To mark what would be his 155th birthday, we have put together a list of some of the best poems by W.B. Yeats.
William Butler (W.B.) Yeats was one of the most prolific figures of 20th-century literature. To mark what would have been his 155th birthday, here are the ten best W.B. Yeats poems.
Born in Sandymount, Dublin, on 13 June 1865, W.B. Yeats was a well-known Irish poet, dramatist, and prose writer.
Known for his stunning poetry that took much of its inspiration from the Irish landscape and folklore, he is one of the most revered writers in Irish history.
10. He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven – a short poem
Starting our list of the best W.B. Yeats poems is one of his shortest, ‘He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’.
This eight-line poem, thought to be an expression of love from Yeats to Maud Gonne, was initially titled ‘Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’. Aedh is an Irish God of Death who appeared in several Yeats poems.
9. The Second Coming – one of Yeats’ most famous poems
One of Yeats’ most famous poems, ‘The Second Coming’ was published in 1920 following the end of the First World War and the beginning of the Irish War of Independence.
In this poem, Yeats uses an array of Christian and apocalyptic imagery to give the reader a sense of the atmosphere of post-war Europe.
8. Easter 1916 – historical and political commentary
‘Easter 1916’ is based on the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland protesting against British Rule. Many of the Rising’s leaders were later arrested and executed for treason.
Written as a conflicted epitaph, Yeats remembers the Easter Rising leaders as martyrs while also rejecting the violence of the uprising. The poem ends with one of Yeats’ most powerful lines, “All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.”
7. Leda and the Swan – based on Irish mythology
As we mentioned before, many of Yeats’ poems were inspired by mythology and ‘Leda and the Swan’ is exactly that.
This sonnet takes inspiration from the Greek myth of Leda, a princess from Aetolia, as she is seduced by Zeus disguised as a swan.
6. These are the Clouds – the fear of modern life
In ‘These are the Clouds’, Yeats explores the relationship between the archaic and modern, highlighting some of the problems of modernity.
Published in 1910, Yeats writes about the “discord” of the time and the fear for the future as he writes, “Although it be for children that you sigh”.
5. Among School Children – inspired by a visit to a Waterford school
Published in 1928, ‘Among School Children’ is definitely one of the most famous and best W.B. Yeats poems.
Inspired by his visit to a convent school in Waterford in 1926, the speaker begins by talking about the children and the school before turning to his inward thoughts. Major themes of this poem are old age, mortality, and the value of human life.
4. An Irish Airman Foresees His Death – a poignant war poem
One of the most outstanding parts from ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’ is the lines, “I know that I shall meet my fate / Somewhere among the clouds above; / Those that I fight I do not hate, / Those that I guard I do not love.”
In this poem, Yeats ruminates on the feelings of an Irish pilot fighting for Britain during the First World War.
3. Lake Isle of Innisfree – inspired by Ireland’s landscape
Taking place in County Sligo, ‘Lake Isle of Innisfree’ is one of Yeats’ most beautiful poems. Published in 1890, this three four line stanza poem is one of the most prominent in the Celtic Revival style
Throughout, he reflects on the beauty of the Irish landscape, not far from where Yeats spent many childhood summers.
2. Sailing to Byzantium – the spiritual symbolism of Byzantium
Published in 1928, ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ symbolises a spiritual journey to Byzantium, which Yeats saw as “centre of European civilization and the source of its spiritual philosophy”.
Themes in this poem include growing older, mortality, and conflicts between a younger and older generation.
1. The Stolen Child – the loss of innocence
Perhaps one of his most famous poems, ‘The Stolen Child’, tops our list of the best W.B. Yeats poems of all time. Its major theme is the loss of innocence as a child grows up.
Written in 1886 when Yeats was just 21, ‘The Stolen Child’ is one of his works that is strongly rooted in Irish mythology. The poem tells the story of a human child who is enchanted by a fairytale world “which is more full of weeping than he can understand.”