The Cultural and National Heritage of William Butler Yeats

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“Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy” (Yeats). Yeats was an Irish poet who was awarded the Nobel Prize “for his always inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation.” William Butler Yeats was an inspiring poet, whose works were defined by his Irish heritage. William Butler Yeats is considered one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. He belonged to the Anglo-Irish minority population that controlled the economic, political, social, and cultural life of Ireland. Yeats spent 14 years of his childhood in London, he was still able to maintain his cultural roots by featuring Irish legends and heroes in his poems and plays. Many people accused him of elitism because of his convictions, this only added to his greatness as an artist. Fellow poet W.H Auden noted in 1948 that Yeats had written “some of the most beautiful poetry” of modern times. Yeats was able to represent the people and country of Ireland perfectly.

An important year in William’s life was 1885; his work was first published in the Dublin University Review. “When I first wrote I went here and there for my subjects as my reading led me, and preferred to all other countries Arcadia and the India of romance, but presently I convinced myself… that I should never go for the scenery of a poem to any country but my own, and I think that I shall hold to that conviction to the end” (Yeats 243). This was also the year he met John O’Leary. O’Leary had recently returned to Ireland after 20 years of imprisonment and exile for revolutionary nationalistic activities. John was fond of Irish books, ballads, etc. and he encouraged writers to embrace their Irish background. Yeats preferred romantic themes; however, he took O’Leary’s advice and produced poems based on Irish legends, folklore, and songs. Yeats grew up during a time of great transformation in Ireland. He was able to witness the beginning of the Irish Free State, where he served as a Senator during a very trying time in the 1920’s and 1930’s. He thought of himself as a representative of order among the new nation’s disorderly progress toward stability. In his poem “Among School Children”, he describes himself as a “sixty-year-old smiling public man.” This correlates to his time spent as senator and having to always have an ebullient personality.

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Yeats was also considered an important cultural leader. He is one of the founders of the famous Abbey Theatre. The theatre helped many upcoming playwrights exhibit their plays. William also inspired many Irish writers. He discovered John Synge and coaxed him to become a playwright. He also inspired Bernard Shaw to write his play “John Bull’s Other Island.” Yeats encouraged a variety of writers around the world and his work will continue the legacy for him. William’s political views were portrayed through some of his poetic works. For example, “The Rose Tree” was a fictional conversation between two politicians. In the poem, James Connolly and Patrick Pearse had to figure out a way to keep the “rose tree” alive. They concluded that blood was the only thing that was going to fulfill the goal. The “rose tree” symbolizes Ireland, while the blood represents the people who risked their lives fighting the invasion from England. Yeats’ creativity skills helped him compose of a poem that will later on influence many other poets. Yeats used his poetry to spread his political beliefs to the public. In his poem “Easter 1916”, he publically endorsed the patriotic Irish republicans, who were also known was the Brits. He purposefully kept the stanzas vague so that it would appeal to both sites of the war. Lines such as “Whatever green is worn/ Are changed, changed the exchange between the Irish and British forces. Many people felt that this poem was evidence of his support for the Irish Rebels, yet others believed it was because he was an Irish Nationalist and did not want to give a British perspective.

William Butler Yeats incorporated many hints of his religious beliefs in his work. Yeats grandfather was a Protestant minister. He identified himself as a Protestant, but later in life became separated from him because of his beliefs in astrology, mysticism, and occult. As years passed, he became fascinated with reincarnation and séances. In 1886, William Yeats formed the Dublin Lodge of the Hermetic Society, an organization that encouraged spiritual growth by participating in acts considered sacrilegious by all Christian denominations. In his poem “To Ireland in the Coming Times”, he hints at his new spirituality. The first line of the poem “Know that I would accounted be/ True brother of a company/ That sang, to sweeten Ireland’s wrong” suggests that it is his destiny to bring his new found belief in mysticism to save Ireland’s incorrect path to salvation. He describes himself as the “accounted” for the job, and a “true brother” of the teachings. William considered himself Ireland’s savior. This poem proclaims that anyone who seeks it will receive an awakened state of spirituality. Many of William’s poems were heavily influenced by religion. His poem “Vacillation” is an example of this. “It seemed, so great my happiness, That I was blessed and could bless” (Yeats). This stanza represents Yeats view on his religion and how happiness is achieved through it. He thought that if he was blessed, he could spread his religion on other people and create a chain reaction.

“Vacillation” also provides another stanza that represents religion perfectly. “The Soul. Seek out reality, leave things that seem. The Heart. What, be a singer born and lack a theme? The Soul. Isaiah's coal, what more can man desire? The Heart. Struck dumb in the simplicity of fire! The Soul. Look on that fire, salvation walks within. The Heart. What theme had Homer but original sin” (Yeats). “The soul. Isaiah’s coal, what more can man desire?” is about Isaiah’s arrival at God’s throne. He is ordered to speak to the people of Judah and Israel, but refuses because he believes that he is a man of unclean lips. An angel appears and puts burning coal onto Isaiah’s lips. The coal signifies the sins of Isaiah being burned away and forgotten. “The Soul. Look on that fire, salvation walks within.” is about the ability to pulverize sins, only if one is able to overcome the hardships that they face. There are many other religious sayings in the poem “Vacillation” and they inspire not only believers but also non-believers.

Lastly, Yeats poems were inspired by Irish folklore. “The Song of Wandering Aengus” is a poem about a man’s search for an escape from reality. The poem is from the perspective of “Aengus” and he is on the search to find a beautiful woman whom he wants to spend his life with. Unfortunately, she is never found and “Aengus” is left to himself. In the poem “The Song of Wandering Aengus” Yeats compares two different realities: the real world and the world of dreams. He compares the mysterious woman to a dream because she is never located and always disappears when acknowledged. Yeats ability to compose of a poem including folklore proves that he is an excellent poet and deserves the recognition that he has.

William Butler Yeats was a man of great knowledge. His poems were the highlight of his life and influenced many people around the world. However, these poetic works were only created because of his Irish heritage. His knowledge and research on Irish politics, religion, and folklore shaped his career and made it successful. His poetic works will forever be praised and recognized for their ability to deeply inspire those who read them. “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire” (Yeats)

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