Yeats derives his poetic strength from the fusion of his life experiences and his perspective of the world. The tension in the poetry is deeply rooted in the troubled political context of his time and the personal disappointment he suffered throughout his life. He transformed these things into exquisite poetry. As T.S Eliot describe he was able to articulate the human condition and express the timeless truths which are valued by human beings universally. Yeats particularly demonstrates how a poet can reflect the various concerns of his age while maintaining a distinctive voice hence transcending the limitations of time. Yeats expresses this through the two poems “Easter 1916” and “Leda and the Swan”. The tension in Yeats poetry can be depicted in “Easter 1916” As critics such as Dr Edward Said argued Yeats’ poetry “belongs to a tradition of Post-colonial literature” since the Irish have suffered for centuries under English colonial rule. Yeats rejected the English cultural domination and transformed and established a unique and independent Irish culture.
One of the strongest issues facing the world today, war, is depicted in Yeats’ “Easter 1916”. It was, and still today is, a powerful political poem. It tells the story of the Irish Republican Rebellion against the British and addresses Romanticism, history and Yeats personal ageing process and the ageing of the world. “In the first stanza, the poet does not address the rebellion as an issue – until the last line, “All’s changed, changed utterly: a terrible beauty is born”. The oxymoron ” A terrible beauty is born.” is the sense of identity that was born out of the unexpected war towards Irish Independence from England. The adjective “terrible” refers to the violence and bloodshed whilst “beauty” refers to the unity and renewed nationalism of Ireland. Yeats reiterates the oxymoron right through the poem to pay respects for the sacrifices made. Yeats also identifies the transformation of the ordinary people’s lives in Dublin to being remembered as the heroes and martyrs. The ordinariness of the dull background of the heroes of the arising establishes the poets’ alienation from them. This is reinforced through the imagery of the “grey eighteenth century houses”. The social exchange is depicted as a superficial relationship through “polite meaningless words” and the “vivid” animated faces expresses the light-hearted and happy times. Yeats uses the imagery of “motley” which has a connotation to that of a medieval person or jester and conveys the meaningless play acting that the Irish had in their life They indulged in mockeries and jibes just to please the other. And, now everything changes as if there was no reverting back to good times. Though they held “vivid” faces distinct from one another they were united in the common identity, and united in their thirst for freedom for the British. Yeats then shifts focus to the general aspects of nature to reinforce the idea that change is inevitable “The hearts united with one purpose” symbolises the obsession with which the rebels hold on to their quest. The use of finite verbs (“range”, “change” , “dive”, “call”) create a sense of movement and the repetition of minute-by-minute creates a feeling of change. The enjambment of the lines “range/from cloud” and “stream/changes”, the onomatopoeic “plashes” and the use of assonance create a moving, evocative atmosphere. The “living stream” of flowing water that is a symbol of life will constantly have its serenity disturbed by the horse, the clouds, birds and the stone itself. The image of a resolute “stone in the midst of all” illustrates the rebels rock-like determination.
Yeats reinforces the aspect of tension in “Leda and the Swan” as a conceit for the subjugation of Ireland by the British. Yeats laments Ireland’s conflict with the British and the subsequent subjugation – Ireland is Leda to the Swan of British rule and occupation . “He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.” The imagery depicted shows the A huge and violent machinery of fate is operating here: the staggering girl who is raped, So mastered by the brute blood of the air. The alliteration in both these phrases, as well as others in the poem , enforces a harsh abrasive reading of the poem. In Yeats’ view of history, transcendent violence exists at each side of annunciation; each great movement forward in history is stained with the brute blood of terror. Troy’s destruction (The broken wall, the burning roof and tower/And Agamemnon dead.) is as violent and horrific as the crucifixion of Jesus was, and the early Twentieth Century is. Agamemnon’s death is a direct allusion to Troy’s destruction as he was King of Mycenae
and leader of the Greek siege of Troy. Upon his return, however he is murdered by his wife Clytemnestra. the rhetorical questions of the second and third stanza convey a helpless, passive sense of how history works: beyond the will of man. The analogy is very provocative and creates political propaganda. Can Ireland like Leda resist his power can she put on his knowledge. Yeats makes clear that resistance is futile and that a new civilisation knowledge is gaining subjects. The link here to the colonising process of Britain in the 19th and 20th century is evident.Yeats uses juxtaposition and imagery to indicate powerful action (sudden blow, beating, staggering, beating, shudder, mastered, burning, mastered) of the swan contrasting with Leda’s weakness and helplessness (caressed, helpless, terrified, vague, loosening), thus increasing the sensory impact of the poem. The poetry of W.B Yeats has relevance to the contemporary society today as the universal themes have been able to transcend time. The tension in his poetry is well documented through the troubled political context of his time in “Easter 1916” and “Leda and the Swan” and the personal disappointment he suffered throughout his life. Yeats was without a doubt one of the greatest poets of the 20th century as he was able to articulate the human condition and express the timeless truths that are valued by human beings universally.