Yeats and War Poetry

Rituparna Saharay, Burdwan University

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“I shall keep the neighborhood of the seven sleepers of Ephesus, hoping to catch their comfortable snores till bloody frivolity is over.”   (Yeats, 600)

The above comment made by W. B. Yeats in relation to the Great War is often quoted to reveal his notorious apathy on the subject. Yeats had always maintained a deliberate indifference with respect to the event that had endangered the whole of Europe, especially England. The same disinterest is vented in the poem “On Being Asked for a War Poem”:

I think it better that at times like these

A poet’s mouth be silent, for in truth

We have no gift to state a statesman right;

He’s had enough of meddling who can please

A young girl in the indolence of her youth,

Or an old man upon a winter’s night. (Yeats).

The poem was written on the request of Henry James for the anthology The Book of Homeless edited by Edith Wharton the proceeds of which were to help the refugees of war. The poem drew an angry response from critics and even in the view of John Quinn, the American patron of Yeats, “those five and six lines were quite unworthy of you and the occasion” and some profound “expression as an artist in the form of prose or verse that your genius might take- some token that you felt that in this, perhaps the greatest struggle of all time, you had been on the side of justice and right” (192).Yeats has been misinterpreted often, as the yardstick of “war poetry” is regarded to have been set by the two English soldier-poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon whose poetry vividly portrays the intense personal experiences of trauma: physical, moral and psychological. Yeats’ sole poetry written on this occasion on the other hand tries to explain his disengagement with the Great War. An important reason why Yeats’ poetry lacks the emergency that is evident in the English war poets is because he refuses to admit the Great War’s impact on Irish culture as anything but minimal. Yeats has always maintained that the conflict between Ireland and England is the conflict between a “spiritual nation” and a “materialist, capitalist, industrialized society” (Brearton, 46). Imperialism and the Great War evidently ensemble in materialist society. The Great War and its perpetrators are therefore segregated from Yeats’ idea of what constitutes an ideal society.

Yeats however could not distance himself for long from the Great War as it triggered a succession of violence – The Easter Rising, The Anglo-Irish War and The Civil War- that affected Ireland. Yeats’ poems written during these occasions show how his aesthetic concerns contrast greatly with regard to other famous war poets like Owen, Sassoon, Blunden and Rosenberg. In the Oxford Book of Modern Verse, Yeats explains his reason for not succumbing to the pressure of writing the kind of war poetry that he was expected to write:

I have a distaste for certain poems written in the midst of the great war, they are in all anthologies but I have substituted Herbert Reed’s “ End of the War” written long after. The writers of these poems were invariably officers of exceptional courage and capacity, one a man constantly selected for dangerous work, all, I think, had the Military Cross: their letters are vivid and humorous, they were not without joy-for all skill is joyful- but felt bound, in the words of the best known, to plead the suffering of their men. In poems that had for a time considerable fame, written in the first person, they made that suffering their own. I have rejected these poems for the same reason that made Arnold withdraw his “Empedocles on Etna” from circulation; passive suffering is not a theme for poetry. In all the great tragedies, tragedy is a joy to the man who dies; in Greece the tragic chorus danced (xi).

Yeats in this passage lashes out against the kind of aesthetics and poetry that Owen and his comrade promoted. Owen in the “Preface” of Disabled and Other Poems promotes empathy as his primary aesthetic: “Above all I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War. The poetry is in the Pity”(xiv). This aesthetic is criticized by Yeats as it brings down poetry to the level of solipsism. Yeats is not in favor of restricting his poetry on war to the historical events at the expense of imagination. Yeats believed that a poet has no hand in altering the course of history and this justifies his silence in “On being asked for a War Poem”.

Yeats is not regarded as a war poet due to the fact that his poetry widely differs from the Great War poetry of the English soldiers. Yet Yeats has created a new model in his writing during the Irish unrest. The events of Easter Rising in Ireland prompted Yeats to write “Easter 1916” with the refrain –“all changed, changed utterly: / a terrible beauty is born.” Yeats did not create abstract heroes out of the martyrs but couched in mythology are the rebels as the agents of change. Easter, which stands for renewal, is the occasion of sacrificing individual identities for a greater communal cause. Yeats deferred the naming of the rebels till the end of the poem which lends a dramatic edge to the poem. The poem equates the War with theatre and the mutineers are the unnamed actors who are “resigned to his (their) part/ In the casual comedy”. This, however, distances the readers from the historical and factual details of the Rising and presents it as a commonplace wartime incident. The terror of the war as found in Owen’s poetry has been distilled by the imaginative vision and rhetoric of Yeats. The events of Easter Rising are often considered as reality crafted out of imagination and this imagination filters in Yeats poetry and distinguishes it from the propaganda literature of the Great War.

Yeats’ reaction to the physical and emotional violence of the Anglo-Irish war that started in January 21, 1919 is vented in the sequence of a typical war poem “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen”. “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” does not glorify the war heroes nor does it recount the horrors of the battlefield, rather it deals with the theme of temporality and permanence triggered by the war. The poem enigmatically expresses violence inherent in wars as a force that is a necessary catalyst of change in the cycles of history-“So the Platonic Year / Whirls out new right or wrong, whirls in the old instead.” The war ushers in the “Platonic Year” with its new sets of values but which are ironically only a revised version of the moral system of bygone eras. “Meditations in Time of Civil War” is a poem sequence that was written when Ireland was swamped by the Irish Civil War in 1922. The poems in the sequence explore the role of the poet during times of unrest and Yeats cannot conceive of any adequate role in a war wrecked nation. He confesses that the plethora of masks that he had thrown on over the years as either a poet or a man has left a mutilated self that is not capable enough to prevent Ireland’s gradual plunge in war. Here we have the antithesis of the reaction that we have perceived in “On Being Asked for a War Poem”: the apathy during the Great War is substituted by the regret of war and violence. He struggles to attain contentment at his impotence of being just a poet and not a soldier or a statesman and the poem ends with the following consolation: “…The abstract joy, / The half-read wisdom of daemonic images/ Suffice the ageing man as the growing boy.”

Yeats was vulnerable to criticism as he proclaimed that the tragedy of the Great War was in no way related to the Irish history and thus had no connection to the Irish cultural life. But the Irish years of turbulence are well recorded in Yeats’ poetry and his aesthetics have been greatly shaped by the unrest in Ireland- the Easter Rising, Anglo-Irish War and the Irish Civil War. The turbulent years of war and violence had compelled Yeats to look beyond the Celtic mythologies which had been his staple subject for poetry. The poetry that he composed henceforth reflect the tangible consequences of war in the realm of imagination and Yeats soon surpassed the provincial image and achieved the stature of an international poet.

Works Cited:

Albright, D. ed. W. B. Yeats: The Poems. London: Everyman, 1994.Print.

Brearton, Fran. “W.B. Yeats: Creation from Conflict”. The Great War in Irish Poetry: W. B. Yeats to Michael Longley. Oxford University Press, 2003.

Himber, A. ed. The Letters of John Quinn to William Butler Yeats. Epping: Bowker, 1983. Print.

Owen, Wilfred. Preface. Disabled and Other Poems. England: Hearthstone, 1995. Web.

Vendler, H. Our Secret Discipline; Yeats and Lyric Form. Cambridge: The Belknap Press, 2007. Print.

Wade, A. ed. The Letters of W. B. Yeats. London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1954.Print.

Yeats, W.B. ed. The Oxford Book of Modern Verse 1892-1935. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1936. Web.

Rituparna Saharay did M. Phil from Rabindra Bharati University. She is pursuing PhD in English from the University of Burdwan.

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