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‘W.B. Yeats and the Ireland of his time’, a talk delivered at the Oxford Literary Festival


It is a pleasure to be part of the Oxford Literary Festival, especially as I am neither a writer nor an academic. I am here because of a lifelong interest in the work of our great Irish poet and Nobel Prize recipient, William Butler Yeats, who was born in Dublin 150 years ago this year. In Ireland throughout the year, we will be paying tribute to Yeats's literary achievement and his contribution to Ireland during his lifetime and in the years since his death in January 1939.

I am confident that the poet would be especially pleased to be remembered here in this city, a place he knew well and liked. In Oxford, he once wrote: ‘One almost expected people to sing instead of speaking. It is all – the colleges I mean – like an Opera.’

This year of Yeats is not, of course, nor should it be, a specifically Irish event, for our national poet is a figure of true international standing. Moreover, he has a particular relevance here in Britain. After all, for much of his life he was forever back and forth between Ireland and Britain, spending considerable time in Dublin, London and the west of Ireland, especially Sligo and Galway.

Yeats is probably also the Irish writer with the broadest following in Britain. His works feature prominently in listings of this country’s favourite poems.

Yeats deserves to be remembered first and foremost as a great poet who retained his creative spark until the very end of his life. While always greatly enjoying his poetry, I have also maintained a particular interest in Yeats’s lifelong dialogue with Ireland and Irish identity.

No other major Irish writer had such a prolonged, intensive engagement with the Ireland of his time. Joyce, Shaw and Beckett, for example, all kept their distance from the affairs of their native land during their lifetimes, but Yeats never did. Indeed, he appeared to draw strength from being a 'public man' in an Irish context. That is why, in a conscious echo of one of his major prose essays, I decided to call this talk 'W.B. Yeats and the Ireland of his time.' I do not think it would be feasible to deliver a talk about James Joyce or Samuel Beckett and the Ireland of their times!

I want to argue that Yeats is Ireland’s Shakespeare, a writer who delved into the Ireland of his time, which happened to be a vital era of nation-building during which Ireland’s modern identity was being forged. I see Yeats as a powerful, perceptive interpreter of that seminal period, not just for Ireland, but for these islands and our connected histories. Like Shakespeare, he bequeathed us a rich trove of memorable lines and precious insights. Moreover, Yeats’s work – his history poems - brings Ireland’s past to life, doing for Ireland what Shakespeare does for England in his history plays.

Yeats's Ireland:

Yeats lived through a time of profound transformation in Ireland. He was born two years before the Fenian Rising of 1867, witnessed the upheavals of the Land War, and the rise and fall of the great Irish parliamentarian, Charles Stewart Parnell, all before his 25th birthday. By the time of his death in 1939, Ireland had experienced a war of independence and a civil war, events that featured in, and influenced, his poetry. Yeats witnessed the emergence of the Irish Free State, in which he served as a Senator, and the consolidation, in trying circumstances, of Irish independence during the 1920s and 1930s.

Between the late 1880s and the 1930s, there was scarcely a significant Irish public event or movement in which Yeats did not have an involvement, or about which he did not have an opinion. As chief progenitor of the Irish literary revival, Yeats contributed to the cultural churn that helped change Ireland in the decades before independence. His movement though was significantly less influential than the Gaelic League or the GAA and it is as a poetic chronicler of those decisive years for Ireland that Yeats excelled. His interpretation of the Ireland of his time should not be taken at face value for, of course, he had a partial and, at times, partisan view of things. Yet it is now scarcely possible to view the Easter Rising of 1916 without reference to his depiction of it as a ‘terrible beauty.’

In order to explore Yeats's complex relationship with Ireland, I want to look at six of his poems using each one to illustrate a particular aspect of his lifelong dialogue with the land of his birth.

The Lake Isle of Inisfree:

‘While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey
I hear it in the deep heart's core.’

We know from Yeats's own account that this poem was written in London in 1890 when, walking along Fleet Street (in another account it was The Strand), he heard ‘a little tinkle of water’ which reminded him of lake water. His imagination transported him back to the west of Ireland and the Isle of Inisfree on Lough Gill in County Sligo.

This is the kind of poem for which Yeats is most widely admired. It is immensely popular because of its arch romanticism and its verbal melody. It trips off of the tongue and embeds itself in the memory.

‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ reminds us that whenever Yeats's work has a geographical setting it is invariably in Ireland. His poems evoke places in Ireland and draw on Irish mythology. They contain references to Irish personalities and events that occurred in Ireland.

Considering that he lived for long spells in London, it is surprising how little of England or English themes appear in Yeats's poems. He considered himself to be an Irish poet and took that designation seriously.

During the 1880s and 1890s he developed an enthusiasm for all things Irish and made ambitious claims for Ireland as a source of artistic inspiration. Ireland was, he said, ‘one of the seven great fountains in the garden of the world’s imagination.’ This enthusiasm arose in part from an encounter with John O'Leary, a well-known Irish nationalist who returned to Dublin in the 1880s after a long spell of imprisonment and exile in England and France. Yeats admired O'Leary's character and his brand of nationalism. For the remainder of his life, Yeats never ceased to be the unconventional Irish nationalist he became under O'Leary's tutelage.

Yeats insisted that, from the time he met O’Leary, ‘my subject matter became Irish’. On the strength of his conversations with O'Leary and from the Irish books he lent him, Yeats began 'to plot and scheme how one might seal with the right image the soft wax before it began to harden.' He wanted to create a literature that would make Ireland 'beautiful in the memory' and yet be 'freed from provincialism by an exacting criticism, a European pose.' This passage could be seen as a manifesto for the remainder of Yeats’s life, one to which he adhered with impressive determination.

To Ireland in the coming times:

‘And may the thoughts of Ireland brood
Upon a measured quietude.’

This poem was written in the early 1890s at a time when Yeats was actively engaged in an extended struggle to create an Irish national literature in the English language. This occupied a huge amount of his time and energy, and one of the key milestones of the Irish literary revival was the setting up of the Irish Literary Society here in London in 1892.

Yeats came to believe that there was 'no literature without nationality and no nationality without literature.' This was a provocative statement from two angles. First, many late-19th century writers would have viewed nationality as a creative cul de sac. James Joyce, for example, saw nationality as one of the 'nets' that he was determined to fly away from when he opted for a life of exile in continental Europe.

On the other hand, for more orthodox nationalists, the idea that literature was indispensable to nationality must have seemed strange. Literature would have been seen in such quarters as a device to be employed in order to advance the national cause.

In this poem, Yeats sets out his stall, insisting on combining his efforts to 'sweeten Ireland's wrong' with the highest aesthetic standards. During the 1890s, Yeats had fought battles against the aged Young Irelander, Charles Gavin Duffy, recently returned from a successful political career in Australia, in defence of the Irish literary movement against those who he believed wanted to turn it into a crude mouthpiece of nationalist politics.

During the 1890s, Yeats, spurred on by an infatuation with a politically-driven Maude Gonne, indulged himself in quite a lot of nationalist political activity, for example in the centenary commemoration of the 1798 rebellion and in the pro-Boer movement that emerged in Ireland at the turn of the century. He also opposed the 1900 visit to Ireland of Queen Victoria, and thus risked alienating influential people in Dublin and London, but he did not seem to mind running this risk. But, this ‘political’ side of his identity was always subordinate to what he saw as his stringent responsibilities as a writer.

There was also the question of the language in which Irish literature ought to be written. As someone who never tried to master ther Irish language, Yeats naturally insisted that the distinctive Irish insights derived from our mythology and folk memory could be expressed in English. There were those who contested this view, none more sharply than DP Moran in his campaigning journal, The Leader, in which Moran took pleasure in deriding Yeats’s work as a manifestation of what he described as 'the English mind in Ireland.'

September 1913:

‘Was it for this the wild geese spread
The grey wing on every tide;
For this that all that blood was shed,
For this Edward Fitzgerald died,
And Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone,
All that delirium of the brave?’

This poem first appeared in The Irish Times on the 8th of September 1913. It was an expression of deep disenchantment with the Ireland of that time. His outlook had undergone a sharp change in the decade that preceded the writing of this poem. The poem itself was viewed by Yeats as a riposte to what he styled as the ‘Dublin fanaticism’, which had been ranged against the workers during the Labour Lock-Out of 1913.

Yeats's engagement with nationalist Ireland had reached its peak in the early years of the 20th century when he produced his most intensely patriotic work, Cathleen ni Houlihan, in which Maud Gonne played the title role when the play was first performed. In the guise of an Old Woman personifying Ireland, she proclaimed that: ‘They that have red cheeks will have pale cheeks for my sake, and for all that, they will think they are well paid.’ The Old Woman exits the stage as a young girl with ‘the walk of a Queen.’ In 1904, Yeats founded the Abbey Theatre and threw himself into ‘theatre business, management of men.’ It was not long before things began to sour for him.

In the years that followed, it began to dawn on Yeats that not everyone shared his own, idiosyncratic, romantic vision of what Ireland ought to be. His hopes for the erection of a gallery to house a collection of modern paintings donated by Lady Gregory's nephew, Hugh Lane, were frustrated by opposition from local politicians and businessmen. His most profound disenchantment stemmed, however, from the controversy surrounding Synge's Playboy of the Western World. Yeats regarded Synge as a man of genius and railed against those who disrupted ‘the Playboy’ when it opened in the Abbey Theatre in 1907.

Yeats had to face the unpleasant prospect that ‘the intellectual movement’ he had striven to build might end in failure, fallen prey to machinations of less creative, but no less determned, minds. This caused him to fume in an unpleasant tone against those who were 'born to pray and save', against 'Biddy' and the 'Paudeens', who ‘play at pitch and toss'. He began to think proudly of his own heritage: 'Merchant and scholar who have left me blood/That has not passed through any huckster's loin.' These disappointments prompted Yeats to proclaim the death of Romantic Ireland, unceremoniously interred with his mentor, John O'Leary.

Romantic Ireland's dead and gone,
It's with O'Leary in the grave.

Easter 1916:

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is heaven's part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild. ...
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?

During the period of intense disenchantment that produced ‘September 1913’, Yeats referred to Ireland as a 'blind bitter land', and he might easily have become a blind, bitter poet. The Easter Rising spared him this uncomfortable fate. I would say that it revived his imagination and rekindled his interest in Ireland's heroic possibilities. The Rising began on Easter Monday 1916. It was an unexpected event that caught almost everyone not directly involved by surprise. The insurgents proclaimed an independent Irish Republic and held out for six days before surrendering in the face of the British Army’s vastly superior firepower. Fifteen of the Rising’s leading figures were subsequently executed (Roger Casement suffered the same fate a few months later) and this left an enduring mark on the Irish public which rallied behind the memory of the departed leaders and the goals for which they had sacrificed themselves.

Yeats was also caught of guard and the Rising deeply affected him. On the 11th of May, while the executions of the leaders were still going on, he wrote to Lady Gregory of his ‘great sorrow and anxiety’.

By then, Yeats was already at work on ‘Easter 1916’. With his focus as ever on the fate of the Irish literary movement he had pioneered, he was concerned that ‘all the work of years’ had been overturned, ‘all the bringing together of classes, all the freeing of literature and criticism from politics.'

‘Easter 1916’ is, in my opinion, the first great poem of Yeats’s full maturity. Moreover, it is something of a model for his great later poems. It begins in a conversational tone; winds itself up into a description of the Rising’s leaders; embarks on a meditation about ‘hearts with one purpose alone’; and concludes with a resounding chorus:

MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse’
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

In the Rising’s immediate aftermath, he perceptively remarked that ‘one knows nothing of the future except that it must be very unlike the past.’

‘Easter 1916’ reads like an agenda for the future analysis of that fateful time in Irish history, insisting that it had changed everything and giving us that powerful image, ‘a terrible beauty’. The poem also touches on something that would decades later become a kernel of debate about the Rising’s significance and implications.

Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.

There is an anthology of poetry published in 1999 and entitled Scanning the Century which includes Easter 1916, but leaves out the meditative part which for me gives proof of the poems greatness.

In ‘Sixteen Dead Men’, written in December 1916 he recognised the capacity of the executed leaders ‘to stir the boiling pot.’

You say that we should still the land
Till Germany’s overcome;
But who is there to argue that
Now Pearse is deaf and dumb?
And is their logic to outweigh
McDonagh’s bony thumb?

His impressive response to the Rising notwithstanding, we know from his letters that he was in two minds about it. Throughout his life, he was torn in different directions when it came to Irish affairs. He was at different times a Parnellite, an advanced nationalist, a social conservative and, latterly, a staunch defender of the Anglo-Irish tradition.

At heart, however, he was a romantic nationalist who convinced himself as a young man that there was something special about Ireland and its Celtic traditions. For all of his foreboding and two-mindedness, he saw in the events of 1916 a chance that the Ireland he had dreamed of in the 1890s could, after all, become a reality.

The events of 1916 renewed Yeats’s engagement with Ireland. He was saddened by the loss of ‘the ablest and most fine-natured of our young men’ and wondered if he could have done anything ‘to turn those young men in some other direction’. Yeats felt a need to return to Ireland, ‘to begin building again.’

In memory of Constance Markievicz and Eva Gore-Booth:

Many a time I think to seek
One or the other out and speak
Of that old Georgian mansion, mix
Pictures of the mind, recall
That table and the talk of youth,
Two girls in silk kimonos, both
Beautiful, one a gazelle.

This poem was written in 1927 about the Gore-Booth sisters of Lissadell House in Sligo who were for Yeats ‘among the dear memories of my youth.’ In 1927, Eva, the sufragette, and Constance, the Irish revolutionary, were both recently dead.

In 1923, Yeats threw himself into the work of the Senate of the Irish Free State. Initially, he was excited with the potential of the new State and thought that he could help steer it in the right direction. He was to be disappointed and this disappointment led to an increasing fondness for the Anglo-Irish traditions to which his family had belonged, but which he had ostentatiously rejected during his younger years. This disenchantment reached its high point in his haughty Senate speech on divorce in which he took up cudgels on behalf of the Anglo-Irish tradition.

‘We against whom you have done this thing, are no petty people. We are one of the great stocks of Europe. We are the people of Burke; we are the people of Grattan; we are the people of Swift, the people of Emmet, the people of Parnell. We have created the most of the modern literature of this country. We have created the best of its political intelligence. … If we have not lost our stamina then your victory will be brief, and your defeat final, and when it comes this nation may be transformed.’

It is not surprising that these belligerent views alienated Yeats from mainstream opinion in the Ireland of the 1920s and 1930s as the new State struggled to find its feet. For his part, he seemed to revel in his unpopular views and his role as an opponent of orthodoxy. His newly-upholstered Anglo-Irish identity did, however, produce much fine writing.

This poem is a good example of that aspect of his Irish journey towards a kind of aristocratic nationalism and the creation of a personal Pantheon - John O'Leary, Maud Gonne, Synge and the Gore-Booth sisters in their silk kimonos.

Under Ben Bulben:

Sing the peasantry, and then
Hard-riding country gentlemen,
The holiness of monks, and after
Porter-drinkers randy laughter;
Sing the lords and ladies gay,
That were beaten into the clay
Through seven heroic centuries;
Cast your mind on other days
That we in coming days may be
Still the indomitable Irishry.

Yeats wrote Under Ben Bulben in September 1938, just four months before his death. It represents his last will and testament. It brings my story of Yeats’s Irish journey to an end on a fitting note. In this poem, despite all the disappointments of the 1920s and 1930s and his brief flirtation with autocratic politics, Yeats asserts at the end that: ‘Ancient Ireland knew it all’ and insists on the enduring relevance of 'the indomitable Irishry’.

Although his epitaph urges us to ‘Cast a cold eye/ On life, on death’, Yeats did not follow his own example. He was more of the restless ‘pilgrim soul’, grappling with, to use Joyce’s words, the ‘reality of experience’ in poems that became grander and more powerful as he grew older. This pilgrim journey brought his poetry from the pleasing melodies of ‘When you are old’ to the grating sounds of ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’:

Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

This is 20th century poetry par excellence, far removed in tone and texture from Yeats's best-known early works. My argument is that this remarkable journey from 19th century romanticism to modernism travelled through the contested paths of the Ireland of his time.

We ought to be glad he undertook that journey. Ireland is also the better for it, possessing powerful poems that chronicle key moments in our national history. That is why it is fitting that we commemorate Yeats's 150th anniversary as an important national event for the Ireland of our time.

I said at the beginning that Yeats is Ireland’s Shakespeare. Of course, there are limits to the validity of this comparison. One can see many many differences between an Elizabethan dramatist about whom we know relatively little and a 19th/20th century poet who lived in the public eye and for whom we have a record of almost everything he ever committed to paper.

Shakespeare and Yeats have left us a treasure trove of memorable quotations. Both lived at a time when our countries were taking shape – England as a global power during the Elizabethan period and Ireland as an independent State in the 20th century. Shakespeare and Yetas are part of our shared canon of great literature forged from the overlapping experience of these islands over the centuries.

Daniel Mulhall is Ireland's Ambassador in London.