W.B. Yeats: Art for Ireland’s Sake

It is unimaginable to not admire Yeats’ remarkable, unswerving fidelity to his craft.    

Literature

 

WB Yeats_LoC
William Butler Yeats. Image via Library of Congress.

 

It is quite evident from practices and precepts of several poets of repute that poetry cannot exist outside a convention. In that sense, Irish poetry has its own distinct tradition which rose from a clash between two cultures and languages. William Butler Yeats (1856-1939), who lived in a troubled age that witnessed the devastating First World War and the Spanish Flu, with a remarkable single-mindedness, dedicated his entire life to poetry. 

 

He was born in County Sligo (which is now known as Yeats County), which became his nostalgic refuge from the harshness of the world. One can find references aplenty to County Sligo in his poetry, one of them is a very simple poem called ‘The Fiddler of Dooney.' Yeats was so fond of the beautiful mountain Ben Bulben that he immortalized it in his poem ‘Under Ben Bulben.' It was near this mountain, which was some miles away from Sligo that he wished to be buried.

 

Yeats belonged to a country that had struggled to free itself from the shackles of eight hundred years of foreign rule. A staunch nationalist, Yeats was the forefather of the Irish Literary Renaissance. He founded the Abbey Theatre in 1899 with the aid of Lady Gregory in Dublin, which became the main focus of several native writers of the age who were all for the Irish Revival. 

 

Quite early in his career, Yeats had come to believe that life exists to serve poetry and at the heart of his work was his beloved Ireland. In 1939 W.H. Auden penned an elegy for Yeats, expressing the loss of an accomplished contemporary with evident melancholy: "Let the Irish vessel lie / Emptied of its poetry." He did affirm that it was “Mad Ireland” that had "hurt" Yeats into poetry. However, it was Yeats’ poetic genius, which raised Ireland’s global literary stature.

 

 

The Growth of the Poet

 

When the late Victorian period of his youth had narrowed, Yeats arrived at the conclusion that great poets overtly dramatize their own lives in poetry. It just so happened that Yeats himself began to do the same. 

 

In 1903, he noted an observation: "My work has got more masculine. It has more salt in it… the error of late periods like this is to believe that somethings are more intensely poetical… I believe more strongly every day that the element of strength in poetic language is a common idiom."1

 

As William Wordsworth worked to bring the language of poetry closer to the language of men, Yeats also chose to write in the idiom and syntax of ordinary discourse. Seldom did he elaborate his poetic language, except for in moments of intensity. He was in his twenties when his very first set of poems, titled 'Song of the Fairies’ and ‘Voices,' appeared in the Dublin University Review. However, it was not until 1889, when he published ‘Crossways’ and 'The Wanderings of Oisin,' that he found the distinct voice characterised by a verbal economy, which would set him apart from his contemporaries. 

 

Along with Gaelic mythology, Yeats’ later poetry is infused with Irish politics and the Irish struggle for independence. The poetry of his younger days is all about simplicity — enthusiasm for natural language and clear, concrete images. During this phase of his life he wrote in one of his letters: "We should write out our thoughts in as nearly as possible the language we thought them in, as though in a letter to an intimate friend."2

 

In an article for the BBC’s journal, The Listener,3  Yeats wrote: "When I was a young man poetry had become eloquent and elaborate...  A generation came that wanted to be simple, I think I wanted that more than anyone. I went from cottage to cottage listening to stories, to old songs, sometimes the songs were in English, sometimes they were in Gaelic — then I would get somebody to translate. Some of my best poems were made in this way. In my poetry, I tried to keep very simple emotions, to write natural words, to put them in the natural order."

 

'The Songs of the Old Mother' is a poem about an old peasant woman complaining about the young, which is a perfect example of the simplicity of Yeats’ verse: 

 

I rise in the dawn, and I kneel and blow  
Till the seed of the fire flicker and glow.  
And then I must scrub, and bake, and sweep,  
Till stars are beginning to blink and peep;  
But the young lie long and dream in their bed        
Of the matching of ribbons, the blue and the red,  
And their day goes over in idleness,  
And they sigh if the wind but lift up a tress.  
While I must work, because I am old  
And the seed of the fire gets feeble and cold. 

 

During the last few years of his life however, these simple emotions gave him no satisfaction. Yeats turned his back on everything scientific and progressive, he spurned cosmopolitanism of modern art for mythology and mysticism, and immersed himself for the cause of Ireland. It is quite distinguishable from his later poems that he had abandoned the old style and simplicity of his verse for a new approach that sought a romantic base in the mythology of Gaelic Ireland.

 

He became a realist and philosophical visionary whose grist for the mill was ancient Ireland and the Irish cause. There was a shift in his technique as he began to use symbolic imagery to express the state of his soul. He, however, continued to put the natural words in the natural order.

 

His IRS association was partly responsible for his lack of enthusiasm for simple emotions in his later poetry. Nationalism ran through his veins when he was in his twenties: those were the days when Ireland was witnessing an era where patriotism had become a force to reckon with. So much so, that even the most reluctant lot got politically involved. 

 

When Yeats was approaching his mid-forties, the revolution for Ireland’s independence was brimming and he was addressing major events that were shaping this part of the world in his poetry. By the time the dust of the Civil War had settled, and after decades of struggle, the establishment of the Irish Republic finally became a reality. Yeats had seen it all and presumably, these harsh political realities had obtruded his life as a poet. 

 

One can find a sense of disillusionment in his letters from the period when Irish resistance against the British rule had collapsed. It is quite interesting how despite opposing the British rule and being a poet who at large addressed public themes against the rule, Yeats did not refuse a pension that was offered to him from the British government in 1911. He went on to become a member of Irish Senate of the Free State in 1922, and a year later won the Nobel Prize in literature for his static and esoteric style of writing. 

 

In the same Listener  article which is partly quoted above, Yeats admitted that as he matured he felt the need to make his thoughts modern: "Modern thought is not simple; I became argumentative, passionate, bitter. When I was very bitter I used to say to myself, 'I do not write for these people who attack everything that I value, not for those others who are lukewarm friends, I am writing for a man I have never seen.' I built up a picture of a man who lived up in the country where I had lived, who fished in the mountain streams as I did and I said to myself, 'I do not know whether he is born yet, but born or unborn it is for him I write.’"   

 

 

Major Themes in Yeats’ Poetry

 

As a young poet, Yeats had already begun using personal elements in his poetry. Symbols from the natural world were used rather extensively; the chief ones being sea, birds, trees, roses, while the moon usually depicted the weariness. The use of these personal images enabled him to build a public personality for himself, and to some extent his reputation as well. 

 

Yeats had once pronounced: "Friendship is all the house I have." He wrote a great deal about his relatives and friends who were artists, writers, politicians and "certain among them men of genius" Such men of genius, he felt, needed an experiment in the form of personal poetry. 

 

As Yeats matured as a poet he became more of a symbolist. For instance, in a letter written to the poetess Katharine Tynan4 explaining his long poem ‘The Wanderings of Oisin,' Yeats writes: "Oisin needs an interpreter. There are three incompatible things which man is always seeking — infinite feeling, infinite battle, infinite repose — hence the three Islands."

 

These Islands, in a way, are aspects of different phases of human life: youth, middle and old age. Elsewhere, he spoke of a symbolic unicorn in one of his poems without troubling to clarify its meaning, pointing out that “the meaning may be different with everyone."

 

According to T.S. Eliot, Christianity was important for the survival of modern society and also a unifying design to accommodate its fragmentation. Similarly, magic, mysticism and mythology did the same for Yeats. He was among the few Irish men of letters drew inspiration from Celtic stories and legends. The Irish cause was at the heart of his poetry with which he enriched the soul of Ireland. 

 

As for religion, he once noted as a young man: "I am an artist’s son and must take some work as the whole end of life. My father’s unbelief had set me thinking about the evidence of religion and I weighed the matter perpetually with great anxiety, for I did not think I could live without religion."5

 

However, it was difficult for Yeats to comprehend institutionalized religions due to his father’s rather convincing arguments against them. His father believed in the religion of art. Yet, even as a young man, Yeats repudiated his father’s beliefs. He could not ignore an invisible power which he felt was at work everywhere around him. He acknowledged the active spiritual world in which he lived, though he was somewhat agnostic.

 

 

Yeats' Later Poetry

 

With 'The Wanderings of Oisin' Yeats had found a new voice. This was the turning point of his career as he explains in his introduction to Collected Works  that his subject matter had become "Irish" with the poem. 

 

In an essay titled ‘Ireland and the Arts’ which was published in the United Irishman, fifteen years after ‘Oisin’ was published, Yeats decided to include only Ireland in his poems’ scenery from then on. "I think I shall hold on to that conviction till the end," he wrote with certitude. It was a development that brought about a vital change in his poetic output and also strengthened his connection with Irish people. 

 

‘Easter, 1916’ is one of Yeats’ key works of this period. The background of the poem is the Easter Uprising in Dublin against the British occupation that lasted for five days and resulted in the death of several people. The incident brought back the issue of Irish independence in the public domain despite the Home Rule.

 

The meaning of the poem, unlike several of his other poems, is quite straightforward. It delineates Ireland’s long history of struggle, which is quite aptly conveyed in the melancholy of these lines: "Too long a sacrifice / Can make a stone of the heart / O when may it suffice."

 

The courage of those who were slain and are mentioned in ‘Easter, 1916’ inspired Ireland and changed the country completely. Yeats affirms the same in the closing lines of the poem: "Now and in time to be / Wherever green is worn / Are changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born."

 

Politically, Ireland had witnessed a radical change during the days of the First World War. The Irish fight for independence divided the people into two groups: some wished for a compromise with the British Empire and some wanted an independent republic. 
According to Yeats the poems in his famous collection ‘The Tower’ were "lamentations over lost peace and lost hope." The collection contains some of the finest poems that he wrote during his lifetime.

 

The power of Yeats’ art is immediate in poems such as ‘Sailing to Byzantium,' 'Leda and the Swan,' 'Meditations In The Time of Civil War,' 'The Tower' and others. Sometimes one can find the poet inspired by a force outside himself. This is quite evident in the poem  'Meditations In The Time of Civil War' which he penned in the summer of 1922. The poem was his response to the Irish Civil War where he expresses his attitude towards the nightmares of his time:

 

I turn away and shut the door, and on the stair
Wonder how many times I could have proved my worth
In something that all others understand or share;
But O! ambitious heart, had such a proof drawn forth
A company of friends, a conscience set at ease,
It had but made us pine the more. The abstract joy,
The half-read wisdom of daemonic images,
Suffice the ageing man as once the growing boy.

 

The lines above draw the reader towards the emptiness of an alienated mind. As mentioned earlier, the war had a great impact on Yeats. As early as 1916, he had come to accept that "the dream of my early manhood that a modern nation can return to Unity of Culture, is false; though it maybe we can achieve it for some small circle of men and women and there till the moon brings round its century." 

 

After giving up hope that a writer from Ireland would ever be able to find a breakthrough into the vanguard of English literature, Yeats, in "Meditations" was able to reassert his abandoned youthful hopes.

 

 

The Poetry of His Old Age

 

It is quite remarkable how Yeats pushes personal philosophy into his poetry to evocatively shed light on the intensity of a particular group of experiences. For instance, take the pain and weariness of old age in the opening lines of 'Sailing to Byzantium,' written in 1927:

 

That is no country for old men. 
The young in one another’s arms, 
Birds in the trees —those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

 

One can also sense the pain of old age in ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ — symbolic of the unbreachable city of Byzantium — where Yeats has made a passionate yet weary old man "sick with desire" the symbol of the tyranny of the time. It is this very tyranny (Irish troubles in Yeats’ case), from which the speaker is sailing away. 

 

In the poem, we come face to face with the greatest reality of human life when the poet pronounces: "Whatever is begotten, born, and dies." The speaker laments that unlike the symbolic golden bird of Byzantium, he would be among the "dying generations" of the world’s birds. 

 

Arguably, one of the most famous poems from Yeats’ oeuvre, ‘The Second Coming’ is the most relevant to our times. Beautifully crafted in 1919, the poem was his response to Ireland’s struggle against the British rule and the rise of the Russian Revolution. Nigerian author Chinua Achebe adopted the Yeatsian phrase "Things fall apart" from the poem for the title of his brilliant debut novel and the phrase has been used recurrently for different artistic domains since it was first penned. 

 

With the collapse of civilized order and the advent of democracy ‘The Second Coming’ was Yeats’ reaction to the establishment of the new world order — he envisioned an approaching barbarism in the guise of democracy that would take away the world's innocence. The opening lines of the poem speak of dark and apocalyptic times: 

 

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,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned…

 

Today, it is hard to overlook the spiritual degradation that our age is experiencing. It is almost haunting how ‘The Second Coming’ has remained relevant despite the passage of time. The opening stanza of the poem ends with these profound words: "The best lack all conviction / while the worst are full of passionate intensity."

 

*****

 

When James Boswell once asked Dr. Samuel Johnson: "Sir, what is poetry?" Dr. Johnson replied: "Why Sir, it is much easier to say what it is not. We all know what light is, but it is not easy to tell what it is." But with the advancement in science, the world has a definition for everything under the sun. Today, light is well defined and so is poetry. Yet there has always been so much debate about poetry’s message that the critics’ approach has remained akin to that of the scientists.

 

It can be said of Yeats’ poetry that without gaining an understanding of the background to some of his complicated poems, it is demanding to ascertain their message. 

 

However, a true admirer of poetry cannot miss the beauty in his neat rhyming, and the simplicity and profundity of his poetic messages. In letters that Yeats wrote during his final days, one can notice the poet writing with a certain excitement about the process of "completion."

 

A few weeks before he passed away, Yeats wrote to Lady Elizabeth Pelham expressing his desire to write an essay about his private philosophy:

 

"I knew for certain that my time will not be long. I have put away everything that can be put away that I may speak what I have to speak, and I find ‘expression’ is a part of the ‘study’. In two or three weeks — I am now idle that I may rest after writing much verse — I will begin to write my most fundamental thoughts and the arrangement of thought which I am convinced will complete my studies … It seems to me that I have found what I wanted. When I try to put all into a phrase I say, ‘Man can embody truth but he cannot know it.’ I must embody it in the completion of my life." 

 

Yeats could not bring this work to completion.

 

Poetry is mostly divided into public and private statements. Yeats is known for constantly writing in the shadow of public thought, and thus, his world of poetry is more of a public world as opposed to someone like John Keats. Throughout his career spanning well over fifty years or so, Yeats remained at large a poet whose Muse was the Irish cause. Such was his devotion and love for his country that he even endeavoured to rectify Ireland’s wrongs. 

 

The power of Yeats’ art, which painstakingly arouses a deep feeling of involvement with life, is impossible to ignore. There are several conflicts that one comes across in his poetry: the conflict between love and passion for his art, poetry and politics, youth and old age. Despite all this, he succeeds in harmoniously serving the Muse. Even if at times one can find his ideas and attitudes lacking consistency, it is unimaginable to not admire Yeats’ remarkable, unswerving fidelity to his craft.     

 

 

The Mantle PatreonIf you like this article, please consider becoming a Patron and contributing to the work we do here at The Mantle.

 

  • 1. "William Butler Yeats" by John Unterecker. Thames and Hudson, 1959
  • 2. "Letters of W.B. Yeats [1887-1939]," edited by Allan Wade. R. Hart-Davis, 1954.
  • 3. "The Spoken Word: A Selection from Twenty Five Years of ' The Listener,'" chosen and introduced by Richard Church. Collins, 1955
  • 4. Written to Katherine Tynan in 1889. "The Letters of W.B. Yeats [1887-1939]," edited by Allan Wade. R. Hart-Davis, 1954.
  • 5. Written to John O'Leary. "The Letters of W.B. Yeats [1887-1939]," edited by Allan Wade. R. Hart-Davis, 1954.
Yeats, Poetry, Europe, Ireland, Literature, History