After Amelia Curran, Portrait of Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1819. In Finden's Landscape & Portrait Illustrations to the Life and Works of Lord Byron, Volume 2, London: John Murray, 1832.
W.B. Yeats & the Romantics
Chief among Yeats's early influences was the work of the English Romantic poets. Indeed, Yeats acknowledged in retrospect that Percy Bysshe Shelley had shaped his life, providing him with a model for the poetry he hoped to write and the poet he sought to become. As an adolescent, the aspiring poet imitated Shelleyan heroes, and when he began to write, he borrowed Shelley's interest in death and magic, his symbolism, his intellectual vision, even his language. Yeats's early drama is written in the lofty rhetoric of the English Romantic poets, and his heroes are solitary Byronic figures. Even when he later rejected Shelley's style and philosophy, writing essays that faulted the Romantic poet for many of the flaws of Yeats's own early verse, Yeats's work still bore the traces of Shelley's influence. 1 George Bornstein describes the poet as "a lifelong if sometimes ambivalent Romantic," one who consistently interrogated and re-fashioned his Romanticism, coupling a Romantic impulse with the modernist drive to "make it new." 2 For Yeats, this period's poets – Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley and Keats – constituted a pantheon of writers he admired, imitated and reacted against throughout his career.
Yeats's devotion to Shelley, in particular, developed early and was owing to his father's influence. John B. Yeats encouraged his son to study narrative prose and verse in the Romantic tradition; and Yeats's friendship with Edward Dowden, a Professor of English Literature at Trinity College and the foremost Shelley scholar of his time, also stimulated his interest in the Romantic poet and his desire to imitate Shelley's style and subjects. Yeats was not alone in aspiring to write verse drama and narrative in this vein. The influence of the Romantic poets was in fact pervasive in his intellectual circle; many of his classmates, also aspiring writers, adhered to Romantic conventions and sought to emulate them in their writing. He recalls, "The first attempt at serious poetry I made was when I was about seventeen and much under the influence of Shelley. It was a dramatic poem, about a magician who set up his throne in Central Asia, and who expressed himself with Queen Mab-like heterodoxy. It was written in rivalry with G—. I forget what he wrote." 3
Luigi Schiavonetti after Thomas Phillips, Portrait of William Blake, 1805. In Life of William Blake by Alexander Gilchrist, London: Macmillan and Company, 1880.
Yeats's early verse drama betrays his enthusiasm for the Romantic poets in its choice of subjects, its themes and its language. The plays from this period all feature exotic settings, magic spells, mesmerizing and often powerful women, lovers thwarted in pursuit of the beloved, and a deliberate linking of love, death and magic. Adele Dalsimer notes the influence of Spenser, too, in the "pastoral landscape[s], peopled by timid shepherds and shepherdesses, gentle hunters, and fairies," and in the plays' diction. 4 Yeats's use of sensory adjectives and hyphenated adjectival phrases echo Shelley's poetry, as does his vocabulary and imagery and the synesthesia of his descriptions. In Love and Death, for example, Yeats borrows heavily from Shelley's poetry: the words "pale," "dew," "wandering" and "maiden" recur, as do images of fire (red sunsets), stars, fountains and lush landscapes. 5 The Romantic influence is evident, too, in the fantastic plots of the early plays, which link love and death. The protagonist's quest for love often ends in his or her demise, as it does in this unpublished play, when Ginevra's desire to behold her immortal love destroys her. This blending of earthly and otherworldly spheres and the inclusion of magic reflects the poet's urge to escape from reality, and again owes a debt to Shelley, in whose work magic was often a theme.
Although Yeats isolated Shelley as the poet who had the greatest influence on him, he acknowledged, too, a debt to Blake – and later in life, claimed that it was Blake, not Shelley, who had the profounder effect on him. From Blake, Yeats borrowed the idea of contraries – the notion that opposing pairs generated an energy that led to progress or forward movement. Contraries abound in Yeats's poetry: good and evil, young and old, art and nature, and body and soul, among others. As his poetry evolved, he retained his devotion to Romanticism, often describing himself as one of the "last Romantics," but he remade the tradition to fit his growing interest in Irish folklore and nationalism. As Bornstein attests, reconciling Shelley's idealism with life in modern Ireland posed a challenge, and this is perhaps one of the reasons that Yeats's early verse drama is set in alternate worlds with exotic, often magical characters. 6 Whatever he preserved or consciously discarded from his early work, Yeats's devotion to Romanticism survived in some form in his later poetry – be it in his language, his imagery, his understanding of the poet's role – and we would do well to see the germ of his mature work in these early plays.
2. Ibid., 19, 21.
3. Interview with KT, the Sketch, 29 November 1892. Cited in R.F. Foster, W.B. Yeats: A Life; Volume One: The Apprentice Mage (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 37.
4. Adele Dalsimer, "My Chief of Men: Yeats's Juvenilia and Shelley's Alastor," Éire-Ireland 7.2 (1973), 75.
5. Ibid., 76-7.
6. George Bornstein, Yeats and Shelley (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), 23.