“Yeats’s poetry is driven by a tension between the real world in which he lives and an ideal world that he imagines.”
I believe this is an apt statement to define to work of Yeats. At the heart of Yeats’s poetry there is a strong division between the natural world and the idyllic world which Yeats appears to be constantly seeking. Yeats was an artist who was the first Irishman to win a Nobel Prize in Literature for what the Nobel committee described as: “inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic way gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation.” The poems I feel which perfectly support this statement are: “Lake Isle of Innisfree”, “Sailing to Byzantium”, “The Wild Swans at Coole”, “1913” and “1916”.
“Lake Isle of Innisfree” is a sentimental poem of escape. Here Yeats wishes to replace the dreariness of London with the idyllic world of Innisfree. The poem opens with an almost hypnotically strong sense of determination: “I will arise and go now”. The fact that this line is also repeated depicts an overwhelmingly strong pull Yeats feels for Innisfree. Yeats entertains the thought of living in Innisfree by use of sensual imagery: “live alone in the bee loud glade. This type of imagery is further explored in the highly sensual image: “I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore”. Yeats appears haunted by this beautiful place as it’s as if the waters are calling him. Perhaps the starkest contrast in this poem is between the different colours of each location. The beautiful “purple glow” of the pastoral utopia of Innisfree contrasts the “pavements grey” of the dull concrete jungle. The poem closes with somewhat of an epiphany as it becomes clear to Yeats that he will never actually get to live in this perfect place: “I hear it in the deep hearts core”. It’s what he wants the most but sadly it’s not possible.
In “Sailing to Byzantium” Yeats is also faced with an impossible desire to fulfil. He directly displays his contempt with his advancing age and yearns to conquer his own mortality by escaping the physical world and moving to the idyllic world of Byzantium where he can live forever as art. “That is no country for old men” shows Yeats’s preoccupation with aging prevents him from enjoying natural life. His disenchantment is directly stated in the line: “an aged man is but a paltry thing” and then further elaborated in the powerfully striking images of a scarecrow (“tattered coat upon a stick”) and a “dying animal”. Yeats’s discontentment with aging is cleverly expressed in the line: “perne in a gyre” showing that Yeats wants to unravel his way through time and remain youthful forever. He wishes to travel to the bliss paradise of Byzantium where he can be gathered into “the artifice of eternity”. Yeats firmly states that given the chance to leave this natural world, he will never return: “Once out of nature I shall never take my bodily form from any natural thing.” This, in my opinion, is a perfect example of the tension between the real world in which he lives and the ideal world that he imagines.
Similarly to “Sailing to Byzantium” the poem “The Wild Swans at Coole” deals with an avidity to overcome the aging process: Yeats’s greatest desire. The Swans in this poem symbolise eternity as they give the illusion of never aging. The opening line: “The trees are in their autumn beauty” parallels the age of the speaker and how he feels that he has been ambushed by the process: “The nineteenth autumn has come upon me”. The line: “and now my heart’s sore” is very telling as it depicts how Yeats is envious; he doesn’t have what the swans appear to have: youthful passion (“unwearied still, lover by lover … passion or conquest … attend upon them still”. He laments his past and states how he once “trod with a lighter tread”; he must finally accept that “all’s changed”. The mood in this poem is reflective and also wishful that he too could live forever, which is expressed in “Sailing to Byzantium”.
“September 1913” unlike the other poems is a political poem. Here Yeats contrasts the materialistic merchants of the present to the idyllic heroes of “Romantic Ireland”. The tone of this poem is disparaging which is expressed in the opening line with the word: “you”. Yeats immediately attacks the rebels of his time regarding them as greedy merchants who “fumble in a greasy till”. He then goes on the state that they will take everything they can get their greedy hands on until there is nothing left: “add the halfpence to the pence and prayer to shivering prayer until you have dried the marrow from the bone”. Yeats clearly displays his contempt for these men in the sarcastic and equivocal line: “for men were meant to pray and save.” The “pray” in this line can also be interpreted as prey showing Yeats sees these men as nothing but vultures. He regards the men of “Romantic Ireland” as the antithesis of the men of his time: “yet they were of a different kind … names that stilled your childish play”. The direct contrast is further explored when he states: “and what God help us could they save … they weighed so lightly what they gave”. The repetition of the line “Romantic Ireland is dead and gone, It’s with O’Leary in the grave”, shows Yeats’s lamentation for a vanishing past: an ideal time.
Like “1913”, “1916” is also a political poem. Conversely to “1913” Yeats’s shows nothing but respect for the rebel leaders of his time here. This poem can be considered a response to “September 1913”. Yeats states that although he knew most of these leaders, he had previously shown little respect as he only exchanged “polite meaningless words”. He goes on to say that felt he was surrounded by essentially clowns: “lived where motely is worn”. The lack of respect for these leaders is clearly shown as Yeats viewed these men as merely players in the “casual comedy” of life. Yeats does come to the sudden realisation that he was wrong and that “all’s changed, changed utterly”. Yeats becomes very engaged with the notion of the “heart”. While his can change and review events, theirs are “enchanted to a stone”. He ends the poem in a tone of lamentation as he lists the names of the executed but in terms of how a grieving parent might “murmur” the names of dead children. This poem is a deeply felt personal response to a major public, political event.
As you can see, Yeats is not just a poet but in fact an artist with the ability to make his own thoughts relatable globally. The tension between what is natural and what he deems ideal has a strong grip on all of his poetry and can be seen throughout each poem.