W. B. Yeats

Poems Selected by Seamus Heaney

“The fascination of what's difficult has dried the sap out of my veins, and rent spontaneous joy and natural content out of my heart.”

Perhaps the clearest way to capture the political and literary ingenuity of William Butler Yeats (1865 – 1939) to Irish nationhood is to say people of a certain age will know where they were when they heard Yeats died. Few people, considering the poet died in 1939, but nevertheless. Yeats is intertwined with the Irish psyche.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.1

From “The Second Coming”

However this superb collection of Yeats poems from 1915-1939, chosen by Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, is not as focused on Yeat’s political voice as it is a contemplation of “the moment of complete consciousness which is also the moment of complete powerlessness in the face of pain.”

The fascination of what’s difficult
Has dried the sap out of my veins, and rent
Spontaneous joy and natural content
Out of my heart. There’s something ails our colt
That must, as if it had not holy blood
Nor on Olympus leaped from cloud to cloud,
Shiver under the lash, strain, sweat and jolt
As though it dragged road-metal…

From “The Fascination of What’s Difficult”

William Butler Yeats, painted by his father. Featured in W. B. Yeats "Selection of Poems" in the Examined Life Library.
William Butler Yeats, painted by his father, John Butler Yeats in 1900.

The tension of consciousness – between what Erich Fromm called “the having and being” – reigned in Yeats’ work and propelled his creative abilities.2

Now all the truth is out,
Be secret and take defeat
From any brazen throat,
For how can you compete,
Being honour bred, with one
Who, were it proved he lies,
Were neither shamed in his own
Nor in his neighbours’ eyes?

[…]

Be secret and exult,
Because of all things known
That is the most difficult.

From “To a Friend whose Work has come to Nothing”

“The mere act of writing splits the self into two” observed novelist Margaret Atwood as she parsed the duelling aspects of the creative self, one that writes and one that makes writing possible by paying the bills.

"Study for Portrait II (after the Life Mask of William Blake) 1955 by Francis Bacon." Featured in Michael Peppiatt's "Francis Bacon in Your Blood: A Memoir" in The Examined Life Library.
“Study for Portrait II (after the Life Mask of William Blake) ” by Irish painter Francis Bacon, 1955. Bacon’s biographer argued that Bacon sought a chaotic existence in order to give space for his explosive, multi-dimensional self. Learn more.

For Yeats, the duality was less an outcome of his chosen profession and more consequence of recognizing the absurdity of the human effort.

Heaney put it simply:

Reading Yeats, we are under the sway of a voice that offers both expansiveness and containment…The expansiveness arises from a confidence that the mind is its own place and within great distances can be imagined and traversed at will. The containment is present as a sensation of strong emotion and intellectual pressure coming up against former limits and straining within them.

Yeats speaks to this dichotomy directly in his 1939 poem “A Dialogue of Self and Soul.”

My Soul. I summon to the winding ancient stair:
Set all your mind upon the steep ascent,
Upon the broken, crumbling battlement
Upon the breathless starlit air…

My Self. The consecrated blade upon my knees
Is Sato’s ancient blade still as it was
Still razor-keen, still like a looking-glass
Unspotted by the centuries;
that flowering, silken, old embroidery, torn…

From “A Dialogue of Self and Soul”

There is a restrained precision in Yeats’ poetry, his powerful intellect spills into the words, emotion that abolishes all of our peace and ease.

The threshold of pain, an awareness of our mortal self and suffering, is something from which we so quickly turn. And yet, Yeats faces it directly, more than that, “A fascination of what’s difficult” is the primary propulsion to his work.

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

From “When You Are Old”

An exceptionally powerful Yeats poem, “The Man and the Echo” one written months before his death, questions life’s meaning and yet still contains that audacious thunderous self that was Yeats.

O Rocky Voice,
Shall we in that great night rejoice?
What do we know but that we face
One another in this place?
But hush, for I have lost the theme,
Its joy or night seem but a dream:
Up there some hawk or owl has struck,
Dropping out of sky or rock,
A stricken rabbit is crying out,
And its cry distracts my thought.


From “The Man and the Echo”

Never content to sit still or silent, always gazing into the widening gyre without blinking, thus is this great poet, whose name rests still upon our minds.

I, the poet William Yeats,
with old mill boards and see-green slates,
and smithy work from the Gort forge,
Restored this tower for my wife George;
And may these characters remain
When all is ruin once again.

From “To Be Carved on a Stone at Thoor Ballylee”

Accompany Yeats’ scurry in and out the transcendental and firmly rooted with essays from Walter Benjamin on our limits of self, Albert Camus on the absurdity of life or Keats’ letters on a contemplative creative soul.

William Butler Yeats © The Examined Life