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W.B. Yeats in the USA, 1903-1932

During five visits between 1903 and 1932, W.B. Yeats spent more than a year of his life in the United States.[1] 

Spurred no doubt by the strength of patriotic sentiment he encountered among Irish Americans, he made some of his most overtly nationalistic pronouncements while he was in America. This was especially true during his first American tour in 1903/04. His other four visits, in 1911, 1914, 1920, and 1932/33 took place at important moments in the complex evolution of Yeats's up-and-down engagement with nationalist Ireland.

Others came before him, Moore and Wilde: Yeats was not the first prominent Irish writer to visit the USA. Thomas Moore was in the Americas exactly 100 years before Yeats's first visit, in 1803/1804, but at that time he did not possess the kind of literary reputation he would soon acquire as the author of Moore's Melodies. Moore's visit also took place long before the huge influx of Irish immigrants helped change the demography of America, and of Ireland, from the 1840s onwards. 

Oscar Wilde was welcomed by many Irish Americans because his mother, ‘Speranza’ was a renowned nationalist writer. According to his biographer, Richard Ellmann, Wilde "rediscovered himself as an Irishman" during his 1882 American tour. Yet for the most part, he was not seen in America as an Irish writer. Yeats most certainly was.

Yeats's 1903-04 tour:  In the four months he spent in America in 1903/04, Yeats delivered more than 60 lectures, many at leading American Universities, and amassed $3,200, a substantial sum at that time, especially for someone like Yeats who had always been so hard-pressed financially. 

Yeats had laboured throughout the 1890s arguing the case for a national literature for Ireland and this was one of his main preoccupations during his time in America. In a lecture entitled 'the intellectual revival in Ireland', he conjured up a pastoral, egalitarian future for Ireland, which would "preserve an ancient ideal of life" centred on agriculture rather than industry. 

He enthused about Ireland where "alone among the nations" will be found "away on the western seaboard, under broken roofs, a race of gentlemen, keeping alive the ideals of a great time when men sang the heroic life with drawn swords in their hands."

When Yeats arrived in America, he was at the height of his renown as an Irish nationalist, having the year before produced, in collaboration with Lady Gregory, his most political piece of work, Cathleen ní Houlihan. But not all was sweetness and light because in the opening years of the 20th century Yeats had come under attack from, for example, Patrick Pearse, who had insisted that a national literature for Ireland could only be written in the Irish language. Pearse later regretted his dismissal of Yeats as a third-rate poet and invited him to speak at his school at St. Edna's.

The prominent Irish-American lawyer, John Quinn, had worried that Yeats might not go down well with Irish American Catholics on account of his unorthodox religious views, but Yeats quickly won over his audiences. Indeed, he was asked by the Irish American Fenian body, Clan na Gael, to deliver a lecture in memory of the early 19th century Irish patriot Robert Emmet. When Yeats spoke at the Academy of Music in New York in February 1904, his talk attracted an attendance of 4,000.

In this speech, Yeats offered an unbridled nationalist interpretation of Irish history. He lionised Emmet as someone who "showed that there was something in Ireland which not all the wealth of world could purchase."  He predicted that "when Ireland is triumphant and free, there will be something in the character of her people, something lofty and strange, which will have been put there by her years of suffering and by the memory of her many martyrs." None of his critics in Ireland could have taken exception to his American lectures. This was the outlook of an advanced Irish nationalist and his audiences evidently lapped it up. We know from his letters, however, that Yeats was already harbouring doubts about the direction of political debate in Ireland. 

Yeats's 1911 Tour: By the time Yeats returned to America in 1911, his view of Ireland had darkened markedly. The prime cause of his disenchantment had been the negative public response to Synge's Playboy of the Western World and when the playwright died in 1909 Yeats turned him into a symbol of artistic integrity ground down by what he considered to be philistine versions of Irish identity.

On this visit, Yeats accompanied the Abbey Theatre on its first American tour. He believed that Irish America could become a vital source of support for his theatre, but accepted that this would take time. As he wrote: "The Irish imagination keeps certain of its qualities wherever it is, and if we are to give it, as we hope, a new voice, and a new memory, we shall have to make many journeys." 

Inevitably the controversy that had surrounded Synge's Playboy in Ireland followed Yeats and his troupe to America. One Irish American body described the Playboy as "the foulest libel that has ever been perpetrated on the Irish character."  Never one to shirk from a verbal battle, Yeats went into bat for Synge's genius. He argued that Synge “took his types from reality indeed, but he exaggerated them and arranged them according to his fancy until he created something as strange as the wandering knight and the Sancho Panza of Cervantes."

Yeats's 1914 Tour of America: By the time of his 1914 visit, Yeats's disenchantment with Ireland had reached new depths and this was reflected in the poems that appeared in Responsibilities (1913)some of which have a bitter, unattractive tone. The most refined statement of Yeats's disillusionment came in '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,

All that delirium of the brave?

This reads like a farewell to Irish affairs and during his 1914 tour Yeats largely steered clear of Irish America. His visit took place in the teeth of the raging controversy about Irish Home Rule and Yeats expressed guarded optimism about the prospects for agreement that would preserve the unity of Ireland. Again his tour was a lucrative one, raising £500. This figure is put into perspective by fact that his total income in the previous year was £522.

Yeats's 1920 Tour: By the time Yeats returned to the United States in 1920 everything in Ireland had, as he put it in 'Easter 1916'  'changed utterly' and the country was in the throes of a war of independence. The Easter Rising had revived Yeats's interest in Irish affairs and encouraged him to move back to Ireland from London where he had lived for most of the previous three decades. 

Naturally there was considerable American interest in Yeats's analysis of developments in Ireland. During this visit he met Eamon de Valera, who was in America as President of the Irish Republic. Although Yeats’s lectures studiously avoided current Irish affairs, in his response to questions he on one occasion described Ireland as "a country of oppression" and expressed his desire for some form of self-government for his strife-torn homeland.  While he acknowledged Sinn Féin's mandate, he decried political fanaticism as "a bitter acid that destroyed the soul." 

Yeats's final American tour: Yeats's last American tour in 1932/33 was undertaken for familiar reasons, to boost his own finances and to raise money for his latest project, the Irish Academy of Letters which he set up in September 1932. This was Yeats's rejoinder to the literary censorship that had been introduced during the 1920s, and what he saw as a narrowing of the new State's intellectual horizons. 

During this visit, Yeats, who had spent a number of years in the 1920s serving as a member of the Irish Senate, was often described as "Ireland's cultural Ambassador". His own aim was "to substitute a cultural link" between Ireland and Irish America for the political one. The lecture he delivered most often was entitled 'The New Ireland' in which he divided Irish history into four eras, the fourth beginning with the death of Parnell in 1891. This was very much in line with the thesis he advanced in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1923 in which he sought to claim some of the credit for Ireland's political transformation.

Conclusion: WB Yeats was a considerable success in America.  He worked hard, travelling widely and lecturing frequently to academic as well as Irish American audiences. He left a positive impression wherever he went and was invariably seen by the American press as someone who ought to have an opinion on every current topic to do with Ireland. And he did not disappoint them. For its part, Irish America suppressed whatever doubts there may have been about the integrity of his nationalism.  His frustrations in the face of the “ignorant spite” to which he felt he was subjected at home and at what he called Dublin’s “blind and ignorant town” were relieved during his American visits where he was buoyed by how unreservedly he was welcomed wherever he went.  

America was an important refuge for W.B. Yeats during those torrid three decades when Ireland and its greatest poet were being remade as a modern sovereign state and a modern poet.

Daniel Mulhall is Ireland's Ambassador to the United States 

[1] The material for this blog comes from various sources but notably a Ph.D thesis written by Karin Margaret Strand, W.B. Yeats’s American Lecture Tours (Northwestern University, 1978).