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Yeats, William Butler

Entry updated 27 February 2023. Tagged: Author.

(1865-1939) Irish playwright and poet, active from 1885, one of the two or three most significant twentieth century poets to write in English, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1923. Unlike his close contemporary Wyndham Lewis, he was relatively immune to the kind of early twentieth century modernism sympathetic to pre-World War One Futurist epiphanies of the Machine (see Filippo Tommaso Marinetti), nor was he visibly influenced by the milder 1930s Futurism that marked the early work of a later poet like W H Auden. Yeats is of considerable importance to Irish folklore and fantasy [for further details see his entry in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]; his importance to sf is relatively narrow, though the critic William Empson suggests, in "The Variants for the Byzantium Poems" (in Essays Presented to Amy G Stock, anth 1965), that a literal "science fiction" reading of the journey to Byzantium – and of the post-metamorphic but gong-tormented artefact of creative peace there enjoyed by artists aspiring to unchanging excellence, perhaps as singing birds (see Automata) – might avoid the efforts of some Christianizing critics to treat Byzantium as Heaven or Paradise, and the Emperor as God. Within a cautious understanding of this sf approach, it is colourable that the two poems, "Sailing to Byzantium" (written 1927; in The Tower, coll 1928) and "Byzantium" (written 1930; in Words for Music Perhaps and Other Poems, coll 1932 chap), which intensely alembicate the orientalism of a poet like James Elroy Flecker, do in fact convey some sense of a world not entirely remote from the Dying Earths created around the same time by manqué poets like Clark Ashton Smith. Robert Silverberg's Sailing to Byzantium (February 1985 Asimov's; 1985) (see Immortality) is based on the first poem, whose first line is excerpted as the title of No Country for Old Men (2005) by Cormac McCarthy.

More directly, Yeats's import in this frame is primarily restricted to the apocalyptic message of "The Second Coming" (written circa 1918-1919; November 1920 The Dial), the two-hundredth poem in his official canon, a dark vision of the fate of the world in the aftermath of World War One and the Spanish flu Pandemic, the unspoken but manifest double catastrophe that awakens the "rough beast". The poem has increasingly been understood as an intense prolepsis of the dark future ahead (see End of the World; Religion; World War Two); grounded, it cannot be forgotten, in the disaster that had already occurred. The central terror of the poem may be a sense that for Yeats here memory and prolepsis are one. [JC]

see also: Equilibrium.

William Butler Yeats

born Sandymount, near Dublin, Ireland: 13 June 1865

died Roquebrune, France: 28 January 1939

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works as editor

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