Philosophy and a little passion: Roy Foster on WB Yeats and politics

More than any other great poet except Milton, Yeats was deeply involved in the politics of his day

"What if the Church and the State
Are the mob that howls at the door!"

With that ominous reflection, in 1934, WB Yeats signed off from one of his more controversial political involvements. This was his interest in the fascistic Blueshirt movement and his misbegotten attempt (pressurised by Ernest Blythe) to write "marching songs" for it. Although the poem Church and State suggests that he was declaring a plague on politics in general he could never quite divorce himself from the subject, especially as it concerned Ireland. Yeats's close connection to politics comes into sharp focus as we celebrate both the 150th anniversary of his birth and the approaching centenary of the Easter Rising. He himself described his engagement with the public life of his native country as "a continual quarrel and a continual apology".

Not that his political interest stopped at Ireland. Perhaps more than any other great poet except John Milton, William Butler Yeats was deeply involved and interested in the political movements of his day. Living from the 1860s until the 1930s, these were seismic, especially in Ireland. He grew up against the background of Home Rule and of the dizzying ascent and fall of Parnell, a figure who would preoccupy Yeats all his life and whom he described as a “dark star” presiding over the political consciousness of his generation.

The Irish cultural revival, which Yeats did so much to inspire, involved a powerful impetus towards political renewal, too, as he would later remember in his autobiographies. “I had seen Ireland in my own time turn from the bragging rhetoric and gregarious humour of O’Connell’s generation and school, and offer herself to the solitary and proud Parnell as to her anti-self . . . and I had begun to hope, or to half-hope that we might be the first in Europe to seek unity as deliberately as it had been sought by theologian, poet, sculptor, architect from the 11th to the 13th century . . . could we first find philosophy and a little passion.”


He did not stop hoping. Yeats recalled this youthful dream in 1920, when Ireland was convulsed by guerilla war and Europe had been turned upside down in the aftermath of the first World War and the Bolshevik revolution; a year earlier he had published The Second Coming, a poem whose ominous invocation of a rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem entered the world's imagination and has stayed there.

By then his own politics had moved through stages of violent engagement, intense disillusionment and another change with the seismic impact of 1916. In the 1890s he had been a Fenian fellow traveller, magnetised by Maud Gonne, and much involved in the 1798 centenary commemorations, which helped revive radical republicanism; this political phase is marked by visionary paeans of national dedication such as Red Hanrahan's Song About Ireland (which remained Gonne's favourite of his poems).

The old brown thorn-trees break in two high over Cummen Strand,
Under a bitter black wind that blows from the left hand;
Our courage breaks like an old tree in a black wind and dies,
But we have hidden in our hearts the flame out of the eyes
Of Cathleen, the daughter of Houlihan.

The wind has bundled up the clouds high over Knocknarea,
And thrown the thunder on the stones for all that Maeve can say.
Angers that are like noisy clouds have set our hearts abeat;
But we have all bent low and low and kissed the quiet feet
Of Cathleen, the daughter of Houlihan.

The yellow pool has overflowed high up on Clooth-na-Bare,
For the wet winds are blowing out of the clinging air;
Like heavy flooded waters our bodies and our blood;
But purer than a tall candle before the Holy Rood
Is Cathleen, the daughter of Houlihan.

In the early 1900s Yeats's politics moved away from advanced nationalism, impelled by a number of developments; these included Gonne's marriage to John MacBride, her subsequent treatment by republican circles after their separation, and his own quarrels with Sinn Féin over the direction of the Abbey Theatre. The denunciation of September 1913 summed up the mood unforgettably if untactfully.

What need you, being come to sense,
But fumble in a greasy till
And add the halfpence to the pence
And prayer to shivering prayer, until
You have dried the marrow from the bone;
For men were born to pray and save:
Romantic Ireland's dead and gone,
It's with O'Leary in the grave.

Yet 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?
Romantic Ireland's dead and gone,
It's with O'Leary in the grave.

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?
Romantic Ireland's dead and gone,
It's with O'Leary in the grave.

Yet could we turn the years again,
And call those exiles as they were
In all their loneliness and pain,
You'd cry, "Some woman's yellow hair
Has maddened every mother's son":
They weighed so lightly what they gave.
But let them be, they're dead and gone,
They're with O'Leary in the grave.

He was now a supporter of Redmondite Home Rule and by 1914 accepted that the unheroic mood had returned. As he told an American audience, the sacrificial politics of his play Cathleen Ni Houlihan were no longer in fashion. "The boy who used to want to die for Ireland now goes into a rage because the dispensary doctor in County Clare has been elected by a fraud. Ireland is no longer a sweetheart but a house to be set in order." Two years later, Easter Monday 1916 forced him to think again.

The poem that recorded this event and its shattering aftermath, with an enduring and quizzical ambiguity, remains one of Yeats's great political statements. By analysing idealism, fanaticism and the politics of sacrifice in terms of the biographies of key revolutionaries, Easter, 1916 shows Yeats's uncanny sense of history as it happened around him as well as what his wife described as his astonishing ability to know how things would look to people afterwards.

I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

That woman's days were spent
In ignorant good will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When, young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our wingèd horse.
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road,
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute by minute they live:
The stone's in the midst of all.

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is heaven's part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; 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 –
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Yeats's own political course between 1916 and 1922 was cautious but amounted to a mounting endorsement of the rebel cause – although the ambivalence remained. While slowly releasing (often in samizdat fashion) poems such as Easter 1916 and writing more unequivocal testaments, such as The Rose Tree and Sixteen Dead Men, he was also reflecting bitterly on Constance Markiewicz's path to socialism in A Political Prisoner.

In this, as in other poems of the time (not least The Second Coming), his political sense was connecting the Irish upheavals with the postwar collapse of empires and the rise of totalitarian politics in Russia and Italy. Here his preoccupation with "the mob that howls at the door" began to take root, along with his fascination with themes of violence and bitterness, which found expression in the great sequences Meditations in Time of Civil War and Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen.

Around this time, too, recalling his early political hopes, he reflected that he had not foreseen "the growing murderousness of the world". These apocalyptic expectations found ominous expression in a 1919 essay called If I Were Four and Twenty, essentially a response to the Bolshevik revolution and the postwar world; it also anticipates ideas about movements in world history that he would later build into his philosophical reflection A Vision.

Viewing history as driven by struggles between individuals and families rather than between classes, Yeats reviewed the economics of egalitarianism versus traditional hierarchies. He also invoked the “magical bond” that primitive societies invested in a priest or king, relating it to the history of Christianity – and what now threatened to follow it. “Perhaps we are restless because we approach a realisation that our general will must surrender itself to another will within it, interpreted by certain men, at once economists, patriots and inquisitors?”

The anticipation of Mussolini as well as Lenin is striking; so is the way that these ideas would find expression in Parnell's Funeral, his 1932 poem about Irish politics, returning to his idea that Parnell's spirit of tragedy replaced the comedy of O'Connell, invoking a return to the savage rites of ancient kingship.

Under the Great Comedian's tomb the crowd.
A bundle of tempestuous cloud is blown
About the sky; where that is clear of cloud
Brightness remains; a brighter star shoots down;
What shudders run through all that animal blood?
What is this sacrifice? Can someone there
Recall the Cretan barb that pierced a star?

Rich foliage that the starlight glittered through,
A frenzied crowd, and where the branches sprang
A beautiful seated boy; a sacred bow;
A woman, and an arrow on a string;
A pierced boy, image of a star laid low.
That woman, the Great Mother imaging,
Cut out his heart. Some master of design
Stamped boy and tree upon Sicilian coin.

An age is the reversal of an age:
When strangers murdered Emmet, Fitzgerald, Tone,
We lived like men that watch a painted stage.
What matter for the scene, the scene once gone:
It had not touched our lives. But popular rage,
Hysterica passio dragged this quarry down.
None shared our guilt; nor did we play a part
Upon a painted stage when we devoured his heart.

Come, fix upon me that accusing eye.
I thirst for accusation. All that was sung.
All that was said in Ireland is a lie
Bred out of the contagion of the throng,
Saving the rhyme rats hear before they die.
Leave nothing but the nothings that belong
To this bare soul, let all men judge that can
Whether it be an animal or a man.

Yeats himself felt deep disquiet at the way that European civilisation was turning to “a myth which now but gropes its way out of the mind’s dark but will shortly pursue and terrify”. Although he felt doubtful about the ability of democratic government to deal with anarchic violence, his commitment to the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the Irish Free State was unequivocal, and he involved himself in the political and cultural affairs of Dáil Éireann, including taking an aggressive stand on the issues of freedom of expression for artists, and the imposition of Catholic social mores on to the Constitution.

At the same time he was acutely conscious that the State had been born in violence and inherited bitterness (the theme of Meditations in Time of Civil War). His idealisation of the Irish ascendancy class before the Union of 1800, revolving around a highly partial reading of Swift, Berkeley and Burke and his belief that a leisured and cultured class should be enabled by a social ethos that accepted inherited authority, was certainly conservative, not to say reactionary, although it did not sit easily with fascism (which he usually spelt "fashism"). But it did lead him into talks with the leaders of the nascent Blueshirt movement in 1933, which ended, by all accounts, in mutual incomprehension.

As the 1930s lurched to their apocalyptic close Yeats expected and dreaded a coming war, and his poetry continued to interrogate themes of the rise and fall of civilisations, the decay of democracy, and the politics of hatred, which, he told an English friend, was a phenomenon particularly relevant to Ireland, where “it finds a more complicated & determined conscience to prey upon”.

Although he has been accused of Nazi sympathies, because he accepted a Goethe Medal from the Nazi-controlled city of Frankfurt, in 1934, this said more about Yeats’s admiration for Goethe than his interest in Germany, which was slight – unlike Maud Gonne and her family, who were both pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic.

Yeats’s beliefs that Mussolini represented “the rise of the individual man against the anti-human part machine” and that German legislation in 1934 was intended to allow old families to continue living in their ancestral places (rather than to expropriate Jews) suggest that his contact with the reality of fascism was shaky in the extreme. And although his ominous interest in eugenics grew throughout the 1930s, and is reflected in many of his writings, he used these arguments to argue against the social policies of fascist countries.

In fact, as one Blueshirt recalled later, “Yeats was not fascist but he was authoritarian”, and his late ideas turned more and more to a preoccupation with his peculiar vision of ascendancy Ireland before the Union and to his belief that, in order for culture and tradition to be preserved, creative individuals and their families deserved priority.

He had always turned to oligarchic and aristocratic ideas , as well as the occult patterns of authority that he inferred from Frazer's The Golden Bough, and that are reflected in the coda he added to Parnell's Funeral in 1934.

The rest I pass, one sentence I unsay.
Had de Valèra eaten Parnell's heart
No loose-lipped demagogue had won the day,
No civil rancour torn the land apart.

Had Cosgrave eaten Parnell's heart, the land's
Imagination had been satisfied,
Or lacking that, government in such hands,
O'Higgins its sole statesman had not died.

Had even O'Duffy – but I name no more –
Their school a crowd, his master solitude;
Through Jonathan Swift's dark grove he passed, and there
Plucked bitter wisdom that enriched his blood.

Themes of disillusionment with public life persist in his late work, along with the occasional note of hope for deliverance (as, perhaps, in his very last poem, The Black Tower, which his wife pertinently described as a political poem). But in the end he turned for inspiration to the crucible of individual experience, and love rather than war. This thought ends one of his great last poems, The Circus Animals' Desertion, which was on his desk when he died.

Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder's gone
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

And for all his preoccupation with hatred and bitterness and their prominent place in Irish life, it is worth remembering a comment by his friend Edith Lyttelton, after a visit to postrevolutionary Ireland, where she was struck by the intensity of antagonism expressed in political life. “I have often thought of a thing WB Yeats said to me many years ago,” she reflected. “I was asking how it was that he no longer went in for Revolution, nor drove about in crepe when any big moment came to England, as he did in the streets of Dublin at Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. (This last was a silent question.) He said, ‘I have learned to know that nothing great comes out of hatred and bitterness.’ ”

This contradicts the implications in some of his most powerful political poems, such as Ancestral Houses and Blood and the Moon. But it is affirmed by others, and it may stand as a fairer judgment than the bombastic epitaph he left behind in Under Ben Bulben.

Roy Foster is Carroll professor of Irish history at the University of Oxford