"Mysterious wisdom won by toil" : the problem of labor in the poetry of W.B. Yeats.




Pierce, Ingrid A.

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In poems spanning his career, William Butler Yeats wrestled with the problem of human labor, which he saw as a source of suffering and despair. Though some poems depict the satisfaction of ideal labor, many others portray the sting of corrupt labor. Remarkably, five poems written in the last decade of Yeats’s life synthesize the earlier ideal and corrupt visions of work, exhibiting a third vision that is both tragic and joyous—the poetic labor of renewal. This poetic labor is incarnational; it descends into the embodied life—including all that is sordid—in order to ascend, infusing the soul with poetic wisdom. In the transformation of his own ideas about labor and the achievement of the penetrating insight that poetic labor cultivates wisdom, Yeats himself embodies the “mysterious wisdom won by toil.”