Leap Into Light

William_Butler_YeatsRobert Huddleston in the Boston Review:

William Butler Yeats has been called the twentieth century’s greatest poet. He may even deserve the title. As Richard Ellmann wrote in his classic study Yeats: The Man and the Masks, “it is not easy to assign him a lower place.” Others may have attempted more; none achieved it. Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and all the other contenders of Yeats’s illustrious generation—none stakes quite the same claim on the imagination, or on the idiom, of our time. “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”; “A terrible beauty is born”; “Now days are dragon-ridden, the nightmare / Rides upon sleep.” Even Joyce has his protagonist Stephen Dedalus murmuring lines from Yeats’s early poem “Who Goes with Fergus?” on Sandymount strand: “And no more turn aside and brood / Upon love’s bitter mystery.” Like Shakespeare, Yeats is inescapable.

Yet few critics, including Ellmann, have seemed entirely comfortable with this fact. As a man, Yeats could be personally unappealing, even arrogant and intolerant, although not more so than Eliot and less so than Pound. The problem with casting Yeats as the ne plus ultra of twentieth-century poets stems from the fact that his work defies preconceptions about what a sufficiently modern—and specifically Modernist—poetry should be. Yeats’s ties to the nineteenth century and the legacy of Romanticism were vital and strong. Most importantly, Yeats forsook radical formal innovation and was instead a lifelong advocate of traditional poetic meter and form. However, as Calvin Bedient writes in The Yeats Brothers and Modernism’s Love of Motion—his lively new study of the poet and his brother, the painter Jack Yeats—“Yeats knew what technical resources to call upon to convey movement as force.” Despite the conventionality of its composition, Bedient maintains, Yeats’s work is a revelation and enactment of the twentieth century’s discoveries about the nature of the physical world and of the human psyche. He is the poet of dynamism, of “creative destruction,” and also of violence and horror.