The Cambridge Companion to W. B. Yeats

This book has been very useful to me for further learning and understanding of William Butler Yeats and the aspects included within his poetry writing. I have picked up some notes from which I found most useful.


Yeats and Romanticism 

Yeats started his long literary career as a romantic poet and gradually evolved into a modernist poet. When he began publishing poetry in the 1880s, his poems had a lyrical, romantic style, and they focused on love, longing and loss, and Irish myths. Yeats uses the term “romantic” in two of his most famous proclamations. ‘September 1913’ for instance, appealing to John O’Leary the political leader whom he looked up to, against the background of the Dublin strike and lockout of 1913, “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone, it’s with O’Leary in the grave”. Also in ‘Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931′ in honor of his literary patron and collaborator Lady Gregory shortly after her estate at Coole Park had been sold to the government in 1927, “We were the last romantics – chose for theme”. Yeats uses romanticism links these two terms from these poems – one political and one literary’ because he saw literature and politics as intertwined. For him, “Romantic Ireland” meant that large minded attitude beyond economic and political advantage that he saw at that time.

Yeats and gender

Yeats was a strong advocate for women, struggling to define what form that should take. And although he was living in an extremely oppressive and sexist time, his poetry did not always reflect this thought. In fact, he preached against such writing. For women in general, and specifically for the women in Yeats’ life, “spiritualism and occultism offered a mode of behaviour for women which signalled that they would no longer accept the prescribed roles that society had determined for them in suburban isolation from political and social power” (Brown, 39). And this upsetting of prescribed gender roles influenced Yeats in a profound and lasting way, a way that is played out in his own poetry and prose. Yeats understood that passion, and not sincerity or originality, has the most value in the writing of poetry. So when reading his poetry about women, we must be suspect. Yeats’ the man is not writing of his own opinion in his poetry. He is not writing from his own personal experience, for “it is never safe to draw conclusions about the life from the poems unless we possess external evidence regarding the events or emotions in question”. As Yeats himself explains: “A poet writes always of his personal life” observing that “all that is personal soon rots: it must be packed in ice or salt” 

Yeats and politics

At the age of twenty, Yeats was a nationalist and Fenian sympathizer. After the fall of Charles Parnell in 1891, Yeats hoped to fill an apparent political vacuum with cultural work. He was dedicated to revamping an outmoded literary nationalism that has taken its colours from the propagandist simplicities  of Thomas Davis and the writers of Young Ireland. He admred powerful men like Parnell, and argued, throughout his career, for bold leadership by the few over the many. As Yeats became more involved in Irish politics—through his relationships with the Irish National Theatre, the Irish Literary Society, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and Maud Gonne—his poems increasingly resembled political manifestos. Yeats believed that art could serve a political function: poems could both critique and comment on political events, as well as educate and inform a population.



One thought on “The Cambridge Companion to W. B. Yeats

  1. Excellent detail Laura.Your essay technique has improved a lot recently. I am concerned that only you and Lucy Loughan have made blog entries about your chapters!!!

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