In a recording of his poetry made for the BBC in 1932, William Butler Yeats prefaced his stirring rendition of pieces such as “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” and “The Fiddler of Dooney” by explaining that he would read “with great emphasis upon the rhythm, and that may seem strange if you are not used to it.” “It gave me,” he continues, “a devil of a lot of trouble to get into verse the poems that I am going to read, and that is why I will not read them as if they were prose.” There is indeed nothing prosaic in his incantatory method of delivery—“I will ariiiiiise and gooooo noooow, and gooo to Innisfrreee…”—and it takes him a full five seconds to do justice to the long vowels of the poem’s final line, “I heeeeaar it in the deeeep heeaart’s coooore.”

In his poems as well, Yeats frequently refers to the “devil of a lot of trouble” involved in getting thoughts and feelings into verse. In “Adam’s Curse,” for instance, he presents the business of writing as more onerous than the toughest kinds of manual labor:

We sat together at one summer’s end,

That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,

And you and I, and talked of poetry.

I said, “A line will take us hours maybe;

Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,

Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.

Better go down upon your marrow-bones

And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones

Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;

For to articulate sweet sounds together

Is to work harder than all these, and yet

Be thought an idler by the noisy set

Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen

The martyrs call the world.”

Many of the contradictions inherent in Yeats’s figuration of both poetry and his poetic persona are delicately captured in the stately yet fluent pentameter couplets in which he casts his conversation with the mild woman (based on Maud Gonne’s sister Kathleen) and the silent “you,” Maud Gonne herself. On the one hand, a poem is only successful if it disguises the hard work that went into its creation, but on the other Yeats needs us to know about the intense and unremitting labor required to create an apparently spontaneous line. And yet the more natural and effortless a poetic “moment’s thought” can be made to seem, the less likely it is to impress the industrious professional middle classes, from whom Yeats here carefully distances himself, and who, or so he claims, dismiss him as a mere “idler.”

When Yeats began publishing in the 1880s, Tennyson was poet laureate, and, largely through his influence, poetry was popularly conceived as offering such people as the bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen derided in “Adam’s Curse”—as well as their wives—a means of melodious relaxation, a series of “sweet sounds” that might divert a stray hour of idleness, or console for some loss in the real world. Occasionally Tennyson would rail against the enervating aspects of this situation, most notably in the unpopular “Maud,” but in general he suppressed the urge to berate, in public at least, the poetic taste of an audience whose devotion, after all, kept him in the comfort to which he had become accustomed.

Tennyson rarely draws our attention explicitly to the forms he uses, and certainly wouldn’t have wanted his readers to think it took him “a devil of a lot of trouble” to get his rhymes and meters right. One of the fascinations of Yeats’s choice and handling of forms is his urge both to disguise and to advertise their difficulty, to present a line as but “a moment’s thought” but also to make us aware of the arduous “stitching and unstitching” that went into it; and this labor, he hastens to tell us, lest we think the embroidery metaphor a trifle effeminate, is “harder” than scrubbing a kitchen pavement, or breaking stones in all kinds of weather.

The compositional hard work required to create the grand Yeatsian stanza, poem, sequence of poems, and volume has become increasingly apparent with the publication by Cornell University Press over the last fifteen years of the manuscript materials of nearly all of his major collections of poetry. One of the most striking facets of his working methods was his habit of making prose sketches, which he then worked up into verse. “Cuchulain Comforted,” for example, written a matter of weeks before he died in January 1939, is Yeats’s only use of Dantescan terza rima: it began life as a folktale-ish prose narrative of the kind collected by Lady Gregory. The draft, dictated by Yeats to his wife on January 7, opens:

A shade recently arrived went through a valley in the Country of the Dead; he had six mortal wounds, but he had been a tall, strong, handsome man. Other shades looked at him from the trees. Sometimes they went near to him and then went away quickly. At last he sat down, he seemed very tired.

A week later this became:


A man that had six mortal wounds, a man

Violent and famous, strode among the dead;

Eyes stared out of the branches and were gone.

Then certain Shrouds that muttered head to head

Came and were gone. He leant upon a tree

As though to meditate on wounds and blood.

While the language of the prose sketch verges on the simple, even primitive, that of the poem is laconic and theatrical. Cuchulain is no longer a conventional good-looking hero, “tall, strong, handsome,” but a Yeatsian one, “Violent and famous”; conventional “shades” become unsettling “Shrouds,” as if the dead were so many winding sheets, their weirdness making them fit choric witnesses, as they confer “head to head,” of the mortally wounded hero’s singularity. It is the drama of the scene that excites Yeats, and although the poem is about Cuchulain’s loss of agency and individuality, in these opening stanzas he is still enacting his purposefulness, striding among the muttering dead; when he rests it is not because he is “very tired,” but “to meditate on wounds and blood.”

The narratives dramatized in Yeats’s oeuvre nearly all involve some decisive act of transformation that is in many ways analogous to the process of transforming prose into poetry. His metamorphosis in “Easter 1916” of the Post Office insurrectionists into mythical figures who no longer live where motley is worn is accomplished by the physical act of inscribing their names in the poem:

I write it out in a verse—

MacDonagh and MacBride

And Connolly and Pearse

Now and in time to be,

Wherever green is worn,

Are changed, changed utterly….

Despite the occasional self-deprecating remark about the “sedentary” nature of his poetic “trade” (“The Tower”), surely no poet has ever represented the physical process of writing in more active, heroic terms. Yeats’s poems are first forged and then hammered into shape, like the bird of “hammered gold and gold enamelling” of the final stanza of “Sailing to Byzantium,” and the reader is in turn actively enjoined to admire the hammering that creates, in this case, what the Yeats scholar Warwick Gould has called a “sonic form of chiasmus”: “[ham] gold/gold [nam].”

Chiasmus, the repetition of words in reverse order, was, as Helen Vendler demonstrates time and again in her superb study of Yeats’s uses of lyric form, a crucial tool in his poetic workshop. The chiasmic appealed to him, she suggests, because it transforms “the spontaneous, linear, ‘driven’ action” into “an intellectually meditated decision,” rather as the Cuchulain of the prose sketch is transformed in this poem from a “very tired” man who sits down out of exhaustion into one leaning against a tree and meditating on wounds and death. Yeats despised above all things passivity, and famously excluded Wilfred Owen from his 1936 Oxford Book of Modern Verse on the grounds that “passive suffering is not a theme for poetry.” It is by use of chiasmus, as Vendler deftly shows, that the “passive suffering” of another victim of World War I, Robert Gregory, the son of Lady Gregory, is converted into an active Nietzschean embrace of the exhilarating delights of risk undertaken for its own sake:

I balanced all, brought all to mind,

The years to come seemed waste of breath,

A waste of breath the years behind

In balance with this life, this death.

We have here a triple chiasmus (balanced/years to come/waste of breath/ waste of breath/years behind/balance), followed by the monosyllables “this life, this death,” which in turn balance symmetrically as on a seesaw on the pivot of the comma; to an active mind capable of the rhetorical feat of the previous three and a half lines, neither holds any terrors.

As Vendler laments in her preface, poetic form is a discipline whose secrets are becoming increasingly remote from contemporary concerns, and certainly recent Yeats critics have found it more enticing to talk about Yeats as a misogynist or a postcolonial freedom fighter or eugenicist or doomed defender of the Protestant Ascendancy than to describe the rhyme schemes deployed in “Supernatural Songs” or the uses to which he puts tetrameter quatrains. It is notoriously difficult to make gripping the technical aspects of poetry to those who lack a specialized interest in the field, though Dennis Taylor’s illuminating book on Hardy’s prosody and earlier accounts by Vendler of the formal choices made by such poets as Herbert, Keats, and Hopkins amply illustrate the rewards of getting involved in the nuts and bolts of poetic composition.


Yeats’s commitment to the discipline offered by preexisting forms distinguishes his work from that of most Modernist poets; while Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams achieved their individual styles by breaking free of nineteenth-century conventions, Yeats was never tempted by the Modernist discovery of free verse or collage. Indeed, rather than seek to create a style responsive to the fragmentations and disjunctions of modern life, he deliberately set about building a poetry whose structural rigor and solidity would act as a kind of bulwark against what he calls in “The Statues” “this filthy modern tide”:

We Irish, born into that ancient sect

But thrown upon this filthy modern tide

And by its formless, spawning, fury wrecked,

Climb to our proper dark, that we may trace

The lineaments of a plummet-measured face.

In this poem Yeats suggests that Western civilization is fundamentally based on the symmetries of form made possible in the first place by the mathematical discoveries of Pythagoras. Pythagoras’ “calculations” in turn enabled Greek sculptors like Phidias to create images of ideal beauty, and it was these images, rather than the Greek military machine, that really repelled barbarians such as the Persians when they invaded in 480 BC, and were defeated at the Battle of Salamis:

for the men

That with a mallet or a chisel modelled these

Calculations that look but casual flesh, put down

All Asiatic vague immensities,

And not the banks of oars that swam upon

The many-headed foam at Salamis.

Europe put off that foam when Phidias

Gave women dreams and dreams their looking-glass.

“The Statues” makes clear the extraordinarily high stakes involved for Yeats in the concept of form; for his own poetry to resist the “filthy modern tide” and its “formless, spawning, fury,” it had itself to be formally impregnable, as “plummet-measured” as a Phidian statue; what’s more, it had to make its reader aware of its “plummet-measured”ness.

Vendler offers much astute description of the architecture of Yeats’s poems, but also considers the way in which his forms reflected his cultural vision. He himself drew frequent analogies between his elegant, spacious stanzas and the ideals embodied in the Big House, particularly such as Lady Gregory’s at Coole Park. The magisterial ottava rima (eight-line pentameter stanzas rhyming abababcc) of “Ancestral Houses,” the opening section of “Meditations in Time of Civil War,” creates a poetic equivalent of the elegance, inherited wealth, and values represented by “escutcheoned doors” and “great chambers and long galleries, lined/With famous portraits of our ancestors.” The form signified for Yeats, to quote a list of Vendler’s, “courtliness,” “stateliness,” “aristocratic personhood,” “a patronage culture,” and “the Renaissance.”

Many of Yeats’s greatest poems are written in ottava rima, an Italianate form that came into vogue with the Romantics—it was used by Shelley in “The Witch of Atlas,” by Keats in “Isabella; or the Pot of Basil,” and to brilliant comic effect by Byron in Don Juan. In resuscitating it, Yeats aimed neither at Shelleyan Gothic nor Keatsian pathos nor Byronic insouciance but at what Seamus Heaney has called an “unshakably affirmative music” that is “the formal correlation of the poet’s indomitable spirit.” “Sailing to Byzantium,” “Among School Children,” “The Municipal Gallery Revisited,” “The Statues,” and “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” are all in ottava rima, a sequence that spirals symphonically between the “artifice of eternity” and the “foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.”

Yeats’s first attempt at the form did not come until his late fifties, with the opening section of “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” where it serves to commemorate the vanished works of ancient Greek art such as the famous lost ivories of Phidias but also to describe the violence that erupted in Ireland in the year of the poem’s title between Republicans and the Black and Tans, a British-sponsored irregular force:

Now days are dragon-ridden, the nightmare

Rides upon sleep: a drunken soldiery

Can leave the mother, murdered at her door,

To crawl in her own blood, and go scot-free;

The night can sweat with terror as before

We pieced our thoughts into philosophy,

And planned to bring the world under a rule,

Who are but weasels fighting in a hole.

The debased vision of humanity symbolized by the weasels of the final couplet works through its deliberate contradiction of the civilized implications of the ottava rima stanza form. This was how Yeats confronted what he perceived to be the dissolution of all he held dear; rather than shore up fragments against his ruin, he would prove himself worthy of his prominent part in the play by not breaking up his lines to weep.

The dialogue developed in such poems between rhetoric and form was one of Yeats’s great discoveries, and it eventually licensed him to act the Lear-like ranter in his final phase without succumbing to the chaos and formlessness he castigated. Vendler repeatedly draws our attention to the mathematical symmetries of his poetic structures: the eight stanzas of eight lines each in ottava rima of “Among School Children”; the perfect “balance” of the four-by-four tetrameter (four beat) quatrains (abab) of “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death”; the creation of “The Second Coming” out of an unrhymed octet, a sort of failed sonnet that ends with the despair of “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity,” but is then followed by a full unrhymed sonnet that culminates in a vision of the last thing we’d expect to find in a sonnet, an apocalyptic beast with a lion’s body and the head of a man slouching toward Bethlehem.

Vendler is even sure that the form of “Easter 1916” encodes a reference to the date of the initial seizure of the Post Office, which occurred on April 24: how else to explain the uneven length of its stanzas? One and three are sixteen lines each, and two and four are twenty-four lines. Not all Yeatsians, apparently, agree with this, but as she points out, it’s not a form that he uses in any other poem; and poets are, I think, as a tribe, rather more in thrall to the mysteries of numerology than theme-hungry critics tend to notice, if only because it is reassuring to have some kind of architectural plan in mind before launching into the unknown. Certainly for Yeats, whose interests in the occult resulted in a formidably complex and not entirely convincing understanding of history based on the phases of the moon, more than mere elegance was often at stake in his approach to the mathematics of poetry.

One of the problems that faces all critics who undertake formal analyses of poems is what exactly to do with the information they gather. Having determined that, say, “A Prayer for My Daughter” is written in a stanza borrowed from the seventeenth-century poet Abraham Cowley that rhymes aabbcddc and scans metrically—by the number of beats to a line—5-5-5-4-5-4-4-5, how exactly can this knowledge be made critically useful? Here is Vendler’s characterization of the “feel” of such a stanza:

We are initially reassured by the solid presence of the introductory rhyming pentameter couplet; but then we feel unsettled when in the next couplet the two lines, although they rhyme, are of unequal length. The third unit, to our surprise, is not a third rhyming couplet (whether symmetric or asymmetric) but rather two lines of different length that do not rhyme. We are therefore perplexed again, waiting to find the rhyme that will match that of line 5—but we do not arrive at it until line 8. Rhythmic unease is generated in both ear and mind.

She would not of course claim that the effectiveness of “A Prayer for My Daughter” depends on the reader’s noting its formal properties or relation to the Cowley stanza—indeed too obsessive an awareness of form can probably make a stone of the heart, for it’s difficult to be moved while counting stresses and hunting for caesuras. Her point, rather, is that detailed consideration of the form helps us understand how the poem got written the way it did, and thus to describe the actual means with which it creates effects that for the most part we register in that hinterland between the subliminal and the conscious mind. The compression dictated by lines six and seven of the Cowley stanza, for instance, and the embraced rhyme of the last four lines (cddc) play a large part in the transition in stanza two from the poet walking and praying in the present in the first four lines to his imagining the infant Anne’s future in the second four:

I have walked and prayed for this young child an hour

And heard the sea-wind scream upon the tower,

And under the arches of the bridge, and scream

In the elms above the flooded stream;

Imagining in excited reverie

That the future years had come,

Dancing to a frenzied drum,

Out of the murderous innocence of the sea.

What Vendler calls the “short-breathed” tetrameter couplet of lines six and seven works like a cinematic dissolve; we move from the predominantly realist terms in which the storm is initially presented into a speeded-up visionary mode, in which the rhyme of “come” and “drum” seems invested with a primitive, dreamlike power. By the time of its return to pentameter in the final line the poem has acquired a quasi-apocalyptic timbre—“the murderous innocence of the sea.”

These are the kinds of response that, in one’s hurry to understand a poet’s meaning, one overlooks, and yet they are crucial to the actual experience the poem offers. In The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, T.S. Eliot compared the ostensible meaning of a poem to the bit of meat with which a burglar distracts a guard dog; it serves to keep the mind “diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him.” It is, however, as difficult to describe the “work” a poem achieves below the level of meaning as it is to describe the operations of music, although it certainly helps enormously to have a critic as expert as Vendler describe in slow motion, frame by frame, so to speak, her understanding of the effects of each choice the poet makes. Her shrewd, tightly focused commentaries encourage us to take each poem slowly, on its own terms, and to pay attention in particular to the ways in which it either conforms to or confounds the expectations it fosters.

Yeats once observed that he found it extraordinarily difficult to explain his system of scansion, “for I have very little but an instinct.” We know he enjoyed chanting out loud poems in progress, and Pound included an amusing glimpse in one of his Pisan Cantos of Yeats at work during one of the winters they spent together in Stone Cottage in Sussex: what sounded like “the wind in the chimney”

was in reality Uncle William

downstairs composing

that had made a great Peeeeacock

in the proide ov his oiye

had made a great peeeeeeecock

in the…

made a great peacock

in the proide of his oyyee…

In his letters and critical prose Yeats rarely discussed the technical aspects of his vocation, and we learn little, either, about his responses to the formal qualities of the poets who most influenced him. Vendler shows it is possible, however, despite the very different kinds of poem that he wrote in the same given form, to generalize a little about the implications that accrue to his uses of a particular meter and rhyme scheme. Each form has a history she teases out and reflects upon: his trimeter quatrains, for instance, mutate from celebrations of the lives of his pantheon of women friends (Lady Gregory, Maud Gonne and her daughter Iseult—to both of whom he proposed—and Olivia Shakspear, with whom he had his first love affair in 1896) into what she calls the “nationalist measure” of “Easter 1916”; then, ten years later, he returns to the form for the existential defiance of Part III of “The Tower”:

And I declare my faith:

I mock Plotinus’ thought

And cry in Plato’s teeth,

Death and life were not

Till man made up the whole,

Made lock, stock and barrel

Out of his bitter soul,

Aye, sun and moon and star, all….

His rhyming here of “barrel” and “star, all” seems to me yet another example of his compulsion to remind us periodically of the “devil of a lot of trouble” involved in getting such thoughts into verse.

Yeats was also acutely conscious of the ideological implications of certain forms. If trimeter quatrains were an Irish nationalist measure, then the Shakespearean sonnet was one of the most formidable weapons in the armory of the enemy. Accordingly he avoided it like the plague. Only two sonnets in the Yeats canon strictly follow its ababcdcdefefgg patterning—“At the Abbey Theatre” and the last of the “Supernatural Songs,” “Meru”—but that’s not to say that he was immune to the charms of the sonnet form; rather, to use it he had to adapt it, which he frequently did by amputating the final couplet. One of Yeats’s most distinctive and versatile forms was the pentameter douzain made of three quatrains, and many of these imitate, in their compressed way, the argumentative structure of the Shakespearean sonnet. “No Second Troy,” for instance, consists of four unanswerable questions about Maud Gonne which, Vendler suggests, replicate the four rhetorical units of Shakespeare’s sonnets, the final line decisively reangling the poem’s argument just as Shakespeare’s final couplets so often do:

Why should I blame her that she filled my days

With misery, or that she would of late

Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways,

Or hurled the little streets upon the great,

Had they but courage equal to desire?

What could have made her peaceful with a mind

That nobleness made simple as a fire,

With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind

That is not natural in an age like this,

Being high and solitary and most stern?

Why, what could she have done, being what she is?

Was there another Troy for her to burn?

The poem’s staging of argument (question one), counterargument (question two), further argument (“Why, what could she have done, being what she is?” standing in for the third quatrain, and repeating the opening words of the first two questions, “Why…” “What could…”), all three of which are then trumped by a final outflanking rhetorical maneuver that equates Maud Gonne with Helen of Troy—all this can be read, Vendler posits, as a brilliantly innovative way of using the Shakespearean sonnet form “without disloyalty to Ireland.”

The primary motivation that shines through Yeats’s modifications to all the forms he appropriates is the urge to infuse them with Yeatsian individuality. In this he is at the opposite pole to the nature described by Shakespeare in Sonnet 111, that is “subdu’d/ To what it works in, like the dyer’s hand.” Although the eccentricity of his beliefs makes sections of his oeuvre more or less incomprehensible to those uninitiated into the gyre theories outlined in A Vision—on which, by the way, Vendler published her first critical book back in 1963—even his most occult speculations are stamped with a rhetorical authority that can prove hard to resist.

Philip Larkin once described Yeats’s music as potent and pervasive as garlic, and accordingly the downfall of many a Celtic-fever-stricken would-be poet. What Heaney called Yeats’s “indomitable spirit” achieved its “indomitableness” through his devotion to style, and his conviction that by remaking his style he could remake his self: “Now shall I make my soul,/ Compelling it to study/In a learned school,” as the final paragraph of “The Tower” puts it. The more immersed one grows in the technical means by which he set about this task, the less fantastical the gesture seems. Vendler’s study of his uses of lyric form is an indispensable guide to anyone interested in the means whereby Yeats transfigured into “masterful images” the random contingencies of life:

A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,

Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,

Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut

Who keeps the till.

(“The Circus Animals’ Desertion”)

That “raving slut” is the least characteristic of Yeats’s muse figures, but she is surely the one who captures most accurately the agonies into which the processes of composition habitually plunged him. “Whatever I do,” he lamented in a letter of 1926, “poetry will remain a torture.” “Among School Children” concludes with an entrancingly uplifting image of aesthetic wholeness (“O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,/How can we know the dancer from the dance?”), but Yeats’s own experience of fitting word and thought to form seems to have been closer to the wracking, wrenching, furious conflict enacted in the final lines of “Byzantium”:

…The smithies break the flood,

The golden smithies of the Emperor!

Marbles of the dancing floor

Break bitter furies of complexity

Those images that yet

Fresh images beget,

That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.

This Issue

April 3, 2008