The greatest poems by W. B. Yeats selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
W. B. Yeats (1865-1939) was a prolific Irish poet, but what were his best poems? It’s going to prove difficult to restrict our choices to just ten of Yeats’s greatest poems, as there are bound to be notable absences from our list. Nevertheless, all ten of the poems listed here give an insight into the most prevalent themes of Yeats’s poetry.
1. ‘Leda and the Swan’.
A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast …
So begins this famous sonnet, which focuses on the story from Greek myth in which Zeus, having adopted the form of a swan, rapes the girl Leda and impregnates her with the child who will become Helen of Troy. This single act, Yeats tells us, brings about the Trojan War and, with it, the end of Greek civilisation and the dawn of a new (largely Christian) age. Because in raping Leda, Zeus made her conceive Helen of Troy, whose beauty would bring about the outbreak of the Trojan War. This is a great cataclysmic moment in history (merging history with myth) for Yeats.
Nor dread nor hope attend
A dying animal;
A man awaits his end
Dreading and hoping all;
Many times he died,
Many times rose again …
In this, one of Yeats’s finest short poems, he compares man’s awareness that he will die with an animal’s lack of awareness of death: an animal neither fears death (because it has no concept of dying) nor hopes for life after death (as man does, consoling himself through religion that death will not be the end).
He is probably echoing a sentiment put forward by Shakespeare in Julius Caesar: ‘Cowards die many times before their deaths. The brave experience death only once.’ We ‘die’ in the course of our lives many times, through failure of nerve or failing to live in some other sense; yet we get another chance to make our lives good; this reading of the lines is borne out by the next line, referring as it does to ‘A great man in his pride’.
3. ‘The Second Coming’.
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 blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity …
This poem prophesies that Christ’s Second Coming is due, and that the anarchy that has arisen all around the world (partly because of the events of the First World War) is a sign that this Second Coming cannot be far off. The ‘gyre’ metaphor Yeats employs in the first line (denoting circular motion and repetition) is a nod to Yeats’s mystical belief that history repeats itself in cycles. But the gyre is ‘widening’: it is getting further and further away from its centre, its point of origin. In short, it’s losing control, and ‘the centre cannot hold’.
Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet …
The gist of this poem, one of Yeats’s most popular poems, is straightforward: if I were a rich man, I’d give you the world and all its treasures. If I were a god, I could take the heavenly sky and make a blanket out of it for you. But I’m only a poor man, and obviously the idea of making the sky into a blanket is silly and out of the question, so all I have of any worth are my dreams. And dreams are delicate and vulnerable – hence ‘Tread softly’.
5. ‘Long-Legged Fly’.
That civilisation may not sink,
Its great battle lost,
Quiet the dog, tether the pony
To a distant post;
Our master Caesar is in the tent
Where the maps are spread,
His eyes fixed upon nothing,
A hand under his head.
Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence …
So begins this classic Yeats poem, one of the great poems about silence. Silence is found elsewhere in Yeats’s work – in ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’, for instance, he longs to escape to the tranquillity of the isle mentioned in that poem’s title – but ‘Long-Legged Fly’ is about, in Yeats’s own words, how the mind moves upon silence. The poem takes in Julius Caesar, Helen of Troy, and Michelangelo, but throughout we find the refrain: ‘Like a long-legged fly upon the stream’.
I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love …
What was it like to be an Irish soldier fighting for Britain in the First World War, but to be an Irishman longing for independence from the British? This conflict is the focus of this soliloquy, one of Yeats’s finest poems about the fight for Irish independence during, and just after, WWI.
Despite Yeats’s title, ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’, there is little sense of patriotism at the national level displayed by the speaker. Instead, his allegiance is to his Kiltartan Cross, a small parish in the county of Galway in Ireland, a remote part of the British ‘empire’ which is unlikely to be greatly troubled by the war: this Irish airman’s sacrifice (or heroic victories) matter little to the ‘poor’ of Kiltartan, who are likely to remain poor whatever happens in the mighty clash of empires that was the First World War. The idea that soldiers in the First World War fought ‘for King and Country’ made for good propaganda, and was undoubtedly true in the case of many English poets (Edward Thomas, for instance); but it wasn’t true of everyone …
7. ‘Sailing to Byzantium’.
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect …
Growing older, feeling out of touch with the new generation superseding you, feeling surplus to requirements, waiting for death. These are, perhaps, inevitable thoughts once we reach a certain age: they certainly came to Yeats in his later years, and he frequently wrote about growing old. This is partly what ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ is about.
W. B. Yeats wrote ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ in 1927, when he was in his early sixties, and published a year later in The Tower. The poem is about renouncing the hold of the world upon us, and attaining something higher than the physical or sensual.
8. ‘Easter 1916’.
Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven’s part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
Another poem about conflicting feelings experienced by an Irishman during the events of the First World War – here, though, the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916, while Britain was busy fighting another war against Germany. As Yeats’s famous final line has it, ‘A terrible beauty is born.’
Those words that end three of the four long stanzas that make up ‘Easter 1916’, with each new repetition of them changing them slightly. ‘All changed, changed utterly’. For among other things, ‘Easter 1916’ is about the tension between change and permanence, steadfastness and flexibility
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade …
In this, one of his most oft-anthologised poems, Yeats describes his intention to go to Innisfree and build a small cabin of clay and wattles, to grow beans and keep bees for honey, and to live on his own there. Who among us, especially if we live in a town or city, hasn’t wished to leave the bustle of urban living behind in favour of a simpler existence?
Innishfree (‘Isle of Heather’) is located near the southern shore of Lough Gill, in County Sligo, Ireland. Why does Yeats want to take off there? The sentiment is one we can probably all relate to: wanting to leave behind the world and the life we inhabit, and ‘get back to nature’ and to a simpler existence. It seems more spiritually fulfilling, more tranquil, more wholesome. This is what ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ is about.
10. ‘Among School Children’.
Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul,
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
Another of Yeats’s great meditations on ageing, ‘Among School Children’ is about a visit made by the ageing Yeats to a convent school in Waterford, Ireland in February 1926. As a Senator, Yeats is visiting the school as a public figure, but the poem is a record of his private thoughts.
‘Among School Children’ is at once public and private: its ‘action’ takes place in a public setting, but this public backdrop prompts the private musings of the aged poet; but he then makes his personal meditations public again, by choosing to publish the poem. In the last analysis, it is at once direct and elliptical in its meaning – typical Yeats, we might say. The symbols refuse to be pinned down too tightly. In order to dance, after all, one must have some freedom.
Discover more of Yeats’s greatest poetry with The Major Works including poems, plays, and critical prose (Oxford World’s Classics). You can find more great poetry recommendations with this selection of Louis MacNeice poems, these classic Seamus Heaney poems, and these poems of the great modernist pioneer, T. E. Hulme.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.