W. B. Yeats is usually called the founder of the Irish Literary Revival - though, in his Autobiographies (1955), he gave that honour to another Anglo-Irish writer called James Standish O'Grady who produced a number of works in English celebrating the ancient history of Ireland, some of them novels - notably Finn and His Companions (1894). Wht set Yeats apart from the others was his status as a recognised poet in English, having been born in Ireland by largely raised in London where his father worked, rather unsuccessfully, as a portrait painter though now held to be of enormous talent. Both Yeats and O'Grady were members of a class of Irish Protestant who considered their Irishness more important - that is to say, more imaginatively compelling - than their English heritage.
Yeats for a time joined the Irish Literary Society in London - a group made up largely of Irish journalists and nationalists working for the English press who retained a burning pride in their own country. After he inevitably came into conflict with their undemanding conception of literary standards, he decided to remove to Dublin where he founded the National Literary Society in Oct. 1892. The inaugural address was given by Dr Douglas Hyde, a professor of Irish in Trinity College, Dublin, who shared with Yeats a background in the Church of Ireland. (Hyde's father and Yeats's grandfather had been Anglican rectors in neighbouring counties of the West of Ireland.) Hyde was much more deeply imbued with Irish culture than Yeats was; in fact, he was a native Irish speaker on account of his Roscommon childhood but also because he studied Irish in Trinity, in the tradition of the preparation for the Protestant mission to Irish speakers. It is one of the deepest ironies of Irish cultural history that the preservation of the language had to do with the educational programme of the Church of Ireland which had the primary purpose of converting the population from Catholicism to their own "enlightened" and "progressive" brand of Christianity.
Hyde spoke forcibly about the continuing decline of the Irish language and strenuously urged the idea that "the Irish were throwing away with both hands the very thing that made them different from the English" - there language. This argument led him to establish, with others, the Gaelic League. In the ensuring generation, this institution would become in effect the dominant cultural force in nationalist Ireland, securing the loyality of every town and village in the country and turning the minds of its adherents to the idea of nationalist revolution. In that process, Yeats found himself left behind: he was not a revolutionary, although he gave his heart to Maud Gonne - and Anglo-Irishwoman with a large forture based on land possession in Ireland who turned against her own cohort and became a vigorous supporter of the anti-eviction Land League and later the physical-force revolutionaries of Ireland.
In 1916 the membership of the Irish Volunteers, led by members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, staged a rebellion in Dublin city (indeed to be country-wide but halted by countermanded orders) and were executed by the British afterwards. This event turned the Irish population against the adherents of Home-Rule devolution, and Yeats - who privately thought the Rebellion a foolish and irresponsible adventure - employed his imagination to create the myth of a heroic revolution on the pattern of Cuchulain's defense of Ulster in the mythological sagas. In The Statues, he asked the question: When Pearse summoned Cuchulain to his side, / What stalked in the Post Office? Certainly, he thought he knew the answer - which he gave in the different/similar context of his poem The Death of Cuchulain where he wrote:
|No matter what the odds, no matter though
Your death may come of it, ride out and fight,
The scene is set and you must out and fight.
Once the Irish Revolution was over and completed, however, his attraction to the theme of nationalist heroism waned and he became a critic of the new, increasingly parochial Irish-Catholic state that emerged form the Civil War. In that mood, he could berate the Irish Dail (or parliament) in his character as a Senator, after the passing of its conservative contraception and divorce laws, with these proud words:
I am proud to consider myself a typical man of that minority. We against whom you have done this thing are no petty people. We are one of the great stocks of Europe. We are the people of Burke; we are the people of Grattan, we are the people of Swift, the people of Parnell. We have created most of the modern literature of this country. We have created the best of its political intelligence.
Yeats is thus a dual figure: intensely Irish and, in his creative life, vital to the invention of the modern Irish nation yet, at the same time, a high-minded and wilfully aristocratic - since he was no aristocrat in practice - exponent of a tradition of nobility which had its proper place in a world of great lords and landed estates, not in the democratic world of modern Ireland. Yet Yeats gave modern Ireland both its romantic character as a land of fairy and returning pagan gods but also its foundation myth of sacrificial heroism - the myth we meeting with in his great poem "Dublin, 1916" where he articulates the idea that the very ordinary men and women who participated in the 1916 Rising were, in fact, the creators of that "terrible beauty" which is to be seen in the birth of a nation:
I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
|And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a 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.