Ireland And Nationalism In The Plays Of W B Yeats

With William Butler Yeats, as with many artists associated with a political movement, a surface (at the very least) understanding of his biography is necessary in order to fully grasp the importance and impact of his literary legacy. Some might consider it ironic that one of the most prevalent voices of the Irish Literary Revival and the Irish Nationalist Movement was educated and spent much of his upbringing in London. William Butler Yeats was born in Dublin in 1865 to John Butler Yeats and Susan Pollexfen, whose family lived in the countryside of County Sligo. The young Butler Yeats moved to England with his family in 1876 in an attempt to help further the career of his father, who was a painter. However, he still spent the summers of his youth in Sligo with his mother’s family. (Jeffares 2-12)

The influence of the Irish countryside on him is thoroughly apparent in his poetry, which is bursting with its imagery. Throughout his adolescence, Yeats still spent a fair amount of time in London, pursuing his education and literary interests and although at first the young Yeats enjoyed the excitement and novelty of urban life, the trip back to Sligo was always a “romantic journey… away from urban and industrial civilization.” (Jeffares 10, 12) It is quite obvious that he longed for the idyllic pastoral panorama of his youth which was a part of his “deep heart’s core.” His early poetry makes frequent mention of such scenery, particularly in The Lake Isle of Innisfree in which he says that “while he stands on the roadway or the pavements grey,” he still wishes for the place where “midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow, and evening [is] full of the linnet’s wings.” (Yeats, The Collected Poems 39) And so the love for Ireland in Yeats’ work begins as an ode to its topographical beauty.
From an early age, Yeats was also interested in the folklore and mythology of Ireland. The Wanderings of Oisin was published very early in his life and is clearly an homage to the myths of Eire. The poem is an epic, narrating the tale of the mythical Oisin, who leaves Ireland to follow his lover, the fairy princess Niamh, to three mythical islands, spending over three centuries in the process. When he returns to Ireland, he sees that St. Patrick has spread Christianity through the land, completely dislodging its pagan past. Oisin says to Patrick that the Ireland of his youth was a place “where broken faith has never been known.” (Yeats, Poems 357) The poem is a literal dialogue between St. Patrick and Oisin, but on a deeper level, it is a communication between the new Ireland in which Yeats lived and the old Ireland which so enthralled him.

This is not the only poem or work by Yeats to use traditional Irish heroes. Yeats often wrote of popular characters from Irish folktales and history. The Song of Wandering Aengus places the Irish god of love, youth, and poetry in the same relaxing setting described in The Lake Isle of Innisfree. Cuchulain, a national Irish hero, not unlike the Greek Achilles, is mentioned in Yeats’ poetry and plays, as well. In one of Yeats’ dramas, On Baile’s Strand, Cuchulain exclaims, “I’ll not be bound, I’ll dance or hunt, or quarrel or make love, wherever and whenever I’ve a mind to.” (Yeats, The Major Works 251) Cuchulain’s call for autonomy was not extravagant or out of the question; it was simply the desire expressed by the Irish people, having been under British rule for so many centuries. Using such heroes aided Yeats’ vision for Ireland magnificently.
Yeats’ wholly loved Ireland. This love first manifested itself in expressions of admiration for the legends and physical beauty of Ireland. Upon meeting Maud Gonne, however, this passive admiration turned into ardent passion and nationalism. Like Yeats, Maud was also Anglo-Irish in heritage. Born in London, Maud Gonne moved with her father to Kildare, eventually relocating to France where she became politically active, participating in the struggle for Irish freedom, as well as the fight to regain the territory of Alsace-Lorraine for France. When finally she moved again to Ireland, she fought tirelessly for the release of political prisoners who had been jailed. (Gonne 11-64)

Maud’s passion captivated Yeats. She was the great love of his life, and though she is often seen simply as the inspiration for his love poems, it would be wise not to underestimate her profound importance in transforming Yeats into the fervent nationalist we see him as today.
No Second Troy is quite transparently written for Maud. She is undoubtedly the woman “with beauty like a tightened bow” who “taught to ignorant men most violent ways.” (Yeats, Poems 91) She, more than Yeats, was the driving force behind the mobilization of young Irish men to fight for the nation. In early 1898, she was responsible for provoking peasants to revolt against and kill their landlords. (Toibin 34) While Yeats devoted himself to creating a rich history for Ireland, Maud assigned herself the role of active revolutionary. It is not difficult to see where Yeats may have drawn the parallel between his first love, Maud Gonne, and Helen of Troy or Joan of Arc.

The other great feminine influence in Yeats’ life was Lady Augusta Gregory. Together, Yeats and Lady Gregory established the Abbey Theatre, in which Yeats was able to carry out his plan for the new Irish theatre– drama which would emphasize the importance of the spoken word, simple stage scenery, and gestures kept at a minimum. (Warner 172)

One of the most successful plays put on at the Theatre was a remarkable collaboration between Yeats and these two important women in his life. Cathleen Ni Houlihan was written by Yeats and Lady Gregory and starred Maud Gonne as the lead character, Cathleen herself. The story is yet another example of Yeats’ attraction to Celtic lore; Cathleen Ni Houlihan is traditionally used as a symbolic representation of Ireland in the form of an old woman who seeks the help of able young men to fight for the land. In the one act play, a family, celebrating the wedding of their eldest son, Michael, is surprised by an old woman at the door, who begins to lament the loss of her four “beautiful green fields” (representing the four provinces of Ireland) which have been forcefully taken from her by the “strangers in the house”. She pleads for the young man to fight for her cause, and when he agrees, she appears again, this time young and regal, announcing that glory and immortality await any brave soul who gives up their life for the cause. (Brown 135)

It was tremendously successful. Though Yeats denied that his play was in any way intended as propaganda, it certainly stirred the emotions of many young men who saw it. The story by Yeats, words by Lady Gregory, and compelling performance of Maud Gonne was a winning combination. It had the extraordinary power of speaking directly and emotively to its audience because the play had “expressed… the very spirit of a race forever defeated and for ever insurgent against defeat. [It] had linked this expression with a perfectly normal household group,” very much like those who attended its showings. (Toibin 48) The power of the play lies in the fact that it transformed an average rural young man into an immortal hero. Cathleen’s song, that the young men who stand up and fight for Ireland “shall be remembered forever, shall be alive forever…” and shall be heard forever (Brown 135) lingers among the audience, making the fight for Ireland into a Crusade of sorts.

Up to the middle of the first decade of the 20th century, Yeats’ work, though very thematically Irish, had been based primarily in the myths and tales of ancient Celtic heroes. Though many of his pieces had inspired young men and women to take action, he could still say that his writing was rooted in history and metaphorical. Following the uprising of 1916, however, Yeats’ poems took a definitive turn for the more radical.

In earlier poems by Yeats, notably September 1913, Yeats grieved that “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone, it’s with O’Leary in the grave.” (Yeats 108) Though the populace talked about change for Ireland, Yeats seemed to believe the dream had died. In another poem, A Coat, he expresses annoyance over the appropriation of his “coat” which he’d “covered with embroideries out of old mythologies,” alluding to the rich Celtic history he’d toiled to collect for the purpose of creating a national identity. (Yeats 127)

After the Easter Rising of 1916, in which militant Irish Republicans seized areas of Dublin and declared an independent Irish Republic, however, Yeats was forced to admit that Ireland had indeed been spurred to revolution and that “a terrible beauty is born.” Although the poem Easter 1916 does contain traces of Yeats’ characteristic ambivalence, notably in the first line of the sixth stanza, “For England may keep faith…” the poem is most remembered as a commemoration of the sixteen rebels who were captured and executed by the British and a celebration of their bravery. Interesting to note is that although one of the sixteen had been the much loathed John MacBride, ex-husband of Yeats’ beloved Maud Gonne, Yeats still acknowledged the bravery of his last act, and gave him some sense of distinction back through the poem. (Yeats 180)

Yet in Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen, Yeats seems to speak out against the bloodlust of the revolutionaries, fearing that it no longer has any ideological credibility. “We, who seven years ago talked of honour and of truth,” he says “shriek with pleasure if we show the weasel’s twist, the weasel’s tooth.” However, in The Rose Tree, written several years before, Yeats seems to imply that the only course of action left is violence. “There’s nothing but our own red blood can make a right Rose Tree.” (Yeats 206, 183)

That there should be contradictions in Yeats’ poetry is not surprising. For a man so steeped in the nationalist movement, he had the pesky habit of looking at matters from both sides of the fence. As such, his words and the particular poems themselves cannot always be considered the definitive stance of Yeats.

I have found the strength of Yeats to lie in the great precision with which he chooses his words. His literary prowess is clearly evident. Though the subject matter is undeniably moving, the real talent of Yeats is his great understanding of rhetoric. He was not a man who by chance wrote some of the most inspiring poetry to come out of Ireland. His art was carefully crafted without seeming so. Yeats knew how to construct sentences to work for him and serve a particular purpose. The rhythm of The Lake Isle of Innisfree mimics the gentle lapping of the lake shores. The varying lengths of the opening stanzas of each part of The Wanderings of Oisin prepare the reader for the mood of each island. The repetition of the line “a terrible beauty is born” in Easter 1916 is, while certainly dramatic, also a sort of mantra for the young men who would lead the revolution. The use of asyndeton, the omission of conjunctions, in The Tower when he says “never had I more excited, passionate, fantastical imagination…” serves to create a sense of frenzy in the reader. (Yeats 194)

Yeats knew very well how to appeal to the emotions of his readers through his writing. Though his words themselves sometimes contradicted each other, perhaps it would be wise to look at the way the words are arranged in his works to interpret the true attitudes of Yeats. Indeed, Yeats is one of few authors or poets who grew more innovative and passionate in old age, though it is not difficult to understand why. The Irish Revolution was at hand.

Some have attacked Yeats as not being a true voice of the Irish people. Yeats’ views on Catholicism are no secret. Both Yeats and Lady Gregory held well-established anti- Catholic views; they saw the Catholic middle class as subservient to the demands of the Pope in Rome, rather than to the cause in their own nation. “It is the old battle,” she once wrote to Yeats, “between those who use a toothbrush and those who don’t.” (Toibin 65) These views were by no means unique. This was consensus among members of the Protestant minority. However, critics of Yeats make a point in questioning the validity of Yeats as a champion of the Irish cause when in fact he didn’t speak for and indeed disliked a majority of the Irish—the Catholics. (Allison 61)

Though he may have not represented a large portion of the Irish, however, Yeats’ influence and role in the Irish literary revival should not go unappreciated. A vigilant recorder of many of the great events of the revolt against the British, Yeats was more often than not in the middle of the excitement (and to a certain extent, perhaps even a catalyst for it). The critics can say what they please, but Yeats leaves behind his legacy of work, a tribute to Ireland and a call for independence.

Works Cited

Allison, Jonathan. “The Attack on Yeats.” South Atlantic Review. 55.4. Nov. 1990: 61- 73.
JSTOR. Florida International University Library, Miami, Fl. 21 Mar. 2008

Alspach, Russel K. Irish Poetry: From the English Invasion to 1798. Philadelphia:
University of Pennsylvania Press, 1959.
Brown, Terence. The Life of W.B. Yeats: A Critical Biography. Oxford: Blackwell
Publishers, 2001.
Gonne, Maud, ed. A Norman Jeffares and Anna MacBride White. The Autobiography of
Maud Gonne: A Servant of the Queen. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press,
1995.
Jeffares, Norman A. W.B. Yeats: A New Biography. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1989.
Toibin, Colm. Lady Gregory’s Toothbrush. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press,
2002.
Warner, Alan. A Guide to Anglo-Irish Literature. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981.
Yeats, W.B., ed. Richard J. Finneran. 2nd Ed. The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats.
New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc. 1996.
Yeats, William Butler, ed. Edward Larrissy. The Major Works: Including Poems, Plays, and
Critical Prose. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

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