One may agree that some of the less-inspired poems are works of intellectual craftsmanship rather than of immediate genius, and that here and there the originality of the poet’s vision is clouded by reminiscences of the aesthetic painters. But the greatest poems in the book are a new thing in literature, a “rapturous music” not heard before. One is not surprised to learn from Mr. Yeats’s autobiographical volume, Reveries over Childhood and Youth, that, when he began to write poetry as a boy, “my lines but seldom scanned, for I could not understand the prosody in the books, although there were many lines that, taken by themselves, had music.” His genius, as a matter of fact, was unconsciously seeking after new forms. Those who have read the first draft of Innisfree will remember how it gives one the impression of a new imagination stumbling into utterance. Mr. Yeats has laboured his verse into perfect music with a deliberateness like that of Flaubert in writing prose.
Reveries is the beautiful and fascinating story of his childhood and youth, and the development of his genius. “I remember,” he tells us, “little of childhood but its pain. I have grown happier with every year of life, as though gradually conquering something in myself.” But there is not much of the shadow of pain on these pages. They are full of the portraits of fantastically remembered relations and of stories of home and school related with fantastic humour. It is difficult to believe that Mr. Yeats as a schoolboy “followed the career of a certain professional runner for months, buying papers that would tell me if he had won or lost,” but here we see him even in the thick of a fight like a boy in a school story. His father, however, seems to have had infinitely more influence over him than his school environment.
It was his father who grew so angry when the infant poet was taught at school to sing “Little drops of water,” and who indignantly forbade him to write a school essay on the subject of the capacity of men to rise on stepping-stones of their dead selves to higher things. Mr. Yeats’s upbringing in the home of an artist anti-Victorian to the finger-tips was obviously such as would lead a boy to live self-consciously, and Mr. Yeats tells us that when he was a boy at school he used to feel “as proud of myself as a March cock when it crows to its first sunrise.” He remembers how one day he looked at his schoolfellows on the playing-field and said to himself, “If when I grow up I am as clever among grown-up men as I am among these boys, I shall be a famous man.” Another sentence about these days suggests what a difficult inarticulate genius was his. “My thoughts,” he says, “were a great excitement, but when I tried to do anything with them, it was like trying to pack a balloon into a shed in a high wind.”
Though he was always near the bottom of his class, and was useless at games—“I cannot,” he writes, “remember that I ever kicked a goal or made a run”—he showed some promise as a naturalist, and used to look for butterflies, moths, and beetles in Richmond Park. Later, when living on the Dublin coast, he “planned some day to write a book about the changes through a twelvemonth among the creatures of some hole in the rock.”