Now, I'd certainly read some Yeats in college, but he was fixed in my head more due to his involvement in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (including his famed conflict with the notorious Aleister Crowley) than his poetry. Not that this is misplaced, Yeats himself is quoted as saying that magick was “the most important pursuit of my life … the mystical life is the center of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write” – and I, frankly, expected this to come out more clearly in his writings than I found it to be. As is often the case of the Dover books, this volume includes a fascinating introductory essay which reports that he spent thirty years pursuing Maud Gonne, whose own metaphysical interests significantly influenced him, and led to a far more mature level of writing in his later years. As is also almost always the case with Dover books, the main body of this one is a reprint of some long-since out of copyright publication (from 1922), which itself was collected from a couple previous volumes of Yeats' writings from 1919 and 1921 (and, as he lived to 1939, these would possibly have been produced with his input).
Of course, the bulk of this is poetry, which, despite the thousands of pieces that I churned out back in the day, I find very hard to write about in a “broad strokes” manner, making it difficult for me to provide some overview of these (and I doubt that anybody has much interest of me getting into the minutia of particular poems). So, I'm going to be passing along bits and pieces that I found interesting and maybe making a few comments on those. I was disappointed that I only found that I'd stuck in two of my little bookmarks here, and these both are in one long (going on for seven pages) poem. This is further complicated that said poem, The Phases of the Moon, is one of his “conversation” pieces, where two or more characters are tossing sections back and forth, leading to the near-certainty of confusion if simply quoted here as is.
To start with, however, I'm going to be dropping in what is probably his most famous piece, The Second Coming from his 1921 collection:
Now, that was sort of what I was hoping much of this collection was going to be about … but, no. While there is mystical/spiritual stuff strewn through, much of this is fairly mundane, dealing with relationships and daily activities.The Second Coming
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
There is, however, that other theme that Yeats is famous for, being one of the voices of the Irish movement for independence from Britain. The introductory essay here notes of the second collection from which poems were selected: “It was composed in the shadow of the Easter Uprising of 1916, released in the latter days of the Anglo-Irish War (1919-21) and read during the Irish Civil War (1922-23) and eventual establishment of the Irish Free State (1922)”. The intro essay suggests that Yeats, “a Protestant-born Anglo-Irish aristocrat”, had not been particularly supportive of the cause in its early years, but eventually found himself “strenuously devoted” to “Irish cultural and political nationalism”, which caused his work to take up a more activist stance. Here is the last stanza (of four) of the titular Easter 1916 poem:
As noted up top, I only had two of my bookmarks in here to point me to “the good stuff”, and both are in the long piece The Phases of the Moon. Again, these were things that I found most appealing (and, frankly, a lot of the poems here were “meh” at best to my ear), so this probably does nothing for conveying the overall tone of this collection, but I'm not going to type up something I didn't care for:Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven's part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
Twenty-and-eight the phases of the moon,
The full and the moon’s dark and all the crescents,
Twenty-and-eight, and yet but six-and-twenty
The cradles that a man must needs be rocked in:
For there’s no human life at the full or the dark.
From the first crescent to the half, the dream
But summons to adventure and the man
Is always happy like a bird or a beast;
But while the moon is rounding towards the full
He follows whatever whim’s most difficult
Among whims not impossible, and though scarred
As with the cat-o’-nine-tails of the mind,
His body moulded from within his body
Grows comelier. Eleven pass, and then
Athenae takes Achilles by the hair,
Hector is in the dust, Nietzsche is born,
Because the heroes’ crescent is the twelfth.
And yet, twice born, twice buried, grow he must,
Before the full moon, helpless as a worm.
The thirteenth moon but sets the soul at war
In its own being, and when that war’s begun
There is no muscle in the arm; and after
Under the frenzy of the fourteenth moon
The soul begins to tremble into stillness
To die into the labyrinth of itself.
Anyway, there's a taste of what's in here. Frankly, I'm surprised that I didn't run into more of his writing when in college, but the turn of the last century wasn't much in my curriculum, so his was likely among those which only got touched on via the massive main English Major texts.Robartes
And after that the crumbling of the moon.
The soul remembering its loneliness
Shudders in many cradles; all is changed,
It would be the World’s servant, and as it serves,
Choosing whatever task’s most difficult
Among tasks not impossible, it takes
Upon the body and upon the soul
The coarseness of the drudge.
"Easter 1916" and Other Poems, being a Dover Thrift book, is likely to not be sitting on the shelf at your local brick-and-mortar book vendor, as its cover price is a mere three bucks (hence having nearly no margin for the retailer), but it's a handy thing to have on your wish list at the on-line book behemoths (where it's even at a discount at the moment), for fine tuning order totals. I'm not particularly enthused about this collection, but I'm glad to have “loaded it into my brain”, so that if the topic of Yeats comes up I'll be less vague than I would have been prior to reading it.