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Early and Later Poems of W.B.Yeats: A Contrast



The poetry of W.B Yeats distinctively falls into two groups namely the early poems and the later poems.  As a poet Yeats always wrote poetry basing on the Irish themes and subjects. But in treating the Irish elements Yeats time to time changed the subject matters and the style. In the early poems, for example, Yeats explored the themes of Irish folklore and myths,themes and settings to create a modern sophisticated poetry.The Irish themes come into his poetry as the rememberence of the glorious past,the myths and legends,the landscape, and the Irish mythological heroes. 

During his early career, Yeats’ own interest in mythology and the oral traditions of folklore combined with high sense of nationalism inspired him to create a poetry rich in the treatment of Celtic folklore and mythology.So,the subject matter of his early poetry  consists of the traditional Celtic folklore and myth. By incorporating into his work the stories and characters of Celtic origin, Yeats endeavored to encapsulate something of the national character of his beloved Ireland.

Even in the early poems, with the passing of time, the poet makes increasing use of Irish myths and legends. He revives the old Irish myths and legends as well as `makes new myths out of the old  ones and in this way seeks to bring about a political and a literary renaissance. Poetry thus fuses with patriotism, and he may fittingly be called the first national poet of young Ireland. He now sings in his poetry of ancient Gaelic heroes, like King Fergus. Aengus,Cuchulan,Queen Maeve, Oisin etc.

The heroic life and adventures of these ancient, legendary figures form the subject of Yeats’ early ballads. Earlier he had advised the young poets of Ireland to choose subjects from their own native land where,’there is no river or mountain that is not associated in the memory with some legend or event,”  and if, the ballads he deals with deal with such local traditions as well as with legends which have a more national character.

Yeats’ early poetry is frankly an escape poetry. It takes us into a world of phantasy, a dream-world, a world of Irish countryside, folk-lore peasant beliefs and traditions. The poet escapes from the world of reality into an ideal fairy-world of Irish mythology. In the beginning his dream world is merely a beautiful, ideal region in the thinned out English romantic tradition. The influences on him are English, Arcadian, Spenerian and Shelleyian, and even in his treatment of the Irish themes he displays.

Now let us discuss some individual poems to see how he treated Irish elements in his early poems.The poems that clearly reflect his interest in Irish myths and legends are ’The Stolen Child’,Fergus and the Druid’, Cuchulain’s Fight with the Sea’,The Hosting of the Sidhe’,Th Wild Swans a t Coole’,Coole Park,Coole Park and Ballylee, At Galway Races, The Ballad of Moll Magee” , “The Ballad of Father Gilligan etc.

Yeats’s first notable interest in Irish materials is seen in his early poem ’The Stolen Child’.The poem is based on Irish legend and Irish setting.The poem,in which a fairy speaks to a human child in a beguiling voice ,is set in Sligo,where the yeats used to spend their holidays.The voice calls

Where dips the rocky highland
Of Sleuth Wood in the lake
There lies a leafy island
Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water rats;
There we’ve hid our faery vats
Full of berries
And of reddest stolen cherries.

The names of the places mentioned in the poem are located in Sligo and the poem reflects the poet’s interest in the belief in the supernatural that he found in the west of Ireland,in particular the idea that the faeries carried off children from the human world.

Yeats’s treatment of Irish materials ,specially the old legends and sagas are also seen in his work The Rose.In this collection specially two poems - Fergus and the Druid’, Cuchulain’s Fight with the Sea’ are full of Irish elements.The former deals with the Ulster’s legendary king Fergus,who married Ness.The poem is a conversation between the Druid and Fergus,who was persuaded by his wife Ness to allow Ness’s son (by previous marriage) MacNessa to rule the country for a year.But when the king gave the power,he was trickily driven out of the country at the end of the year.Fergus passed his days hunting,fighting,and feasting.Thus,the poem is based on an Irish saga.

The poem ’Cuchulain’s Fight with the Sea’  deals with the Irish Achilles or the Hercules Cuchulain.The poem is about the death of Cuchulain,the greatest Irish mythological hero,who appears many times throughout Yeats' work.

The legend of Cuchulain goes back to the pre-Christain time.He appears in the Ulster Cycle of stories.Cuchulain,the superhuman warrior figure had a divine from the supernatural father figures such as Conall Cernach.As a youth, Cuchulain defeats one hundred and fifty of King Conchobar's troops on his way to the royal court. Suffice to say that Cuchulain is the hero most identified with Ireland and represents both positive and negative aspects of the Irish people and their struggle.

In the poem, " To Ireland in the Coming Times" Yeats again draws upon Irish folklore and mythic symbols and sets them against a backdrop of national identity. When the poet writes, " When Time began to rant and rage / The measure of her flying feet / Made Ireland's heart begin to beat; " He is speaking of the affects of the industrial revolution," When Time began to rant and rage." How the pre-industrial rhythm of life had been interrupted by the hourly wage in the cities, as opposed to the pastoral life of the country that was governed by the changing of the seasons, rather than the movement of the hands of a clock. This accelerated pace of life and of time," The measure of her flying feet," was reviled by Yeats and he wrote of his distaste of current English life, referring to passions that a man might yet find in Ireland, "love of the Unseen Life and love of country."

In the collection The Rose,Yeats emphasizes Irish imagery; the rose, the faeries and the Druid that are all closely associated with Ireland and are used here to disparage the rigid and structured English world view.

Another poem that illustrates how Yeats melds folklore and nationalism is "The Song of Wandering Aengus." In the poem, Yeats refers to Aengus, the Irish god of love. He was said to be a young, handsome god that had four birds flying about his head. These birds symbolized kisses and inspired love in all who heard them sing.The poem deals with the shape-changing of the fairies and tells a story in which a fish is transformed into a beautiful woman whom Aengus spends the rest of his life trying to find. In the poem, Yeats strays from the actual myth of Aengus. Yeats wrote, "Though I am old with wandering/ Through hollow lands and hilly lands." In the actual myth, Aengus was still young when he found his love. "The Song of Wandering Aengus" was about longing and searching, rather than about a song of found love.

Thus,Yeats took inspiration from the myths and legends of ancient Ireland in order to create a conspicuously Irish literature.

Yeats’s later poems

Yeats believed the idea that poetry should be changed to adjust the changes around us.So, with the passage of time his poetry also changed. In his later poems he wrote about the contemporary political and cultural issues that concered his Ireland istead of about the Irish myths and legends. The other features of the later poetry include the richness, complexity and intricacy. This richness arises more particularly from his blending together of images drawn from widely divergent sources and from different layers of experience.

Yeats brings together varied and desperate images from different levels of experience and different levels of history, and is able in this way to enclose incredible vastness within the limited space of a short lyric.The greatness of Yeats is seen in the fact that his mind now moves with great agility from one disparate concept to another, and the poet succeeds in bringing together and reconciling the opposites of life. 

The later poems display Yeats’ mythopoetic imagination to its best advantage. The poet’s mastery over his craft is further seen in the fact that words obey his call and he uses them like a master with perfect ease and self-confidence to express swift transitions in thought, often highly abstract thought.

Yeats’ later poetry also shows his skilful manipulation of the most varied stanza-patterns. As some one has rightly remarked, the credit of freeing English lyric from the tyranny of the Iambic must go to Yeats.

The changes in Yeats’s poerty are visible in his ’The Green Hemlet and Other Poems’.Two poems of the collection clearly reflect his new nationalism.These are In Upon a house Shaken by the Land Agitation and At Galway Races.

In Upon a house Shaken by the Land Agitation Yeats makes an explicit and timely comment upon a  political issue.The title of the poem refers to Land Reform ,an important movement in 19th century Irish legislation to bring agriculture and the peasantry out of the incredibly impoverished past by changing the relation between landlords and tenant.The 1903 Wyndham Land Act provided for bonuses to landlords who sold property to tenants on easy terms. Aaccording to the legislation the tenants were able to buy thier farms.Here the house stands for aristocracy,tradition,the Anglo-Irish inheritance,and social stability.Yeats believed in aristocracy.Like Nietzsche he also believed that the rare thing is for the rare people,great things for the great people.This view is reflected in the poem.

Another later poem, "At Galway Races," illustrates how Yeats work was evolving, but the theme of Ireland was still the most lasting message in his works.

"Sing on: somewhere at some new moon,
We'll learn that sleeping is not death,
 Hearing the whole earth change its tune
Its flesh being wild, and it again
 Crying aloud as the racecourse is,
 And we find hearteners among men
That ride upon horses"

Yeats is not only celebrating horse racing, which is the national sport of Ireland, it is celebrating the endurance of Ireland during its troubles with Great Britain, and celebrating the strong backbone of the Irish, who are men "that ride upon horses." Yeats work literally breathes Ireland in every line, and there is no doubt that Yeats loved this unique land, and wanted to share that love with people the world over."

In another poem namely ’Easter 1916’ Yeats also deals with a contemporay political issue.The poem commemorates the Easter Rising of 24 April 1916 when the memebers of the Irish Republican Brotherhood under the leadership of Patricia Pearse rose against British rule of Ireland.The rising was subdued and the ring leaders were put to death.The poem carefully expresses an ambiguous attitude of quallified support for the rebels.Like the rebels Yeats was also willing to free Ireland from all kinds of English dominance but he hated the violence.He indirectly accused the rebels for overtuning the works of years and felt very despondent about the future.

His such poems as The Wild Swans a t Coole’,Coole Park,and Coole Park and Ballylee also bear his nationalism.Yeats uses swan as a symbol of tranquility,beauty,and pride-the typical Irish characteristics in his poetry.These poems are also in the descriptions of the Irish landscapes.

His another remarkable poem ’Leda and the Swan’ can also be interpreted as literary attack against England’s harsh treatment of Irland.The sonnet composed in 1923 refers to the myth of the rape of Leda by Zeus in the form of a swan.The poem represents the dominance of Swan over Leda.Yeats’s uses of such imageries as ’ a sudden blow’,’the staggering girl’,’caught in the bill’ clearly picture the violence used by Zeus.Here the relation between Leda and Swan is the relation of that of the oppressed and the oppressed,the colonized and the colonizer.As it is clear the colonizer is England and the colonized is Ireland.The former excercised violence against the later.The interpretaion seems to be convincing if we consider the time of its composition.

Yeats had a high sense of nationalism.His defth of nationalism becomes more evident if we compare his work with the works of T.S Eliot.Eliot took Europe and its war-fragmented culture as its Waste Land.So,the English poets became disillusioned with their country after the first world war.But Yeats,who spent two thirds of his life out of Ireland still retained Ireland as his imaginative homeland.
Yeats’s sense of nationalism is also seen from the fact that he often made a contrast between peaceful Ireland and industrial England.He also compared the Irish mythology culture with the cultures of classical Greece and Byzantium.

Thus, we see that there are some marked contrasts between his early and later poems. During his early career Yeats was devoted to the cause of Irish nationalism and played a significant part in the Celtic Revival Movement, promoting the literary heritage of Ireland through his use of material from ancient Irish sagas. In contrast to his early poems  his later works, also the more famous works, deal with the contemporay as well as Yeats’s personal and philosophical issues.

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