The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats, Vol. 1: The Poems, 2nd Edition

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9780684839356: The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats, Vol. 1: The Poems, 2nd Edition

This is the first of a fourteen-volume edition of Yeats’s work issued under the general editorship of Richard Finneran and George Mills Harper. A necessary read for Yeats devotees, Seamus Heaney writes, “All readers of Yeats will need this book; when they open it they will feel a surprise like that experienced by St. Brendan the Navigator and his crew when they disembarked upon an island that turned out to be the back of a dormant sea monster.”

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Review:

William Butler Yeats, whom many consider this century's greatest poet, began as a bard of the Celtic Twilight, reviving legends and Rosicrucian symbols. By the early 1900s, however, he was moving away from plush romanticism, his verse morphing from the incantatory rhythms of "I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree" into lyrics "as cold and passionate as the dawn." At every stage, however, Yeats plays a multiplicity of poetic roles. There is the romantic lover of "When You Are Old" and "A Poet to His Beloved" ("I bring you with reverent Hands / The books of my numberless dreams..."). And there are the far more bitter celebrations of Maud Gonne, who never accepted his love and engaged in too much politicking for his taste: "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?" There is also the poet of conscience--and confrontation. His 1931 "Remorse for Intemperate Speech" ends: "Out of Ireland have we come. / Great hatred, little room, / Maimed us at the start. / I carried from my mother's womb / A fanatic heart."

Yeats was to explore several more sides of himself, and of Ireland, before his Last Poems of 1938-39. Many are difficult, some snobbish, others occult and spiritualist. As Brendan Kennelly writes, Yeats "produces both poppycock and sublimity in verse, sometimes closely together." On the other hand, many prophetic masterworks are poppycock-free--for example, "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...") and such inquiries into inspiration as "Among School Children" ("O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, How can we know the dancer from the dance?"). And at his best, Yeats extends the meaning of love poetry beyond the obviously romantic: love becomes a revolutionary emotion, attaching the poet to friends, history, and the passionate life of the mind.

Though this edition has been reset and revised, the changes are not as shocking as the 1984 edition, which included 100 extra pages of notes, changes in language and punctuation, and, most significantly, a redefinition of the Last Poems. Richard Finneran has had the courage to reorder the poems according to notes that Yeats made shortly before his death. Readers may be surprised to find that "Under Ben Bulben," the poet's powerful and self-mythologizing epitaph, no longer ends the collection, as it has for more than 30 years. In its place they will discover the wistful "Politics": "How can I, that girl standing there, / My attention fix / On Roman or on Russian / Or on Spanish politics..." Yet devotees of either ending will agree that this is a truly necessary volume--indeed, one of the few. As Seamus Heaney writes, "All readers of Yeats will need this book; when they open it they will feel a surprise like that experienced by St. Brendan the Navigator and his crew when they disembarked upon an island that turned out to be the back of a dormant sea monster."

About the Author:

The late Richard J. Finneran was general editor, with George Mills Harper, of The Collected Works of W. B. Yeats for many years; series editor of The Poems in the Cornell Yeats; and editor of Yeats: An Annual of Critical and Textual Studies, among other works. He held the Hodges Chair of Excellence at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville; was a past president of the South Atlantic Modern Language Association; and served as executive director of the Society for Textual Scholarship.

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