This is a brief excerpt from the introduction to Modern English Poetry: A Selection, originally published in Japanese translation by Kaibunsha Ltd, Tokyo, in 1982. It ran to five editions, was reprinted many times, and was widely used in universities there.

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s a young poet in the later Victorian period, William Butler Yeats was influenced by Spenser and Shelley, and (as an art student of the mid-1880s) the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites, writing his early work in a traditional romantic vein. Many of the poems, like “The Lake Isle of Innisfree," were born out of his artistic belief that "only beautiful things should be painted, and that only ancient things and the stuff of dreams were beautiful" (Yeats 82). At this stage, an idealized world of beauty seemed preferable to the drab actuality of life. Yet, even then, this was not so much escapism as a rejection of the dull, commercialized world in favour of a world of "higher reality" — a feeling reinforced when in 1890 he became a founder member of the Rhymers’ Club in London, and was, at least briefly, attracted by the aesthetic ideas of other members like Ernest Dowson, Arthur Symons and Lionel Johnson. As well as being impressed by their belief that the poet was bound to feel alienated from the bourgeois values of the society, he learned from them the need for painstaking craftsmanship. But he soon came to feel that in their pursuit of dreamy, hypnotic rhythm and fondness for "romantic" languorous phrases and images, these aesthetes had cut themselves off from the vital forces of life. Since he himself was convinced of the importance of deeper spiritual realities, he turned to magic, theosophy and the occult for a greater grasp of such realities — again, very much a tendency of the times. When Arthur Symons introduced him to the French Symbolists like Mallarmé, Verlaine, Baudelaire and Nerval, he was excited to discover the possibility of employing Symbolist techniques for exploring and presenting these fundamental truths. Ancient myths, legends and beliefs gave him the means of embodying them in evocative, suggestive and subtle ways.

John Singer Sargent's charcoal portrait of
Yeats as a young man. Click on the image to
enlarge it and for more information about it.

The fact that he was an Irish nationalist, more as an artist than as a politician, was helpful: he found symbols for his poetry in Ireland's own history and traditions, and also in Irish personalities and places. Whereas the "private" symbols of Mallarmé became almost unintelligible at times, the Irish symbols of Yeats have both a certain solidity and rich traditional associations. His attempt to bring about an Irish cultural renaissance had another significant effect on his poetry. His work towards a revival of Irish drama, and the founding of the Abbey Theatre, brought him into close touch with contemporary Ireland. He saw Irish drama as a cultural force rather than a vehicle for the dissemination of social or political ideas and beliefs. This aesthetic creed of his did not satisfy the majority of Irish nationalists who were fighting for a political cause. The ordinary Irishman found fault with the theatre on the ground that it staged plays, like those of Synge, for example, which depicted the Irish as coarse, brutal and "immoral." Yeats bitterly resented such attacks and severely criticized the lack of insight and the sheer materialism of the Irish in his poetry. He also wrote political poems commenting on Irish history, such as "Easter 1916" and "Meditations in Time of Civil War," in which he brought out a sense of tragedy from Ireland's plight, and extended it to a vision of the tragic nature of human existence in general.

Yeats’s involvement in Irish drama would bring him close to contemporary Ireland in another sense, namely, that in writing plays he recognized the importance of incorporating direct, colloquial speech in his dialogue. In this he was greatly influenced by his friend, the dramatist J. M. Synge, who was disturbed by the stark reality of Irish life and expressed this dissatisfaction in the unadorned style of his writings. Synge was dissatisfied also with the poeticisms of much contemporary poetry, and in the preface to his Collected Poems (1908) famously said: "It may be said that before verse can be human again, it must learn to be brutal." Yeats seems to have taken this advice, and we find that in his later poems he abandons the rich, decorative style of earlier poems like "A Coat," and deals directly with "the foul-rag-and-bone shop of the heart" (“The Circus Animals’ Desertion"). Such changes first became apparent in The Green Helmet (1910) and Responsibilities (1914), and they continued throughout the rest of his career. This is not to say, however, that Yeats totally discarded the use of symbols. He needed symbols for projecting his highly imaginative vision of Irish myths and legends, and also of recent history.

Yeats retained his interest in the esoteric and the mysterious, shown, for example, in A Vision (1925), in which he explained his highly private doctrines. But his attempt was now to use the actual, material world for symbolic purposes. By doing so, he emerges as a uniquely modernist poet, as M. L. Rosenthal has explained:

Towards the end of his long career, William Butler Yeats wrote: "I seek an image of the modern mind’s discovery of itself." He never described his own work more truly or more succinctly. Yeats spoke to the modern mind in every way. The rise of nationalism and the political problems that were to create two world wars, the shattering and challenging effects of new science on old beliefs, the reopening of every question of truth and value — all these elements entered his imagination and were then absorbed and transmuted into the symbolic structure of his poetry. [28]


Rosenthal, M. The Modern Poets: A Critical Introduction. Oxford: Oxford Univeristy Press, 1966.

Yeats, W. B. Autobiographies. London: Macmillan, 1955.

Created 26 June 2021