Skip to main content

William Butler Yeats and the Decadent Movement

"Dreams" by Decadent artist Aubrey Beardsley

"Dreams" by Decadent artist Aubrey Beardsley

Literary Decadence

Spanning the 1890s and reaching into the early twentieth century, the Decadent movement was largely popular in France, but also made a significant appearance in the United States and Great Britain as a transition movement from Romanticism to Modernism.

Similar to my most recently published article topic, the Pre-Raphaelites, Decadence was a movement that transcended the literary world into that of art (or vice versa). For examples of Decadent artwork, see the work of Franz von Bayros, Aubrey Beardsley and Jan Frans De Boever to name a few.

The name "Decadence" was originally meant as a negative critique, about those who wrote lavish and ornate poetry, sometimes with little to no meaning or purpose, full of artificiality and dramatic grotesqueness. The writers and their works were often accused of a lacking morality. Other critics however such as art and literary critic, Arthur Symons, describes Decadence as a "beautiful and interesting disease", and he meant this comment as an absolute compliment in his work The Decadent Movement in Literature.

Decadence is often seen as a kind of Neo-Romanticism, being similar in style to the poetry of the Romantic writers from the late eighteenth century through the mid nineteenth. An overarching theme in the poetry of the Decadence is the belief in original sin and the idea of the "fallen man", as well as the commonality of evil and society's lack of innocence. There is a common mood of nostalgia for times past, a sense of ennui or lack of hope and motivation, a sense of isolation and a sense of loss. The poetry of the Decadents demonstrates a desire to escape the natural world which is considered to be a grotesque and perverse place, so there is a large emphasis on artificial things, which separates people from nature. Examples include disguises, masks, ornate jewels and metals, cosmetics and costumes.Common imagery includes dream-like states (where people can escape) and puppet shows and plays (where characters are artificial). A perfect example of this desire to escape nature for the artificial and also the nostalgia for a past time can be seen in William Butler Yeats' poem Sailing to Byzantium.

The Symbolist movement is often associated directly with the Decadent movement, as it flourished at roughly the same time, and though the two movements are similar in their aesthetic qualities, the two should be kept distinct from one another for reasons I plan to discuss in another article on the Symbolist movement in the near future.

Though the Decadent movement sounds rather pessimistic or even disturbing (which it can certainly be), it really is fascinating, and I recommend a wider exploration of the poetry of Decadent writers such as Oscar Wilde, H.G. Wells, Paul Verlaine, Ernest Dowson, and Charles Baudelaire. I could easily devote an entire extensive article to the Decadent movement, but this one is dedicated to our Irish Nationalist and literary hero, William Butler Yeats.

William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats

Maud Gonne

Maud Gonne

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

Often considered the greatest poet of the twentieth century, William Butler Yeats won Ireland its first Nobel Prize for literature in 1923. Not only a successful writer of the twentieth century, but also a leading literary figure in the late nineteenth century, the end of the Victorian era. Yeats grew up in a Bohemian artist lifestyle as his father, a painter, embraced art over all else while raising his son. Being of Anglo-Irish descent he spent time in both London and Ireland, namely Dublin and Sligo. Yeats was known not only for his writing, but also for his fierce Irish nationalism. Aside from acquiring the Nobel Prize in Literature, he also established and governed the great Abbey Theater in Dublin for the purpose of performing Irish and Celtic plays, and he was a senator of the Irish Free State in 1922. Yeats had a particular passion for Irish folklore, and this passion is evident in his poetry. His earlier poetry, that of the Victorian late 19th century, demonstrated the Decadence that I just discussed, but after 1900 his poetry (though still Decadent in theme) took a more Modern turn towards the Realistic.

As a young writer, Yeats was fascinated by the mystical, the spiritual and occult sciences. This frequently occupied places in his work, such as The Countess Kathleen, The Isle of Statues, and The Wanderings of Oisin (focused heavily on Irish mythology) among others. Another common element throughout the poetry of Yeats was his life-long love interest, Maud Gonne, who inspired many of his works, but his love for her went unrequited. He was not married until 1916 at age 51, when he married Georgie Hyde-Lees.

More than one genre can be applied to the works of Yeats, as he spanned more than one major literary movement. His early writing career in the final decade or so of the nineteenth century saw many element of Decadence and Symbolism with his use of allusive imagery, imaginative mysticism and symbolic representations. His early work also relied heavily on Irish folklore and mythology, and could be easily related to the poetry of the Pre-Raphaelites. As he matured as a writer though into a more Modern poet in the twentieth century, his focus turned towards contemporary issues, as can be seen in his well-known poem, "The Second Coming".

On a personal note, Yeats is one of my favorite poets. He writes with a majestic simplicity (I know that sounds contradictory, but I mean that he writes with such a simple style, but it is striking and emotional and incredibly profound). I think that the way he bridges more than one genre is what made him so successful. For example, the Decadents sometimes lacked profound meaning in their poetry, as their belief was in an "art for art's sake" aesthetic purpose of poetry, which is viewed by some as a negative aspect of the movement. Yeats though, encompasses the aesthetic beauty of the Decadents but his poetry also has purpose and meaning, as he falls more into the Modern genre of relevant and statement-making poetry. Falling into more than one genre helps him to fill in the gaps that the individual genres may have.

Poetic Observation and Analysis

There are many works by William Butler Yeats that I recommend, including a large collection of poetry, a few short stories, plays and a work of both fiction and non-fiction. These are just a few of my favorite poems and some observations and analyses of his style, imagery and theme. Each of these poems, with the exception of the last two are from an anthology by Dorothy Mermin and Herbert Tucker, called Victorian Literature 1830-1900. I numbered the lines to make it easier to locate some of the things I'm talking about.


Autumn is over the long leaves that love us,
And over the mice in the barley sheaves;
Yellow the leaves of the rowan above us,
And yellow the wet wild-strawberry leaves.
The hour of the waning of love has beset us, 5
And weary and worn are our sad souls now;
Let us part, ere the season of passion forget us,
With a kiss and a tear on thy drooping brow.

The Falling of the Leaves

This short, single stanza, eight-line poem described in one word: melancholy.

The image of the falling of leaves in this poem, symbolizing the passing of a lively summer into a cold and death-like winter, inspires a feeling of sadness and euphoria as the speaker describes a dying love. The back-to-back use of the color yellow in lines three and four indicate melancholy, as the color yellow is often associated historically with the melancholia ailment. His intentional choice of words such as "waning", "weary" and "worn" demonstrate the weariness of soul associated with the feeling of melancholy (and also creates an alliteration of sound for auditory effect). Just the image of something falling inspires a sense of something dying, losing strength, losing vitality; the perfect metaphor for a dying romance. The image of a falling tear and a drooping brow in the last line maintain the consistency of this symbolic metaphor perfectly.

This poem is one of my favorites of Yeats, because it manages to create such a sincere emotion while being so simple and without being overdone or exaggerated.


I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made.
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow, 5
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore; 10
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

This lyric poem composed of three quatrains (four lines each) details the speaker's desire to escape urban London and seclude himself on the small uninhabited island of Innisfree, in Lough Gill in the County of Sligo in Ireland. The composition of this poem was based on the poem "Walden" by Henry David Thoreau, where the speaker isolates himself and immerses himself in nature on the banks of Walden pond. Yeats' father frequently read this poem to him when he was younger, and he often escaped to his island with a friend while growing up.

There is a longing in this poem for peace and tranquility, seen especially in lines eleven and twelve when he says "While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey/ I hear it in the deep heart's core." The rhyme scheme is a clean abab cdcd efef, giving it the lyrical and musical quality it possesses. The imagery of the honey bees, the garden, the sound of wings and crickets, the purple glow of the moon, provides the same desired feeling of tranquility for the reader as it does the speaker of the poem. It is not difficult to relate to the feeling of wanting to escape to nature, making this poem all the more effective for the reader.


When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace, 5
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled 10
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

When You Are Old

For such a short poem, Yeats instilled great meaning in the twelve lines. Composed of three stanzas, Yeats' diction changes from the first to the third stanza. In the first, we have a feeling of comfort, as an elderly woman sits sleepily in front of her fire. The speaker asks her to read this poem to reminisce on the days of her youth. The second stanza becomes less comfortable, but still nostalgic, as he asks her to distinguish between those that falsely claimed to love her for her beauty and the speaker, who remained the only one to love her for who she truly was, despite her aging ("And loved the sorrows of your changing face"). The final stanza evokes a feeling of loss and regret, as the speaker makes it clear that he waited for her but eventually got lost "amid a crowd of stars".

The purpose of the speaker in this poem could be one of two things: he could be hoping to instill regret in the elderly woman for not choosing the man that truly loved her in her youth, OR he could be speaking to the woman in her youth, trying to convince her to not let her life end in regret by not choosing him at that time. Regardless, it is a truly romantic poem despite the melancholy ending.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere 5
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all convictions, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand. 10
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun, 15
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle, 20
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

The Second Coming

The Second Coming is arguably the most well-known and also the most difficult and obscure of his poems. Written in 1919, after World War I, this poem predicts, rather morbidly, the impending apocalypse or Second Coming. The first stanza depicts utter anarchy as the world spins out of control with no stability. "The blood-dimmed tide" is likely referring to the state of society after war. He argues that all innocence is lost, and society is backwards.

The speaker argues that a revelation is inevitable. He then shifts the scene to a vast empty desert, where an immense sphinx, circled by resentful birds is making his way slowly towards Bethlehem. The Second Coming does not appear to be Jesus, but this "rough beast" instead. We see in this poem Yeats' fascination with the occult and the mystical with this apocalyptic imagery, as well as the popular motif of ancient civilizations in Decadent poetry. The poem is rather disturbing in its imagery and also in the way that it appears to be a kind of warning to society.

The structure of the poem is difficult to identify. It is almost iambic pentameter but it is done so loosely that it can be argued that it is done in free verse, considering the rhyme scheme is also done loosely. It can almost be argued that the way the poem does not adhere to any particular poetic form, even though Yeats frequently employs perfect form, that he intended the form of the poem itself to demonstrate this lack of control and anarchy of modern society. This poem is a perfect representation of Yeats' style towards the end of his career, and I apologize for saving this harrowing poem for the final analysis.



Robert Levine from Brookline, Massachusetts on February 29, 2016:

Very nice. I'd never thought of the connection of Yeats (who is one of my favorites too) to the Decadents, but you presented it very convincingly. Henry David Thoreau is another of my favorites, but I had no idea "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" was based on Walden. I guess the "bean-rows" should have been a giveaway.

Kenneth Avery on July 02, 2014:

Hi, dear uNicQue, (love your name),

You are very welcome. I just spoke the truth to you and about you. You do have a special gift for writing. And never hide it for any reason or anyone. Let your light shine before men.

Please keep in touch with me and I will look for you from time to time. And if you ever need my help with anything, just let me know.

Your friend,


P.S. thank you SO MUCH for following me. Your following means more to me than scoring Hub of The Week or any award given.

Nicole Quaste (author) from Philadelphia, PA on July 02, 2014:

Wow, Kenneth, thank you so much for your comment. I really appreciate it. I will certainly check out your writing, and I'd love to join your following. Thank you again.

Kenneth Avery from Hamilton, Alabama on June 27, 2014:

Hi, uNicQue,

LOVE this hub and the poems too. Breathless is how I feel now. The Autumn and Getting Old touched me deeply because of their realism and non-glitzy going on and off point.

Are you familiar with Abstract/Prose poetry? I love it and have written a few on my hubs. Would you read, "An Old Dreamers Dream," and "Goodbye Forever, Our Midnight," and see if you like them.

This is an excellent piece of writing. Amazing, to be quite frank with you.

I loved every word--and the lay-out was superb. Interesting, in-depth, helpful,

and very informative. Great job.

Voted up and all the choices because you deserve it.

You have such a gift for writing. Just keep writing and good things are bound to happen to you.

I cordially invite you to read one or two of my hubs, and be one of my followers.

That would make my day.

I am so honored to meet you.


Kenneth Avery, Hamilton, Alabama

Nicole Quaste (author) from Philadelphia, PA on February 19, 2014:

Thank you so much for your kind comment Thelma. I hope to visit his grave someday as well.

Thelma Alberts from Germany on February 19, 2014:

A brilliant hub of one of my favorite writers and poets. I have visited his grave in Sligo Ireland a few years ago. I had an odd feelings visiting his grave at that time. It just happened that we had a holiday nearby. Thanks for reminding me those days. Have a nice day!

Nicole Quaste (author) from Philadelphia, PA on October 04, 2013:

Thank you all so much. I really enjoyed writing this hub, and I plan on writing another one soon along these same lines. I just haven't chosen the poet yet :)

CraftytotheCore on October 02, 2013:

This is very interesting! Very well-written!

FlourishAnyway from USA on July 31, 2013:

Voted Up, Awesome, Beautiful, Interesting and sharing this well-written and researched hub. Yeats' "When You Are Old" is one of my favorites, and I like your alternative interpretations.

Helen Lush from Cardiff, Wales, UK on May 01, 2013:

Another brilliant hub unicque! You've hit on one of my favourite poets, having previously written a great hub on my favourite artistic brotherhood! I have "Had I the Heavens Embroidered Cloths" etched on glass in my house. Voted up and more. Keep up the good work!