Characteristics of the Works of W. B. Yeats

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Yeats’ ‘An Irish Airman foresees his Death’ is an elegy characterized and stopped by light rhythms- an inevitable finality like death itself. A poem imbued with Yeats’ romantic aspiration for an acceptance and balance between life's inherent oppositions; temporality and eternity, ‘An Irish Airman’ is derived from the shortcomings of an aged poet, whose romantic aesthetic was being challenged by societal upheaval. In ‘An Irish Airman’, for Pickering, “Yeats fashioned a powerful image— the airborne, detached pilot on the brink of death that is more than simply an outstanding example of his virtuosity as a maker of images” (Pickering, 85). Yeats uses the language of an exhausted, uncertain time (‘it only seems a waste’ (Beckett, An Irish Airman 14)) to blow time away, in a dramatic instance of dialectics of a standstill. In which, the fruit of negativity emphasised in an abundance of ‘nors’ constellates into an image of personality untethered to time- a ‘lonely impulse of delight’(Yeats, An Irish Airman 11). Additionally, effective use of chiasmus in ‘The years to come seem waste of breath, A waste of breath the years behind. In balance with this life, this death’(Yeats, Irish Airman 14-16), serves, through repetition to illustrate the futility of resistance to time. This effect of repetition, being the hallmark for communicating memorable and powerful concepts, enables Yeats’ protagonist to decouple himself from the world-historical dialect, thereby opening himself up to an excess of time.

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Many critics, including Wack, believe a reading of Yeats’ two Byzantium poems is unified. Wack joins the poems in such a way that is synonymous with the connections of two strands of DNA, breathing new life into an old art form (Wack). In ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, Yeats grapples with time; the poem’s protagonist criticizes society's preoccupation with youth, discovering old age has rendered him a misfit. He endeavours to circumvent the limitations of time, finally overcoming death by immortalizing himself in art.

The use of natural images in the poem shows pain afforded by time is only temporary. Yeats calls this out with the parenthetical expression ‘those dying generations’ (Yeats, Sailing 3). Significantly, Yeats employes dashes here to emphasise upon, and jar the reader, to the unforgiving nature of time. Furthermore, ‘Birds in the trees’ (Yeats, Sailing 2) creates an inversion of meaning with ‘trees’ usually associated with fecundity, not death. This suggestion of that in the very act of procreation are the seeds of decay, further alludes to a poem of many subversions of meaning. This ambiguity is further evident as an analysis of the poem as a whole affords a refutation of Stanza three. Yeats can't be both absorbed by golden eternity of the sages (alludes to the timeless) and be the temporal contrivance of a Byzantine goldsmith, singing of the ‘past, or passing, or to come’,(Yeats, Sailing 32) as there is no past, present and future in an eternal now. This tension between emotional temporality and cognitive persistence that is particularly evident in ‘Caught in that sensual music all neglect/ Monuments of unageing dialect’ (Yeats, Sailing 7-8)- here, life is cyclic.

Likewise in ‘Byzantium’, in an attempt to transmute the temporal into the timeless, the speaker juxtaposes the aesthetic accomplishments of ‘great cathedral’ (Yeats, Byzantium 4) with the ‘mere complexities’ (Yeats, Byzantium 7)of man working to parallel the ‘art is nature dichotomy’ in ‘Sailing to Byzantium’. Yeats’ attitude to subjectivity and time is further evident in ‘Before me floats an image, man or shade’ (Yeats, Byzantium 9). Here the duality of death is alluded to; the ghost may be dead from the earthy perspective, yet alive from the spiritual realm. Further subjectivity is perceptible in ‘I call it death-in-life and life-in-death’ (Yeats, Byzantium 16), alluding to Yeats’ understanding of the inconsequentiality of time. Here, Yeats’ intense syntax is delineated to resuscitate the immediacy of a poet acting in the present moment hence withstanding the temporal diminution permeating Eliot’s works.

Although differing in aspects of their presentation of time and subjectivity, Yeats and Eliot both pictured a Europe ailing as a result of the First World War; a society devoid of the logical sense of rational purpose that fuelled post-Enlightenment Europe. This external influence makes their poetry valuable to compare and contrast, however, it is important to acknowledge that one called himself a classicist (Eliot) who wrote objectively, and the other considered himself ‘the last Romantic’ because of his subjective writing and interest in mysticism (Khalid, 1). On the subject of Yeats and Eliot's’ differing approaches to subjectivity, Chung writes that whilst ‘Eliot advocated aesthetic objectivity to react against the romantic subjectivity that went too loose’- ‘Yeats had a personal symbolic system and no specific alert against the excess of subjectivity’ (Chung, 87-88).

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