Skip to main content

Lecture by Ambassador Mulhall at the Yeats Summer School

"Now days are dragon ridden": WB Yeats and revolutionary Ireland, a lecture delivered at the Yeats Summer School, Sligo, 2 August 2019 

A writing life of two halves:

Yeats's life as a writer falls fairly neatly into two halves and his reputation with readers is also two-pronged. His early works - 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree', 'The Stolen Child', 'When you are Old', 'The Song of Wandering Aengus', and 'He wishes for the Cloths of Heaven' - pull furiously at the heart strings and are firmly and, I think, lastingly embedded in the affections of countless readers. That period of Yeats's creative life lasted from the late 1880s until sometime in the first decade of the 20th century when the tone and content of the poet's work began to change. His poetry from those early years is silky and sensuous.

Although I continue to enjoy reading his early work, it is the second half of Yeats's writing life that most interests me. It is that part of his legacy which has tickled the intellectual fancy of generations of scholars and students. As a historian rather than a literary critic, what has grabbed my attention are what I call Yeats's 'history' poems, by which I mean works like 'September 1913',  'Easter 1916', 'Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen', 'Meditations in Time of Civil War' and 'Under Ben Bulben'.  Those are gritty, complex and challenging works of literature, but they also map the evolution of Yeats's engagement with Ireland which has been a subject of natural interest to me as I have travelled the world as part of our diplomatic service, talking about Ireland, our history and our literature.  

Yeats's double literary life as a romantic poet of the late 19th century and a modern poet of the 20th is well described by one of his earlier biographers, Richard Ellmann, who put it like this: “Had Yeats died instead of marrying in 1917, he would be remembered as a remarkable minor poet who achieved a diction more powerful than that of his contemporaries but who, except in a handful of poems, did not have much to say with it.” During the last two decades of his life, Yeats had lots and lots to say for himself and about his country.  

It might also be worth asking what would have happened to Yeats's life and work had Home Rule been granted in 1914 and had there thus been no 'terrible beauty' of 1916 and its aftermath?  

Place and time: 

Writers naturally tend to be shaped by the place in which they spend their lives. That was certainly the case with W.B. Yeats whose work was heavily influenced by its locale. 

Ireland was his place, of course, as was Sligo, from Innisfree to Lissadell and Ben Bulben. Those locations exercised a strong grip on his imagination, as did Lady Gregory's Coole Park, where he spent so many summers, and the nearby Thoor Ballylee, which he purchased in 1917.  I have not taken the time to count the number of Yeats's poems and plays that are set somewhere in Ireland, but the figure would certainly be very considerable.

But, as I will argue here this afternoon, the seminal Irish events of the poet's lifetime may be said to have had an even stronger shaping impact on his work. Those events were many and momentous - the Land War, the rise and fall of Parnell, the evolution of a new nationalism at the turn of the century, the Easter Rising, the war of independence, Ireland's civil war and the emergence of an independent Ireland.   

Yeats, a virtual history:

Had Yeats been born 50 years earlier or 50 years later, he would, I think, have been a different literary figure in terms of his relationship with Ireland. A Yeats born, for example, in 1815 would have witnessed O'Connell's Repeal movement, the Famine, the Fenian rising and the upheavals of the land war, but might have been deceased by the time Parnell reached the peak of his powers in the 1880s.

It's hard to see Yeats being enraptured by O'Connell in the way he clearly was by Parnell. And could any mid-19th century writer have found a way of grappling with the devastation of the Famine?  A Yeats born in 1815 would not have witnessed the political transformation of Ireland between 1913 and 1923 which gave rise to some of his finest 20th century poems.

His literary profile would perhaps have been more like Oscar Wilde's whose Irishness, although genuine, was well masked in his writings. Such a Yeats would probably have spent an even bigger proportion of his life in London and would, no doubt have tasted success with his early lyrics which would have appealed to mid-Victorian sensibilities just as much as they still do to ours.  

An 1815-born Yeats might, I suppose, have been drawn to the romanticism of the Young Ireland movement, although he came to take a dim view of the quality of their literary output. The 1840s would not have been fertile ground for the kind of writing he spent so much time and effort promoting during the 1890s. 

Had Yeats been born 50 years later (in 1915) , he would have grown up in an independent and conservative Ireland.  There is no reason to suppose he would have been any more favourably disposed to that Ireland as a young man in the 1930s than he was as a 70 year old. 

I doubt that he would ever have dedicated himself to being an Irish writer in the 1930s in the way he did in the 1890s. He would perhaps have been more like Beckett, keeping his distance from his homeland and revealing his Irishness in an indirect, surreptitious and underground fashion.  

Yeats's Irish identity, while often sharply contested by some of his Irish contemporaries, was invariably direct and over-ground. He pitched his tent as an Irish writer and shifted ground many times during his 74 years in response to the zigzag of Irish history as he experienced it. 

Yeats, an actual history:

But Yeats was born in 1865 and was shaped by the fact that he lived at an unquiet time in Irish and European History, one more unsettled than any era since that of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.  

Yeats lived through the upheavals of the Land War and witnessed revolutionary Ireland at first hand, before becoming a member of the first Irish Senate. In the wider world, he lived through the tragedy of the First World War, but it evidently left far less of an impression on him than what happened in Ireland during and after that great conflict. 

I begin this account of Yeats and revolutionary Ireland in 1914. Politically, that was a milestone year for Ireland with two rival militias, the Irish Volunteers and the Ulster Volunteers, primed to confront each other.  The loyalty of the British Army was in doubt as officers signalled their opposition to British Government policy in Ireland. 

British politics were riven by the Irish question, to the point where Prime Minister Asquith saw a silver lining in the outbreak of World War One, in that it would allow the Irish crisis to be shelved, as indeed it was, for the duration of the European conflict. Yeats, although a supporter of Home Rule for Ireland, paid little or no attention to those dramatic political developments. 

In Yeats's life, 1914 was marked by the first appearance that year of his collection, Responsibilities. (The collection reached a wider audience when it was published by MacMillan in 1916, which was even more of a milestone year for Ireland!) The poems in that collection reflect Yeats's view of things ahead of Ireland's Year One, when things were "changed utterly" by the events of 1916. Ezra Pound enthused about Yeats's new poems which he felt were "no longer romantically Celtic" but possessed a gaunter style and 'a greater hardness of outline".  Both of those observations are valid, but, as a portrait of Ireland in the second decade of the 20th century, and of Yeats's mood, Responsibilities does not paint a pretty picture. 

The best-known poem in Responsibilities, 'September 1913', was written in response to Dublin's 1913 workers' Lockout, although you will struggle to find any reference in it to the embattled workers and their families. It is for the most part a display of disappointed anger at contemporary Ireland's failure to live up to the romantic ideals of John O'Leary or, more accurately, WB Yeats whose interest in Ireland was spurred by the old Fenian whom Yeats met after he returned to Dublin from exile in the 1880s. 

Yeats's acerbic outlook was shaped by his experiences at the Abbey Theatre, especially the controversies surrounding the Playboy of the Western World, and by the ruckus surrounding his crusade in favour of the building of a municipal gallery to house the paintings bequeathed to Ireland by Lady Gregory's nephew, Hugh Lane. 

There is an unpleasant tone to Yeats's complaints about his adversaries. They "fumble in a greasy till" and "add prayer to shivering prayer". Their supposed inanities are contrasted with Yeats's vision of past heroes of romantic Ireland - Robert Emmet, Wolfe Tone and Lord Edward Fitzgerald - who had exhibited “all that delirium of the brave." 

'September 1913' was not the only embittered poem in Responsibilities. His tirade against those who refused to back the municipal gallery project opens with some frankly unsavoury lines: 

You gave but will not give again
Until enough of Paudeen's pence
By Biddy's half pennies have lain
To be 'some sort of evidence' ..


Let Paudeens play at pitch and toss, 
Look up in the sun's eye and give
What the exultant heart calls good
That some new day may breed the best 
Because you gave, not what they would,
But the right twigs for an eagle's nest. 

It is tempting to wonder how Yeats's work might have evolved had not the 'terrible beauty' of 1916 emerged seemingly to salvage his faith in the romantic Ireland of his imagination? 

We know that Yeats was in two minds about the Easter Rising, moved by the sacrificial idealism of its leaders but fearful of a possible descent into violent fanaticism.  At the time, he confided in Lady Gregory his fear that "all the work of years has been overturned, all the bringing together of classes, all the freeing of literature and criticism from politics."  

The Rising left him despondent about the future, but he also confessed that he had "no idea that any public event could so deeply move me." This combination runs through Yeats's response to revolutionary Ireland, a fluid mix of foreboding and fascination. 

The power of 'Easter 1916' derives from its complex ambivalence towards the event its elegises. Yeats was no cheerleader for the Rising and deliberately delayed publication of his poem for years, by which time the die had been cast and Ireland was well on the road to independence. 

'Easter 1916' begins with an acknowledgement that he, like most other observers, had underestimated those who brought the Rising about. In its second stanza, he focuses on four of its leading figures, Pearse, MacDonagh, Markievicz and John McBride and recognises that they, including McBride, "a drunken vainglorious lout" who had married Maud Gonne, had been "changed utterly" by their participation in the Rising. 

In the poem's magnificent last two stanzas, he worries that "too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart" and asked the ultimate revisionist question:  

Was it needless death after all? 

For England may keep faith

For all that is done and said. 

The poem's resounding final lines may come across as a paean of praise for "MacDonagh and McBride and Connolly and Pearse", but this is modulated by the description of the Rising as "a terrible beauty". 

However, we choose to view the events of Easter 1916, one thing is clear: they drew from Yeats (i) the finest long poem of his by then 30-year writing career, (ii) one of the most impressive public poems in 20th century English, (iii) the first major poem in Yeats's mature voice, one of three great history poems that culminated in 'Meditations in Time of Civil War'. My argument is that the Easter Rising was both a major event in modern history of Ireland and in the evolution of Yeats’s development as a poet.

The poem's ambivalence was too much for Maud Gonne, who viewed the Rising as an unvarnished example of heroism, including on the part of her estranged, dead husband. As she wrote to Yeats, "No, I don't like your poem, it isn't worthy of you and above all it isn't worthy of the subject." 

The Easter Rising helped bring about a dramatic change in Yeats's life. After many years living mainly in London, from 1917 onwards he and his new wife, George, began to spend more and more time in Ireland. 

Yeats monitored developments in Ireland with a mix of excitement and alarm. He wrote a number of lesser poems about the Rising.  'Sixteen Dead Men' dwells on the transformational impact of the executions that followed the Easter Rising.  

O but we talked at large before

The sixteen men were shot,

But who can talk of give and take,

What should be and what not

While those dead men are loitering there 

To stir the boiling pot?   

'The Rose Tree' has Patrick Pearse conversing with James Connolly and endorsing the idea of blood sacrifice. 

O plain and plain can be

There’s nothing but our own red blood

Can make a right Rose Tree.   

And then there's his play 'The Dreaming of the Bones' which goes back to the era of Dermot McMurrough and Dervogilla and thus conjures up the legacy of 750 years of British rule.  

In those two poems written in 1917 and his play Yeats touches on all of the elements that were for decades part of the classic Irish nationalist response to the Rising - the focus on its leaders and their sacrifice, and the notion of the Rising as the violent culmination of centuries of foreign rule. It is also evident that Yeats's attitude to the Rising developed in tune with wider Irish public attitudes.  

1917 was a transformational one for Yeats as he finally abandoned the idea of persuading Maud Gonne, and her daughter, Iseult, to marry him and turned instead to Georgie Hyde-Lees who, through her strange gift of automatic writing, provided him with guidance from the spirit world and metaphors for his poetry. 

Yeats intervened in the intense political controversy surrounding the attempt to impose conscription on Ireland in 1918. His letter to Lord Haldene, a British Cabinet Minister, is an extraordinary piece of work, even though it begins with a disclaimer: “I have no part in politics and no liking for politics, but there are moments when one cannot keep out of them.” His political analysis was, as we might now say, 'on the money'. Here is a sample of what he wrote: “The British Government, it seems to me, is rushing into this business in a strangely trivial frame of seems to me a strangely wanton thing that England, for the sake of fifty thousand Irish soldiers, is prepared to hollow another trench between the countries and fill it with blood…and Ireland, for another hundred years, will live in the sterility of her bitterness.”  His perceptive analysis is difficult to disagree with even at this remove. He clearly had his finger on the pulse of a rapidly-changing Ireland. 

1919 turned out to be a busy, creative year for Yeats. During those 12 months, he composed at least nine significant poems that made it into his Collected Poems. These included his more frequently-quoted 20th century poem, 'The Second Coming'.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre,
The falcon cannot hear the falconer.
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world 
And everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned.
The best lack all conviction while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity. 

While this poem may have been written in reaction to the revolutionary upheavals that gripped Europe in the aftermath of the First World War, I have no doubt that his fears and forebodings about the situation in Ireland were also playing on his mind.   

1919 also turned out to be a busy year for Ireland, with the establishment of the First Dáil, the issuing of a Declaration of Independence and the beginning of our war of independence. Ireland was not alone in experiencing dramatic political upheaval. All over Europe, this was a time of turbulence and tribulation, an era of revolution in the aftermath of the bloodiest war in human history.  

Yeats observed this situation with considerable trepidation. He feared that Ireland might, "under the influence of its lunatic faculty", succumb to "Marxian revolution" which he saw as "the spear-head of materialism and leading to inevitable murder." 

Yet, despite these forebodings, Yeats was excited by the ferment round and about him. In July 1919, Yeats predicted that he might have "a spirited old age", and that he certainly had!  Indeed, he was until the very end of his life, a feisty, flinty writer, in continual argument with the world around him, and especially with the Ireland of his time. 

The last 20 years of Yeats's life saw him produce a series of complex, powerful, philosophical poems, and 'Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen', is certainly one of those. Its original title was 'Thoughts upon the Present State of the World'. He described it as "a lamentation over lost peace and lost hope." 

It is one of Yeats's more challenging poems, but it has many arresting images including: 'wax in the sun's rays', 'no cannon had been turned into a ploughshare', 'weasels fighting in a hole', 'man is in love and loves what vanishes' and so forth.  

Here is a stanza from the poem, which shows Yeats at the peak of his powers as a modern writer. 

Now days are dragon-ridden, the nightmare
Rides upon sleep: a drunken soldiery
Can leave the mother murdered at her door, 
To crawl in her own blood, and go scot-free;
The night can sweat with terror as before
We pieced our thoughts into philosophy
And planned to bring the world under a rule,
Who are but weasels fighting in a hole.  

This is an example of what Seamus Heaney described as the "unconsoled modernity" of Yeats's later work which exhibited "the high pitch of a sacred rite",  

In my study of Yeats, I had long neglected Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen. The more I read it, however, the more central it seems to me to be to Yeats's evolution as a writer. If 'September 1913' reads like an exasperated farewell to his erstwhile Irish enthusiasms, Yeats's faith in Ireland's potential was temporarily restored in 'Easter 1916'. By 'Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen', the poet seems to have come to terms with some new realities. Yes, Ireland was on the way to independence, but the ideals that motivated him in his younger years were not likely to prosper in this brutal new world. But he was up for the fight and the language of this poem reflects those fighting qualities. It is, to my mind Yeats's first thoroughly modern poem. It set a patterns that he would pursue for the last two decades of his life, as a poet in vigorous argument with the world around him. 

Yeats's meditation on the state of the world in 1919 was set off by murders perpetrated in the Gort area by the Black and Tans.  As always in Yeats's work, these incidents are melded with other elements, in this case snatches of ancient literature and philosophy, to produce a powerful poem whose appeal transcends its Irish setting. 

Yeats spent the first five months of 1920 touring the United States and, while he again professed to be a political agnostic, the statements he made revealed a deepening commitment to independence. And he was spending more and more time in Ireland, as if attracted by the prospect of witnessing at first hand the country’s political transformation. 


My conclusion is that Ireland’s revolution helped mould Yeats’s work in a positive direction. In turn, Ireland owes a debt to Yeats for the manner in which he grappled with those seminal events and gave them a life of their own on the pages of his books and in the minds of his readers.  

It may be that 'Easter 1916' will come to be seen as the finest, longest-lasting monument to the events of that Irish year when Ireland was "transformed utterly". WB Yeats was never fully at ease with the Ireland he saw emerging in years before and after 1916, but he was absorbed with it and couldn't keep his eyes off what was happening there. It helped sharpen his writing so that it scaled peaks of intensity that had been seen in his earlier work. The Irish revolution he observed at close quarters after 1916 helped give him something to say.  And he said it well.  

I could have titled this talk "Yeats's 'labyrinth in art and politics' ", which would have picked up on a line from 'Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen'. I have a feeling that Yeats managed to manoeuvre his way successfully through that labyrinth. I am not sure that we, his readers, will ever fully find our way out! But it continues to be an absorbing journey.  


« Previous Item | Next Item »