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.

What Then?

His chosen comrades thought at school
He must grow a famous man;
He thought the same and lived by rule,
All his twenties crammed with toil;
‘What then?’ sang Plato’s ghost, ‘what then?’

Everything he wrote was read,
After certain years he won
Sufficient money for his need,
Friends that have been friends indeed;
‘What then?’ sang Plato’s ghost, ‘what then?

All his happier dreams came true–
A small old house, wife, daughter, son,
Grounds where plum and cabbage grew,
Poets and Wits about him drew;
‘What then?’ sang Plato’s ghost, ‘what then?’

‘The work is done,’ grown old he thought,
‘According to my boyish plan;
Let the fools rage, I swerved in nought,
Something to perfection brought’;
But louder sang that ghost, ‘What then?’

W.B. Yeats (1937)

“The Scholars” by W.B. Yeats

Bald heads, forgetful of their sins,
Old, learned, respectable bald heads
Edit and annotate the lines
That young men, tossing on their beds,
Rhymed out in love’s despair
To flatter beauty’s ignorant ear.

All shuffle there; all cough in ink;
All wear the carpet with their shoes;
All think what other people think;
All know the man their neighbour knows.
Lord, what would they say
Did their Catullus walk that way?

Possession and the poet

Among the thing that dramatic action must burn up are the author’s opinions; while he is writing he has no business to know anything that is not a portion of that action. Do you suppose for one moment that Shakespeare educated Hamlet and King Lear by telling them what he thought and believed? As I see it, Hamlet and Lear educated Shakespeare, and I have no doubt that in the process of that education he found out that he was an altogether different man to what he thought himself, and had altogether different beliefs. A dramatist can help his characters to educate him by thinking and studying everything that gives them the language they are groping for through his hands and eyes, but the control must be theirs, and that is why the ancient philosophers thought a poet or dramatist Daimon-possessed.

W.B. Yeats