In search of Yeats

04 Dec

[July 2007 check: Some of the sites listed here when Ben and I were studying Yeats two years ago have gone, sadly. That’s the way of the Internet. I have deleted/replaced them.]

All my coachees are from HK or Chinese background, some more recently arrived than others. Two last year, Erwin and Ben, were both studying Advanced English in the HSC. One Saturday I promised Ben I would look around to see what I could find about Yeats, a poet I like but do not always understand…

Byzantium reads aloud brilliantly and leaves the reader awash in images: but what does it all really mean? Not so easy. And what are some of the various readings possible, if the poem is approached from a number of theoretical persepectives? Even harder… It was all too much for us when I was the age Ben is now and doing English II at Sydney University…


That rather splendid image is from Yeats Goes to Byzantium. In “Sailing to Byzantium: Adrift on Perfection”, Sonia Jain concludes:

…Byzantium cannot eternalize Yeats’ genius, for the reader must envision a city so basic that the very complexities that exist as a mere byproduct of the human condition fail to exist, and it is this very anomaly that reflects in the absurdity of the old man Yeats’ desire in quite literally “Sailing to Byzantium.” Yeats is faced with the biggest paradox, for he wishes to become the form that is essential to perfect art, yet despises the very senses without whose perceptions, perfect art could not exist.

I do wonder if “eternalize” is quite the right word…

Michael Fleming, “Myself That I Remake: Spiritual Renewal in the Life and Work of William Butler Yeats” is [was!] pretty good. A very different essay is this one [gone! But you have a bit below] on David Mitchell’s Number9Dream and some poems by Yeats:

…Issues such as chaos and order, questing; a search for definition through context. The ways in which both Yeats and Mitchell’s characters ultimately find this clarity must be explored. The Second Coming, published first in ‘Michael Robartes and the Dancer’ (1921) depicts Yeats’ chaos theory; the heralding of a new order and destruction of the old ‘Turning and turning in the widening gyre/The falcon cannot hear the falconer’; an emblem of Yeats’ belief that upon every two thousand years a new world order would be enforced. The ‘widening gyre’ signifying his analogy of two overlapping inverted cones, humanity circumnavigating one until reaching its widest point and then exchanging realities with its coincident partner. The falcon, a symbol of purity and nobility ‘cannot hear the falconer’. – Semblances of the loss of communication between the old regulated and automated reality, the changing of context as the new order ‘Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born’ in a chilling moment of potential. Yeats acknowledged that this new rule would be neither better nor worse than its precursor, just dissimilar and for that matter fearsome, yet it is peculiar to identify the use of such images of pestilence ‘While all about it reel shadows of the indignant desert birds’. Having replaced the elegant falcon these vultures circle overhead presumably encompassing the carrion left in the wake of ‘The Second Coming’. ‘The blood-dimmed tide is loosed’ – their flight symbolising the tightening gyre of the transition of orders. Jesus Christ gives way to some ‘rough beast’, ‘The twenty centuries of stony sleep were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle.’

Lindsay A. Lauersdorf writes on “Yeats’s Symbols: Cycles and Antinomes.” [Gone! It was interesting too. 😦 ] Timothy J Lord examines the work of Yeats and another famous Irish writer in “The Mariner and the Sea: the dual visions of Yeats and Joyce”.

Here is a site [2007 added] where a poet, Brian Jones, looks at some of his favourite Yeats poems.

At a much simpler level we have this study guide: Summary of some W. B. Yeats Poetry.

On the Bored of Studies site a current HSC student posed this question, before indulging in a pithy four-letter view of Yeats’s work…

“Yeats’s poetry can be seen not only in the context of the socio-political upheavals of the early twentieth century, but also as a pre-occupation with his own unique philosophies and symbolisms. His values are inherent in a reading of the following poems:

“When You Are Old”
“Easter 1916”
“Wild Swans At Coole”
“The Second Coming”

Discuss your understanding of the historical, philosophical and literary values of each of the above works.

Some of you reading this out there might be very very amazed at what HSC students are expected to deal with in forty or fifty minutes. It really is, don’t you think, the kind of question that immediately leads to some Pooh Perplex level of response. Do look at Danny Yee’s review of The Pooh Perplex, a book every English teacher or student should read some day.


And then I googled “Yeats + Nietzche” and got among others:

  • Maria Voelkel “Meditations in Time of Civil War”.
  • “Influences on Yeats” from The Yeats Society Sligo, Hyde Bridge, Sligo, Ireland.
  • “Magic Words, Magic Brush: The Art of William Butler and Jack Yeats” from the Kennedy Center. A set of lesson plans for secondary classes.

    This unit on William Butler Yeats, the writer, and Jack Yeats, the painter, is dedicated to immersing students in a study of the brothers as voices of Ireland, and as two of the most renowned artists of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is dedicated also to evoking students to see how the outlook of an age controls cultural expression, and how this expression is articulated in similar ways throughout genres of art. To help effect these major goals, focus is placed on: the impact of geography, place, and family on both William Butler Yeats and Jack Yeats; the influence of personalities of the time period on the two artists; also, the ways both Yeats align, in philosophical construct and creative expression, with the dynamic changes that occurred in the last part of the nineteenth and the early part of the twentieth centuries.

  • “The darkness drops again”: Yeats, Nietzsche, Ginsberg from The Dark Age Blog which is Canadian, and linked to another rather interesting looking site which may also prove to be totally weird: The Coming Dark Age. I suspend judgement on both until I have looked into them more. But The Dark Age Blog is interesting on “The Second Coming” and the following couple of entries are also relevant.

    Yeats’ famous poem, written just after the conclusion of the Great War of 1914-18, retains its popularity and power of dark enchantment down to this day. It may be the poem most commented upon to be found anywhere on the internet. In tone it is apocalyptic. In mood, it is darkly pessimistic and so it participates in the common mood of pessimism that prevailed in the West after the Great War. The Great War shattered the myth of progress — the widely held (and in some ways naive) optimism that history was simply the inevitable process of human progress. “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned” was only an obvious fact to those who had lived through the conflagration. This myth of progress was one of the casualties of the Great War, along with so much else. As one literary critic pointed out, no utopian novels were written in the West after the war, whereas before the war they had been quite common. On the contrary, the mood in the genre became darkly dystopian, exemplified by Huxley’s Brave New World or Orwell’s 1984, amongst other less well-known examples…

  • Of course it goes without saying to visit Wikipedia or on Yeats, Nietzche, and so on and so on…

    NEW 2007

    George Orwell on Yeats (1943).

    The Life and Works of William Butler Yeats — National Library of Ireland.

    Profile of Yeats — an site. Leads to more sites.

    Modern Classics: William Butler Yeats — from the prestigious Poetry Magazine founded by Harriet Munroe in 1912.

    W.B. Yeats: An Examination of Civilization and Barbarity by John McGuirk on Literary Kicks. “Literary Kicks was founded in July 1994 by Levi Asher, then a struggling writer bored by his tech job at the headquarters of the JP Morgan bank on Wall Street. Operated surreptitiously from Asher’s cubicle as he pretended to work on PowerPoint presentations, LitKicks quickly became a popular online destination and critic’s favorite, also gaining wide usage on college campuses around the world.” Interesting site.

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    Posted by on December 4, 2006 in English studies, HSC, student help, works/authors


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