W. B. Yeats Ideas About The Problems of Contemporary World

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      W. B. Yeats was greatly influenced by John O’ Leary. Under his influence, Yeats developed a great interest in Irish Nationalism. He even read all the Irish patriotic literature available. Maud Gonne, too, had influenced him greatly. He wrote a play called The Countess Cathleen to impress upon her that he was capable of playing a vital role in the movement for Irish Independence. He keenly felt that his role was to re-shape Ireland’s literature.

      One of the great achievements of Yeats as a poet able to turn his responses to significant contemporary events and shape them into great poetry. Easter 1916, To A Shade, Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen, The Second Coming, September 1913 are all outstanding examples of this.

His Notion of the Aristocracy

      Yeats’s first visit to Coole Park, the home of Lady Gregory, left a great impression on him. He worked on the idea of the Irish Great House and its traditions in such poems as Upon A House Shaken by the Land Agitation, The New Faces, Coole Park and Ballylee (1931), These are the Clouds and The People. Yeats had found Coole Park to be a place of custom and ceremony, the very embodiment of the belief that life should be a ritual. Aristocratic order, the ideal of tragic gaiety and dignity became associated in Yeats’s mind with the Irish aristocratic house. He scoffed at the bourgeoisie society's arid bourgeoise values, and set above them images of aristocratic life. He chastised the Irish middle classes in poems like To A Shade and To A Wealthy Man. Till the end of his life, Yeats saw in the aristocrat and the peasant, the two finest types of Ireland. In The Municipal Gallery Revisited, Yeats has said that John Synge, Lady Gregory, and he himself alone in modem times had brought “Everything down to that sole test again,” namely, “Dream of the noble and the beggar man.” Of all the Irish statesman, Yeats admired Parnell the most because the latter had an air of aristocratic solitude around him. In The Second Coming, Yeats points out the things that can threaten not only the kind of aristocracy he so much liked but also all that was good:

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned:
Tlie best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Horrors of War

      The poem Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen is one of the most poetical comments on our age and on the war and horrors of our civilization. This long poem is really comprehensive and covers wide areas of experience.

...a drunken soldiery
Can leave the mother, murdered at the door,
To crawl in her own blood, and go scot-free

      Earlier in the poem Yeats says:

O what fine thought we had because we thought
That the worst rogues and rascals had died out.
Yeats laments in this poem for the destruction of the ‘many-lovely things of Ireland’:

Many ingenious lovely things are gone,
That seemed sheer miracle to the multitude

      He describes the futile violence which the English used to frighten Ireland into submission. But the picture painted by Yeats is not all black. Brutalities become common on both the warring sides. The dragon-headed mob is contrasted with the swan-like solitary soul. There is some comfort, however, in the fact that despite all this violence, the artist and the artist’s audience are still there. And though the dragon is becoming more and more powerful every day, it is possible to incorporate it in art. Yeats saw politics as a degrading influence. He felt that lofty ideas and ideals belonged to solitary souls and it was such solitary souls, like Parnell’s for instance, who could fertilize the world of politics. This is the sort of view that Yeats held about the problem of contemporary Ireland.

Contemporary Ireland

      The poems To A Shade and Easter 1916 have a lot to do with the political and artistic state of contemporary Ireland. Easter 1916 makes moving references to the people who died in the Easter uprising of 1916.

Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream

      A little later Yeats says in the same poem:

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart
O when man it suffice?

      To A Shade 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 the business world brought him down with the despicable slanders which were the political weapons in Ireland at the time.

      Other poems which have a lot of relevance to contemporary Ireland are To A Friend Whose Work Has come to Nothing. On Those That Hated The ‘Play Boy of the Western World’ (1907) and The People poses a very important question:

‘What have I earned for all that work’, I said,
‘For all that I have done at my own charge?
The daily spite of this unmannerly town,
Where who has served the most is most defamed,
The reputation of his lifetime lost
Between the night and morning


      One can say that though Yeats always remained primarily a poet yet he had the kind of sensibility that thrives upon politics, theatres, business and propaganda. He was engaged in the public life of his time in the belief that action was possible and that it might be fulfilled in a poetry of action that give sufficient energy and power. The main strength of Yeats’s poetry lies in his sense of continuity of power in feeling, action and voice and that make him one of the most powerful poetic spokesman of his age.


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