W. B. Yeats' 'Sailing to Byzantium'

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

When i was at school in the 1970s my poetry text book could casually identify Yeats as ‘The Greatest Poet of the Twentieth Century’. If the claim seems premature, given there was a quarter of a century yet to run, changing fashions in academic approaches to poetry in that final quarter meant the claim took a battering. This isn’t the place to point out how limited and limiting those approaches were, but the poems have been resilient.

For me Yeats is the unavoidable English language poet. He was so very good at what he did. He wrote better lines, better images, better stanzas and better short poems than almost anyone else, and he did it more often. He also had the unusual capacity to go on getting better at what he did, thoughout a long writing life.

You can learn a great deal about writing poetry by reading Yeats carefully. But he’s also an enjoyable poet to read. If you have a copy of his collected that prints the poems in chronological order, you can start at the beginning and read through to the end as though you were reading a novel.

There will be much more of Yeats on future podcasts, the real problem he poses is which poems to read.

If you're interested in Yeats the man, he is the subject of a superb two volume biography by Roy Foster: 'W.B. Yeats a life'. Vol I: The Apprentice Mage, Vol 2 The Archpoet.