Yeats and Ottava Rima

  • Helen Vendler
Part of the Yeats Annuals book series (YA)


The reader of Yeats’s poems (in any collected edition) first encounters the eight-line stanza known as ottava rima in “Sailing to Byzantium”, the poem opening The Tower.1 Though “Sailing to Byzantium” is neither the earliest-composed poem in The Tower nor the title poem (which Yeats placed second), it was given pride of place, not only for its thematic relevance to old age, but because it announces, opulently, the appearance of a new metrical form for Yeats, which he will continue to explore till his death. Ottava rima will be called into use not only in single poems but also in some of the most famous sequences. We see, among the ottava rima poems in The Tower, not only “Sailing to Byzantium” and “Among School Children”, but also, in “Meditations in Time of Civil War”, Ancestral Houses and My Descendants; and in “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen”, “Many ingenious lovely things are gone”. The last ottava rima poem written by Yeats is “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”. In between, there are many more, ranging from the one-stanza poem “The Choice” (originally the penultimate stanza of “Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931”) to the two Coole Park poems of 1929 and 1931. Both section II and section III of “Vacillation” are ottava rima poems, of one and two stanzas respectively.


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  1. Jon Stallworthy’s Between the Lines: W. B. Yeats’s Poetry in the Making (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963).Google Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1995

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  • Helen Vendler

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