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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars From Fairies to Fascism..., 4 Nov 2007
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This review is from: The Cambridge Companion to W. B. Yeats (Cambridge Companions to Literature) (Paperback)
Yeats' written output over almost 50 years was immense, spread over poetry, drama, prose writing, and critical essays. I assume I'm not the only one unwilling to read everything, so the Cambridge series is pretty handy in filling in the gaps. The first four chapters here address the poetry exclusively, covering the transition from Yeats' ornate Decadence of the 1890's to his more muscular presence at the turn of the century and the arch-Modernist persona of 1917 onwards.
Yeats & the Romantic recognises his debt to Shelley and Blake (their interest in the esoteric and symbolic being pivotal), and Yeats' re-categorisation of the Romantic from a concern of Wordsworth, Keats, et al, to a broader sensibility he saw himself in tune with. No doubt Yeats would have agreed with Wallace Stevens that, "poetry is essentially romantic."
Yeats, Victorianism & the 1890's illustrates how the poet developed an aesthetic to counter the stuffy Victorian discursiveness common to poetry of the time. The Irish Renaissance, he said, was full of energy but needed to be re-assessed, needed an aesthetic to counter its overtly political, propagandist obsession. George Watson shows how, in The Hosting of the Sidhe, Yeats manages to introduce such an apocalyptic aesthetic whilst utilising traditional Irish characters, "a host as far as it is possible to be from the domesticated denizens at the bottom of English gardens."
Yeats & Modernism describes his almost schizophrenic relationship with the movement. Whilst accusing modern vocabularies of objectifying cultural references, Yeats himself used the same Surrealist techniques as Andre Breton (admittedly under a different name and guise) to write his séance-inspired A Vision. Whilst describing the products of free-verse as "all out of shape from toe to top", he still made plenty use of it himself. And whilst deploring the "vulgar diction" and obscenity of modern writers, a reader of the later Yeats will be confronted with any number of bellies, bums and `rods with butting heads'.
Other chapters are essentially biographical, encountering Yeats (the man rather than the poetry) from the perspective of a particular school; gender studies, post-colonial studies, drama, etc. In all I found the focus worked well. Most readers of Yeats will be coming from his poetry rather than his less consistent and certainly more obscure plays, so by clearing the decks early on the later chapters can run their line relatively unencumbered. They all have their `Ah!' moments, when a poem can suddenly be read again in new ways; the double meaning of the "shrieking wind" in A Prayer for my Daughter wasn't apparent to me until the essay on gender.
I definitely recommend this book. Most essays are strong, although Howes' on the post-colonial does seem confused (maybe that's the point). Given that Yeats almost resolved his life through his writing any amount of background information is useful, and this book contains a good mix of breadth and depth.
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