Top positive review
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"And I would find myself and not an image."
on 6 November 2007
This selection gives 28 pages to the early 1890's Decadent period, 41 pages between 1900 and 1917 when Yeats felt his verse growing more assertive and definite, and then 139 pages for the remaining Modernist period from 1917 till the poet's death in 1939. In fairness, the selection reflects the quality of Yeats' writing throughout his life rather than any bias on the part of Webb. Yeats himself said "as I look back upon my own writing, I take pleasure alone in those verses where it seems to me I have found something hard and cold", a reference to the complacently dreamy verses of the early Crossways, still to be found lingering round the corner of The Lake-Isle of Innisfree.
Yeats resolved his life through his poetry, as an avid reader of Nietzsche he was constantly recapitulating, reconciling himself with his past; Ego Dominus Tuus epitomises that. He spent much energy in attempting to reconcile Ireland to an image of itself, one neither effeminately sentimental as the English stereotype made out ("always ready to revolt against the despotism of fact" - Arnold), nor as one-dimensionally political as the Young Ireland propaganda-culture threatened to make it. Poems The Fisherman, Easter 1916, September 1913, all display Yeats' construction of and frustration at Irish identity at the time. Ultimately though, it's his final concern between competing and complementary opposites, a theme developed through the spiritualism of his book A Vision, the opposition of abstract knowledge and visceral activity, which defines much of his later, modern verse. The Tower, Sailing to Byzantium, The Second Coming, and on to Under Ben Bulben, each reflect the theme of periodic revolution of opposite states; life/death, wisdom/vulgarity, quality/baseness... These are the haunting and powerful poems of a proud but aging man at war with both himself and the mediocre world of "greasy tills" he felt overtaking him.
Yeats would probably have agreed with Wallace Stevens that, "poetry is essentially romantic". Much of this selection shows his attempt to romanticise or dramatise his country and himself, his wish to create symbols of Ireland and `Yeats - the poet' that would become part of the national, almost mythological, heritage of the new Free State. For that reason the selection reads, at times, as an autobiography in verse, one in which the poet and poem fall into each other like the worlds of a Borges short-story (only 40-odd years before the master trickster himself). Brilliant stuff. Definitely recommend it.