Book Review: Selected Poems and Three Plays by William Butler Yeats

Yeats is, as the back of this particular edition of his best works says, probably “the greatest twentieth-century poet to write in English.” Of course, the attentive reader will note the careful wording here that separates Yeats as much as possible from that word “English,” as, although he wrote in English, he is a definitively Irish poet. His poetry, soaked with references to the history, mythology, and landscape of Ireland and exhibiting an uniquely Irish character, is an embodiment of Irishness, if such a thing exists. In particular, it embodies the tenuous state of Ireland at the beginning of the 20th century, a nation both young and old simultaneously, worn out and vigorous at once.

In addition to embodying the Irish national character, however, Yeats is also a poet for all modern people. His obsessive fear of age and death, a theme that runs throughout the poems here, is very much a modern ailment. So, too, is the desire for meaning and mysticism even in a world grown decidedly meaningless and flat. In all of this and more, Yeats is the poet of modernity.

This particular edition is a nearly perfect collection of the very best of Yeats. Rosenthal’s introduction and notes are not overwhelming, as scholarly editions and collected works so often are. Instead, the editor provides just the right amount of commentary to allow the reader who is new to the work of Yeats to approach with understanding. I recommend this edition to anyone who wants an excellent introduction to the works of the great poet of the twentieth-century.

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