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Irish identity

In the light of complex history of Ireland, Irish writers were always more concerned with national pride and fate of their country. The political themes were present in the works of most of them. Yeats was a poet, not a politician. This, however, certainly did not mean that Irish nationalism was alien to him or that he acquiesced in the dominant outlook on politics in order to practice his art. Yeats was familiar for what was called at the time advanced nationalism, whose background of declassed Protestantism and uncertain location (Yeats often moved from Dublin to London and back again) necessitated a firm claim on Irish identity.

With all this in his background, Yeats as a young man both was and chose to be something of an alien among the English poets with whom he was numbered. So Yeats was firmly convinced of the need for an Irish cultural initiative which would advance a style of writing definitively national both in form and content, and create from local traditions a sustaining ‘mythology’. Yeats concentrated his efforts to define a culture that would be definitively Irish, unmaterialistic, politically nationalist, and culturally avant-garde, and his key writings of the early 1890s demonstrate this.

The last years of this decade saw a dramatic intensification of his Irish activity, both political and cultural: Maud Gonne, his life-long love, returned to the centre of his life, he became involved in the Fenian politicking around the commemoration of the 1798 rising, and he embarked on the theatrical enterprise which dominated his life for the next decade and brought him the most enduring and fruitful friendship and collaboration of his life so far. (Hone, 1943) At some point of life Yeats became involved in occultist activity for what was accused by Maud Gonne of turning away from Ireland’s battle for freedom to lose himself in visions.

Yeats answers to this accusation with a poem which is a considered statement of faith, in which he defines the relation of the outside world to his world of dream. He declares that he is a true patriot poet; his vision is of that which gives meaning to the soul of Ireland and therefore to the battle itself: Nor be I any less of them, Because the red-rose-bordered hem Of her, whose history began Before God made the angelic clan, Trails all about the written page. For in the world’s first blossoming age The light fall of her flying feet

Made Ireland’s heart begin to beat; And still the starry candles flare To help her light foot here and there, And still the thoughts of Ireland brood Upon her holy quietude. To Ireland in the Coming Times In the poem The Ghost of Roger Casement Yeats intertwines his occult belief in ghosts with Irish nationalism. He tells that the souls of Ireland’s heroic dead, sometimes whirling in symbolic gyres, haunt the Irish countryside: O what has made that sudden noise? What on the threshold stands? It never crossed the sea because

John Bull and the sea are friends; But this is not the old sea Nor this the old seashore. What gave that roar of mockery, That roar in the sea’s roar? The ghost of Roger Casement Is beating on the door. The Ghost of Roger Casement Their purpose, he implies, is threefold. They would seek vengeance on national enemies. They would, by visits to the phenomenal world, prepare themselves for their next rebirth. And they would inspire the living to noble deeds. Later, however, came the time of certain disillusionment and the mood of Yeats’ poems changed.

The last words of the poem Meditations in Time of Civil War are a collected personal statement about the dissolving visions: I turn away and shut the door, and on the stair Wonder how many times I could have proved my worth In something that all others understand or share; But O! Ambitious heart, had such a proof drawn forth A company of friends, a conscience set at ease, It had but made us pine the more. The abstract joy, The half-read wisdom of daemonic images, Suffice the ageing man as once the growing boy.

Symbol, world, history and eternity, are woven together in this poem with the utmost intricacy. He has found a standpoint to harmonize them, and the ‘ghostly solitude’ that exhilarated and appalled him in the earlier poem is now an accepted condition of life. In one of Yeats’ own metaphors, mankind builds up the tradition of a civilization as a bird builds a nest, to be a resting-place where the soul is nourished, whence it can take flight. But bird and soul are most truly in their element when they take off from the nest and soar alone into the uncharted fields of the sky. So with Yeats.

He could not be himself and cannot be understood apart from the Irish civilization which is the groundwork of his thought; but when he is most fully himself he is aloof and alone, rising into an emptiness of solitary experience.

Bibliography: Hone, Joseph. W. B. Yeats, 1865-1939. New York: Macmillan, 1943 Rosenthal, M. L. Running to Paradise: Yeats’s Poetic Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997 Stock, A. G. W. B. Yeats: His Poetry and Thought. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1961 Yeats, W. B. The Collected Poems, London, Macmillan and Co. Ltd. , 1950.

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