Term Paper: William Butler Yeats the Early Poetry

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William Butler Yeats

The Early Poetry of William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats is often referred to as the last romantic poet. His ability to manipulate the readers emotions and to present intimate topics that still connect with audiences in the modern age stand testament not only to his ability as a poet, but also to the poignancy and genuineness that is reflected by the Romantic Movement. Though most famous for his later poetry, much of his early poetry is just as strong, and clearly reflects the influence of the Romantic poets that came before him.

A clear definition of the Romantic Movement, or of Romantic poetry is difficult to pinpoint. However, there are many elements that the Romantic poets display in their work that help define the genre. Essentially, much of the Romantic philosophy was to go against the ideas of the Enlightenment. While the Enlightenment promoted science and empirical analysis, the Romantics promoted the experience of emotion as a valid form of experience and interaction with the world. They brought nature and man's reaction and relationship with nature back into focus. The Romantic period also enjoyed a revival of ancient philosophies, gods and mythology, especially relishing exploration of the esoteric and supernatural. Romantic poetry also moved toward softer structures like blank verse and the sonnet and away from the more rigid structures of the previous periods. The language the Romantics used was also fresher, and more casual than the stiff, formal language used by the poets before them. All in all, the Romantic Movement allowed poetry to enter into a more intimate realm, expressing the individual point-of-view of the poet or narrator and allowing the reader a peek into their psyche (Harmon, et al. 47).

Taking these elements of Romanticism into account, Yeats' poetry is overflowing with Romantic flavors. One especially Romantic topic is dealing with the supernatural. Ireland is rich with folklore about faeries and many other kinds of other-worldly creatures, and since much of Yeats' intention, being a proud Irish poet, in his work was to spread a sense of patriotism by exploring Ireland's unique history it seems natural that he would explore such topics as faeries in his poetry. Both "The Stolen Child," and "The Man Who Dreamed of Faeryland" explore this fantastic world of fae-folk. What is interesting in these poems is that, though the Fae creatures are often depicted as being mischievous at best, sometimes wicked and dangerous at worse, Yeats treats the Fae-folk as a "gay, exulting, gentle race" (The Man Who Dreamed of Faeryland, line 20). In "The Man Who Dreamed of Faeryland," these lands are described in nothing but positive ways, and the narrator describes how a visit to these places would essentially complete the man in question, rounding out his experiences and lightening his soul before he goes off to meet his inevitable death. In "The Stolen Child," the title seems more ominous, but the poem seems to indicate that the faery who steals this child is doing the poor boy a favor. The darkness of the repeated line "for the world's more full of weeping than you / can understand," indicates that the child is an innocent creature and deserves to live among the faeries far away from any danger of heartbreak or the evil side of human nature ("The Stolen Child" line 12-13). The slight alteration of the last line, however, seems to point to the fact that the child himself is not the same as other children and that he is not destined for the sadness of the human world. Read another way it could be saying that children are born innocent and incapable of the pain and treachery that adulthood brings. Instead it is a trait that is taught throughout a lifetime, but can be avoided if raised in a place of happiness and love.

Another recurring theme in Yeats' work is the inevitability of death. As pointed out before, the joy of faeryland cannot overcome the fact that the man dies in "The Man Who Dreamed of Faeryland." "The Wilde Swans at Coole" is mostly about how the world changes, but it is also dark and has undertones of touching on the uncomfortable topic of death. After all, what bigger change can happen than to die? "When You are Old" also works in the shadows of death, though it doesn't really state it directly.

The Romantics enjoyed a revival of ancient history and mythology, and Yeats seems to be just as enamored with the ancient stories as the rest of the Romantic poets. In "No Second Troy" the subject matter is quite clearly Helen of Troy. He is able to breathe new life into the story by using fresh, modern language, which gives the impression that the narrator could be talking about Helen of Troy, the woman of incomparable beauty whose face launched a thousand ships, or simply the beautiful woman next door that has caught the narrator's eye (Bell 1). Of course, the poem doesn't have to be directly about ancient mythology or history for it to mention something as a strong reference or example of the message the narrator is trying to make. In "The Rose of the World" Troy is again referenced. Helen is fabled to be the most beautiful woman in the world, so it would seem natural for Yeats to conjure her image when speaking of woman in general. Bringing these images forward into the modern time that Yeats was living brought the image forward, perpetuating it as an archetypal statement for the new generation. At the same time it connected his audience to their ancestors and provided an image that resonates through generation after generation.

Clearly one of Yeats' favorite topics to tackle was beauty. "The Rose of the World," "When You are Old," "Adam's Curse," and "No Second Troy" all speak of beauty and the love that naturally follows, be it foolish or genuine. Of course "Adam's Curse" not only speaks of beauty, but philosophizes on the topic with two beautiful women. This poem is especially clever while still being extremely moving. In the first stanza, Yeats tells the audience of a conversation he had about poetry with two women he clearly holds in high regards. His comments are about how, though poetry is difficult and takes much hard work, the verse itself must be perceived as effortlessness and gentle. The fact that he has achieved this while discussing it is not only artistically impressive, but very pleasant in overall effect. It is the silence of the trio in the final stanza that is most moving, however. It is in this last stanza that the narrator truly comes to appreciate what he and these two women were philosophizing about all evening, and the idea of beauty becomes quite tangible both for him and for the audience.

Of course, what discussion of poetry would be complete without a meditation on love? "Adam's Curse," "The Rose of the World," "When You Are Old," and "No Second Troy," all address love in some manner. The Romantics treasured the experience of human emotion, and chose to present the experience of the individual not only as genuine and reliable, but also as a way to connect to their audience on an intimate level. All of these poems have sentiments that are both highly personal and yet still quite universal. Even if a reader has not experienced the kind of love that the narrator describes, they will have known someone with this experience, or at the very least they will aspire to the experience of love in these ways. Each of these poems are powerful on both these levels.

Imagination is also a topic of legitimate intellectual exploration for the Romantics. The poetry that discusses Faeryland is clearly of the imagination, but "Who… [END OF PREVIEW]

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