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Poetic Late Bloomers: William Butler Yeats as Model

06/26/2013 01:16 pm ET | Updated Aug 25, 2013

There is a myth in our society that poets are greatest early in their lives – that "old age is a period alien, if not fatal, to poetry," in the words of Josephine Jacobsen; "The Shelley-Keats image, the youthful figure of the runner fame never outran, lingers." This myth has unfortunately been endorsed by a series of academic psychologists: thus for example Howard Gardner declared in 1993 that "lyric poetry is a domain where talent is discovered early, burns brightly, and then peters out at an early age. There are few exceptions to this meteoric pattern."

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William Butler Yeats (1933). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The myth of early poetic greatness is an unfortunate example of synecdoche, for it mistakes one part of poetry for the whole. Conceptual poets tend to peak young: these include Shelley and Keats, and more recently T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath, and other young geniuses. But experimental poets tend to peak late: in the modern era, these include Thomas Hardy, William Butler Yeats, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Stanley Kunitz, W.H. Auden, John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Derek Walcott, and Seamus Heaney. These are not rare exceptions, but rather a large share of the major figures in modern poetry,

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Robert Lowell. Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian, Washington, DC.

William Butler Yeats labored for decades "to make my work convincing with a speech so natural and dramatic that the hearer would feel the presence of a man thinking and feeling." In a memorial lecture for Yeats, T.S. Eliot observed that "It took him many years to evolve the dramatic form suited to his genius." As Yeats had stated, the development was toward simplicity: "The course of improvement is towards greater and greater starkness." Eliot held up Yeats' career as a model: "to have accomplished what Yeats did in the middle and later years is a great and permanent example – which poets-to-come should study with reverence – of what I have called Character of the Artist: a kind of moral, as well as intellectual, excellence."

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Photo of T.S. Eliot (ca. 1959). Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Another great modern poet later agreed with Eliot that Yeats was exemplary, and explained the nature of the lesson. Thus Seamus Heaney wrote that

What Yeats offers the practicing writer is an example of labor, perseverance. He is, indeed, the ideal example for a poet approaching middle age. He reminds you that revision and slogging are what you may have to undergo if you seek the satisfactions of finish...He proves that deliberation can be so intensified that it becomes synonymous with inspiration.

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Seamus Heaney (1996). Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

John Berryman was among the younger poets who adopted Yeats as a model. Berryman was an experimental late bloomer: when he was 50, Robert Lowell wrote in a review of his Dream Songs that "his writing has been a long, often back-breaking search for an inclusive style, a style that could use his erudition and catch the high, even frenetic, intensity of his experience...with Berryman, each succeeding book is part of a single drive against the barriers of the commonplace." Berryman idolized Yeats, to the point of wearing bow ties because Yeats had worn one to their single meeting. He recognized Yeats' career pattern clearly, as early in his career he told his future wife, Eileen Simpson, that he did not envy the early fame of his friend Delmore Schwartz, explaining that "Yeats's way was the ideal way. A long slow development, the work getting better, the character stronger, until the late great poems." The scholar Thomas Travisanto contended that this was not mere rhetoric: "Berryman's adoption of Yeats as a model for his own development...meant that he was willing to risk early weakness, even failure, in order to achieve later success."

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John Berryman (undated photo). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Heaney, Lowell, and Berryman were all experimental poets, whose art matured and improved as they grew older. But not so the conceptual Eliot. In 1948, when Berryman congratulated the 60-year-old Eliot on winning the Nobel Prize, and the latter complained that "The Nobel is a ticket to one's own funeral. No one has ever done anything after he got it," Berryman assured him that this wasn't so: "All of Yeats' great poetry was written after he won the award. Can't one therefore look on the prize as a recognition of promise?" Eliot was delighted, answering, "That's how I shall try to look on it." Yet the example of the experimental Yeats was in fact irrelevant to the conceptual Eliot, who at 60 was long past the poetic greatness that had produced "Prufrock" in his 20s, and The Waste Land in his 30s. As his biographer Lyndall Gordon remarked, "the Eliot of the great poems was no longer there."

Eliot could marvel at the long and gradual process of development that Yeats had undergone, just as he could marvel at the continual development that lasted until the end of Shakespeare's life, but in fact he knew he could not follow either of these great predecessors in this respect. In 1944, Eliot had written that "we observe some minds maturing earlier than others, and we observe that those which mature early do not always develop very far." When he wrote those words, Eliot knew that his own mind had matured earlier than that of any major poet since Rimbaud. His own prodigious early achievement could make him a model for Delmore Schwartz and other conceptual poets, but Yeats would be a useful model only for experimental writers, like Berryman, Lowell, and Heaney. Eliot's comparison in 1944 of Marlowe and Shakespeare indicates that he recognized the two models. It is past time for academic psychologists to follow him in this, and to recognize that poets – like practitioners of virtually every other intellectual activity – are heterogeneous with respect to creative life cycles, because great poets can be either conceptual young geniuses or experimental old masters.