William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)
Composed in 1900, Yeats’s influential essay “The Symbolism of Poetry” offers an extended definition of symbolism and a meditation on the nature of poetry in general.
The Symbolism of Poetry
by William Butler Yeats
“All writers, all artists of any kind, in so far as they have had any philosophical or critical power, perhaps just in so far as they have been deliberate artists at all, have had some philosophy, some criticism of their art; and it has often been this philosophy, or this criticism, that has evoked their most startling inspiration calling into outer life some portion of the divine life, or of the buried reality, which could alone extinguish in the emotions what their philosophy or their criticism would extinguish in the intellect. They have sought for no new thing, it may be, but only to understand and to copy the pure inspiration of early times, but because the divine life wars upon our outer life, and must needs change its weapons and its movements as we change ours, inspiration has come to them in beautiful startling shapes. The scientific movement brought with it a literature, which was always tending to lose itself in externalities of all kinds, in opinion, in declamation, in picturesque writing, in word-painting, or in what Mr. Symons has called an attempt “to build in brick and mortar inside the covers of a book”; and new writers have begun to dwell upon the element of evocation, of suggestion, upon what we call the symbolism in great writers.”