When people think of William Butler Yeats they usually think of the Poet and the nobel prize winner, many forget he had a completely different side. He was a nationalist, a senator as well as a Pacifist. One cannot ignore the Irony of Yeats being one of the 20th Century’s key english language poets whilst he openly fought against English tradition in Ireland and the British role in the Great War. Yeats’ disconnection from the war resonates with most irish people, we know everything there is to know about the Great War and how it devastated europe socially, politically, geographically but still Ireland, far away from the real conflict was mostly unaffected. Yeats’ pacifism was rare for an Irish person because we were not exactly central to the conflict, we actually ended up useing the War to our advantage by rising up against the British. Again, Yeats’ pacifist attitude toward World War One is strange because he was such a Nationalist and although he did not openly support the violence of Irish Rebellion leaders he condemned the actions of the British. It could be argued that he was just a pacifist for Conflicts not involving his own nation.
In 1915 Henry James asked Yeats for a poem about the War to raise money for injured soldiers. Being the pacifist he was, disagreeing with everything the war stood for, he wrote a scathing piece which has had three or more different titles, all just as abrasive as each other. They included ‘To a friend who has asked me to sign his manifesto to the neutral nations’ — ‘A reason for keeping silent and ‘On being asked for a War poem’
‘I think it better than in times like these A poet’s mouth be silent, for in truth We have no gift to set a statesman right He has enough of meddling who can please A young girl in the indolence of her youth Or an old man upon a winter’s night’
From reading a poem like ‘On being asked for a War Poem’ you may get the idea that Yeats never wrote any political poems or got involved in Politics in any way. In fact the exact opposite is true. In a letter to Augusta Gregory (Irish Dramatist) he explains how much the news of the Irish Easter Rising and the events following it had affected him so deeply. This all happened during World War one whilst he was still living in England, so it is slightly bizarre that he would distance himself so much from the conflict. He mentions in this letter that ‘all the work of years has been overturned, all the bringing together of classes, all the freeing of Irish literature and criticism from politics,’(Pilkington, 2001) one would presume he is talking about the Irish rebels work being destroyed and the chances of an Irish republic being formed dissolving but he’s actually referring to the fact that his goal of having irish literature with no politics involved is now most definitely not possible.
One of Yeats most famous poems ‘The Lake Isle of Inisfree’ shows how much he wants to distance himself from the real world. He had a very warped view of conflict in that for him The War was unimportant and should be ignored, he had no respect for the violence happening in Europe even though technically Ireland was by default part of it, Yeats believed that because we wanted a republic we should not be involved. His apparent teetotal stance against violence changed after the Easter Rising. One may think this is noble but it seems strange for someone who then becomes so outspoken against violence in Europe but is fine with Irish rebels killing people.
What made him change his mind about the Easter Rising was the fact that many of his own people were central figures. Thomas Mcdonagh for example was a literary critic, James Connolly was an actor at the Abbey theatre. It hit home for Yeats that he too could have died for his country, this heightens his hatred of Britain. Again, I am critical of Yeats for this one sided behaviour because although he was speaking out about the use of violence, he shouldn’t have supported the murdering of British soldiers on irish soil. As he says in his poem ‘On being asked for a war poem’ Poets should not have such a big impact on state issues, he contradicts himself completely. Of course he wasn’t taking up arms and killing people but his poem ‘Easter 1916’ shows he supported the cause and his continued nationalism would suggest that his pacifist attitude was not fully rounded.
I know I began this essay with a remark about Ireland being mostly untouched by The Great War but this is actually untrue. Some say as many as 200,000 irishmen fought. The majority of these would have been from Ulster but all the same it still affected the country. Many Irishmen would have fought in the hopes it would fast track the Home Rule process, others for Economic reasons but they fought and approximately 49,000 lost their lives during the 4 years.
The Horror that that happened in the trenches inspired a poem Yeats wrote after World War 1, named ‘The Second Coming’. Here are some of the chilling lines:
‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.’
In my opinion, this is one of the poems by Yeats that shows he finally understands what Europe has just lost, what the World has lost. He stands back from fighting against violence being used and accepts that it happened. It was written in 1919 which was also a time of great violence in Ireland with the beginning of the Irish War of Independence. Yeats’ life changes after this period. He gets involved in Politics by becoming a Senator in 1922. Instead of writing and protesting violence. He becomes the change he wants to see happen. The Easter Rising and the Great War inspired Yeats to become an even more important member of Irish society.
The Poem ‘An Irish Airman foresees his death’ pains me deeply to read, and resonates everything Yeats fought against. It should never happen that someone has to fight for something they so strongly do not believe in, the young airman in the poem is completely disconnected from the whole War.
‘Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love;’
It echoes all that is wrong with violence and War. What is the point in dying for these people you do not know, or care for? Why are we fighting people that have done us no wrong? Reading some of Yeats poems makes you question if war is ever justifiable.
Yeats was one of the leading figures in the Anglo Irish literary revival, which paved the way for Irish literature in English to be more widespread. This alone would suggest he was embracing English occupation of Ireland, this was not the case, it was quite the opposite actually, this was just one of the first steps to distance irish culture and society from Britain. Yeats was an Irish nationalist apparently because he wanted to impress Maud Gonne; irish revolutionary and Suffragette. He used his Nobel Prize acceptance speech to promote Irish nationalism and the newly founded Irish state.
“It’s been suggested repeatedly, that Ireland is a place where poetry makes things happen, and the things that it makes happen are mainly, maybe exclusively violent’(Luftig, 2001) Nothing has ever been more relevant than this statement. Our poets have been instrumental in shaping Irish society. In his last few years Yeats questioned if he had been the cause of anyone dying in the Irish civil war because of his literature encouraging people to fight for a republic. As I said before his role in Irish affairs is very much different from his beliefs and actions about The Great War. His strong beliefs that violence should not be used if there is any other option echo in his poems written at the time. Although he disconnects from it all at the beginning, Yeats knows that will not help anyone so he actively protests war. William Butler Yeats is to this day one of the most well known and respected Irishmen and it goes without saying he deserves this title because of his work as a poet, pacifist, senator and nationalist.
References: Luftig, V. (2001). Poetry, Causality, and an Irish Ceasefire. Peace Review, 13(2), pp.157-166.
Pilkington, L. (2001). Theatre and the state in twentieth-century Ireland. 1st ed. London: Routledge
Emma Sheeran is an International Relations and Intercultural Studies student in Dublin City University but is currently on Erasmus at the University of Warsaw. She is a graduate of the Second edition of the School of Democracy.