Yeats and the Creation of the Irish Myth
William Butler Yeats was born into the remnants of what’d been the protestant ascendancy, the privileged, British backed community that was supposed to transform the Irish into English, but which instead did exactly the opposite. Yet another failed political move on the part of the British to crush the inhabitants of the rain swept nation by means of political, social and economic pressure that would supposedly bring them under the yoke of empire. After five hundred years of conflict, Ireland was proving a hard nut to crack. As the preferred class of Ireland, the Protestants held all major posts within the puppet government controlled from London at the expense of the Catholic majority. Naturally this created friction between the two distinct denominations and could only result in unrest and conflict, as history has shown. Ireland was awakening and struggling for an Identity. It was the pursuit of identity that would eventually knit the island nation together and forge that which is quintessentially Irish. Rather than a collection of communities, Ireland had to coalesce into a single country which meant that there had to be a definition of what it was to be Irish and the creation of a national dissonance. Not unlike other nations who’ve cobbled together that which expresses their supposed national traits, Ireland needed a cultural bond that would meld the nation into the imagination of itself. Ireland needed a poet and found him embodied in William Butler Yeats. Through his poetry and political associations, Yeats helped to cement that which today, is considered Ireland. His verse and retrospective romanticism allowing for a communal vision that would eventually lead to an Ireland that, although not united, is today recognizable as a defined cultural entity.
For fifteen years of his early life, Yeats was raised in England, spending summers with his Irish mother in Sligo. The experience of each county divided Yeats loyalties, endowing him with an affinity for both, but a home in neither. He was exposed to the political prejudice of Britain towards the Irish as well as the juxtaposition of his mother’s idyllic and so must have experienced provenancial disparity. Therefore, as an Anglo-Irish man with conflicted origins, he was drawn towards Irish nationalism and the tantalizing concept of home rule and a free Ireland.
Yeats finally found his true poetical footing after joining the Irish Republican Brotherhood in 1885. Although wearing many different hats throughout his writing career, including the autobiographical, historical and occultist it is the political that simultaneously raised awareness of his own early work and that of the Finnian cause. (p.4) His later meeting with the firebrand and political activist Maud Gonne in 1889, set his him on a path that would shape his poetry and forever influence the selective memory of a birthing nation. Infatuated by both her beauty and personality Yeats claimed, “She [would] make many converts to her political beliefs.” (p.12) Gonne was so influential in his political leanings, that if she had told Yeat’s the world was flat, “he would gladly have joined her party.”(p.12) Consequently, rather than a political activist himself, he was seduced into a cause that would forever be reflected in the poetry he wrote and which later, would come to be considered as the very essence of Ireland. Under the influence of Gonne his poetry was elevated to the level of political consciousness, becoming as it did a very necessary tool in the arsenal of the Free Staters and separatists. In order to persuade Gonne that he was sufficiently nationalist and, “in order to satisfy her revolutionary thirst, he began to focus his poetry on Irish themes.” (p.13) Gonne provided Yeats with the focus and necessary objectivity that would later enable him to describe a, “life lived.” (p.11) Fearing that the, “personal utterance[s] of his earlier youth,” (p.16) would lend itself to sentimentality, Yeats concentrated on objectifying a subjective truth: in his own words, “A modern country…. resemble[s] that which is most unlike a modern Ireland.” (p.17) With this in mind Yeats collected Irish myths and country tales, assembling and cataloging the ancient oral tradition and showcasing them in his own work. Through his so called Irish poetry he began to create in the minds of men, “the myth founded mask of Ireland (p.17)
Gonne and the Brotherhood were clearly influential in the early bundle “Crossways” – released in 1889 – and lend a political identity to his future work. It’s within “Crossways” that Yeats begins to recognize his own relationship with Ireland and alludes to the adoption of a mask that would eventually become that of the Irish. His political themes are represented throughout the book, but in particular in “Salley Gardens.”
Although a short, sweet almost lyrical couplet, rather than a poem, “Down by Salley Gardens” represents an unambiguous if less obvious, political position. “She bid me take love easy, as the leaves grow on the tree; But I, being young and foolish, with her would not agree.”A clandestine meeting perhaps of lovers perched on the moment of consummation. A female, despite her romantic inclination, warns her lover to slow down, enjoy the moment and not be so hasty. All will apparently come to pass if only patience is applied. Not willing to listen to her words the youth is intent on his goal and in his hasty pursuit of love falls fowl of his own impatience and ultimately loses everything. What at first appears to be a lover’s lamentation of loving in haste, is very clearly a line in the sand; a political stance describing a moment of choice.
Yeats uses the imagery of the woman in the poem to represent Ireland, just as he does in his later play “Cathleen ni Houlihan” in which Gonne played the part of the motherland. The Youth is representative of the followers of “Parnell”, and instead of an account of the urgency of sexual gratification, is the fight for Irish recognition and the battle for home rule. In their haste to change the status-quo between Britain and Ireland, the Fennian movement is impetuous and in being so, not only sullies its own reputation, but almost puts political objective beyond their reach in the same lamentable vein as the lover in the poem “But I was young and foolish, and now am full of tears.” Viewed by the British Government as revolutionary, their fight is quickly demonized and their cause ridiculed. Yeats is not proposing temperance but patience. The Ireland they all desire will come, but as with most things not as quickly as the movement would like. In the slow steady plod of politics the birthing of a nation will have to jump through the necessary hurdles in order to achieve its eventual goal of a free Ireland. The “young Ireland” requires patience of her patriots, insisting that their moment will succeed, if only they will commit. Republicanism is in the first throes of love and before consummation can occur, must tread the weary path of the would-be lover represented in the poem. Yeats captures brilliantly, through the sexual tension of the lovers, the relationship between the Republicans and political ambition.
Often in his poetry, Yeats draws on the mythological and Celtic to parallel political ambition. Through the cementation of the perceived character of Ireland an idyllic is created that’s worth fighting for. In order to create a common Irish consciousness Yeats implants the idea of nationhood, that although supposedly having always existed, requires protection in order for it to flourish. Much as England usurped the Lebanese Saint George as their adopted patron saint and their alleged Trojan birthright in the persona of Felix Brutus, Yeats creates the mystique of provenance. Drawn from the depths of Irish folklore and collected from the mouths of Irish peasantry Yeats paints a picture clothed in the mists of imagination. Rather than offering a history and chronology of Ireland he presents a moment that is almost tangible in his poem “The Stolen Child.” The child is tempted by the faeries to leave the cruel world and return to the Arcadia just beyond site: there where the true spirit of Ireland lays. “Come away o’ human child, to the waters and the wild.” The poem is a reminder of the way things were and offers a gentle nudge of contemplation to the condition of the nation and where it’s going. Should the children of Ireland be raised in a land unsuitable to even their faery folk, or should an Ireland be created that encompasses the future of their youth and the sanctity of all they hold to be true? Yeats suggests, “With a faery, hand in hand, for the worlds more full of weeping than you can understand.” The poem although beautiful, could almost be seen as a call to arms, not dissimilar to the kind of propaganda Britain held up to its men at the start of the First World War. With unashamed sentimentality, soldiers were lured to the trenches in the same manner the Irish are lured to the woods. Yeats created a land for the youth of Ireland, blanketed in tradition, just as Britain offered the fighting men, a home for heroes upon their return.
Yeats continues this idea in his later bundle “The Wind Among the Reeds” published in 1899. In his poem “The Fiddler of Dooney,” Yeats offers an intrinsically Irish attitude. With the religious divisions that had so troubled the Irish – from the Protestantism of their rulers and the innate Catholicism that had allegedly been introduced by Saint Patrick – he recognizes that the divisiveness of religion is just as harmful to a united people as foreign rule. The Irish are not only divided as a nation, but also by their faith. Without resolution, no matter how hard the fight the British, they can never win the battle amongst themselves. For, “they read in the books of prayer,” and the fiddler (Yeats), “read in my book of songs, bought at Sligo fair.” The Fiddler is first and foremost Irish, neither following the church nor believing their rhetoric. He depicts an Ireland in the sunshine where, without the chastisement of priests, the people can create their own unity. The only thing separating the fiddler’s dalliance and the problems of religion are the tangible smiles on the faces and the happiness in their hearts, “For the good are always merry, save by an evil chance, and the merry love the fiddle and the merry love to dance.” Ireland is clearly a nation of people, not of religious faction, as Yeats appeals in his alternative view. The Arcadian concept of Ireland also creates a notion of homeland and of belonging, recognition of self and what it means to be Irish. As jaded as that concept may sometimes appear, it is the simple conditioning of attitude that creates nations and Yeats, along with his Republican brothers, is keenly aware of that. Decrying sentimentality in verse as he does, one has to look for the “mask” and try to understand that which isn’t obvious. Yeats isn’t describing an Ireland for posterity, but instead is asking the Irish to recognize themselves. This is who we are, this is what we do; this is the Ireland we all desire. With the implementation of the Irish myth, Yeats takes his readers by the hearts in order that their minds will follow. One could even go as far as to say that he propagandizes the notion of Ireland and the Irish.
The myth of the Irish, espoused through Yeats’ poetry, undoubtedly promotes present day attitudes that are representative of the idea of Ireland. Through his poetry and associations, Yeats helped to cement that which is contemporarily considered Irish: his verse and retrospective romanticism allowing for the creation of a cultural identity. Without his political association and the political struggles of 19th Century Ireland, Yeats may very well, not have been the major poet contemporary society considers him to be. His poetry, despite his ability, was both of and for the moment. A formative moment in time, both for Yeats and the country he represents today.
Unterecker, John. A Reader’s Guide to William Butler Yeats: New York. Syracuse University Press. 1996. Print