The Irish Background of W. B. Yeats’s Poetry

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      Although the early Yeats consciously used Irish mythology for poetic purposes, he was not content simply to retell the Irish legends. Yeats’s impulse to transcend his folk-lore material was a constant pre-occupation with him. Yeats’s desire for Ireland’s independence was a product of emotion rather than politics. As an Irishman, passionately attacked to his country by ties of ancestors and pride in his country’s history and legends, he gradually became disillusioned when he felt that the violence and hatred by the Irish political leaders and journalists was a meanness of spirit, a selfishness and lack of breeding which was poisoning the heroic Irish nobility.

The Political Concern and Return to Irish Legend

      The use of the ‘inherited subject-matter’ and the mythology of Ireland was not to be something; educational or poetic in a simple way but something more deeply political, deepening of the political passion of the nation by strengthening its imagination, by going back to the place where it is most essential.

      In his work Autobiographies, Yeats said: “Have not all races had their first unity from a mythology that married them to the rocks and hills?” In the same work Yeats had also said: “Might I not, with health and good luck to aid me, create some new ‘Prometheus Unbound’, ‘Patrick’ or ‘Columcille’, ‘Oisin’ or ‘Fianna’ in Prometheus’s stead, and instead of Caucasus, Cropatrick or Ben Bulben?”

      Yeats was keen “to show in A Vision something of the face of Ireland.” His attempt to revive the folk art which he considered to be “the golden dream of king and peasant” and “the oldest of the aristocracies of thought” and its origin in the belief that Irish folk literature was priceless. To Yeats, Irish folk tales were one of the principal sources from which the Irish imagination might strengthen itself by drinking at the fountains of traditions kept alive amongst the people.

John O’ Leary’s Influence: Importance of Local Colour

      For Yeats, the most powerful influence came from John O’ Leary, a great Irish patriot. Yeats himself acknowledged this debt:

It was thorough the old Fenian leader John O’ Leary
I found my theme

      As soon as the importance of local color became clear to him, Yeats tried to seek a kind of imaginative connection with Irish places and names. In fact, The Wanderings of Oisin and The Countess Cathleen both derived from Yeats’s decision to be an Irish poet.

The State of Ireland

      Yeats not only lived in the troubled modem era but also lived in a country where trouble was brewing all the time. So, many of his poems especially September 1913, To a Friend whose Work has come to Nothing, To A Shade, On Those That Hated ‘The Playboy of the Western World’ (1907) are political poems. September 1913 and To a Friend whose Work has come to Nothing relate to municipal controversy in Dublin in the year 1913, which involved for Yeats the dignity of culture in Ireland and the hope for an Irish Literary and artistic revival, a revival which Yeats feared would be destroyed by the materialism of the Irish middle class and the censorship. In this sense, September 1913, is a scathing attack on the whole city of Dublin, and modem Ireland itself with all its talk of Irish heroes and patriots.

Contemporary Relevance of Yeats’s Poetry

      To A Shade which is one of the most significant Irish poems of Yeats is addressed to Parnell, the Irish leader of the 1880’s who was the hero of Yeats’s youth before the reactionaries of the church and business brought him down with the despicable slanders which were the political weapons in Ireland at that time:

If you have revisited the town, thin shade.
Whether to look upon your monument
(I wonder if the builder has been paid)
Let these content you and be gone again:
For they are at their old tricks yet.

      On Those That Hated ‘The Playboy of the Western World’ (1907) is an attack on those who resented the truth of Synge whose peasants persisted in acting not like sentimental figures but like human beings.

      In fact, Yeats had never known a year when the political realities of a troubled time did not intrude upon his private life as a poet.

      Yeats always wanted to be considered as a poet of the Irish cause: “True brother of a company, that sang to sweeten Ireland’s wrong.”

‘Easter 1916’

      Another great Irish poem is Easter 1916. For Yeats, Easter uprising of 1916 came to have a great significance. For Yeats, the people involved in this uprising had changed everything. The Ireland of Easter 1916—the Ireland of the common people, with their hands in the greasy tilts, the Ireland seen from the Dublin clubs—the Ireland of the people who existed only to provide butt for the jokes of their betters—this Ireland was transformed utterly:

“I write it out in a verse—
Mac Donagh and Mac Bride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn
A terrible beauty is born.

      Easter 1916 is a great poem. It is an attempt to move not only into the public world but into that great flow of public world which is called history. It was an attempt to renew the Irish Revolution by restoring its soul.

      The poems like The Seven Sages, Blood and the Moon, An Irish Airman Foresees his Death and Meditation in Time of Civil War also tackle Irish themes.

      The poem The Municipal Gallery Revisited also celebrates the people Yeats admired most in Ireland.

      Among the poems which lament the weaknesses of the Irish people the most notable are At the Abbey Theatre, These are the Clouds, A House Shaken by Land Agitation, To A Wealthy Man who Promised a Second Subscription and The People and the New Faces.

      Some beautiful poems like The Stolen Child, A Prayer for My Daughter and most notably The Tower, which is one of his most powerful points—capture the characteristics cadence of Ireland, and the Sligo country where he lived as a child comes alive in many other poems. The two other poems which are characteristically Irish in setting are Coole Park (1929) and Coole Park and Ballyle (1931).

His Irishness mainly Literary and Artistic

      At the same time, we must not forget that Yeats’s Irishness wais always primarily literary and artistic, much more than political. He once wrote in one of his essays:

“Alone among nations, Ireland has in her written Gaelic literature, in her old love tales, the forms in which the imagination of Europe uttered itself before Greece shaped a tumult of legend into her music of arts; and she can discover, from the beliefs and emotions of her common people the habit of mind that created the religion of the Muses.”

      Yeats’s Irishness was thus concerned more with the cultivation of the taste of the Irish people than with oratory and struggle of the parties and groups around him. That perhaps is the reason why despite the great influence exercised on his poetry by Maud Gonne whose loss in love he always lamented. A more acceptable influence on Yeats came from Lady Augusta Gregory who was a kind of living symbol of the old Irish aristocracy. Lady Gregory’s house at Coole Park was a kind of second home for Yeats and he collaborated with her in the collection of old legends and ballads and in the foundation of the Irish National Stage which later was to become the Abbey Theatre. Yeats even wrote a poem which said:

John Synge, I and Augusta Gregory thought
That all we did, all that we said or sang
Must come from contact with the soil

A Liberal and Broad Based Nationalism

      Yeats’s nationalism at the same time was liberal and broad-based as is very clear from his repeated attacks on narrow-minded nationalist. Yeats in fact, gradually moved away from the contemporary fanaticism of Irish politics. But as a poem like Easter 1916 makes amply clear even in his disillusionment with Irish fanaticism, Yeats never stopped responding quickly and sincerely to the heroism of martyrs, some of whom he may not have liked personally.

“Meditations In Time of Civil War”

      A poem like Meditations in Time of Civil War becomes not only a generous humanitarian response to the war, but also a stimulus to a far-reaching personal examination and the main reason for that was the Irish dream which was a moving force in the development of Yeats’s major poetry.


      Yeats’s sense of his own identity and function as a poet began to take shape in the context of Irish Nationalism and out of his deliberate and many-sided effort to provide the Irish National Movement some finer notice than mere hatred of the English. In 1909, for example, Yeats complained that “the political class in Ireland, the Power middle class from whom the patriotic associations have drawn their leaders for the past ten years, have suffered through the cultivation of hatred as the one energy of their movement, a deprivation, which is the intellectual equivalent to a certain surgical operation. Hence, there is the shrillness of their voices. This is what accounts for Yeats declaring in A Prayer for My Daughter—

“An intellectual hatred in the Worst.”

      The refusal of most of the Irish people to listen to these ideas of Yeats and the recognition of this, forced upon Yeats by the hostility shown to Synge’s Playboy of Western World and the Hugh Lane controversy, were among other reasons that provoked Yeats to his new power of expression.


“Yeats’ poetry is rooted in the English tradition.” "Yeats is a great national poet of Ireland.” Reconcile, the two statements

Why is Yeats called the poet of the Celtic Twilight?

Write a brief note on Yeats’s Irish background.

Examine the claim: “Yeats’ strength in poetry is the strength of his Irishness.”
Write a note on Yeats’s Irish heritage.

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