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New edition gives us Yeats's poems as the poet himself intended

The Poems of W.B. Yeats: A New Edition, edited by Richard J. Finneran. New York: Macmillan. 747 pp. $19.95. WHETHER or not we would all go so far as the critic Hugh Kenner in contending that each volume of Yeats's verse is comparable to a book of the Bible and that the totality of his collected works constitutes a ''Sacred Book of the Arts,'' Kenner is surely right to remind us that Yeats was ''an architect, not a decorator,'' who considered each volume of his poetry as a single aesthetic unit rather than a mere anthology or gathering of poems.

''The Poems of W. B. Yeats'' now supersedes ''The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats'' as the standard reader's edition. Edited by Prof. Richard J. Finneran, this new edition restores - at long last - the order in which Yeats intended his poems to appear. The effect of this is most noticeable and dramatic in Yeats's ''Last Poems,'' which now follows the sequence of the poet's manuscript table of contents first discovered in 1960 by Prof. Curtis Bradford.

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In the previous Macmillan edition, ''Last Poems'' comprised both Yeats's ''Last Poems'' and the volume ''New Poems,'' which had preceded it - a mistake which, Professor Bradford argued, tended to dilute the grimness of the poet's final phase. The ''Last Poems,'' now a separate entity presented in their correct internal sequence, begins rather than ends with ''Under Ben Bulben,'' which, according to Bradford, Yeats intended as an overture rather than a recapitulation, as decades of readers have viewed it. Moving from its former position of sixth-to-last to its originally intended position of second-to-last, ''The Circus Animals' Desertion'' gains the authoritative place it deserves as Yeats's retrospective summation of his life's work.

Finneran has also included over 100 additional poems, many of which were written early in Yeats's career. Depending on one's view of the poet's development, it is either astonishing or curiously satisfying to find the young Yeats already grappling with themes that would continue to obsess him throughout his life. The old knight in the very early (1885) dramatic poem ''The Seeker,'' having searched since boyhood for the source of a mysterious, beckoning voice, finally confronts the elusive Figure who has summoned him only to discover that she is a bearded witch named Infamy. Here, in cruder form, is a theme of one of Yeats's last poems, ''Cuchulain Comforted'' (1939): the merging, confused identities of hero and coward.

Yet, despite the numerous improvements in this new edition, there is something in the tone of the editor's enterprise that may give the reader pause. The problem, I think, is symbolized by the dust jacket's identifying Yeats's poems as ''The Nobel laureate's verse,'' which sounds rather as if the book is aimed at readers who may somehow be unaware of Yeats's stature as a poet, but who are status-conscious enough to be impressed by a Nobel laureate. This is a little like calling Aeschylus or Sophocles a ''many-time winner of the Athenian drama prize.''

A similar uncertainty about who his audience is seems to pervade Finneran's ''Explanatory Notes.'' It is all too tempting to quote Yeats's poem beginning ''Bald heads forgetful of their sins,/ Old, learned, respectable bald heads/ Edit and annotate the lines/ That young men, tossing on their beds,/ Rhymed out in love's despair.'' Finneran, however, does not make the mistake of overinterpreting the poems. Indeed, one might say that his refusal to identify unnamed references (e.g., that the three women praised in ''Friends'' are probably Lady Gregory, Olivia Shakespear, and Maud Gonne) borders on the overcautious. As if to make up for such gaps, Finneran has seen fit to identify every proper name in Yeats's work, including Adam and Eve (eaters of biblical apple), Homer (a ''Greek poet''), and even Jesus Christ (''son of God in the Christian religion'').

But perhaps it is better in a standard text of this kind to err on the side of explaining too little rather than do the reader's interpreting for him. Certainly, all who love poetry - and even those who ''don't read much poetry'' - should be pleased to have this reasonably priced new edition, the product of many years of textual scholarship by many hands, which gives us Yeats's poems as the poet himself had intended.

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