From Celts to rough beasts: Terence Brown on WB Yeats and the Ireland of his time

The Nobel laureate’s early enthusiasm for a brave old world of glorious Celtic warriors ended in postwar disillusion and disgust

Tumult: rebel prisoners in Dublin after the Easter Rising of 1916. Photograph: Photo12/UIG via Getty

Tumult: rebel prisoners in Dublin after the Easter Rising of 1916. Photograph: Photo12/UIG via Getty


In 1886, at the age of 21, Willie Yeats published a two-part essay on the poet Samuel Ferguson, who had recently died. Yeats declared of Ferguson, author of works such as Congal and Deirdre, which drew on ancient Irish legends, that he was the “greatest poet Ireland has produced, because the most central and most Celtic”.

It is a measure of Yeats’s achievement as a poet that it was his work that would give greater currency and richer allure to the term Celtic with reference to his native land. For, arguably, it was Yeats’s early poetry that helped to popularise an Ireland of the imagination that became a constituent of national self-understanding, extant even today in popular culture.

The idea of the Celtic had been made available to writers, artists and composers in the pan-European fashion for the Ossianic in the 18th century. In The Study of Celtic Literature, a series of lectures delivered in 1865, the English poet Matthew Arnold had given less exalted, less rhapsodic definition than James Macpherson had done to the idea of the Celt when he quoted a French thinker who had discerned in the Celtic temperament a tendency always to react against “the despotism of fact”. Arnold considered in his lecture how the Celt lived close to Nature and possessed an awareness of “natural magic”.

In 1898 William Butler Yeats published an essay, The Celtic Element in Literature, that reflected his thinking and reading on the subject since he had first deployed the term “Celtic”. In this essay Yeats frankly acknowledged how much his thinking on the subject had been influenced by the English poet’s published lectures, but he was at pains to challenge Arnold in a very important way. He could agree that aspects of English and of European literature suggested that they derived “from a Celtic source”, but he insisted of Arnold’s ideas, “I do not think any of us who write about Ireland have built any argument upon them.” Yeats wrote of Arnold, “I do not think he understood that our ‘natural magic’ is but the ancient religion of the world, the ancient worship of Nature and that troubled ecstasy before her, that certainty of all beautiful places being haunted, which it brought into men’s minds.”

The remarkable implication of this essay is that the poet’s Ireland is the place where the ancient religion of the world is residually present. What all this meant for Yeats was that beautiful places in Ireland, especially in the west of the country – he had spent much of his childhood in Co Sligo – were vested with a sense of the numinous. How inspiring this was to the neophyte poet is suggested by the conclusion to The Celtic Element in Literature, in which he wrote of the “symbolical movement” as “certainly the only movement that is saying new things”.

He believed that the arts had become religious and were seeking “to create a sacred book”. He thought, too, that the arts must utter themselves through legend and was manifestly excited by how the Irish legends “move among known woods and seas, and have so much of a new beauty that they may well give the opening century its most memorable symbols”.

Books of poetry by Yeats in the 1890s had evoked an Ireland of mystic profundity, as a land of beautiful places that served as portals to the transcendent . The atmospheric title of his 1899 collection, The Wind Among the Reeds, captured the sense of Ireland as a site of magical inspiration that he sought to create.

The opening poem in the book, The Hosting of the Sidhe, imagines fairy folk “riding from Knocknarea”, the mountain in Co Sligo, to “Clooth-na-bare”. The book, like much of Yeats’s early poetry, is a celebration of twilight as a time of visionary transition, making the poet seem a member, as many thought him, of a Celtic Twilight school of poets. Poems are set in “dim” light with mixed tints, like “dove grey” and “pearl pale”. This, together with the call of the curlew and “Desolate winds that cry over the ‘wandering sea’ ”, help make for a Yeatsian Ireland as a country of the mind that has had lasting popular appeal.

The idea of transition implicit in the twilight states he evoked was important to Yeats in the 1890s, committed as he was to the occult rituals of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (a London-based Rosicrucian society), which could, if efficacious, raise normal consciousness to transcendent heights. Poems such as The Man Who Dreamed of Faeryland and The Stolen Child endow Irish place names – Dromahair, Lissadell, Lugnagall and Glencar – with mantra-like powers to transform spiritual life. In The Wind Among the Reeds, in his poem The Song of Wandering Aengus, Yeats dramatised a moment of natural magic that provokes a lifelong quest for alchemical transformation: “The silver apples of the moon / The golden apples of the sun.”

Transformation on the spiritual plane in the 1890s had on the sublunary level its correlative in the poet’s desire to help effect political transformation in Ireland. As a sworn member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood Yeats hoped separation from the United Kingdom would transform Irish culture, saving it from the crass materialism of industrial Britain. In 1898, encouraged by the fervently nationalist Maud Gonne, for whom he had written ardent love poems, Yeats involved himself in the laying of plans to commemorate the United Irish Rebellion of 1798.

A site in Dublin was chosen where a statue of the republican martyr Wolfe Tone could be erected. Yeats and his confederates hoped that the laying of stone for the statue might be the occasion of a mass demonstration of separatist feeling in the Irish capital. As Yeats had it, “Ireland was appealing to the past to escape the confusions of the present”. An almost magical transformation in the country’s life might be effected in a revived spirit of rebellion (although Yeats was uncomfortable with the IRB’s commitment to physical force as a means to free Ireland).

Despite the fact that the 1798 commemoration did not provoke the kind of radical change Yeats and Gonne had hoped for, the poet’s enthusiasm for the idea of transformation found dramatic expression in a play, Cathleen Ni Houlihan, which premiered in Dublin in 1902 with Maud Gonne in the principal part. This work, written in collaboration with Lady Gregory, is set at the time of the United Irish Rebellion as French forces arrive to assist the rebels. A mysterious old woman arrirves at a peasant cottage in Mayo and speaks of her four green fields of “strangers” in the house and chants of the virtue of sacrifice in her cause.

As the play ends it is clear that young men are joining the French, prepared to sacrifice themselves in the cause of Cathleen Ni Houlihan. A young boy is asked, in the final moments of the play, if he saw an old woman going down the path. The curtain line has him declare: “I did not, but I saw a young girl, and she had the walk of a queen.”

In the obvious allegory of the play, in which the old woman is a figure of Ireland, it seemed blood sacrifice could rejuvenate Ireland, could effect transformation. In 1948 a moderate nationalist commentator remembered the impact of this play on popular Irish feeling at the time: “No more potent lines were ever spoken on an Irish stage. All our hopes were in that answer, it had an echo in every heart. It symbolized and rekindled that flame of romantic revolutionary nationalism which was to consume so many of its devotees.”

The young men of Ireland in Yeats and Gregory’s play were being challenged to embrace a heroic destiny. The death of the noble had been a theme for Yeats from early in his writing career. The death of Parnell, in 1891, had drawn from him an obituary poem, Mourn and Then Onward, that had honored the politician’s memory as a “tall pillar”. The publication in 1878-80 of Standish James O’Grady’s History of Ireland: Heroic Period had supplied the poet with another exemplar of heroism in the person of Cúchulainn, who would figure as hero in five of Yeats’s plays and recur in his poetry as an image of the heroic.

In the first decade of the 20th century the Yeats who had hoped for a transformed country became severely disillusioned with Ireland, when his friend John Millington Synge’s play The Playboy of the Western World was attacked in 1907 by nationalists, hastening, as Yeats believed, the dramatist’s death, in 1909.

Yeats thought, as he wrote in an article published in 1908, that “as belief in the possibility of armed insurrection withered, the old romantic nationalism would wither too”. Such feeling found intensified expression in 1913 with the publication in The Irish Times of Romance in Ireland – now known as September 1913 – where the “greasy till” of money and trade had killed the kind of self-sacrificial patriotism that had fomented heroic rebellion in the past. “Romantic Ireland” was “dead and gone”.

Yeats was staying with friends in England when an insurrection broke out in Dublin at Easter 1916. Like most of his compatriots he was deeply affected by the event and by the executions that followed. He spent the summer in Normandy with Maud Gonne and her daughter – Gonne had been married to one of those executed, John MacBride – when he worked on a palinode that retracted the harsh judgment he had expressed in 1913.

Now he could honour men whom he had known who had given their lives for Ireland. The poet recognised in Easter, 1916 that all was changed, “changed utterly”, a “terrible beauty” had been born. What gave this remarkable poem – one of the poet’s finest works – its special power was that it dramatised how quite ordinary men had been transformed by a historic moment in the nation’s history. Instead of being players in a “casual comedy” they had become heroes in a tragic drama.

The poem enacts, too, Yeats’s experience of transformation at this momentous time. Where at the opening of the poem the poet recalls how the executed men might have been the object of his mockery at his gentleman’s club, by the end the poet has become not a supercilious clubman but an awestruck bard taking on the duty of eulogy – “I write it out in a verse” – of reciting the names of the fallen martyrs to Ireland’s cause.

In the turbulent years that followed the Easter Rising and the end of the first World War Yeats would publish poems that consolidated his reputation as one of the finest English-language poets of his era. This was recognised when, in 1923, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

In this period of political transformation and violence in Ireland, poems such as The Second Coming and the two great sequence poems Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen and Meditations in Time of Civil War were able to record what it was like to live in a time of historic transition. These poems in powerful symbols – the “rough beast” of The Second Coming, for example – managed to represent history as a reality in the grip of uncontrollable, horrifying forces.

In the 1920s Yeats increasingly felt alienated from the independent Irish state that the years of struggle and conflict had brought into being. Although he served as an outspoken and effective senator in the upper house of the new parliament – he also chaired the committee that chose the designs for a beautiful new coinage – he could not accept the Irish Free State’s infringement on what he thought were fundamental rights: to divorce when marriage broke down and to freedom of expression in literature.

The Censorship of Publications Act of 1929 particularly affronted him. The problem was that Ireland was no longer the magical land he had imagined in his early verse but a place where what he would later term a “filthy modern tide” ran without check. By this he meant that populist democracy could put in place an administration inimical to the libertarian values he held dear.

In 1933, in reactionary, even fanatical mood, Yeats indicated his willingness to support the Blueshirt movement when he met with its leader Eoin O’Duffy. He even wrote some songs (probably never used) for his troops of marching men.

About this political association with what looked like an embryonic Irish fascism Yeats wrote to an English friend at the time, “doubtless I shall hate it but not so much as I hate Irish democracy”.To the same friend he also wrote, “I find myself constantly urging the despotic rule of the educated classes.”

It was such elitist thinking that made Yeats in the last years of his life a keen student of eugenic theory. It was this that may have prompted him to write the distinctly unpleasant line in Under Ben Bulben that refers to younger Irish poets as “base-born products of base beds”.

Elitism accounts, too, for how Yeats increasingly identified Protestant Anglo-Ireland as the epitome of good breeding and cultural superiority, with Lady Gregory’s house at Coole Park serving as a retreat where “last romantics” like Yeats himself could choose “for theme / Traditional sanctity and loveliness”.

Terence Brown, an emeritus fellow of Trinity College Dublin, is the author of The Life of WB Yeats: A Critical Biography

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