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This week we are delighted to share a piece written by Daniel Mulhall, retired Irish Ambassador to Germany, the UK, and the United States of America. He is also the author of Pilgrim Soul: WB Yeats and the Ireland of his Time (New Island Books, 2023). 

W.B Yeats: Poet and Public Man

Ireland was a happening place in the early 1920s. Its' two-year war of independence came to a close with a truce declared in the summer of 1921. Later that year an Anglo-Irish treaty was negotiated that led to the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922, with the six counties of Northern Ireland remaining within the United Kingdom, but with their own regional parliament.   Divisions within the Sinn Féin movement about the terms of the treaty resulted in a bitter civil war that lasted until the summer of 1923.

Meanwhile, in Ireland’s burgeoning literary world, W.B. Yeats published a major collection, Michael Robartes and the Dancer, in 1921. It contained two especially consequential poems, ‘Easter 1916’, written in the immediate aftermath of Rising but held back from publication for half a decade, and ‘The Second Coming, which is probably Yeats’s most oft-quoted poem. It was written in the immediate aftermath of World War I, but has a timelessly prophetic tone. 

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity. 

In 1923, Yeats wrote ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’, with its questioning response to revolutionary Ireland: 

We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare;
More substance in our enmities
Than in our love; O honey-bees
Come build in the empty house of the stare. 

Winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923

James Joyce was also at the peak of his powers in the early 1920s.  Seven years in the making, Ulysses was published in Paris in February 1922, turning him into a global literary celebrity.   The first of Sean O’Casey’s great Irish plays, The Shadow of a Gunman, premiered at the Abbey Theatre in April 1923. And in Stockholm in December 1923, W.B. Yeats picked up the Nobel Prize for Literature, becoming just the second English-language writer to be awarded the prize since its inauguration in 1901.  

Yeats wins Nobel Prize

Per Hallström, speaking on behalf of the Swedish Academy, highlighted Yeats’s identification with his homeland and noted the wider impact on his writing. 

Yeats’s association with the life of a people saved him from the barrenness which attended so much of the effort for beauty that marked his age. Around him as the central point and leader arose, within a group of his countrymen in the literary world of London, that mighty movement which has been named the Celtic Revival and which created a new national literature, an Anglo-Irish literature.

The foremost and most versatile poet of this group was Yeats. His rousing and rallying personality caused the movement to grow and flower very quickly, by giving a common aim to hitherto scattered forces or by encouraging new forces previously unconscious of their existence.

The Swede had evidently delved deeply into Yeats’s life and work, and understood the significance of the Irish literary movement and Yeats’s central role within it. That ‘mighty movement’ was the focus of Yeats’s Nobel lecture, delivered on the 15 December 1923, which he called ‘The Irish Dramatic Movement’. In it, Yeats went all out to draw attention to the influence of the literary movement he had come to personify. 

Here is part of his opening remarks: 

The modern literature of Ireland, and indeed all that stir of thought which prepared for the Anglo-Irish War, began when Parnell fell from power in 1891. A disillusioned and embittered Ireland turned away from parliamentary politics: an event was conceived and the race began, as I think, to be troubled by that event’s long gestation. Dr. Hyde founded the Gaelic League, which was for many years to substitute for political argument a Gaelic grammar, and for political meetings village gatherings, where songs were sung and stories told in the Gaelic language. Meanwhile, I had begun a movement in English, in the language in which modern Ireland thinks and does its business; founded certain societies where clerks, working men, men of all classes, could study those Irish poets, novelists, and historians who had written in English, and as much of Gaelic literature as had been translated into English.  (W.B. Yeats, Selected Criticism (London, Pan Books, 1976), PP. 195-96)

Thus, Yeats maintained that the political demise of Charles Stewart Parnell (1846-1891) had caused Irish people to turn away from parliamentary politics and to immerse themselves in cultural movements. As Yeats saw it, those movements were part of a ‘stir of thought’ that had helped deliver Irish independence in 1922.  While there is a debate to be had about the historical significance of the turn-of-the-century Irish cultural movements, they certainly had an influence on the intellectual atmosphere from which the revolutionary generation emerged. In particular, the Gaelic League had acted as a nursery for those who went on to play their part in Ireland’s independence struggle. It was through the League that 1916 leaders, Patrick Pearse and Thomas MacDonagh, for example, first found their feet in the turbulent politics of early 20th century Ireland. 

Yeats as a Public Figure

Not long after he received his Nobel Prize, Yeats described himself, in one of his most brilliant poems, ’Among School Children’ as ‘a sixty-year-old smiling public man’. And, indeed, as an active, two-term member of the first Irish Senate, that’s what he was. Being a public figure was not a new thing for Yeats, for in truth he had been some form of a ‘public man’ for most of his life as a writer. From 1885, when he resolved to be an Irish writer he had been deeply involved in Ireland’s cultural politics, arguing the case for a national literature for Ireland in the English language and writing, as he put it, ‘to sweeten Ireland’s wrong’. He had to battle against those who were dubious about the potential of literature devoted to Irish themes and those who desired a more explicitly political brand of writing that Yeats was not willing to produce.

Towards the end of the 19th century, he became actively involved in commemorating the centenary of the United Irishmen’s rebellion of 1798 and took an advanced nationalist path by supporting the Boers in the South African War. Yeats was also a serial critic of royal visits to Ireland, speaking out against Queen Victoria in 1900 and Edward VII in 1903, which evidently did not do him any harm in the eyes of the London elites in whose drawing rooms and country estates he was often a welcome guest.  The establishment of the Abbey Theatre in 1904 made an enduring contribution to the cultural life of Ireland and Yeats was also the co-author of an unmistakably nationalist play, Cathleen ni Houlihan, about which he would much later ask:

Did that play of mine send out
    Certain men the English shot? 

The Death of Romantic Ireland

Yeats fell into disillusionment during the opening decade of the 20th century, when faced with what he saw as excessively narrow definitions of Irish identity.  In ‘September 1913’ he pronounced the death of ‘Romantic Ireland’, but the Easter Rising revived his interest in Ireland’s heroic potential. He went on to write poems about the Rising, the War of Independence (‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’) and the civil war. Even after he stepped down from the Senate, he continued to seek to influence Irish public life, including during a fleeting association with Eoin O’Duffy’s Blueshirts. Right up to the late-1930s, he persisted in writing about Irish nationalist figures, Parnell (who had died more than 40 years earlier), Roger Casement and even The O’Rahilly, who had been killed in action during Easter week 1916. Most of all, he felt compelled to mull over the significance of the Easter Rising, asking:

When Pearse summoned Cuchulain to his side,
What stalked through the Post Office? What intellect,
What calculation, number, measurement, replied? 

Yeats became convinced that the Irish had been ‘born into that ancient sect’, but had been ‘thrown upon this filthy modern tide’. In one of his final poems, he returned to his youthful belief in the glories of the Irish past, insisting that ‘ancient Ireland knew it all.’ He urged his Irish countrymen to:

Cast your kinds on other days
That we in coming days may be
    Still the indomitable Irishry.

Ireland is privileged to have writers of the standard of Yeats and Joyce to present our country and its story to the world. It is impossible to compare the two, for they inhabited very different artistic universes although they greatly respected each other’s work. A big difference between them was that, while Joyce produced a forensic account of a particular moment in time in early 20th century Ireland, Yeats engaged with virtually everything that moved in Irish public life between the 1890s and the 1930s. Despite his global renown as a Nobel laureate, he stayed the course as an Irish writer, producing some of his finest work in the decade and a half after King Gustaf V resented him with the Nobel Prize for Literature on December 10th 1923. 

Daniel Mulhall is a retired Irish Ambassador to Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States of America, and the author Pilgrim Soul: W.B. Yeats and the Ireland of His Time (New Island Books, 2023). You can purchase the book from all major bookstores. Click here to go to Easons, Ireland.

Pilgrim Soul: WB Yeats


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