Three Separate Phases of W.B. Yeats’ Body of Work

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The work of Irish born and British educated W. B. Yeats may likely be studied through a lens of panoramic social issues erupting around him throughout his early 20th century world. The poetry of Yeats found vast popularity during his lifetime and has thus afforded scholars the luxury of categorizing his creative efforts into a sequence of three phases. The specific features of form aspect he adopted over the course of his career appears to have been influenced by world wars, Irish anxieties and numerous cultural shifts that were occurring around his world simultaneously. In fact, he was not even averse to doing rewrites later in time as events came to their eventual conclusions.

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W.B. Yeats’ body of work evolved over time into 3 separate phases. An Irishmen by birth, Yeats in phase 1 embraces the British superiority that surrounds him via influential teachers provided him by his parents when moving to London, England at a young age. During this phase, he appears to be oblivious to the rowdy raucousness of the Irish in their impoverished slums of London in exchange for a view of himself as a worldly sophisticated Englishmen. The success of his poetry career with London publishers up to 1916 indicates a probable end of his phase 1 creations and begins a shift into Irish sympathies leading to a phase 2 career path that has its origins with events erupting in his country of birth, Ireland. In 1916, the Irish Easter revolution against British tyranny resulted in the execution of several Irish acquaintances of his that prevented their radical efforts to free Ireland from British oppression.

Yeats’ abrupt reversal to Irish sympathies in his Easter 1916 poem also signals the beginnings of a more aggressive awareness of social justice improprieties throughout the world. Evidence of further evolution can be seen by his release of Sailing to Byzantium published 11 years later. These two transitional examples of evolution in his writing suggests that he has clearly left his phase 1 career behind and is fully engaged in the publishing of poetry that leads to a judgment that movement into phases 2 and 3 is underway. This evolution seems to coincide with personality struggles within himself when his behavior seems to be more British-like than Irish during phase 1 and then he flips into behaving more Irish than British during phases 2 and 3. This appears to be a direct result of changes within his personal view of political and social injustice occurring inside Ireland. The shock like cultural transitions going on around him is why Easter 1916 and Sailing to Byzantium are the two poems that were selected for this essay. They may offer intellectual proof of why phase evolution is such an interesting concept.

The first poem refers to his passionate horror over what has come about in Ireland at the hands of his beloved England. The police state crackdown by his adopted England against his orphaned Irish warriors, who attempted to break free from the yoke of the England monarchy after centuries of rule, seems tailor made for the talented poet. The irony of the timing of this incident in the early 1900’s simultaneously occurs as Yeats is just coming into the prime of his life and doing his best work. These events appeared to anger him greatly due to a lack of satisfaction in the state of Ireland’s affairs as a conquered country. Yeats, though a resident of London, England, seemed to be aghast at the brutality of English efforts to break the will of the Irish revolutionaries. He fights a sympathetic battle for Irish rights in the Easter 1916 poem by using the best weapon available to him which was his ability to cut at the English Crown’s hypocrisy by utilizing the straight-ahead meter and rhyme scheme known as tetrameter. He shows an adaptation from ABAB tetrameter in lines 5, 6, and 15 whereby he goes to a trimester scheme for meter and rhyme.

At a time when many Irish had already fled England for the urban cities of America such as New York and Boston and amid a decade of reports of undisciplined drunken brawls and wild and hopeless behavior by his Irish brethren in America; he appears to have found his Irish heritage again in this poem. Easter 1916 was published following the execution of his Irish friends and these brutal sentences administered to them by the British authorities are revealed in lines 17, 24 and 26. Both poems illustrate the use of narration and symbolism by Yeats as demonstrated using the pronoun “I” in both poems. It is an example of first-person internal narration with the narrator being of minor importance to the story’s point of view. In line 25 of Easter 1916, he utilizes symbolism with the use of “winged horse” as a reference to Pegasus which paints one of the men executed as an inspirational mentor to his students.

In line 19 of Sailing to Byzantium he utilizes additional symbolism with the “perne in a gyre” and is referring to the whirlwind chaos of the times. The second poem uses Byzantium as a synonym for Ireland which is symbolism for what Ireland could be in a dream world of peace and stability instead of the more realistic environment involving decay and death. Byzantium is an ancient reference to the holy city of Eastern Christendom known currently as Istanbul, Turkey. In lines 9 and 10 a description of an old man wasting away is given as old clothes (“tattered coat”) hanging upon a stick which is symbolism again. The second poem, which was written in 1927, features a more dreamy and lyrical style as compared to the less romantic features inherent in his Easter 1916 poem. It starts out like it will be the glory of youth but quickly turns into an aging old man with death around the nearest corner. This is suggestive to a classification into a beginning for entry into the phase 3 and final evolution of his career.

Whereas Easter 1916 utilizes a repeating refrain in lines 16, 40 and 80 with the phrase “a terrible beauty is born”, this differentiates in form from the poem published in 1927 whereby this specific aspect is absent. The second poem more closely resembles his own view of himself as the self-described “last romantic,” which plays upon the deaths of his literary mentors and heroes, Shelly and Blake. These legendary poets passed away some 25 years before his birth in 1865. It is possible that the phase 3 of his career, as illustrated by Sailing to Byzantium, was influenced by the Celtic Revival period when all things Irish were being rejuvenated into a more positive image. However, as the poem goes on further his audience learns that the more realistic situation of the Irish as a people is much less advantageous than the idyllic journey he originally starts them out on. Although first phase examples of Yeats’ earliest published poems as a young man are not covered within the prompt requirements of this essay, the scholarly trend appears to accept that some form of a phase 1 existed early in his career.

The two poems examined here do appear to clearly represent the phase 2 mid-career and phase 3 late-career evolution of W.B. Yeats. This conclusion is reached by the differences in form and content pointed to in this essay between these two poems that were published so many years apart from each other. Easter 1916 was Yeats as he was inherently linked emotionally to the sweeping events shaping Irish nationalism in 1916 and Sailing to Byzantium was Yeats in a distinctively different mood as he dreams of an imaginary independent Ireland that no longer exists. Clearly, this long lived and much celebrated poet of Irish origin, yet British molding had many unique and important reasons to evolve in his literary career over time. And time seems to have created three distinct phases to his body of work.

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