Sunday, June 7, 2009

Irish Nationalism in W . B Yeats' Poetry

Throughout his career Yeats ,the poet of Ireland explored the themes of Irish folklore and myths, themes and settings to create a modern sophisticated poetry. The Irish themes come into his poetry as the remembrance of the glorious past,the myths and legends,the landscape,the heroes,the politics,and the criticism of English occupation.
The personal life of Yeats cannot be separated from his poetry.It is even more true in his treatment of Irish themes in his poetry.He reccurently treated the Irish elements in his poetry for the following reasons.
His personal interest in mythology and the oral traditions of folklore combined with high sense of nationalism inspired him to create a poetry rich in the treatment of Celtic folklore and mythology.So,the subject matter of his poetry,specially the early poetry consists of the traditional Celtic folklore and myth. By incorporating into his work the stories and characters of Celtic origin, Yeats endeavored to encapsulate something of the national character of his beloved Ireland.
Secondly, during the early years of Yeats, there was an ongoing literary revival of interest in Irish legend and folklore. Books with such titles as Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland, The Fireside Stories of Ireland, History of Ireland: Cuculain and his Contemporaries, Irish Folklore, and dozens of others were useful to the young Yeats.This also inspired Yeats to write on the Irish themes.
Another important cause was his childhood experience.Yeats's mother shared with her son her interest in folklore, fairies, and astrology as well as her love of Ireland, particularly the region surrounding Sligo in western Ireland where Yeats spent much of his childhood. Yeats’s early mental makeup moulded his later literary career. Thus,though he spent two thirds of his life outside of his motherland ,Yeats’s poetic self was deeply rooted in Ireland.
Yeats’s fascination for Irish elements mainly came from his meeting with the Irish nationalist Fenian John O’Leary in 1885 Yeats. John O’Leary was instrumental in arranging for the publication of Yeats's first poems in The Dublin University Review. Under the influence of O'Leary, Yeats took up the cause of Gaelic writers at a time when much native Irish literature was in danger of being lost as the result of England's attempts to anglicize Ireland through a ban on the Gaelic language. This and his connection with another society, the Contemporary Club, brought Yeats into contact with a circle of nationalist intellectuals. He began to read Irish literature, and his subsequent publications bore the marks of that new interest.By the early years of the twentieth century Yeats had risen to international prominence as a proponent of the Gaelic Revival and had published numerous plays and peoms.
Now let us discuss some individual poems to see how he treated Irish elements in his poems.The poems that clearly reflect his nationalism are ’The Stolen Child’,Fergus and the Druid’, Cuchulain’s Fight with the Sea’,The Hosting of the Sidhe’,Th Wild Swans a t Coole’,Coole Park,Coole Park and Ballylee, At Galway Races, The Ballad of Moll Magee” , “The Ballad of Father Gilligan etc.
Yeats’s fist notable interest in Irish materials is seen in his early poem ’The Stolen Child’.The poem is based on Irish legend and Irish setting.The poem,in which a fairy speaks to a human child in a beguiling voice ,is set in Sligo,where the yeats used to spend their holidays.The voice calls
Where dips the rocky highland
Of Sleuth Wood in the lake
There lies a leafy island
Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water rats;
There we’ve hid our faery vats
Full of berries
And of reddest stolen cherries.
The names of the places mentioned in the poem are located in Sligo and the poem reflects the poet’s interest in the belief in the supernatural that he found in the west of Ireland,in particular the idea that the faeries carried off children from the human world.
Yeats’s treatment of Irish materials ,specially the old legends and sagas are also seen in his work The Rose.In this collection specially two poems - Fergus and the Druid’, Cuchulain’s Fight with the Sea’ are full of Irish elements.The former deals with the Ulster’s legendary king Fergus,who married Ness.The poem is a conversation between the Druid and Fergus,who was persuaded by his wife Ness to allow Ness’s son (by previous marriage) MacNessa to rule the country for a year.But when the king gave the power,he was trickily driven out of the country at the end of the year.Fergus passed his days hunting,fighting,and feasting.Thus,the poem is based on an Irish saga.
The poem ’Cuchulain’s Fight with the Sea’ deals with the Irish Achilles or the Hercules Cuchulain.The poem is about the death of Cuchulain,the greatest Irish mythological hero,who appears many times throughout Yeats' work.
The legend of Cuchulain goes back the the pre-Christain time.He appears in in the Ulster Cycle of stories.Cuchulain,the superhuman warrior figure had a divine from the supernatural father figures such as Conall Cernach.As a youth, Cuchulain defeats one hundred and fifty of King Conchobar's troops on his way to the royal court. Suffice to say that Cuchulain is the hero most identified with Ireland and represents both positive and negative aspects of the Irish people and their struggle.
In the poem, " To Ireland in the Coming Times" Yeats again draws upon Irish folklore and mythic symbols and sets them against a backdrop of national identity. When the poet writes, " When Time began to rant and rage / The measure of her flying feet / Made Ireland's heart begin to beat; " He is speaking of the affects of the industrial revolution," When Time began to rant and rage." How the pre-industrial rhythm of life had been interrupted by the hourly wage in the cities, as opposed to the pastoral life of the country that was governed by the changing of the seasons, rather than the movement of the hands of a clock. This accelerated pace of life and of time," The measure of her flying feet," was reviled by Yeats and he wrote of his distaste of current English life, referring to passions that a man might yet find in Ireland, "love of the Unseen Life and love of country."
In the collection The Rose,Yeats emphasizes Irish imagery; the rose, the faeries and the Druid that are all closely associated with Ireland and are used here to disparage the rigid and structured English world view.
Another poem that illustrates how Yeats melds folklore and nationalism is "The Song of Wandering Aengus." In the poem, Yeats refers to Aengus, the Irish god of love. He was said to be a young, handsome god that had four birds flying about his head. These birds symbolized kisses and inspired love in all who heard them sing.The poem deals with the shape-changing of the fairies and tells a story in which a fish is transformed into a beautiful woman whom Aengus spends the rest of his life trying to find. In the poem, Yeats strays from the actual myth of Aengus. Yeats wrote, "Though I am old with wandering/ Through hollow lands and hilly lands." In the actual myth, Aengus was still young when he found his love. "The Song of Wandering Aengus" was about longing and searching, rather than about a song of found love.
Thus,Yeats took inspiration from the myths and legends of ancient Ireland in order to create a conspicuously Irish literature.
Yeats’s later poems
Yeats believed the idea that poetry should be changed to adjust the changes around us.So,his nationalism is not only seen in the treatment of the Irish myths and legends.He also wrote about the contemporary issues that concered his Ireland.His early interest in myths and legends was relaced by contemporay politics,legal questions,rebellion,and other issues.This change we find in his ’The Green Hemlet and Other Poems’.Two poems of the collection clearly reflect his new nationalism.These are In Upon a house Shaken by the Land Agitation and At Galway Races.
In Upon a house Shaken by the Land Agitation Yeats makes an explicit and timely comment upon a political issue.The title of the poem refers to Land Reform ,an important movement in 19th century Irish legislation to bring agriculture and the peasantry out of the incredibly impoverished past by changing the relation between landlords and tenant.The 1903 Wyndham Land Act provided for bonuses to landlords who sold property to tenants on easy terms. Aaccording to the legislation the tenants were able to buy thier farms.Here the house stands for aristocracy,tradition,the Anglo-Irish inheritance,and social stability.Yeats believed in aristocracy.Like Nietzsche he also believed that the rare thing is for the rare people,great things for the great people.This view is reflected in the poem.
Another later poem, "At Galway Races," illustrates how Yeats work was evolving, but the theme of Ireland was still the most lasting message in his works.
"Sing on: somewhere at some new moon,
We'll learn that sleeping is not death,
Hearing the whole earth change its tune
Its flesh being wild, and it again
Crying aloud as the racecourse is,
And we find hearteners among men
That ride upon horses"
Yeats is not only celebrating horse racing, which is the national sport of Ireland, it is celebrating the endurance of Ireland during its troubles with Great Britain, and celebrating the strong backbone of the Irish, who are men "that ride upon horses." Yeats work literally breathes Ireland in every line, and there is no doubt that Yeats loved this unique land, and wanted to share that love with people the world over."
In another poem namely ’Easter 1916’ Yeats also expresses his nationalism.The poem commemorates the Easter Rising of 24 April 1916 when the memebers of the Irish Republican Brotherhood under the leadership of Patricia Pearse rose against British rule of Ireland.The rising was subdued and the ring leaders were put to death.The poem carefully expresses an ambiguous attitude of quallified support for the rebels.Like the rebels Yeats was also willing to free Ireland from all kinds of English dominance but he hated the violence.He indirectly accused the rebels for overtuning the works of years and felt very despondent about the future.
His such poems as The Wild Swans a t Coole’,Coole Park,and Coole Park and Ballylee also bear his nationalism.Yeats uses swan as a symbol of tranquility,beauty,and pride-the typical Irish characteristics in his poetry.These poems are also in the descriptions of the Irish landscapes.
His another remarkable poem ’Leda and the Swan’ can also be interpreted as literary attack against England’s harsh treatment of Irland.The sonnet composed in 1923 refers to the myth of the rape of Leda by Zeus in the form of a swan.The poem represents the dominance of Swan over Leda.Yeats’s uses of such imageries as ’ a sudden blow’,’the staggering girl’,’caught in the bill’ clearly picture the violence used by Zeus.Here the relation between Leda and Swan is the relation of that of the oppressed and the oppressed,the colonized and the colonizer.As it is clear the colonizer is England and the colonized is Ireland.The former excercised violence against the later.The interpretaion seems to be convincing if we consider the time of its composition.
Yeats had a high sense of nationalism.His defth of nationalism becomes more evident if we compare his work with the works of T.S Eliot.Eliot took Europe and its war-fragmented culture as its Waste Land.So,the English poets became disillusioned with their country after the first world war.But Yeats,who spent two thirds of his life out of Ireland still retained Ireland as his imaginative homeland.
Yeats’s sense of nationalism is also seen from the fact that he often made a contrast between peaceful Ireland and industrial England.He also compared the Irish mythology culture with the cultures of classical Greece and Byzantium.
Yeats is considered one of the finest poets in the English language. He was devoted to the cause of Irish nationalism and played a significant part in the Celtic Revival Movement, promoting the literary heritage of Ireland through his use of material from ancient Irish sagas.