William Butler Yeats was the major figure in the cultural revolution which developed from the strong nationalistic movement at the end of the 19th century. He dominated the writings of a generation. He established forms and themes which came to be considered as the norms for writers of his generation.
Yeats was a confessional poet - that is to say, that he wrote his poetry directly from his own experiences. He was an idealist, with a purpose. This was to create Art for his own people - the Irish. But in so doing, he experienced considerable frustration and disillusionment. The tension between this ideal, and the reality is the basis of much of his writing. One central theme of his earlier poetry is the contrast between the aims he, and others, such as Lady Gregory, had for their movement, and the reality. He had hoped to provide an alternative to nationalism fuelled mainly by hatred for Britain, through the rebirth and regeneration of an ancient Irish culture, based on myth and legend. Instead, he found that the response of the newly emerging Irish Catholic middle class to their work, varied between indifference and outrage. On the one hand, their indifference was displayed by their refusal to fund a gallery for the Hugh Lane collection of Art, and on the other hand, they rioted in outrage at Synge’s Playboy of the Western World.
The tension between Yeats’ ideal, and the reality is developed in the Fisherman and September 1913. Both these poems deal with Yeats attempts to bring Art to the people of Ireland, and the negative response of Irish society.
Here, Yeats directs his passionate rage against the Irish Catholic middle class. He perceives them as Philistines, whose values are monetary and religious, not artistic. His scorn for their petty money grubbing - dry the marrow from the bone
and their narrow selfish piety
Prayer to shivering prayer
is set in contrast to his admiration for the heroes of old. Yet they were of a different kind.
These patriots had loved Ireland with a passion which consumed them, and for which no sacrifice was too great. For whom the hangman’s rope was spun.
But the present materialistic age has no place for such men of courage and idealism. Their age is past. It’s With O’Leary in the grave.
Self sacrifice and patriotism are dead. Consequently, he dismisses the Ireland of his day with the contemptuous ‘This’ Was it for this that all that blood was shed
For this Edward Fitzgerald died ?
In the final stanza, the poet’s mood of anger and bitterness changes to one of acceptance and resignation. He concludes that these petty minded merchants are so locked into their narrow world of self centred survival, that they are incapable of understanding the motivation and self sacrifice of patriotism. Even if the dead heroes could return and confront the merchants with the extent of their sacrifices, they would be unable to understand or appreciate what they had done. Self interest and materialism reign, idealism is dead and buried. He concludes on a weary note of acceptance. But let them be, they’re dead and gone,
They’re with O’Leary in the grave.
This poem is also about Art, and the Irish people’s response to it. It is structured around the contrast between the Yeats’ dream to write for the Irish people, and the reality. The poem opens on a casual conversational note,
Although I can see him still
introducing us to the Fisherman, a
wise and simple man
who is the symbol of the Irish nation he had hoped to write for. Yeats has long since accepted that such a man does not exist, but nonetheless he holds on to him as an inspiration to protect himself against the reality. The reality is depicted in a litany of powerful, clever men, who misuse their abilities for their own personal...