The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Yeats & the Irish Literary Revival

W.B. Yeats. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Since we’re just a few days from St. Patrick’s Day, we thought we’d celebrate with a brief look at Ireland’s most famous poet, William Butler Yeats, and his role in the Irish Literary Revival.

Although no historical context is needed to appreciate Yeats’s beautiful verse, understanding the impact his words once held make his poems all the more powerful. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Ireland was in the midst of a growing nationalist movement, with increasing calls for home rule and independence. As patriotism swelled, literature became a major source of promoting and shaping Irish identity. Yeats was at the helm of this literary movement, publishing work and creating organizations that gave voice to Ireland’s native culture, which like the Irish language, had been repressed under English rule.

Yeats excavated Irish folklore in the compilation Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, which he published in 1888. His own exploration of Irish mythology---a subject that fascinated him---took shape in The Celtic Twilight, which he hoped would “show in a vision something of the face of Ireland to any of my own people who would look where I bid them.” Although largely prose, the book closes with the poem “Into the Twilight,” which is featured below. Most of his work  from this time showcased his intense pride of country, and featured Irish characters, settings, legends, and mysticism.

In addition to his own writing, Yeats helped create institutions that would support and expand Ireland’s cultural framework. He co-founded the Irish Literary Theatre in 1899 and the Irish National Theatre Society in 1903, under whose auspices the still-operating Abbey Theatre was born. Two of Yeats’s one-acts were staged on the Abbey’s opening night, and the poet/playwright was actively involved in the theater’s operations for a number of years.

Fittingly, Yeats was the first Irishman following independence to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923, and he is today remembered as one of the greatest poets---from any country---of the 20th century. Below is his poem “Into the Twilight,” written in 1893 as an homage to Ireland, or “mother Eire.”

OUT-WORN heart, in a time out-worn,
Come clear of the nets of wrong and right;
Laugh, heart, again in the grey twilight,
Sigh, heart, again in the dew of the morn.

Your mother Eire is aways young,
Dew ever shining and twilight grey;
Though hope fall from you and love decay,
Burning in fires of a slanderous tongue.

Come, heart, where hill is heaped upon hill:
For there the mystical brotherhood
Of sun and moon and hollow and wood
And river and stream work out their will;

And God stands winding His lonely horn,
And time and the world are ever in flight;
And love is less kind than the grey twilight,
And hope is less dear than the dew of the morn.

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