Magazine article Commonweal

'When a Deeper Need Enters': Politics in the Poetry of Yeats & Heaney

Magazine article Commonweal

'When a Deeper Need Enters': Politics in the Poetry of Yeats & Heaney

Article excerpt

There are no political neutrals--not even among churchmen or poets. Two Irish poets help to illustrate my point: William Butler Yeats, who died in 1939, and Seamus Heaney, who died last year on August 30.

William Butler Yeats, every English major's idea of an Irish poet, spent much of his life engaged (seldom successfully) in politics. But the sort of politics in which he was engaged changed a good deal as the years passed. Like many of the Anglo-Irish, Yeats had fallen head over heels in love with the earlier strains of Irish nationalism, much of it arising among the Irish Protestant elite with their romantic cult of the so-called Celtic Twilight. Furthermore, what love Yeats had for Irish nationalism was intimately tied up with his love for Maud Gonne, the woman he imagined to be the reincarnation of Helen of Troy. Her persistent refusal of his several marriage proposals had much to do with the changes in his politics.

Toward the end of his life, Yeats wrote a poem that eventually appeared in his Last Poems 1936-1939. Titled "Politics," it begins with a quotation from Thomas Mann: "In our time the destiny of man presents its meaning in political terms." Yeats disagreed:

How can I, that girl standing there, My attention fix On Roman or on Russian Or on Spanish politics? Yet here's a travelled man that knows What he talks about, And there's a politician That has read and thought, And maybe what they say is true Of war and war's alarms, But O that I were young again And held her in my arms!

In the preface to the written version of his 1923 Nobel Prize lecture, Yeats claimed that he had expected Mann to win the Nobel Prize for literature that year. Yeats spoke extemporaneously at the awards ceremony in Sweden, but later wrote down what he remembered of that address, publishing it as a tiny. book under the title The Bounty of Sweden. There Yeats called Mann a "distinguished novelist" but also hinted that he disliked the political themes of Mann's work: "Herr Mann has many readers, is a famous Novelist with his fixed place in the world &said I to myself, well fitted for such an honor; whereas I am but a writer of plays which are acted by players with a literary mind." Later in the same slim volume, Yeats writes of the playwright John Millington Synge that "he was the man we needed because he was the only man I have ever known incapable of a political thought or of a humanitarian purpose." For Yeats, such a characterization was high praise, and especially , in the aftermath of the Irish Civil War of 1922-23. Yeats thought of "the work of my generation in Ireland" as "the creation of a literature to express national character and feeling but with no deliberate political aim."

In contrast to the later Yeats's fastidious avoidance of political questions, some of his earlier work addresses those questions directly. Take, for example, "Easter 1916," his famous paean to the Irish nationalists who announced the birth of the Irish Republic on April 24, 1916. By that time, Yeats himself had largely withdrawn from the nationalist movement, but he could not help admiring the men who took over the General Post Office in Dublin. In the presence of a small and not very enthusiastic crowd, Padraig Pearse read out just after noon that day the Proclamation of the

Irish Republic. Within a few weeks the British military, sent in to quell the Easter Rising, had made martyrs of the signatories of that proclamation, including John MacBride, the man who had finally married Maud Gonne.

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 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.

But by the time he received the Nobel Prize, Yeats's work had taken an introspective, apolitical turn. …

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