Yeats revisited

by C.H. Sisson

Yeats revisitedA review of The Collected Works of W. B. Yeats, Vol. I: The Poems edited by Richard J. Finneran.

(Book June 1989)

Richard J. Finneran’s revised edition of the poems of W. B. Yeats is the first volume of a fourteen-volume series that will include Yeats’s plays, essays, and autobiographies.[1] It could not have appeared at a better time. Fifty is a dangerous age for a dead man’s reputation. The fame of a lifetime has had time to fade, and the echoes are more likely to give an impression of distance than of the enthusiasm which first gave rise to it. The weakening of the echoes is progressive. In 1942, three years after Yeats’s death, Allen Tate could still speak of “a poetry which . .. is nearer the center of our main traditions of sensibility and thought than the poetry of Eliot and Pound.” I suppose that was a bold thought for the time, from a man of an age to have received the first impact not only of Yeats’s later work but of the main oeuvre of Pound and Eliot. At the same time Tate delivered himself of a grim foreboding: “the study of Yeats in the coming generation is likely to overdo the scholarly procedure, and the result will be the occultation of [the] poetry.” It could be argued that he was right about the scholarly procedures. Was he also right about the occultation? Or, as Eliot and Pound themselves hurry into the past, does their work seem in no less danger of losing touch with the “sensibility and thought” of the immediate future?

Yeats was born in 1865, the year in which the American Civil War ended and in which Swinburne, still only in his late twenties, published Atalanta in Calydon. Those events smell of a past already remote when, in 1936, Yeats said in the introduction to his Oxford Book of Modern Verse, “I have tried to be modern”—a claim to which the contents of that muddled volume gave, even then, a certain pathos. He was, after all, an older contemporary of William Vaughn Moody and of Edwin Arlington Robinson, and had outlived them both. A septuagenarian, however brilliant a performer he has been or still is, is not the best person to edit an anthology designed to give a view of the preceding three decades. It would be absurd to judge Yeats’s “modernity” in terms of his work as an anthologist; in the New Poems, published by the Cuala Press in 1938 and reproduced in the posthumous Last Poems (1940), he still spoke with authority. It is on the “later Yeats” as a whole (however you reckon that period) that any claim to count the poet with Eliot and Pound as a “modern” must rest. However that may be, those three are the three major poets of the English language in the first half of the twentieth century—two Americans, one Irishman. No Englishman: Hardy, born in 1840, can hardly be considered of the period.

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