William Butler Yeats,
Selected Poems
& Three Plays

edited by M.L. Rosenthal
(Collier, 1986)

This collection includes poems selected from the breadth and depth of Yeats' writing. Dating from his earliest book of poems, Crossways, in 1889, to Last Poems & Two Plays, published in 1939, editor M.L. Rosenthal chose poems representative of Yeats' varied interests. Ireland, Irish nationalism and mythology prove to be consistent themes throughout this work. Each section is titled after the collection, with the first play, Cavalry, squarely in the middle, and the last two plays at the end of the book.

Crossways (1889) includes one of Yeats' most popular poems: "Stolen Child," a description of a faery abduction. The next section, The Rose (1893), offers two other well-anthologized poems. "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" is a plea for the simple life, and "When You Are Old" looks forward at the future. These two sections begin the themes of magical fair folk, the beauties of love and the history and mythology of Ireland, themes that Yeats explored throughout his career.

The Wind Among the Reeds (1899) continues with poems from the point of view of Wandering Aengus, a poetic figure who is followed through several poetic moments. He turns more introspective, with poems about age and weariness in In the Seven Woods (1904). The Green Helmet & Other Poems (1910) continues this pensive bent, including the whimsically titled "To a Poet, Who Would Have Me Praise Certain Bad Poets, Imitators of His & Mine" and "On Hearing That the Students of Our New University Have Joined the Agitation Against Immoral Literature." Responsibilities (1914) pursues this meditative bent even further, incorporating the love of Ireland into his snapshot moments of poetry.

The Wild Swans at Coole (1919) contains much more nationalistic poems, some with a political bent as memories of the Great War are incorporated into his work, as in "An Irish Airman Forsees His Death." He still writes poetry that describes a moment in time, be it from classical times, biblical story or Irish myth. Michael Robartes & the Dancer (1921) contains the political poem "Easter, 1916." Even when political, Yeats revels in the small, ordinary moments, simplicity that is glorified and transfigured by his words. Another well-known poem, "The Second Coming," compares beginnings and endings, finding all to be the same in the cycle of life.

The Tower (1928) contains more thoughtful political and personal poems, including two series respectively entitled "Meditations In Time of Civil War" and "Nineteen Hundred & Nineteen." "Sailing to Byzantium," another well-anthologized poem, is also included in this section. His next collection, from The Winding Stair & Other Poems, was written five years later, in 1933, and includes poems from "Words for Music Perhaps" that contains the "Crazy Jane" series.

Rosenthal continues his nationalistic and mythological choices with A Full Moon in March: "Parnell's Funeral" & Other Poems (1935). Yeats paints pictures with words in New Poems (1938), describing situations from varying points of views, as well as another Parnell poem. The final two sections, On The Boiler and Last Poems & Two Plays bring these themes into realization using symbolism, and injecting foreboding images of his own death. Yeats' poetry, seen in such scope and scale, is easier to appreciate, making this anthology one of the favored choices for literature professors.

The three plays are spread, with Cavalry inserted into the book after The Wild Swans at Coole section, and the other two placed at the end of the book. Cavalry is a political play set at the crucifixion of Jesus, with conversations about death with Lazarus, who really didn't want to be raised from the dead after all. Judas also comes, and speaks of his motivations for betrayal to Jesus. The Death of Cuchulain (1939) follows the "death of a great man" motif, with the goddess Morrigu playing a major role. Purgatory, the final play, is spare, with an old man and a boy as the only characters, discussing the past, future and the interconnectedness of the characters. Death is again a recurring theme, and the idea that one cannot escape the past. Occasionally, one is doomed to relive the past.

For any person desiring a good standard of Yeats' work, this book is excellent. It is a great addition to any literature lover's library, and would make a wonderful gift for both the poetry reader and Irish enthusiast.

[ by Beth Derochea ]

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