September 1913: by W. B. Yeats - Summary & Analysis

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      The first stanza hits at the shameful reality of these so-called nationalist leaders. Patriotism is a guise for collecting money and lining one’s own pockets in contemporary Ireland. They pray and save, and the money-making instinct has “dried the marrow from the bone.” In other words, they have lost the vitality, the vigor and energy born out of high ideals and deeply felt emotions. Romantic Ireland has passed away, and her great heroes are no more.

      In the second stanza comes a loving picture of the old leadership. Those great heroes had little time to pray but spent their lives in the service of their country. Their work was much harder—it was real constructive work. They did not bother to save money. So many of them were hanged, and gladly lost their lives.

      The third stanza, rather rhetorical asks the question: “Was it for this that the old leaders made such sacrifices?” Many of the patriots had suffered exile (“the wild geese spread the grey wing upon every tide”). Many like Edward Fitzgerald, Robert Emmet and Wolf Tone died for the cause. What was the use of their struggle “that delirium of the brave” if the successors were merely to collect and make money for personal benefit?

      The fourth and last stanza concentrates on the modem's inability to comprehend the greatness of the older leaders. If those exiles were to come back in all their lonely suffering, the contemporary Irish leaders would not be able to understand the nature of their sacrifice and spirit. They would merely dismiss the old leaders’ efforts by saying that the mad love for some beautiful woman must have provoked them into such reckless adventures. In any case, it did not matter. The great heroes are dead and gone.

Critical Analysis


      September 1913 belongs to the group known as the “Tane poems”, and was published in the volume of poems, “Responsibilities.” It arose out of the lane controversy. Hugh Lane, Lady Gregory’s nephew, offered his valuable collection of French paintings to Dublin if a proper gallery to house them was built. He preferred a plan by Edward Lutyens. But the Irish Nationalists were against using a plan by Lutyens who was an Englishman. The controversy grew and soon included an attack against Lane and the paintings. Lane wanted the finance to be raised by private subscription if not by the city. But the response was discouraging. Lane loaned the pictures to the London National Gallery and bequeathed them to that gallery in 1913. Later he modified his will to say that the pictures be returned to Dublin if a building were built to accommodate them within five years of his death. However, there was some legal shortcoming in this will, and the pictures remained with the London National Gallery.

      To Yeats the controversy reflected the fact that “neither religion nor politics can of itself create minds with receptivity to become wise, or just or generous enough to make a nation.” A sense and feeling for art is also required but it was, unfortunately, lacking in contemporary Ireland. He became involved in the controversy and wrote To a Wealthy Man who Promised a Second Subscription to Dublin Municipal Gallery if it were Proved that the People Wanted Pictures. It is an attack against Lord Ardilaun who had maintained that money should not be given unless the public demanded the art gallery. The poem provoked an answer from William Martin Murphy, the director owner of two popular papers, who mistook the poem to be against himself. He denounced Hugh Lane, the pictures and the idea of the gallery. Yeats then wrote September 1913 which was originally subtitled “On Reading much of the Correspondence against the Art Gallery.” It is an expression against commercial minded “nationalists” like Murphy—who pray and save diligently and have no place for art. The “pray” is, of course, used for the selfish prayers of the “nationalists.”

      Many people, however including Maud Gonne misunderstood Yeats’s intention in the poem. Maud Gone said that Yeats seemed to have lost contact with the men working for Ireland’s freedom. She regarded the poem as a statement giving up hope for Irish dependence. In fact, Yeats bewails the death of romantic Ireland.

      To A Shade is the last of the lane poems and called up a representative of romantic Ireland, Parnell, from his grave.

Critical Appreciation

      September 1913 is an expression of Yeats’s sorrow and anger at the contemporary situation, and a tribute to an old leader O’ Leary (who had died in 1907). Yeats felt that a certain liberal outlook on life had passed away. The new leadership was little-minded: it “fumbled in a greasy till.”

      The poem was directly occasioned by a lockout of strikers who were led by James Larkin, one of Lane’s strongest supporters among the workers. The employer’s leader was William Murphy. By citing O’Leary in the refrain of the poem, Yeats was attempting to discredit nationalists of Murphy’s mental makeup, who were born to pray and save, and whose nationalism had as its object the lining of their own pockets rather than the establishment of a great nation. All that “delirium” of the brave was not intended to suggest that the brave were delirious but rather that their sacrifice came out of deep emotion. Had they been rational, they too would have prayed and saved. But, prompted by emotion as they were, they gave their lives for a dream of national greatness—hence they form a part of romantic Ireland.

      The contemporary “praying and saving” has made the “Romantic Ireland” seem dead and gone. O’Leary and Parnell are added to earlier heroes such as Davis, Mangan and Fergusson. Lane, too, was to join them in the poem To A Shade. Lane seems to Yeats a symbol of the “passionate serving kind” who must suffer at the hands of the “fumbling wits.”

      September 1913 is a heated poem and its language recalls political life. It has a rhetorical tone in keeping with the association of memories which John O’Leary’s nationalism and ideals would have brought up in Yeats’s mind. The words are used with telling effect. The word “delirium”, for instance, is used with striking poetic effect among a series of mono-syllables. The word seems to project a two-fold association. It exalts the old heroes’ emotional intensity even while belittling the new feverishness and uncultured excitement of contemporary Ireland. O’ Leary is, of course, for Yeats a personification of god-like nobleness—one of the heroic, lonely figures first in the ranks of the Olympians.

      In September 1913, Yeats creates a new legend, a legend of Irish struggle for freedom and of those who died in the struggle for a country which does not know them and of whom it is unworthy. Throughout there is a note of fierceness. The refrain:

"Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone
It’s with O’Leary in the grave."

      Shows how Yeats’s style had developed. He has never in his earlier phase used the refrain so effectively as here. It takes up a clear note and brings home the contrast between the reckless heroism of O'Leary and others of his class and the politicians of the present breed. While the old leaders were molded in the spirit of the highest heroic ideals of Romantic Ireland, the present-day politicians were petty-minded and lowly.

Critical Explanation

      Stanza I. Being come to sense—said in an ironic tone. Fumble - i.e., handle nervously. Greasy till—the term “greasy” refers to the constant handling of notes (money) leading them to become soiled and greasy. The phrase expresses the poet’s contempt for the commercial money-making mind indifferent to art or culture. Men were born to pray and save—i.e. narrow-minded and selfish religious and national fervor which is directed only towards money-making. Romantic Ireland: i.e. an Ireland inspired hy heroic ideals such as were epitomized by O’Leary and others.

      Stanza II. They have gone wind—i.e. the martyrs who were hanged, and thus sacrificed their lives for Ireland’s independence. And what save—Their sacrifice appears to have achieved little.

      Stanza III. The wild geese....tide—i.e. the Irish patriots who served abroad in French, Spanish and Austrian armies because of the Penal Laws passed in 1691. They went into exile when Ireland was not safe for hatching up their plots to subvert the British rule. Edward Fitzgerald—(1753-1798). He declared his opposition to the English government and joined the United Irishmen in 1796. His plan of revolt is 1798 was betrayed. He was arrested after stiff resistance, and died in prison because of wounds sustained. Robert Emmet(1778-1803), a patriotic Irishman, who was hanged for taking part in an attempt to capture Dublin Castle. Wolfe Tone—(1763- 1798) was one of the founders of the United Irishmen. He was captured by the English while on his way with a small French squadron to fight for Ireland’s independence. Being sentenced to death by hanging, he committed suicide in prison. O’Leary—(1830-1907). He spanned both traditions of revolutionary activity in Ireland and compulsory exile. Yeats says that modem Ireland is no match for the men of the bygone age who gave their service out of love for their country. All that delirium of the brave—The line does not suggest that the brave were delirious but that their sacrifice rose out of emotion and intense feeling, not out of calculated self-interest. It sums up the qualities and greatness of the Irish heroes.

      Stanza IV. Could we—if we could. Turn the years: go back in time. “Some woman’s yellow hair sun”—The modem Irish people will be unable to understand the spirit of the old Irish patriots. They will attribute the fervor of those great heroes to mad love for some beautiful woman. They weighed gave. “They were so ready to give everything; they sacrificed themselves gladly and selflessly- But let them be—Yeats’s contempt of the modem Irish patriots made him say that those great heroes held no meaning for the present situation.

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