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William Yeats (1865-1939)


Life

He was born in Dublin in 1865 into a professional middle-class family who belonged to the Anglo-Irish Protestant minority . Two years after his birth they moved to London . the young Yeats derived much of his attachment to Ireland from the frequent visits to his mother’s family in Sligo. He was influenced for his love of art by his father. Yeats was attracted by mystical doctrines and magic.
He fell in love with Maud Gonne who led him deeper into the politics of the Irish Republican, but later disillusioned him, because of that Yeats split up with Politics.
In the 1890s he met Lady Gregory who increased his love for Irish folklore and supported his project regarding the Abbey Theatre . for Yeats the role of the artist was to create a new culture based on Ireland’s past, his hope in Irish cultural renaissance is expressed in “The Celtic Twilight”.
After the Easter Rebellion in 1916 he gradually became moderate and in 1922 he became a senator in the upper house of Dail.
In 1917 he married Georgie Hide-Lees who introduced him to the “Automatic writing” according to which spirits dictated him what to write, Yeats worked up those communication into a pseudo-philosophical system set out in “A Vision”.
In 1923 he won the Nobel prize for Literature and later died in France in 1939.

The phase of Yeats’s art

Yeats’s works can be divided into three periods:
  • • Early period we can find the influence of the Romantics (Blake), the Irish folklore and French symbolists (Baudelaire) --> “The Rose” and “The Wind Among The Reeds”
    • In the middle period Yeats’s style became more modern and flexible, he started to build up his symbols as means to evoke universal myth --> “the wild swans at coole”
    • In the later period his works are characterized by a passionate intensity --> “A Vision” , “The Tower”

Art and history

Yeats was the role of the writer as one of mediating the continuity of the national spirit, so Irish literature become a way to create a social bond.
After the Easter Rebellion in 1916 and the subsequent executions he became to have nightmares of history that became too personal. He created a tragic vision of history as a 2000-years cycles of civilizations rising from a bestial floor to great heights before turning down to anarchy. He became confident of the superiority of art to history

Yeats’s vision

In “A Vision” the poet rejected the mainstream 20th-century orthodoxies of Christianity, Marxism and psychoanalysis .
A vision is divided in 5 sections; the book contains theories which were revealed and communicated to him by supernatural beings through his wife’s extrasensory faculties. He took this revelation quite seriously and worked on them for seven years, publishing them in their final version in 1937.
A Vision is indeed a semi-astrological system, containing “an elaborate theory of human personality and of the transformation of the soul in this world and the next”.
Through the use of symbolic figures and geometrical diagrams, Yeats builds up his theory of “the Great Wheel of the Lunar Phases”.
According to this theory each man is governed by 4 faculties, the Wheel (i.e. power of determination), the Mask (i.e. the image of what you what to become), the Creative mind (i.e. the intellect) and the body of faith (i.e. the physical and mental environment).
The prevalence of one or the other 4 faculties results in a certain type of human personality or in different moments in the life of a single person or even in different ages of civilization.
These types are positioned in a sort of closed circle corresponding to the orbit of the moon. The two opposite poles of this orbit are the dark moon (in the Primary section), and the full moon (in the Antithetical section).
The dark moon, when the sun prevails, represent complete objectivity, i.e. ratiocination and the outer world, while the full moon stands for complete subjectivity, i.e. poetic imagination and creativity, as well as the inner world. Between these two opposite poles there are 26 more phases covering all possible times of personalities.
Yeats sees history as formed by a series of opposite cycles (Vico’s corsi e ricorsi), each cycle (which Yeats calls Magnus annus or Great Year) lasting two thousand years. Each age is the opposite of the previous one; an age of rule and authority will be followed by an age of anarchy and violence. Each cycle has a circular development like a gyre which gradually ascends, reaches a climax and then, through a slow decay, descends, is destroyed and is soon replaced the following cycle.
The gyre combines a rotating movement. This movement represents the flow of a life cycle towards its end to the beginning of a new cycle. The gyre symbolizes the course of both the mankind and history.

Features and themes

  • • his majesty of style
    • bitter vision of man’s destiny
    • pessimistic view of the empty modern world
    • his love for life
    • his belief in eternity and beauty of art
    • poetic language rich in symbols and images

Yeats and Blake

From Blake Yeats learned the use of symbols, he inherit the vision that the outer objective world is only a projection of an inner subjective reality. Men cannot know the truth , but can only try to get it through symbols created by the poetic imagination. They share the vision of the poet as a prophet who thanks to vision can understand the reality and depict it through symbols and images. Symbols have an effective role in shaping both the individual and collective consciousness .

Yeats and occultism

The reading of Nietzsche increased his question for “completeness” and continued to elaborate the theme of mysticism, which was inspired by his father’s arguments against Christian belief that led him to investigated theories of the occult. In London he joined a mystical society, learned magic and esoteric symbols and began to create a vision of his own.

The gyre

The gyre is one on Yeats’s most important symbols. Yeats’s describes the mind’s evolution as a process of circling into a gyre until “the center cannot holt” (the second coming) at that point the mind shift to a new center. Yeats’s opposite gyres are in conflict and each one is the symbol of the new world order

Themes

In a firs moment he focused his attention on : beauty and eternity of art and the relationship between the poet and Irish culture, in a second period he is more concerned with age, failing body and willing heart, the theme of death became urgent: the animal simply dies, instead man dies many time. Another important figure is the hero: loneliness is a feature of the hero because of his superiority which distinguish him from the common man.

Yeats’s verse

He focuses his attention on conflicts and resolution of opposites, he uses antithesis, oxymoron and paradox. The coincidence between period and stanza is a characteristic feature. His vocabulary contains words of sensual and sensory experience and verbs of motion and action.
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