It is one of the dualities in Yeats' work that a poet renowned for the universal forlorn love lyric should be so inextricably bound to the particular identity, struggle and destiny of the Irish nation. However, on closer examination, Yeats' poetic style proves that seeming paradox is easily explained when the true nature of Yeats' idealism is taken into account. This essay shall argue the apparent political revolutionary commitment seen in the 1910's was something of an aberration, in a transitional period of his career. To locate this transition, it is necessary to start at the beginning and end of his life, and work inwards, tracing the changing portrayal of Ireland in his verse.
The early Yeats was part of a strong Romantic tradition. Its liking for the emotional authenticity of folk-lore found a ready place in Yeats' work, as he exploited the rich Irish mythological tradition: his long narrative works all date from this first stage. The first collection uses the ballad form frequently, and the simplicity of poems like 'To An Isle in the Water' - "shy one, shy one/ shy one of my heart / she moves in the firelight" - recalls traditional Irish poetry.
Perhaps archetypal of Yeats' early romantic pieces is 'To The Rose Upon The Rood Of Time'. His treatment of Ireland and formal technique come together under the auspices of traditional Romanticism: he is unapologetic about drawing from "Old Eire and the ancient ways." The poem is populated by mythic and shadowy figures from Ireland's Gaelic past: the warrior-king Cuchulain, a druid, and Fergus, sometime King of Ulster. Despite coming from an Irish Protestant family, Yeats still paints Ireland as a Celtic idyll, and evokes it using traditional Romantic imagery - stars, the sea, woodlands, flowers. The use of the rose as a motif throughout his early work is indebted not only to the Order of the Golden Dawn, but to Blake in particular. Both shared a mystical tendency beyond Christianity echoed by Yeats' own wish to be a seer-poet in the Irish tradition: the keeper of the narrative of identity.
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Formally and technically, it shows the clear legacy of Romanticism too. The opening line, in solid iambic pentameter, runs as a stylized invocation - a common technique of traditional lyrical verse. The repetitions echo prayer, further intensifying the spiritual dimension of the piece. The vocabulary, whilst not necessarily archaic, is certainly that of traditional poetic diction: "thine", "whereof", "boughs." There is a similar stylization in the syntax - "I would, before my time to go" - and personification of "eternal beauty wandering on her way."
This phase of his poetry, known as the 'Celtic twilight' period, is rich in similar poems; their keynote being Irish themes and myth married to Romantic style and concerns such as unrequited love, heroism and mystical union with nature. Other pieces which use Irish mythology are "The Hosting of the Sidhe', 'The Song of Wandering Aengus', but the idea of a Celtic idyll (derived from the Romantic's radical reshaping of pastoral idealism) runs throughout.
This early work is a strong contrast to his final collections, some three or four decades later. It is impossible to characterise such an extensive body of poetry with few examples, but the progression is distinctive. His cultural frame of reference seems far wider, drawing on such diverse sources as: "a Quattrocento painter's throng / A thoughtless image of Mantegna's thought" to the famous symbolism of Byzantium, representing imaginative unity and the highest form of culture. Formally, the uniform elegiac tone of the early verse (broken only by simple ballads and refrains) is replaced by much greater variety. Yeats' background in theatre comes through in many pieces relying on the dialogue form. There are also the unique and iconoclastic 'Crazy Jane' poems, as well as series of lyrics and fragments of a few lines. The tone is far less stylised and less self-consciously Romantic: 'Crazy Jane' represent the apex of a far more open and natural diction.
The portrayal of Ireland in these poems mirrors the new progression in style. 'Under Ben Bulben' sees Yeats' rather desperately asking young writers to "learn your trade" and "cast your mind on other days." This strikes a more resigned tone than the early 'To Ireland In The Coming Times' where Yeats affirmed: "I cast my heart into my rhymes" and evoked "faeries, dancing under the moon / A druid land, a druid tune!" 'Parnell's Funeral' is not so much resigned, as starkly cynical, with Yeats stating: "all that was sung / all that was said in Ireland is a lie / bred out of the contagion of the throng." It is an attitude shared in the acerbic 'The Great Day' and also 'Nineteen Hundred And Nineteen' which describes the "traffic in mockery":
"We, who seven years ago
Talked of honour and truth,
Shriek with pleasure if we show
The weasel's twist, the weasel's tooth"
The poems in The Tower and The Winding Stair, particularly, portray melancholy despair which sees Yeats retreating, whether it be to the symbolic Byzantium, or his own watchtower at Coole Park. The everyday chaos of Ireland is left behind as Yeats surrenders to reflection. Yet this also marks a continuation between the two periods; in the figure of a solitary, reflective artist: "a man in his own secret meditation / is lost amid the labyrinth that he has made" ('Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen.') We see, too, that Yeats had lost none of his gift for the lyric.Note the solemn mysticism of "wine-dark midnight in the sacred wood" ('Her Vision In The Wood') or the powerful spiritual aphorism in 'Under Ben Bulben': "Many times man lives and dies / Between his two eternities."
This continuity, although at odds with the progressions already noted, helps to explain them. It is the vital thread running through his transitional phase, unifying both early and late Yeats, and provokes fresh inquiry into the so-called 'political' poems. Yeats was always a Romantic in the Keatsian or Tennysonian reflective strain, rather than the radical political side. Hid poetry nearly always came imbued with myth, 'otherness': he proceeded from the Late Romantic period to form a kind of Romantic Modernism more characteristic of American poets such as Hart Crane. His interest in dream symbolism and automatic writing also placed him with the impressionistic side of Modernism (eg.Surrealism) rather than the harsher or more violent wings (imagism, futurism etc.)
Yeats' myth-making and political romanticism is lucidly apparent if the use of legend in the 'Celtic twilight' phase is put under closer scrutiny. Without placing too much store on biographical details, Celticism (in the hands of Yeats and others) was double-edged. Although it did support national identity and culture, it was also reinforcing imperial stereotyping of the Celts as irrational, feminine and emotional. By using the ancient myth of Ireland, Yeats was implicitly denying that Ireland had a present; by glorifying the peasantry and the oppressed, he was implicitly affirming that Ireland's place was as a subjugated nation.
This paradox has been noted in a general sense by Edward Said: "to accept nativism is to accept the consequences of imperialism too willingly, to accept the very radical, religious and political divisions imposed on places like Ireland." Yeats' is not a radical revolutionary idealism, but an imaginative idealism: running along metaphysical and mythopoetic lines; not historical or political ones.
If this tendency - the tendency to escape into myth - is noted, the later pieces seem less removed from his early career. Yeats peppers his verse with references to former poets, and explicitly assumes the Romantic mantle for himself:
"Some moralist or mythological poet
Compares the solitary soul to a swan;
I am satisfied with that,
Satisfied if a troubled mirror show it,
Before that brief gleam of its life be gone."
('Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen')
He revels in the symbol of the winding stair to mythologise the poet's ascent to meditate on the turbulence of the world below. Whereas before Ireland's enchanted past was the myth, now Ireland is yoked to greater schemes. The civil war representing the violence and disillusion of existence to be set against the spiritual purity of the poet in his tower. The events in Ireland are chained to Yeats' elaborate visions of cyclical history set out in 'The Second Coming' and 'The Gyres.' The "violence upon the roads" (Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen" and the "rage-driven, rage-tormented, and rage-hungry troop" ('Meditations in Time of Civil War') are local analogues for the universal "blood-dimmed tide" of 'The Second Coming'.
Yeats still does celebrate Ireland - it would be fallacy to suggest that the violence of the Civil War sickened his idealism so much he could never face Ireland again with anything but cynicism. However, his engagement was often wary, sometimes ironical - the drinking song of ' Come Gather Round Me, Parnellites.' Neither can it be ignored that he occasionally refashioned his old Celtic schemes, most famously in 'Under Ben Bulben' although even here it becomes a segment of a wider schema: "gyres run on / when that greater dream had gone."
It is particularly interesting, although perhaps not surprising, that Yeats took the events of the civil war and immediately mythologised them. As mentioned above, the black-and-tan conflict becomes an antithetical tension in his meditative poems, or is encompassed into some larger historical cycle. In various pieces, the heroes of Irish independence take their historical place neatly alongside Wolfe Tone and the Celtic warriors. Even before the fate of the Irish Free State had been decided, Yeats had abstracted the civil war and the contemporary crisis into history and myth. It seems that in his poetry, Ireland had to be romantic.
Which helps to explain exactly why Yeats had a seemingly 'political' phase. Essentially, for a brief period, the reality of Ireland suddenly became equal to the romantic ideal - a struggle for an ideal and a dream, a forging of identity, a moment of historical crisis, death and beauty side by side. Yeats suddenly found that, for a moment, romantic Ireland seemed to be tentatively existent.
It must be noted that the 'political' phase coincided beautifully with the technical and stylistic transition. It would be mere speculation to try to delineate some kind of causal relationship, but it is clear that by 1914 Yeats was searching for some kind of new poetic idiom. His patchy excursions into Imagist style verse in The Green Helmet show he was dissatisfied with simply creating carbon-copy Keatsian Celtic lyrics. It was also about this time that the first dialogue poems began to appear. Emotionally, the tone of the poetry is dejected too. Yeats "grew weary of the sun" and suggests he might have "been content to live" in 'Words'. 'No Second Troy'rebukes Gonne: "she filled my days / with misery", whilst the downbeat 'Lines written in Dejection' sees him with "nothing but the embittered sun."
It is seemingly with the Civil War that Yeats found a way to harness his Romanticism to both modern Ireland and to Modernism itself. The period was one of great variety in style and theme. Culminations of his wistful melancholia appear as late as The Wild Swans of Coole (notably the title poem.) Yet they lie side by side with dubious Modernist outings like 'The Balloon of the Mind' and more successful sparse and clean verse like (perhaps supremely) 'Easter 1916.'
Poems like 'The Phases of the Moon' and 'Ego Dominus Tuus' anticipate Yeats' later metaphysical and philosophical bent. And he was still glorifying the Irish peasantry in pieces like 'The Fisherman.' As Bloom points out "the two years from late 1915 to late 1917 were the most important of Yeats' imaginative life." Surely no accident then, that such a time frame was identical to the opening of the Irish hostilities. A longer transitional period (Responsibilities to Michael Robartes) interlocks uncannily with the end of the Home Rule, the Easter Rising and the course of the Irish Civil War.
Thus it appears the Ireland's revolution either spurred Yeats' poetic career on to new ground, or he exploited it to facilitate the transition. In 'September 1913', disillusioned by the philistine and listless middle classes (symbolised by the "greasy till"), is among the strongest glorification of the Irish revolutionary tradition:
"they were of a different kind,
The names that stilled your childish play,
They have gone about the world like wind,
But little time had they to pray
For whom the hangman's rope was spun,
And what, God help us, could they save?"
The second in the triptych of Yeats' war poems (the other was Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen), was 'Easter 1916', where Yeats even questions the viability of art to encapsulate the glory of the revolutionaries: "no, no, not night but death." This is quite a reversal for an artist who is fiercely aware of the myth-making possibility of poetry, and the importance of the narrative bardic tradition to Irish identity. Yeats is quick to contrast the everyday "polite meaningless words" and the bourgeois world of "eighteenth century houses" with the sacrifice and honour of the 1916 rebels:
"We know their dreams, enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse -
MacDonaugh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse."
Yet even here, perhaps at the very apex of his political phase, there is doubt - "too long a sacrifice / Can make a stone of the heart" and foreboding of an destructive, irreversible change: "changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born."
These two separate images remind us that Yeats was an imaginative (and not political) idealist, and evoke two of his emblematic concerns: stasis, and the dying moment. Both his traditional and Modernist Romanticism are rooted in an intense awareness of time and history. The 'Celtic twilight' poems, with their exploration of myth, unrequited love, and sorrow, sensualise and unify the tension between the Romantic polarity of eternity and transience; compare with Blake's 'Auguries of Innocence' or Shelley's 'To A Skylark.' Whilst never fully leaving the shadow of the Romantics - consider "I meditate upon a swallow's flight" from 'Coole Park, 1929' - he also engaged with the Modernist crisis of temporality. The Modernist project to obliterate time has an ally of sorts in Yeats.
One might consider the 'out of time' reflections of the tower poems, the instant of rape enlarged into 'Leda and the Swan', the a-temporal juxtaposition of historical figures in 'The Statues', and of course the apocalyptic visions of 'The Second Coming' and 'The Gyres.' Note, too, the vast amount of material Yeats wrote on the experiences of aging and death.
It is this obsession with time that reveals Yeats' true image of Ireland. Ireland, for him at least, had to be romantic Ireland, otherwise it something to be rejected as inferior - philistine, crude, brutal - and inimical to the soul of an imaginative artist. The Ireland of Yeats' verse was always an Ireland of the past, an Ireland passing away, with one eye on the eternities of legend and history. The images of Ireland changed repeatedly yet the undertow of myth remained the same.
For a brief period around 'Easter 1916' - a time that fortuitously coincided with and perhaps enabled Yeats' technical transition - the reality of present Ireland was seemingly equal to its mythic past. It is ironic that Yeats' most relevant and political poem was also his greatest act of myth-making. What was really "changed, changed utterly" was not the history of Ireland, but Yeats' imaginative landscape. Ireland, once again, faded to romantic legend, and was dead and gone. Yeats slotted Pearse as heir to Cuchulain in his mythic schema, and continued his intrinsically timeless and subjective quest, fusing Modernism, Romanticism - and Ireland - into his own poetic idiom.
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