about reforms.  Yeats’ ‘September 1913’ and Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ (1922), are two good examples of this tradition.  Both poets express similar attitudes, namely disgust at the degeneracy of modern life, and both poets advocate a return to past virtues as a means of displacing society’s unpleasant aspects.  For Eliot and Yeats therefore, a significant aspect of a poet’s role was that of social commentator, and with them a tradition was established which continued to be a dominant one throughout the first half of the twentieth century.

The poetry of Dylan Thomas, however, diverges sharply from this tradition and to a large extent he remains outside it.  His poems had so little of the realism of Eliot and Yeats that they took the contemporary literary scene by storm.  Being at heart a Romantic poet, Dylan Thomas preferred to write poems that were completely devoid of social issues and unlike Yeats and Eliot he did not feel the urge to reform the world.  Modern poets in general had come through the Great War with a new sense of function and responsibility.  This sense of conviction, of important work to do in a political or social context, is completely lacking in the works of Dylan Thomas.  Indeed, this lack of an urgent poetic content seemed naive to many early readers, particularly at a time when Europe had emerged tragically from one World War, and seemed likely to get entangled in another.  In ‘Fern Hill’, for example, Dylan Thomas describes his memories of childhood in Wales in the years after the Great War.  The picture he creates, however, is so beautiful and idyllic as to be almost unreal.  The real Wales of the time, many early critics suggested, was in sharp contrast to that described in the poem.

Similarly in ‘A Refusal to Mourn’, a poem which describes the death of a child killed in an air-raid, no reference is made to the terrible atrocities of war.  ‘Fern Hill’ was also criticised in other respects.  Besides its lack of serious content there was the more serious charge of a complete lack of meaning.  Indeed, like much of his poetry, ‘Fern Hill’ was strongly criticised as being almost totally obscure.  Thomas himself realised the problem his poetry in general, and ‘Fern Hill’ in particular, presented to readers.  He remarked how his poems were always rigorously compressed, being ‘as tight packed as a mad doctor’s bag’.  The poet and critic Geoffrey Grigson, who published Thomas’s early work in his influential magazine, New Verse, (where he also published W.H. Auden and Louis McNeice), and who recognised Thomas’s promise was one of the first to comment on its obscurity.  He attacked Thomas for his neglect of a continuous line of meaning, for his use of ‘towering phrases’ which imply so much but say very little, and for his tendency to be ‘over-fantastic’ and obscure.

To understand the poetry of Dylan Thomas one must consider him as a modern exponent of the Romantic tradition.  Indeed, it is only in the context of this tradition that one can really characterise his particular method and identify his major themes.  Throughout the first half of the twentieth century Romantic poetry was steadily in decline.  Eliot, in particular, had dismissed all poetry in the Romantic tradition as obsolete and unacceptable in a modern context.  In its stead he substituted a new urban poetry which is so often full of depression, anger and despair (e.g. ‘The Love song of J. Alfred Prufrock’).  Dylan Thomas, however, completely rejected the modern mode of expression, and returned instead to the Romantic poets for his principal themes and his characteristic method.  Whereas Eliot and Yeats describe a world which is often dark and depressing, Dylan Thomas reaffirms a personal faith in life.  His poetry is subsequently filled with a sense of joy and optimism.

Dylan Thomas’s working life as a poet lasted a little over twenty years but the most extraordinary thing about it was how much of the foundations were laid down in a very short period towards the beginning.  He was writing profusely in his early teens and when he was seventeen he began work on some of the poems for which he is still remembered.  Between the years 1931 and 1935 he drafted, and in many cases actually completed, most of his best poems.  In other words he had already created the most important parts of his work by the age of twenty-one.  Despite his basic differences with T.S. Eliot, he adopted Eliot’s habit of rejecting nothing, and lines or sections that were unsustainable or unsuitable for one poem often found their way into another.  Years later he still continued to draw on material from his adolescent notebooks.  Indeed, out of these notebooks and casual jottings grew the most famous poems he published in his lifetime and those for which he is remembered after his untimely death.  He composed by selecting the best expressions from his notebooks, reordering and perfecting them until he was satisfied with their sequence.

‘Fern Hill’ and ‘A Refusal to Mourn’ are typical examples of Dylan Thomas’s poetic method.  Both poems depend on a common Romantic assumption that the natural world is self-explanatory: things die and are born again in a constant process of death and renewal.  We notice, therefore, how nature is often strongly incorporated into his poems.  In a letter dated March 1935 he speaks of how his, ‘pre-conceived symbolism derived from the cosmic significance of nature’.  Thus, both ‘Fern Hill’ and ‘A Refusal to Mourn’ are overlaid with a strong natural imagery.  He is particularly attracted to natural images, which suggest youth and vitality, but we also find him returning constantly to ideas of transience and death.  Indeed, throughout his poetic career he remained haunted by the reality of death, and perhaps his chief contribution to English poetry was his sustained vision that life and death form part of a great process shared by all created things.  Both ‘Fern Hill’ and ‘A Refusal to Mourn’ begin with the assumption that we start to die from the moment we are born, even indeed from the moment we are conceived.  This continuous process of dying extends to all living things.  The entire thought of ‘Fern Hill’ is based on this idea, though it does not become explicit until the final stanza:

                   Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,

                   Time held me green and dying

                   Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

In ‘A Refusal to Mourn’ the theme of death is seen in a slightly different context as the poet surmises on the probability of another existence.  Here he suggests that the world into which we are born and in which we die is not the final world; that there is another existence on the other side of things.  Again he expresses his ideas through use of comparisons with natural things.  Nature ‘dies’ each year and renews itself with the return of every spring; but for man there is only one death, ‘After the first death there is no other’.  Yet this realisation of the eternal presence of death does not allow the poet to grieve over the dead child, or to encourage false sentiments by a vain display of tears.  This poem is not so much a discussion of the child’s death, as a presentation of Thomas’s attitude to the idea of death in general.  He thinks of death as a slow, relentless process, rather than as a sudden pathetic end to life.  This process of destruction extends to all living things and he sees no reason to mourn when the process is finally completed.

The poem begins with a great statement as befits some good, cosmic occasion.  The first two stanzas, and the first line of the third, are one sentence with the skeleton grammar: ‘Till doomsday I will not mourn for the dead child’.  Darkness is described as making mankind, ‘fathering’ birds etc.. and ‘humbling’ all.  As such it is more than a personification of death: it is unknown, undeveloped nature from which all life comes and to which it will eventually return.  One critic suggests that darkness might also refer to God the Father who is described in the Book of Genesis as making the world out of nothing.  Water is always used in Thomas’s poetry as a fundamental life-giver.  Here it is joined with the reference to corn and behind each is the idea of change and transformation.  Corn was said by St. Paul to die in the ground before it receives the rain whereby it sprouts again.  In this manner it is transformed into a more perfect element.  The general theme of the poem is clear: all people, no less than this young girl, are transformed by death into more perfect states, and the whole process of dying is a natural precondition for this transformation.  Throughout the poem ordinary words are used to suggest mystic processes: ‘The majesty and burning of the child’s death’; ‘The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother’.  Behind this poem is the biblical idea of death as a change of life rather than as an end of it.  In the final stanza, therefore, we are given a great image of the relentless continuance of life as the Thames, bearing the young girl’s spirit, flows away to the sea.

In ‘Fern Hill’ the emphasis is on life rather than on death, yet we see how the pervasive presence of nature is a dominant feature of this poem also.  From the beginning of the poem the boy’s experiences are described in terms of natural images and his simple vitality is seen as a gift of nature soon to be withdrawn.  Phrases like ‘all the sun long, all the moon long’, show how the child measured time by nature , not by the clock, and how each day seems a long savouring of experience.  As the poem progresses, however, the facts of time become more insistent and the pathos of transience can no longer be ignored, ‘The children green and golden / Follow him out of grace’; ‘And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land’.  The lack of grammar in these stanzas makes them appear, as in Chapter 1 of James Joyce’s, Portrait of the Artist, as if part of a dream-like reflection.  This nostalgic emphasis on childhood is yet another dominant feature of Romantic poetry.  In one of his most famous poems Wordsworth wrote that, ‘Heaven lies about us in our infancy’, an idea to which Dylan Thomas also subscribed.

Wonderfully rich in visual imagery, the words of ‘Fern Hill’ combine together in highly original ways to picture the joyful exhilaration of a child.  This can be the cause of some confusion for readers.  Striking phrases like , ‘happy as the grass was green’, ‘prince of the apple-towns’, or ‘at my sky-blue trades’, are surprising by their novelty and at first it is difficult to be sure what effects are intended.  These unusual images are evocative rather than precise: their purpose is to create a strong emotional atmosphere.  Dylan Thomas deliberately uses all his poetic powers to combine in one image a wider range of associations.  Being essentially a Romantic poet, he is trying to communicate an experience, which is almost beyond expression.  In the repetitions, ‘it is lovely’, ‘it is air / And playing lovely, and watery…’, he seems to be straining after an ecstasy which can never be completely expressed in words.  He is celebrating the divine innocence of childhood which, for him, is a mystery almost beyond analysis.

The second stanza reminds us how for a child roaming the countryside, time moves slowly through long mornings of pleasure.  But much more than this is implied.  The noise of water passing over the pebbles is like Church bells calling the boy to worship.  Dylan Thomas is aware of the power of time but instead of becoming melancholy he sees the joy of his childhood as something for which to be thankful, being itself part of the wonder of creation.  Instead of giving way to regrets he rejoices in what has been.  Thus, the boy’s emotions transform every object he sees: ‘the lilting house’, ‘happy yard’, ‘gay house’.  He is, ‘honoured among foxes and pheasants’, an integral part of all natural things.  But he also achieves an exalted state: he is a ‘prince’, ‘honoured’ and ‘lordly’.  Lines such as ‘the big fields high as a house’ evoke a sense of abundance, of a world of plenty, of which the boy’s youthful joy is but a part.

These expressions of mystery and wonder reach a climax in stanza four.  When he awakes in the morning, the farm appears like the Garden of Eden, a revelation of earthly innocence.  It is typical of Thomas that this awareness is expressed in religious terms:

                   And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white

                   With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all

                   Shining, it was Adam and maiden,

                   The sky gathered again

                   And the sun grew round that very day.

From the beginning of the poem the boy’s simple vitality is seen as a gift of time to be withdrawn.  The final image of the sea repeats the previous evocations of energy and abundance; but like the child it too is confined and restricted in its range by natural forces.

An important characteristic of ‘Fern Hill’ is the manner in which Dylan Thomas develops his ideas through imagery, verbal repetition, and other stylistic devices.  The prose meaning of his poems – their paraphrasable content – is usually simple.  What is difficult, however, is their verbal texture.  In his prose writings he has stressed the importance of metaphor in his poetry, which often causes difficulties of interpretation to arise.  In one of his few statements on his own poems he describes his peculiar method of composition with particular regard to his use of imagery:

‘A poem by itself needs a host of images.  I make sure – though ‘make’ is not the word; I let, perhaps an image be ‘made’ emotionally in me and then apply to it what intellectual and critical forces I possess; I let it breed another, let that image contradict the first; make of the third image bred out of the other two together, a fourth contradictory image and let them all conflict within my imposed formal limits.  The life of any poem of mine cannot move out of the centre; an image must be born and die in another; and any sequence of my images must be a sequence of creations, recreations, destructions, contradictions…’

This concept of the image determines the construction of ‘Fern Hill’.  Sequences of images are linked together without the relationship imposed by ordinary syntax, so as to provide a uniquely original form of poetry.  Words are arranged in terms of their musical effects, and individual stanzas abound with references to music.  In ‘Fern Hill’ these references are numerous, ‘the lilting house’, ‘singing as the farm was home’, ‘the Sabbath rang slowly’, ‘the tunes from chimneys’, ‘it was air / and playing’, ‘all his tuneful turning’, ‘I sang in my chains like the sea’.  The opening stanza expresses the poet’s experiences clearly.  Music, as conceived by the Romantics, is identified with nature.  Words are listed for their sound properties and are densely woven into poetic rhythms.  To these, also, are added colours suggestive of youth and vitality, ‘green’, ‘golden’, ‘white’, ‘blue’.

One of the secrets of Dylan Thomas’s strongly personal style then was his discovery of unsuspected variables in English – again like James Joyce in Ulysses.  Thus, he would write ‘all the sun long’ instead of ‘all day’, ‘once below a time’ instead of ‘once upon a time’, ‘all the moon long’ instead of ‘all night’.  The change to ‘Adam and maiden’ instead of ‘Adam and Eve’ is particularly significant with the connotation of innocence and purity that the first phrase brings.  This gift for revitalising common, general statement was to remain with Thomas all his life.  Indeed, only the great Gerard Manley Hopkins shows a comparable talent for finding similar rich possibilities in worn-out words and phrases.

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Study Notes on the Poetry of W.B. Yeats

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THIS IS A PERSONAL REVIEW OF SOME THEMES AND ISSUES WHICH FEATURE IN THE POETRY OF W.B. YEATS. YOU SHOULD CONSIDER THESE IDEAS, THEN RE-EXAMINE THE POEMS MENTIONED FOR EVIDENCE TO SUBSTANTIATE OR CONTRADICT THESE INTERPRETATIONS.  IN OTHER WORDS MAKE YOUR OWN OF THESE NOTES, ADD TO THEM OR DELETE FROM THEM AS YOU SEE FIT.

 THE FOLLOWING SELECTION IS SUGGESTED BECAUSE THEY DEAL WITH THE MAJOR THEMES WHICH RECUR IN YEATS’ POETRY: ‘SEPTEMBER 1913’, ‘EASTER 1916’, ‘SAILING TO BYZANTIUM’, ‘THE SECOND COMING’, ‘IN MEMORY OF EVA GORE-BOOTH AND CON MARKIEWICZ’, ‘THE WILD SWANS AT COOLE’, ‘A STARE’S NEST BY MY WINDOW’, ‘THE LAKE ISLE OF INNISFREE’.

HE SAID HIMSELF THAT HIS POETRY WAS ‘BUT THE CONSTANT STITCHING AND RESTITCHING OF OLD THEMES’.  CHECK THIS OUT FOR YOURSELF!  

 YOUR AIM SHOULD BE TO PICK YOUR OWN FAVOURITES FROM THIS SELECTION AND GET TO KNOW THEM VERY WELL. 

YEATS AND THE NATIONAL QUESTION

Among the issues explored by the poet are:

  •    The heroic past; patriots are risk-takers, rebels, self-sacrificing idealists who are capable of all that ‘delirium of the brave’ (see ‘September 1913’).
  •    How heroes are created, how ordinary people are changed (‘Easter 1916’).
  •    The place of violence in the process of political change; the paradox of the ‘terrible beauty’ (see ‘September 1913’, ‘Easter 1916’).
  •    The place of ‘fanaticism’ and the human effects of it – the ‘stone of the heart’ (see ‘Easter 1916’, ‘September 1913’).
  •    The force of political passion (see ‘Easter 1916’).

YEATS’S NOTIONS OF THE IDEAL SOCIETY 

  • The vital contribution that both the aristocracy and artists make to society; the importance of the Anglo-Irish tradition in Irish society (see ‘September 1913’, ‘In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz’).
  • His contempt for the new middle class and the new materialism (see ‘September 1913’).
  • Aesthetic values and the place of art in society (see ‘Sailing to Byzantium’)
  • The yearnings for order and the fear of anarchy (see ‘The Second Coming’).
  • His views on the proper contribution of women to society (see ‘Easter 1916’).

THEORIES OF HISTORY, TIME AND CHANGE

  •  His notion of thousand-year eras, ‘gyres’, etc. (see ‘The Second Coming’).
  •  The world and its people in constant change and flux (see ‘The Second Coming’, ‘Easter 1916’).
  • Personal ageing, the transience of humanity (see ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’, ‘Sailing to Byzantium’).
  • The yearning for changelessness and immortality (see ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’, ‘Sailing to Byzantium’).
  • The timelessness of art, or the possibility of it (see ‘Sailing to Byzantium’).

 CONFLICTS AT THE CENTRE OF THE HUMAN BEING

  • The conflict between physical desires and spiritual aspirations (see ‘Sailing to Byzantium’).

  • The quest for aesthetic satisfaction (see ‘Sailing to Byzantium’).

  • The search for wisdom and peace, which is not satisfied here (see ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’).
  • A persistent sense of loss or failure; loss of youth and passion (see ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’); the loss of poetic vision and insight (see ‘An Acre of Grass’).

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W. B. YEATS – AN OVERVIEW OF HIS POETRY

Two poets, one American, one Irish, dominated English Literature during the first half of the twentieth-century: T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats.  So powerful is Yeats’s distinctive poetic voice that his poetry has been described as ‘magisterial’, ‘authoritative’, ‘commanding’, ‘formidable’, ‘compelling’, ‘direct’, ‘exhilarating’, and even ‘overbearing’.  Before he died Yeats arranged for an epitaph to be cut in stone ‘by his command’ – and as Seamus Heaney has pointed out ‘command’ is the operative word here!  But there is also in Yeats the voice of the dreamer, the idealist.  We see it in ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’, which he began when he was twenty-three.  The life imagined on Innisfree is simple, beautiful and unrealistic and this longing for the ideal is also found in the sixty-one year old Yeats when he sails in his imagination, to Byzantium.

Yeats (like Joyce and others) lived in a time of extraordinary change.  A world war was fought and Ireland fought for and attained its Independence and went through the scourge of civil war; his poetry charts the political turmoil of those times.  Yeats writes about aspects of his private and his public life and sometimes those two aspects of his life overlap.  He is a public poet in a poem such as ‘September 1913’, where he becomes a self-elected spokesman in his condemnation of small-mindedness and the absence of vision.  He played a public role, was committed to Ireland (he refused a knighthood in 1915) and was made a Senator in 1922; one of his early ambitions says Michael Schmidt, was ‘to reconcile the courteous Protestant heritage with the martyred, unmannerly Roman Catholic tradition in Ireland towards a political end’.  In ‘In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz’ he touches on these themes.  ‘All his life’, writes Augustine Martin, ‘Yeats sought for a harmonious way of life as well as a perfect form of art and he re-invents himself several times during the course of his life and work’.

While it is obvious to us, having studied a selection of his poems, that many similar themes recur in his poetry, it is also evident that he rarely repeated himself.  In Irish Classics, Professor Declan Kiberd identifies this aspect of Yeats’s poetry and comments: ‘The greatness of Yeats lay in his constant capacity to adjust to ever-changing conditions….As the years passed, he grew simpler in expression, using shorter lines dominated by monosyllables, with more nouns and fewer adjectives.  He said himself that a poet should think like a wise man, but express himself as one of the common people’.

Poets frequently write on similar themes.  (Need I mention David Gray?  Morrissey? Eva Cassidy even?).  When he writes about nationalism, his preoccupation with the passing of time and the reality of growing old, his belief in the extraordinary power of art, it could be said that these themes are not startlingly unusual, but it is the way he writes on such topics that makes him unique.

Imagery, especially his use of symbol, is another striking aspect of his work.  Powerful, memorable images remain with the reader, such as the ‘purple glow’ of noon; the fumbling in ‘a greasy till’; ‘the hangman’s rope’; the nine-and-fifty swans ‘Upon the brimming water’ and the ‘bell-beat of their wings’; the stone in the midst of’ the living stream’; a creature ‘somewhere in sands of the desert / A shape with lion body and the head of a man’; ‘sages standing in god’s holy fire’; ‘the bees build in the crevices / Of loosening masonry’; ‘Two girls in silk kimonos’, etc., etc.

In ‘Under Ben Bulben’, written five months before he died, he praised the well-made poem and scorned and condemned the shapeless, badly made one.  All his life he valued form and his mastery of rhythm, rhyme and the stanza are testimony to this.  Yeats is intensely personal: he names names and writes about events and happenings that are recorded in newspapers and history books, but he knew that ‘all that is personal soon rots, it must be packed in ice and salt’.  His poems speak to us with great immediacy and directness but they do so in elaborate and musical forms.

‘My poetry is generally written out of despair’ says Yeats.  As he grew older, he searched for ways to overcome his weakening body.  He raged against old age, wrote about it with great honesty and accepted the inevitability of death.  His poetry reminds us of the immortality of art, that ‘Man can embody truth but cannot know it’ and that ‘we begin to live when we have conceived life as a tragedy’.

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SAMPLE ANSWER

 ‘Yeats’s poetry examines a powerful series of tensions between youth and age, and order and chaos.’  Discuss this statement and use a selection of poems from your course to support your answer.

I fully agree with this assessment of Yeats’s work.  Indeed, it is easy to find evidence for the opinion that he is ‘a poet of opposites’.  His poetry explores many diverse conflicts at both a personal and national level.  One of the strongest impressions created by his poetry is that of searching.  Sometimes he searches for a means of escape, sometimes for a solution, but the presence of numerous rhetorical questions throughout his poetry reveals a man who was sensitive to the world around him, encountered it with intellectual vigour while remaining true to his heart.

One of the major conflicts in his work is that of youth and age.  Yeats can become melancholic in his awareness of life’s brevity as we see in ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ where he reflects rather dolefully that ‘The nineteenth autumn has come upon me’.  Time refuses to stand still for a poet who realises that ‘All’s changed since ….  Trod with a lighter tread’ along the autumnal shores of the lake at Coole Park.  A similar acceptance of time’s inexorable progress occurs in ‘Easter 1916’ where horses, birds, clouds and streams ‘Minute by minute they change.’  In the opening stanza of ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ Yeats presents a dramatic affirmation of youth where the young are ‘in one another’s arms’ mesmerised by the ‘sensual music’ of love.  This poem establishes powerful conflicting claims between the younger generations who live in the sensual world and the more sedate singing of the old scarecrow, reincarnated into an eternal art form of the golden bird.  The bird has transcended the decay and infirmities of the transitory world; it may claim to be superior to the ‘Fish, flesh, or fowl’ who have been ‘begotten, born’ but must also die.  However, the rather cold, mechanical song of the golden, immortal bird does not quite match the passionate, vibrant music of the young.  And yet, they too are the ‘dying generations’.  In ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ the old poet, a figure of fun in his own country, leaves the sensual world for the changeless world of Byzantium that is beyond time and passion.  His appeal is to be reincarnated.

A second significant conflict in Yeats’s work is that between order and chaos.  Yeats admired the aristocratic tradition in eighteenth-century Ireland.  The world of the Great House was aligned to his own sense of identity with that particular class.  He felt at home in Lady Gregory’s house at Coole Park and in his poem ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ he remembers in the opening stanza the tranquil, serene and orderly world of that eighteenth-century estate.  The graceful living of Lisadell is beautifully evoked in the opening images of ‘In memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markievicz’ as he describes ‘The light of evening, Lisadell, / Great windows open to the south, / Two girls in silk kimonos, both /Beautiful, one a gazelle’.  Using an image of nature, Yeats makes the transition from the refined, elegant youth of the girls to their turbulent adult lives when he says ‘a raving autumn shears / Blossoms from the summer’s wreath’.  The remainder of the poem seems to lament the passing of such an ideal world of youth in the women’s futile attempt to find ‘Some vague Utopia’ that aged their beauty until it was ‘skeleton-gaunt’.  The references to conflagration at the end of the poem point to the destruction of the traditional values that were cradled in places such as Lisadell.

In place of such values Yeats presents the birth of ‘mere anarchy’ in the poem ‘The Second Coming’.  This poem is a stark and terrifying vision of disintegrating social order and ominous evil that has been born and ‘loosed upon the world’.  Images of the ‘blood-dimmed tide’ and a ‘rough beast’ slouching towards Bethlehem show how troubled the poet is by the increasing violence and the annihilation of cultural and aristocratic values.  The conflict between order and chaos is the focus of more local manifestations of violence and murder in ‘A Stare’s nest by my Window’.  In the poem, which details the negative impact of civil war, the poet fights his own inner battle against chaos in calling for renewal, rebirth and regeneration in ‘the empty house of the stare’.  However, the hope of a return to some order is filled with ‘uncertainty’; the predominant images in the poem are of destruction where ‘A man is killed, or a house burned’.  The house could well have been a Lisadell or a Coole Park.

Yeats did attempt to resolve some conflicts in his poems but in many cases he had to accept that such a synthesis was not always possible let alone probable.  But he did remain in contact with the world, however imperfect it seemed, and encountered it with his complex temperament that could whisper of grace, youth and beauty or clamour against injustice, old-age and decay.  Perhaps we should be grateful that many conflicts were never resolved, for it was they that evoked his most difficult struggles and his most poignant poetry in granting him ‘an old man’s frenzy’.

 

An Overview of Yeats’s Poetry

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Two poets, one American, one Irish, dominated English Literature during the first half of the twentieth-century: T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats.  So powerful is Yeats’s distinctive poetic voice that his poetry has been described as ‘magisterial’, ‘authoritative’, ‘commanding’, ‘formidable’, ‘compelling’, ‘direct’, ‘exhilarating’, and even ‘overbearing’.  Before he died Yeats arranged for an epitaph to be cut in stone ‘by his command’ – and as Seamus Heaney has pointed out ‘command’ is the operative word here!  But there is also in Yeats the voice of the dreamer, the idealist.  We see it in ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’, which he began when he was twenty-three.  The life imagined on Innisfree is simple, beautiful and unrealistic and this longing for the ideal is also found in the sixty-one year old Yeats when he sails in his imagination, to Byzantium.

Yeats (like Joyce) lived in a time of extraordinary change.  A world war was fought and Ireland fought for and attained its Independence and went through the scourge of the Civil War; his poetry charts the political turmoil of those times.  Yeats writes about aspects of his private and his public life and sometimes those two aspects of his life overlap.  He is a public poet in a poem such as ‘September 1913’, where he becomes a self-elected spokesman in his condemnation of small-mindedness and the absence of vision.  He played a public role, was committed to Ireland (he refused a knighthood in 1915) and was made a Senator in 1922; one of his early ambitions says Michael Schmidt, was, ‘to reconcile the courteous Protestant heritage with the martyred, unmannerly Roman Catholic tradition in Ireland towards a political end’.  In ‘In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz’ he touches on these themes.  ‘All his life’, writes Augustine Martin, ‘Yeats sought for a harmonious way of life as well as a perfect form of art and he re-invents himself several times during the course of his life and work’.

While it is obvious, having studied a selection of his poems, that many similar themes recur in his poetry, it is also evident that he rarely repeated himself.  In Irish Classics, Professor Declan Kiberd identifies this aspect of Yeats’s poetry and comments:

‘The greatness of Yeats lay in his constant capacity to adjust to ever-changing conditions….As the years passed, he grew simpler in expression, using shorter lines dominated by monosyllables, with more nouns and fewer adjectives.  He said himself that a poet should think like a wise man, but express himself as one of the common people’.

Our poets and songwriters frequently write repeating similar themes and styles.  (Need I mention David Gray?  Eva Cassidy? Morrissey even!).  When Yeats writes about nationalism, his preoccupation with the passing of time and the reality of growing old, his belief in the extraordinary power of art, it could be said that these themes are not startlingly unusual, but it is the way he writes on such topics that makes him unique.  He once described this process memorably as, ‘the stitching and unsticthing’ of old themes.

Imagery, especially his use of symbol, is another striking aspect of his work.  Powerful, memorable images remain with the reader, such as the ‘purple glow’ of noon; the fumbling in ‘a greasy till’; ‘the hangman’s rope’; the nine-and-fifty swans ‘Upon the brimming water’ and the ‘bell-beat of their wings’; the stone in the midst of ‘the living stream’; a creature ‘somewhere in sands of the desert / A shape with lion body and the head of a man’; ‘sages standing in God’s holy fire’; ‘the bees build in the crevices / Of loosening masonry’; ‘Two girls in silk kimonos’, etc., etc.

In ‘Under Ben Bulben’, written five months before he died, he praised the well-made poem and scorned and condemned the shapeless, badly made one.  All his life he valued form and his mastery of rhythm, rhyme and the stanza are testimony to this.  Yeats is intensely personal: he names names and writes about events and happenings that are recorded in newspapers and history books, but he knew that ‘all that is personal soon rots, it must be packed in ice and salt’.  His poems speak to us with great immediacy and directness but they do so in elaborate and musical forms.

‘My poetry is generally written out of despair’ says Yeats.  As he grew older, he searched for ways to overcome his weakening body.  He raged against old age, wrote about it with great honesty and accepted the inevitability of death.  His poetry reminds us of the immortality of art, that ‘Man can embody truth but cannot know it’ and that ‘we begin to live when we have conceived life as a tragedy’.

 

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