The evolution of style in William Yeats Poetry is extremely evident and obvious throughout his lifetime of being a poet. He went through a profound transformation of writing. From the imaginative style of romanticism to a complete one-eighty in the cynical modernism, Yeats had proven that he can handle both of these completely different styles. The two styles are so profoundly different that it would be easy to think that such different themes were written by two different authors. The most profound examples that were discussed in class, however, were his poems “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” and “The Second Coming”. The two different poems with completely different meanings and intentions perfectly highlight Yeats full transformation from romanticism to modernism.
Romanticism is a movement in the arts and literature that originated in the late 18th century, generally characterized by a highly imaginative and subjective approach, emotional intensity, and a dreamlike or visionary quality (“Romanticism”, 1). Often times, themes within romanticism include subjects such as the spirituality within nature, as well as the innocence of childhood, or the hero within the common man (1). The artists, poets, and musicians of the Romantic period used their art to convey emotion or provoke an emotional response from audiences. Romanticism also involved breaking with the past, and consciously moving away from the ideas and traditions of the enlightenment. In so doing, Romanticism changed attitudes toward nature, emotion, reason and even the individual. Yeats had once labeled himself “the last romantic”, and with that, wrote poetry that was “self consciously dreamy and ethereal” (Mays, 997).
One of Yeats earlier poems, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”, fits the mold of romanticism perfectly. In 1890, Yeats first published the poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”, written about the small island that Yeats spent some time at as a child (Mays, 999). The imagery of the island remained so strong within his memory that he wrote a poem about it. The poem was a response to his own desolate, depressing existence within London, homesick and trying to get his name known at the time (Bovey). He was enchanted and enthralled by the image of paradise that resonated with Innisfree, where he dreamed of a nice, easy life that was close to nature. In fact, that was the very subject that was romanticized. Yeats spoke fondly of the tranquility and peace within Innisfree. In the first stanza, he literally opens with his need to “rise and go to Innisfree”, then seems to fluff up the idea that living in a little cabin while making money off of a bee glade would certainly be easier than trudging through the gray, cold streets of London (999). He craves the isolation and peace that Innisfree would bring him in his self made cabin. In the second stanza Yeats continues to list off the qualities of life within this peaceful existence. He would be at peace at this self-made home, where the pace of life would be much slower, eventually having nature simply take over his life as a whole. In this stanza is also where he most effectively describes Innisfree and the peace that would come with it; “Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;/There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,/ And evening full of the linnet’s wings.” (999). Finally, in the third stanza, he reinforces his need to fulfil the wish of being peaceful. He desires this peaceful life of Innisfree so much that, even as he stands among the traffic and crowds of London, he hears the lapping sounds of the water on the shore. It still resonates with his heart, and he finds himself still longing for that idyllic life on that idyllic island.
“The Isle of Innisfree” is one of Yeats most famous romantic poems. It is a highly subjective an imaginative poem that is about an ideal land of romance. This land was made up out of the imagination of the author, creating the isle and imagining the beauties, sounds, and comforts of such a place. Because of his enthrallment with nature, the poem contains some of the classic examples of Romanticism, such as escapism, love for nature, imagination, subjectivity, dreaminess, and the romance of imaginary sounds and beauties (Bovey).
Unlike Romanticism, however, Modernism is a style or movement of the arts that aims to break classical or traditional forms. Originally forming in the 19th century, Modernism replaces or transforms traditions, collective identities, and past-orientations with revolutionary activities such as doubt, inquiry, individualism, and future-orientation. Modernism tends to focus heavily on realistic depictions of what is happening, how unordered life is, and champions the individual with the celebration of inner strength. It highlights on how old customs and traditions have become outdated and old in comparison to the current economic, social, and political environment. A common characteristic of modernism is self-consciousness and irony concerning traditions, which often led to experiments with form (Levenson, 1). Typically, Modernist works have a tendency to be more cynical and blunt, in contrast to Romanticism and its idyllic way of writing. Herein lies the drastic change within Yeats, as his poetry began to take on a tighter, more concrete, and direct as the years went on, and history began to change him (Mays, 997).
In “The Second Coming”, Yeat’s writing took a stark turn from the airy, uplifting, hopeful tones that accompanied “The Isle of Innisfree”. The poem was written in 1919, shortly after the end of World War I and not long after the Easter Rising in Ireland (Mays, 1003). “The Second Coming” refers to the Christian prophecy that Jesus will once again return to Earth as the times end. However, Yeat’s had his own view of the future of the world. This was embodied through the image of gyres, which were spirals that intersect so that each gyre’s narrowest point also contained the widest part of the center (1003). These gyres represent elemental forces in historical cycles, whereas his poem describes the apocalyptic times much differently from the vision of the end of the world by Christianity. The first stanza opens immediately with a powerful description of the apocalypse, describing an image of a falcon circling above in ever widening spirals. Those circles within the air hold the evil;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed and everywhere
The best lack all conviction while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity. (1003)
Within the second stanza of the poem, there is a peek into the nature of this new world. The poet repeats the idea of second coming three times, marking his eagerness for Christ’s second coming. However, instead, the poet sees an image of Spiritus Mundi (Caldwell). Though this sight was supposed to relieve those during the second coming, the narrator of the poem was troubled by it. Yeats describes a sphinx that, without pity, continues to slouch and move towards Bethlehem. Desert birds are disturbed by the movement of the sphinx, metaphorically referring to the disturbance of those left behind once the chaos of the apocalypse has passed. Finally, the “twenty centuries of stone sleep” most likely refers to the barbaric times that came before Christianity (Caldwell). This apocalypse therefor marks the end of the Christian era. By ending his poem with the question “Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” Yeats poses a direct contradiction to Christian belief, where Christ will be born again when the world is in their greatest need, justly judging all, regardless of them being dead or alive (Mays, 1003). However, the poet seems to suggest that the era of Christianity is ending, which will then start another barbaric age, marked with hypocrisy, murder, and an overall lack of humanity towards each other.
This poem reflects the concepts and values of Modernism through many means. Nothing here is ideal. In fact, it is quite the opposite, ripping away any hope from the audience, even going so far as suggesting the Christ will not return at the end of this era. On top of that, the idea of “gyre’s”, which Yeats had come up with all on his own, completely breaks the tradition of religion, science, and even history. It highlights a completely new philosophy about how the world begins and ends, refuting the common, traditional ideas surrounding such a cause. The poem was extremely descriptive and dark within it’s telling of the end times, and it even manages to suggest doubt about the idea of Christs second coming as a whole. To top it off, the poem is extremely cynical, expressing the idea that there is no hope to come once this world ends. Not even the hope that Christ will save those left behind.
William Butler Yeats is identified as a modern poet today, though with his earlier poetry, he clearly expressed some fondness and capability of writing Romanticism. There is such a stark, obvious contrast between “The Isles of Innisfree” and “The Second Coming” that one could question how it was possibly written by the same poet. His poetry took a sharp transition from his ideological longing for home sweet home to predicting the hopelessness of end times. Clearly, as Yeats grew and matured, observing history happen around him, he poetry changed with him. These experiences caused a transition from a hopeless romantic to a cynical modernist as the world became more violent and dark through the years.