A Short History of English Literature

By Harry Blamires | Go to book overview

21

Twentieth-century poetry

Yeats and Eliot, Irish and American, are the greatest English poets of our age. William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) was born in Dublin into a Protestant family with a long association with County Sligo. In London he associated with Dowson and Lionel Johnson in the Rhymers’ Club. Back in Ireland, he became a leader of the Celtic Revival. He was in love with Maud Gonne, the nationalist, and remained deeply attached to her in spite of her refusal of him. The practical passions of his life were poetry, Irish culture and occult literature. What he drew from Irish folk lore and myth, and from interest in theosophy, hermetic studies, magic and cyclic theories of history, has made some of his poetry fully comprehensible only with the aid of annotations, but his central human concerns, the vigour of his imagery, and the personality stamped on his style carry the reader unresisting through formidable substance.

The young Yeats, represented in earlier anthologies by ‘I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree’ and by ‘When you are old and grey and full of sleep’, was a master of rhythmic patterns and colourful, suggestive imagery:

I would that we were, my beloved, white birds on the foam of the sea!

We tire of the flame of the meteor, before it can fade and flee;

And the flame of the blue star of twilight, hung low on the rim of the sky,

Has awaked in our hearts, my beloved, a sadness that may not die.

(‘The White Birds’, The Rose, 1893)

The three poems cited above indulge moods of nostalgia, sadness

-353-

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