William Butler Yeats: Themes In Poems

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William Butler Yeats is considered to be one of the foremost poets of the 20th century. Despite being assimilated into the English literary canon and European modernism, he always affirmed his Irish nationality and maintained his cultural roots. By adopting Irish subjects and traditions in many of his works, he attempted to create a distinctively Irish character or identity, becoming a key figure in the Irish literary revival. Although he always wrote in English, tongue of the oppressor in a period of British colonial rule over Ireland and increasing Irish nationalism, Edward W. Said described him as ‘the indisputably great national poet’1, Thus, in this essay I will analyse two of Yeats’s poems – ‘September 1913’ and ‘Easter 1916’ – in order to determine to what extent he can be studied as a national poet, taking into consideration the complexity and ambiguity of his work and his own view towards Irish nationalism.

One of the most important themes in Yeats’s poetry is Irish identity, which can be understood considering the historical context of his work. Born in 1865, he writes during the Age of New Imperialism, a tumultuous time with Great Britain exercising control over Ireland, among other colonies. This gave rise to the emergence of a separatist movement, as Irish patriots saw an opportunity to gain their independence from Great Britain. However, Yeats’s attitude towards nationalism has been interpreted by different authors in contradictory ways. This may be due to the poet own ambiguous and changing stance on the socio-political issues affecting his country at that time, or the way he understood nationalism as an intellectual act rather than a political movement. He believed that literature should not be used for exclusive political purposes, giving great importance to the aesthetic, and he participated in the Irish literary revival by recovering certain aspects and elements from Irish tradition:

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Yeat’s best hope, he felt, was to cultivate a tradition more profound than either the Catholic or the Protestant – the tradition of a hidden Ireland that existed largely in the anthropological evidence of its surviving customs, beliefs, and holy places, more pagan than Christian.2

The first poem I am going to analyse is ‘September 1913’. Its title is self-explanatory, since it was published during the Dublin lock-out of 1913, one of the most significant industrial disputes between workers and employers in Ireland. The social nature of this event, having to do with class struggle, is highly related to what Irish nationalism was at that time, particularly from Yeats’s perspective.

The first stanza of the poem illustrates the author’s opinion on the Irish middle-class, which was the sector of the population in charge of most of the revolutionary acts during that period: ‘And add the halfpence to the pence / And prayer to shivering prayer, until / You have dried the marrow from the bone’.3 It is a criticism towards this generation’s greediness and ignorant attitude, since their only concern is ‘pence’ and ‘prayer’. Yeats despises the values of his contemporary Irish people because these are far from his own ideal of what Ireland should be: a nation that appreciates its fine arts and culture. The use of the second person in the first line – ‘what need you’4 – implies that he is directly addressing those people, object of his critique.

The stanza ends with a refrain that is repeated throughout the rest of the composition: ‘Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone, / It’s with O’Leary in the grave.’5 Here we can find a mention to John O’Leary. He was an Irish separatist who believed in complete independence from Britain and condemned terrorism as a form of revolutionary act. His ideas served as an inspiration for Yeats, who shares most of his views on nationalism. It could be said that O’Leary converts him to the cause of Irish nationalism, being responsible for him becoming an ‘Irish writer’. While the rest of nationalist figures of the time were not legendary heroes according to Yeats’s judgement, O’Leary ‘seemed the embodiment of the romantic conception of Ireland and of Irish nationalism.’6 Therefore, with this refrain the author declares the ‘death’ of that Romantic Ireland, setting a tone of mourn for that loss until the end of the poem.

Another element that can be highlighted in this first stanza is the line ‘For men were born to pray and save’7, which also makes reference to religion becoming a significant part of Irish life, while ‘save’ can either refer to salvation attained through praying or the importance of money. However, it is interesting how he makes ‘save’ rhyme with ‘grave’, which implies that both money and prayers lead to death, as Ireland’s salvation cannot be found but in the values O’Leary has taken with him to the grave.

The third stanza presents another aspect of Yeats’s ambiguous attitude towards the Irish nationalism of his time:

Was it for this the wild geese spread

The grey wing upon every tide;

For this that all that blood was shed,

For this Edward Fitzgerald died,

And Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone,

All that delirium of the brave.8

Considering that he despises the use of violence for nationalistic purposes, he also questions the idea of sacrifice for one’s nation, which was extremely latent among the patriotic figures of that period. He describes this sentiment as ‘the delirium of the brave’, contemplating this devotion to their country as a kind of craziness. Nevertheless, he uses the adjective ‘brave’ to describe those revolutionaries who sacrificed themselves for Ireland, and by means of writing their names on the poem he is acknowledging their effort and dedication to the cause. Moreover, Yeats seems to be addressing a rhetorical question to the reader, as if he were not sure whether or not their sacrifice was worth it. By asking ‘for this Edward Fitzgerald died’9, he resumes the criticism of the first stanza, since ‘this’ may refer to the Ireland he disliked, a nation who would not appreciate the effort of those fighting for it.  

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