William Butler Yeats: A Hero to the Irish Culture and Defender of Tradition

by on January 13th, 2011
Share Button

William Butler Yeats, one of the foremost Irish writers during the early 20th century, is known for classics such as “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” and “Sailing to Byzantium.” Although best known for poetry, his influence extends beyond its realms and other pursuits included playwriting and serving as an Irish Senator. He lived during a time of social change and his poetry was shaped by events around him.

The beauty of his poetry was informed by many ideas, one of which was art. Having grown up in an artistic family, W.B. Yeats was fascinated by symbolism. In his essay, “Symbolism in Painting,” he discusses the use of the lily to signify purity in Rossetti’s “Annunciation.” His use of symbolism to convey emotion through carefully structured words was highly regarded and, in 1899, a book entitled “The Symbolist Movement in Literature” was dedicated to him.

Other ideas can be found in a related essay, “The Symbolism of Poetry,” where he expounds upon the importance of rhythm. Rhythm “keep[s] us in that state of perhaps real trance, in which the mind liberated from the pressure of the will is unfolded in symbols.” The musical qualities of sound establish a meditative state in which deliberately chosen words create transcendent, dreamlike qualities which are a hallmark of his style.

W.B. Yeats was an icon for Irish literary culture. In 1923, he 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.” His contributions to the Celtic Revival include popularizing mythological figures such as Cuchulain and the Red Branch Kings. Loved by W.B. Yeats, they are immortalized in works such as his poem, “Fergus and the Druid,” penned in 1892, and the play, “The Death of Cuchulain,” written in the year of his death, 1939.

Not only were legendary heroes commemorated, but fairies were also elevated. In the poem, “The Hosting of the Sidhe,” “The host is riding from Knocknarea/And over the grave of Clooth-na-Bare.” Knocknarea is a hill that graces Sligo, where W.B. Yeats spent his childhood. The grave described in the poem is the eternal resting place of a fairy. The real and fantastic are merged and, in poems like these, we are inspired to see the extraordinary in our own ordinary world.

His love of myths contributed to his interest in the occult. His experiences with the supernatural are recorded in his essay, “Magic,” and book, “The Vision.” The practice of magic helped him to procure powerful images and symbols through free association.

In 1868, Heinrich Schliemann excavated the legendary city of Troy thought to exist only in Homer’s Iliad. The discovery instilled a deep sense of Greek identity due to the worldwide respect accorded to the epic. This renewed pride was not lost on W.B. Yeats. In an essay, “Ireland and the Arts,” he entreats his countrymen to inspire the same:

“The Greeks looked within their borders, and we, like them, have a history fuller than any modern history of imaginative events; and legends which surpass, as I think, all legends but theirs in wild beauty, and in our land, as in theirs, there is no river or mountain that is not associated in the memory with some event or legend…I would have our writers and craftsmen of many kinds master this history and these legends, and fix upon their memory the appearance of mountains and rivers and make it all visible again in their arts, so that Irishmen, even though they had gone thousands of miles away, would still be in their own country.”

During his time, Ireland sought to preserve its unique cultural character. W.B. Yeats brought Irish traditions to the forefront of literature by evoking their time-honored stories. He added to its history by using figures from folklore to create a world in which reality and the enchanted were tightly intertwined. The lyrical quality of his poetry is strengthened by symbolism and adherence to rhythm which impresses upon the imagination a world endowed with rich meaning. His magic with words creates a world that lingers in the mind and is difficult to forget.

Prev Article: »
Next Article: «

Related Articles