Tuesday, 2 February 2010

WB Yeats and Ireland

But the burgeoning political and literary movement did not achieve the status of a renaissance until the appearance of the work of W. B. Yeats (1865-1939), whose early imitations of folk poetry grafted French symbolism onto Irish folklore. Introduced to the Ulster cycle by his friend and patroness of the Irish Literary Renaissance, Lady (Augusta) Gregory, Yeats became fascinated by the figure of Cu Chulainn and meditated on this image of the kind of reckless and heroic action he admired but shrank from in many poems.

Son of an atheist father, the portraitist J. B. Yeats, grandson of the dandyish Church of Ireland rector at Drumcliffe, County Sligo, brother of the expressionist painter Jack Yeats William Butler Yeats was an unlikely Irishman. He was a member of various occult societies, an admirer of the English and a defender of the Ascendancy, a member of London literary society, and, in his youth, one of those bohemian aesthetes whose tastes and style were schooled by the lyrical poetry of A. C. Swinburne, the humanist doctrines of Walter Pater, and the heroic fantasies of William Morris.

Yet he was also an ardent supporter of Charles Parnell, briefly a member of the Fenian Brotherhood, and a student of Irish folklore. Debarred from religious belief by the skepticism inherited from his father, Yeats invented a personal cosmology in which the clash and union of opposites, represented by the phases of the moon, became the dynamic force in history. (By opposition, square and trine , he says in the poem In Memory of Major Robert Gregory.) The great poems of his middle years take their intellectual structure from this esoteric and enchantingly bizarre mythology, which perfectly expressed the contradictions of his own nature.

Passionately attached to the peasantry, in whom he saw the wellspring ofIreland's creative energy, Yeats was equally passionately the champion of the Ascendancy, whom he regarded as Ireland's intellectual elite capable of giving coherent shape to the emotions of the masses.

WB Yeats and the later years

In his last years he abandoned his highly personalized mysticism to return with new freedom to the subject matter of his earliest days. Pathologically shy, Yeats was nevertheless proud and a trifle vain of his striking good looks. He became one of Ireland's leading public men and it was, ironically, this status rather than his years of obsession with mysticism and folklore that inspired his greatest poem, Among School Children, with its famous last line, How can we know the dancer from the dance? Yeats often found himself embroiled in controversy because of the parochialism of the Dublin public, whose tastes were circumscribed by oppression and a conservative church.

Yeats's own verse was not the source of his troubles; rather it was his defense of his friends and colleagues Synge, Joyce, O'Casey William Butler Yeats is buried at the churchyard of Drumcliff, County Sligo, Ireland. Car hire in Ireland can be booked from the airport at Dublin or Belfast or Knock before you travel, and it provides the cheapest way to get around Ireland and see the sights.

That he was a patriot, albeit an eccentric one, a celebrant of the Easter Rising, and, in his youth, a slightly uncomfortable agitator, did not go unrewarded; in 1922 he was appointed a senator of the Irish Free State. In debate, he spoke magnificently and pugnaciously against censorship and also against the constitutional prohibition of divorce, which he characterized as an insult to the Protestant minority.

The Abbey Theatre Ireland

He helped to found the Abbey Theatre, now a national institution, but when angry mobs stormed the stage, infuriated at a reference to women's undergarments in Synge's Playboy of the Western World, Yeats stepped before the curtains and sternly reproached them. When they did it 20 years later over the appearance of a prostitute in O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars, Yeats confronted the mobs a second time, booming at them: You have disgraced yourselves again! Ireland loves drama, and Yeats provided drama in abundance. In return, Ireland grudgingly offered him its adoration for the splendour and valour of his quixotic idealism.

Yeats believed that great poetry must be rooted in place, and The Lake Isle of Innisfree, The Fiddler of Dooney, The Man Who Dreamed of Faeryland, and others of his early poems are set close to Sligo Town.

But the most important landmarks in his verse are Knocknarea, atop of which stands the pile of stones known as Queen Maeve's Cairn, and Ben Bulben, the limestone mesa across Sligo Bay. Between these two mountains, spectral horsemen called Dananns were said to ride each night: The host is riding from Knocknarea And over the grave of CloothnaBare; Caoilte tossing his burning hair, And Niamh calling Away, come away.(The Hosting of the Sidhe, ca. 1899)

To these horsemen, Yeats, buried in Drumcliffe churchyard at the foot of Ben Bulben, addressed himself in his epitaph:Cast a cold eye On life, on death. Horseman, pass by! (Under Ben Bulben, 1938)

Yeats and the Nobel Prize

Yeats's work is among the glories of modern literature (he won the Nobel Prize in 1923), yet he was unstintingly generous and supportive of other writers. He encouraged the younger Anglo-Irish writer John Millington Synge to rediscover his roots by visiting the Aran Islands in Galway Bay.

Synge's sojourn on Inishmaan, as well as in other Irish-speaking regions, inspired him to combine the realism of Ibsen with the wild, fantastical speech of the Irish countryside in plays that treated the life of Ireland's impoverished rural proletariat with Chekhovian irony and unsentimental honesty. Synge never romanticized, and his plays have no heroes. Christy Mahon, protago The Hosting of the Sidhe, from The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats.

In The Playboy of the Western World, he finds himself suddenly a celebrity in a strange village after confessing to the murder of his own father and the object, thanks to his prestige, of the affections of Pegeen Mike, the daughter of a publican. When Christy proves innocent of the crime, Pegeen turns on him in a paroxysm of disappointment because, having shown himself to be more tender than wicked, he lacks the notoriety to elevate her life beyond its drudgery; in the last line of the play, having lost her only playboy of the western world, she realizes, too late, that she loves him.

In Riders to the Sea, set in the Aran Islands, an old woman accepts the drowning of her last surviving son with a chilly stoicism that is at once tragic and appalling. Synge's is a vision without comfort, as bleak as Dreiser's and as perversely comic as Chekhov's.

The playwrights of Ireland

Synge died in 1909 at the age of 38, but not before he had given the Abbey Theatre and the playwrights of Ireland a dramatic style, often vulgarized, alas, into peasantquality plays in which quaintness and condescending coyness displace Synge's unsparing realism. Synge invented a dialect in which the idioms and constructions of Irish are rendered directly into English. So exquisite a tool did this dialect become that Synge used it to splendid effect in his translations of Petrarch and Villon. But no other playwright could manage the trick.

Synge's example, and Yeats's solicitous encouragement, bore fruit in the work of the next great Abbey playwright, Sean O'Casey (1884-1964). Born in the Dublin slums, O'Casey, a Protestant, was the first figure of the Literary Renaissance to spring directly from the proletariat and to make the urban working class the subject of his attention. O'Casey needed no synthetic dialect; the speech of Dublin came naturally to him. His politics, however, came as a mild shock to his colleagues most especially Yeats, whom O'Casey remembered with wry affection in his memoirs for he professed to be a Communist.

Equally shocking to the public was his insistence on showing Dublin's raw backside. The presence of a prostitute in The Plough and the Stars together with the meeting of revolutionary patriots in the unholy precincts of a pub provoked riots at the play's premiere. Two years later, embittered at The Plough's reception and furious because Yeats refused to produce his next play, The Silver Tassie, O'Casey moved to England, never to return.

Nothing he wrote thereafter quite equalled his early works, which also included Juno and the Paycock and The Shadow of a Gunman.O'Casey's social passion, his sense of grievance, and his identification with his working class characters left him more vulnerable than Yeats and Synge to sentimentality; yet his affection for the outlaw and the outcast recalls the Fenian tradition and rescues his early plays from bathos. O'Casey's spiritual successor among Irish playwrights was Brendan Behan (1923-64).

Housepainter, drunkard, and selfmade intellectual, Behan, between 1956 and 1958, disposed of his mammoth talent in three works Borstal Boy, his memoir of life in a British reformatory where he was imprisoned for revolutionary terrorism on English soil;

The Quare Fellow, a drama of prison life under the pall of an inmate's imminent execution; and his magnum opus, The Hostage, after which he subsided into notoriety and drink. Behan's last words, spoken to the nun at his hospital bedside, were: God bless you, sister, an'd may all your sons be bishops, He lived and wrote with Rabelaisian gusto, In 1937, he joined the outlawed Irish Republican Army and gave his youth to the cause, although he grew to distrust the fanaticism he saw in it,

The Hostage is a kind of tragic farce in which an IRA contingent, commanded by a bizarre Ascendancy enthusiast, seizes a young British sol. dier and holds him hostage in a Dublin brothel on Nelson Street where the residents include, among the working girls, two outrageous homosexuals, a devout and lascivious spinster, and an innocent housemaid who falls in love with the hostage. The Republicans threaten to kill the prisoner in order to force the reprieve of two of their own facing execution in a Belfast jail.

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