Denis Donoghue: Why WB Yeats matters

WB Yeats

WB Yeats

As even the hostile critic FR Leavis conceded, in Yeats’s poetry ‘there is no element of a man’s experience in the twentieth century that, of its nature, it excludes’

Many years ago I gave a lecture at Queen’s University Belfast on a theme I have long since forgotten. After the lecture Prof Singh of the Italian department came up to say hello and to invite me, if I were so inclined, to listen to a tape recording of a recent lecture given at Queen’s by the literary critic FR Leavis. The subject was William Butler Yeats.

I was indeed so inclined, especially as Dr Leavis had turned down my request that he write an essay for An Honoured Guest, a collection of new essays on Yeats that JR Mulryne and I were compiling. Leavis’s assessment of Yeats was hard to find – he did not write on him as often as on TS Eliot – so his lecture would be a pointed occasion. The following morning, before catching the train to Dublin, I listened to it in silence with Prof Singh.

Leavis began by asserting that although Yeats was obviously a major figure, it was difficult to point to a single poem in which his genius was manifest. Without more ado, Leavis chose to comment on three poems: Sailing to Byzantium, Byzantium and Among School Children, in that order.

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Filed under Biography, History, Poem

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