Political Poetry of W. B. Yeats: Production of Illuminating Poetic Collections

The canvas of Yeats’ Muse is admittedly vast, combining within itself two apparently irreconcilable pigments. With a beginning which is reminiscent of Keats and the Pre-Raphaelites, Yeats moved forward with mighty strides towards the mature phase of the production of illuminating poetic collections which constitute sortie at the rare marvels in English literature. In between this early and the mature stage here is another period—that of transition which is equally reductive of scintillating poetry full of coruscating symbols.

Te bulk of his early poetry is languid, marked by tinge of romanticism and a pronounced note of escapism. It belongs to the dream-world which is essentially irresponsible and which implies an abnegation of the values of this mundane or terrestrial world. Yeats’s early poems are in the Victorian tradition which itself was a development from the Romantic Revival. Tennyson would not have some into being without Keats, Rossetti would not have come into being without Tennyson. Yeats would not have come into being without Rossetti. One of the chief characteristics of this line of poets—in their better poems—is “an autumnal, almost a morbid, langour”. Yeats’s early poems are dreamy, interspersed with poignant nostalgia. He loved to dwell upon the theme of love frustrated. The verbal music of his early poems is also sleepy, keeping in tune with the theme:
“Although our love is waning, let us stand
By the lone border of the lake once more.
Together in that hour of gentleness
When the poor tired child, Passion falls asleep
How far away the stars seem, and how far
Is our first kiss, and ah, how old my heart.”- Ephemera by William Butler Yeats

The languor is definitely Keatsian. Yeats in his early poems is out and out an escapist, indulging in snob hyperboles as:
“You need but lift a pearl-pale hand
And bind up your long hair and sigh
And all men’s hearts must burn and boat.”

His passionate wooing of Maud Gonne and the subsequent frustration threw him into the Acheron which cast a lurid spoil over the early love Lyrics of the poet. He sought to be oblivious of his woes and to escape into the pastoral and idyllic setting to enjoy the bliss of solitude. He invites others also to share this:
“Come away, 0 human child
To the waters and the wild
 With a faery hand in hand.
For the world’s more full of weeping than you
can understand.” - The Stolen Child  by William Butler Yeats

Such far-off places, immune from the sordidity and bareness of the terrestrial world—the “rocky highland of Sleuth Wood in the lake” used to offer soothing anodyne or spiritual panacea to hi afflicted soul and fatigued mind. But he soon grew sick of it all. He could not keep himself aloof from the momentous incidents and great upheavals in the domain of contemporary politics. His inordinate sensitivity and age-consciousness pushed him towards the mainstream of socio-political movement and he ran adrift with the general current and at times exerted his pioneering influence by assuming the role of a great stalwart in the popular political movements of his time.

He was imbued with the spirit of nationalism and patriotism. An irresistible attraction for Ireland is what constitutes a fundamental feature of his poetry. In his early days he tried to equate Ireland with a Celtic utopia—a Land of beautiful dreams. During this period his nationalism was orthodox and romantic. In his middle years some experience of public life and polities disillusioned him. The kind of nationalism which he admired, represented by John 0’ Leary, was in a decline nationalism dominant seemed to him to involve a shocking waste of energy and to have ruined the lives of a number of big friends.” During this phase of acute disillusionment Yeats derived fresh hope and spirit of rejuvenation from Lady Gregory and J. M. Synge. The ideal Ireland of his childhood was, however, restore to him by their influence and contact. But this could not percolate his own intrinsic thoughts and feelings about Ireland. In 1913 he wrote a poem deploring the lack of daring and imagination in contemporary Ireland, its petty acquisitiveness and its petty piety:

“Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone
It’s with O’Leary in the grave.” -September 1913 by W.B.Yeats

The sadness and witfulness, lament and nostalgia made him exclusively lonesome. Thus in 1916 after the Easter Rising, we find the peculiar incompatibility and failure in adjustment of the poet. He failed to identify himself with popular leaders. “Oddly assorted with each other, they were nearly all of them men with whom Yeats could have little personal sympathy.” A sensitive soul like that of Yeats could not whole-heartedly accept the declaration of Padraic Pearse “that bloodshed was a cleansing and sanctifying thing”. This strong spirit of nationalism enabled him to revive the Irish literature. “In reviving Irish literature, he revived himself, was saved from spending his time in the adulteration of foreign wines. He may al times have distorted the meaning of Ireland but it was Ireland that gave body to his poetry. His escape from England coincided with his escape from adolescence. His adolescent poetry is his English poetry.”

His dedication to a Book of Irish Tales constitutes his directly patriotic poem of the early period. But in the early poems, the poet’s nationalism was expressed through the medium of new themes derived from Gaelic mythology. His amour with Maud Gonne as well as his beloved country, Ireland bred in him a disillusionment which had far reaching effects. In his Diary for the year, 1909 we notice his acute depression and despondency owing to the soullessness of the contemporary Ireland. “Ireland is ruined by abstractions”—he wrote at that time. The Green Helmet contains poems which are consistently disillusioned.

He lent his thought to the people of Ireland and was struck severely by remorse Thus in a poem addressed to Douglas Hyde he thought about the audience of the Abbey Theatre and came to the conclusion that “the populace is willful, fickle and ignorant”:
“ Is there a bridle for this Proteus
That turns and changes like his draughty seas?
Or is there none, most popular of men,
But when they mock us that we mock again.”- The Green Helmet and Other Poems by W.B.Yeats

The decline of the spirit of Irish nationalism has been portrayed by him with touching sincerity:
“These are the clouds about the fallen sun
The majesty that shuts hi burning eye:
The weak lay hand on what the strong has done
And discord follow upon unison
And all things at one common level lie.” -Responsibilities and Other Poems by W.B.Yeats

In some other poems, we find him deploring the fall of the big houses. The Land Agitation, according to him generated nothing but loss:
Mean roof trees were the sturdier for its tall
How should their luck run high enough to reach
The gifts that govern men, and after this
To gradual time’s last gift, a written speech
Wrought of high laughter, loveliness and ease.” - The Green Helmet and Other Poems by W.B.Yeats

He was not alone in holding the ideas stated above. Eliot amongst his contemporaneous thinkers and poets shared the very same view with him. He too complained in the same vein that the world was “worm-eaten with liberalism”.  The love of traditional values made him an ardent supporter of reaction. Like Eliot, he also believed that a world founded upon the principles of communism “would imply a mechanical equality, a drab uniformity.” He was very much opposed to the ‘communist intellectual dictatorship,’ against ‘she machine made and trade-marked opinions.’“Yeats and Eliot again assumed that a democratic world implies a low standard of thinking and taste implies jerry-building, barren competitiveness, a waste of energy and words.” The disregard of the individuality of human beings horrified Yeats in polities. In the last year of his life he wrote: “If ever Ireland again seems molten wax do not try to pour Ireland into any political system.”

But paradoxically enough, he sought to revive the old Gaelic heroes in his poetry and thereby to bring about a political and literary renaissance in Ireland. Thus we discern a wonderful fusion of lyricism and patriotism. In the following lines from one of his finest political lyrics, he declares his ambition ostensibly and in unambiguous accents.
“Know that I would accounted be
True brother of a Company
That sang, to sweeten Ireland’s wrong.”- To Ireland in the Coming Times by William Butler Yeats

The fascinating stories centering on the adventurous lives of the ancient Gaelic heroes like King Goll, Fergus Aengus, Cuchulain and Oisin etc. inspired his poetic imagination. Cuchulain, ‘the Irish Achilles’ becomes a recurrent symbol in his poetry.

Ardhendu De

References: Gender and History in Yeats's Love Poetry By Elizabeth Butler Cullingford

W.B. Yeats: A Life, Book 1 By R. F. Foster, Robert Fitzroy Foster


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