Yeats is the greatest poet in the history of Ireland and probably the greatest poet to write in English during the twentieth century; his themes, images, symbols, metaphors, and poetic sensibilities encompass the breadth of his personal experience, as well as his nation’s experience during one of its most troubled times. Yeats’s great poetic project was to reify his own life—his thoughts, feelings, speculations, conclusions, dreams—into poetry: to render all of himself into art, but not in a merely confessional or autobiographical manner; he was not interested in the common-place. (The poet, Yeats famously remarked, is not the man who sits down to breakfast in the morning.) His elaborate iconography takes elements from Irish mythology, Greek mythology, nineteenth-century occultism (which Yeats dabbled in with Madame Blavatsky and the Society of the Golden Dawn), English literature, Byzantine art, European politics, and Christian imagery, all wound together and informed with his own experience and interpretive understanding.
His thematic focus could be sweepingly grand: in the 1920s and ’30s he even concocted a mystical theory of the universe, which explained history, imagination, and mythology in light of an occult set of symbols, and which he laid out in his book A Vision (usually considered important today only for the light it sheds on some of his poems). However, in his greatest poems, he mitigates this grandiosity with a focus on his own deep feeling. Yeats’s own experience is never far from his poems, even when they seem obscurely imagistic or theoretically abstract, and the veil of obscurity and abstraction is often lifted once one gains an understanding of how the poet’s lived experiences relate to the poem in question.
No poet of the twentieth century more persuasively imposed his personal experience onto history by way of his art; and no poet more successfully plumbed the truths contained within his “deep heart’s core,” even when they threatened to render his poetry clichéd or ridiculous. His integrity and passionate commitment to work according to his own vision protect his poems from all such accusations. To contemporary readers, Yeats can seem baffling; he was opposed to the age of science, progress, democracy, and modernization, and his occultist and mythological answers to those problems can seem horribly anachronistic for a poet who died barely sixty years ago. But Yeats’s goal is always to arrive at personal truth; and in that sense, despite his profound individuality, he remains one of the most universal writers ever to have lived.