Theme of Nationalism in the Poetry of William Butler Yeats

Categories: Nationalism


William Butler Yeats focused in his extensive poetry collection on various topics throughout his career and as he often returned to those topics it is possible to trace the development of his opinions. One of the motifs that keeps reappearing in different collections and individual poems is the matter of nationalism which Yeats naturally keeps coming back to due to the events he experienced in Ireland. Through his interesting position as a public personality Yeats is able to show both his admiration for the soldiers fighting in the First World War to being anxious about the men and women taking part in the Easter Rising to showing disdain about the Irish Civil War in the 1920s, however, throughout he seems to oppose the crude politics and fighting of the day while admiring the idealism the rebels and politicians found, similarly to him, in old Celtic imagery and traditional lifestyle.

The events of the revolution, the subsequent independence and Civil War have been described as "one of the most theatrical insurrections in the history of western Europe" and Yeats indeed focuses often on the participants as on actors who less and less understand what they take part in.

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In his selected poems "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death," "Easter 1916," "Sixteen Dead Men" and "Meditations in Time of Civil War" we can trace the development of his personal opinion about Irish nationalism and his growing disdain for what the nationalist thought transformed into as he questions the rebels and soldiers' deaths and the transformation of the original national message he applauded.

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Yeats' Nationalist Thought

The events of the first half of the century in Ireland shape the thinking and the image of the country until today and Yeats was able to witness these important moments first hand. One of many Britain's dominions came to its own starting with the cultural movement in the 1880s that Yeats was part of and importantly in the 1910s which is often called ‘the revolutionary decade' to finally a partial independence in 1921 with the Anglo-Irish Treaty followed by the Civil War sparked by unhappiness about the country's partition. The violent and bloody reality of these events which was very much in contrast with the previous cultural initiative is easily observed in Yeats's poetry. Yeats' poem "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death" takes its topic from Irish involvement in the Great War, a topic that would be in the republic in decades afterwards looked away from. Following the events of the rebellion in 1916 Yeats then published his poems "Easter 1916" and "Sixteen Dead Men" where he shows his opinion about the rebellion itself as well as about its participants' fate. The event, although at first not backed by "popular feeling in Dublin and the provinces" became the moment of Irish history in the beginning of the 20th century as Yeats observed as well. Finally, in "Meditations in Time of Civil War" the poet focuses on the civil fighting happening in 1920s where he appears to lose any previous understanding.

Yeats himself was one of the most important cultural figures during these events in Irish history. With others he stood behind the foundation of the Irish Literary Theatre and although he distanced himself from the Easter Rising and the Civil War he later became a senator in Irish Free State. His nationalist thought however came from his admiration for the traditional lifestyle and the Celtic myth which can be seen in poems such as "The Fisherman" where he celebrates the figure of an uneducated fisher man whom he describes. In the play Cathleen Ní Houlihan which he wrote with Lady Gregory, although they took inspiration from the events of the 1798 rebellion, Yeats still focuses on "the mythic character of Ireland itself" rather than reality. This idealistic portrayal then necessarily had to oppose the cruel realities of fighting and death and his poems are very much different from the texts of Patrick Pearse whose poems "Renunciation" or "Mother" showed willingness to die and even the necessity to leave the idealism behind before approaching death. "Despite his early membership of the I.R.B. [Yeats] was never a threat to British rule in Ireland. His poems, stirring as they are, do not bring crowds into the streets." They are more of an introspection about the legacy these bloody events left behind and the image its participants have after their death as well as how the original national ideal changed in the process.

An Irish Airman Foresees His Death

Yeats's poem "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death" was published in his collection The Wild Swans at Coole in 1919. As opposed to the later poems that become less and less personal Yeats focuses in this particular poem a deeply personal relationship he had with Robert Gregory, the son of Lady Gregory, whom Yeats knew very well and who died in the First World War after his plane was shot down. Yeats takes on Gregory's own voice as the airman flies through the clouds knowing he is going to die there without any hatred for those he fought nor any sympathy for those he fought for. He begins the poem as follows: "I know that I shall meet my fate/ Somewhere among the clouds above." Although the readiness to die may be reminiscent of Pearse's poems before the 1916 Rising this particular willingness "is not quite the same thing as the ‘vertigo of self-sacrifice' that, as W. B. Yeats felt, made Pearse uniquely dangerous."

The death here is absolutely disconnected from any political function. The speaker in Yeats' poem does not seem to feel any affinity to those below him on either side; he is figuratively as well as physically ‘above them' adopting a similar approach of the speaker in Yeats' later "Meditations." Importantly, in this particular poem Yeats describes an Irish person fighting on the side of the British against Germany; fighting an enemy of a different country and defending others' homeland and it is easy to understand the airman's disconnect from the people below. Whereas the revolutionaries in 1916 and in the Civil War fought for their own country the Irish men in the Great War fought for Britain and either outcome of the war was not going to change the lives of the people living back home. Historically, we know that the outbreak of the war only led to the discussion of Home Role being put over. Yeats simply celebrates this particular individual's acceptance of death without any intentions.

However, the speaker takes his time to describe where he is from as he says "My country is Kiltartan Cross,/ My countrymen Kiltartan's poor." Even the title of the poem finds it necessary to portray him as ‘Irish.' It seems that the image of his mother country was important to him in the beginning, a propaganda in a sense, however, now as he is facing death it does not matter anymore and while it will matter to his family it will not to the country as a whole. Unlike in the later three poems where Yeats begins to increasingly question the military national movement here his personal connection creates more of an admiration. Importantly, the impulse the speaker has in this particular poem is quite different from the later revolutionaries and soldiers. The airman tells us that what inspired him to join the war was "a lonely impulse of delight," not a sense of duty or national necessity. The lonely impulse forms a mystical (almost occult) presence in the poem that Yeats would admire as opposed to the crude war reality and it resembles closer the creation of poetry than fighting in a war. The inclination also creates a balance in the poem which he describes in the end as "balance with this life, this death."

Easter 1916 and Sixteen Dead Men

In Yeats's two following poems the personal connection remains but whereas he focused only on the individual participant of the war in "An Irish Airman" in the two poems that connect directly with the Easter Rising he starts to shift the focus on his own as well as on the public perception of the rebels and their actions. Right after the rebellion Yeats distanced himself from the Easter Rising, however, as a prominent public figure his poetry which necessarily reflected the events became one of the focal points of the nation's impression of them. Yeats appears to be very careful in how he describes the revolutionaries and the poem "Easter 1916" "registers the annoyed surprise and somewhat contrived responsibility Yeats felt as a private individual and public figure before offering a canonical image of the Rising that establishes the importance as much of Yeats to the Rising as of the Rising to Yeats." While he celebrates the rebels as ‘ordinary' men, just as he celebrated Robert Gregory, he delves much deeper into their legacy, a motif that reappears in many of his poems.

In both "Easter 1916" and "Sixteen Dead Men" "the personal response is voiced not only by the poet as an Irish citizen and a literary man harbouring doubts about a headstrong display of physical force, but also by the poet as composer of an intricate canon challenged by violent public event to absorb it and still retain coherence." In "Easter 1916," written just after the events in Dublin (although published later), he numbers out several of the rebels and recalls passing them on the street as ordinary people; there is a clear divide between their everyday life and their image as martyrs. He tells of them "Coming with vivid faces/ from counters or desks" and about exchanging "Polite meaningless words" with some of them. There is a divide between himself and them as he tells us "Of a mocking tale or a gibe/ To please a companion" while also living "where motley is worn." Mention of the uncivil ‘tale or gibe' tells the audience of Yeats possibly even making fun of the rebels before the events. Even them wearing ‘motley' then can be interpreted as the figures wearing colourful clothes as well as being a strange mix of individuals, almost as if in a casual comedy.

Portraying the rebels as actors is important for Yeats' view of the rebellion not just in this particular poem as the martyrs later attain a ‘role' in the national struggle that they would not want originally and the image of actors not controlling their play will later appear in "Meditation in Time of Civil War" as well. The rebels become something different for the emerging society they left behind. Yeats also ends the first stanza of "Easter 1916" with the following oxymoron: "All changed, changed utterly;/ A terrible beauty is born," and image that reappears several times. It is a beauty born only after their deaths and can point both towards the suppression of the rebellion itself as well as to the image of the rebels afterwards, ‘public image' being one of Yeats' prominent themes. The imagery of the specific rebels shows Yeats' divisive approach to them as well. While celebrated they remain ordinary people with faults. The woman Yeats describes in the beginning of the second stanza is Constance Markievicz who was one of the leaders. However, her image is quite negative. She is described as a woman destroyed by her own zeal "until her voice grew shrill" with "voice more sweet than hers/ when, young and beautiful." Similarly, Thomas McDonagh "might have won fame in the end" for his writing skills had he not died. On the other hand, Yeats chooses to portray John McBride with whom he had a difficult relationship because of McBride's marriage to Maud Gonne. McBride "too, has been changed in his turn,/ In the casual comedy," a motif which again repeats an actor ‘s role in an event.

All of the rebels have "been changed in [their] turn,/ Transformed utterly." They have been "Enchanted to a stone/ To trouble the living stream." It seem that for Yeats life continues even without the rebels throughout the third stanza and they trouble it only to an extent. "The stone's in the midst of all" so while the rebellion remains a constant in the society after the events for Yeats it only ‘troubles' the current way of life without actually having a power to change it. This meditative aspect of the poem shows that "Yeats was visibly wrestling with the re-evaluation of the rebel leaders, and though he ended with an almost ‘Davisite' celebration […] the refrain ‘a terrible beauty is born' remained ambivalent." He then of course asks the necessary question: "Was it needless death after all?" Yeats asks whether the rebels weren't blinded by their "excess of love," or by their excessive zeal for the revolutionary movement and ends the poem with the question about their image and role "in time to be/ wherever green is worn" again repeating that they "are changed, changed utterly."

In his poem "Sixteen Dead Men," which came out a year after "Easter 1916" Yeats continues with the motif that he took up briefly in the previous poem's ending – the influence the revolutions will have on new Ireland after their death and how the national discussion will never get rid of them. "Within a month [after the rebellion] the British Government had lit a flame of martyrdom around the leaders, that turned the revolt into a triumphant success, providing an emotional stimulus for the birth of a nation." The rebels would be remembered during any further political discussion and "Irish political life tended to confirm what Yeats recognized in his fatalistic poem "Sixteen Dead Men," the power of martyrdom to prohibit compromise." The poet asks how we can have a political discussion "While those dead men are loitering there/ to stir the boiling pot?" Interestingly, their pervading influence is in no way described as positive as their ghost is ‘loitering' and trying to ‘stir' the current events.

Yeats talks about the current political situation of Ireland waiting for Home Rule "Till Germany's overcome" while invoking previous rebellions with the image of Lord Edward and Wolfe Tone showing a connection of past and present. He views the current political debate as "talk of give and take" where we are missing people like Pearse or MacDonagh who as dead ghosts influence it in an almost autocratic manner. The debate is stagnant with "MacDonagh's bony thumb" weighting over it not swaying either way. Yeats also doesn't seem to point towards a debate only between Britain and Ireland but importantly within Ireland itself when describing "our give and take" and recognizes thus an issue in the Irish political debate to come very soon during the Civil War. Finally, Yeats seems to show a depreciation for the current debate in general because whereas men like Pearse and MacDonagh dealt in the concrete "bone to bone," the current politicians only "meddle with give and take." Similarly to the stone in "Easter 1916," ‘bone' in this poem is of "hard, essential matters" as opposed to mere talk.

Meditations in Time of Civil War

In the final analysed poem "Meditations in Time of Civil War" Yeats's focus on the ongoing nationalist imagery gets mixed with his own difficult ancestral history and his interest in the current events seems to fade. Whereas the two previous poems focused on the 1916 Rebellion in this poem published in The Tower in 1928 Yeats described the ongoing civil war as something happening outside his door which, although trying to take interest at first, he abandons as insignificant due to how ideas are being used and the people taking part and his solution at the end of the poem is to close the door on everything. His own house is both literally and figuratively disintegrating while men and women outside, filled with violence and envy, are led by rage while following empty ideals and while Yeats at first attempts to connect with the soldiers he feels that he cannot. Interestingly, while this is a very personal poem in which he describes the feeling of isolation from the current events Yeats also adopts the form of "we" when describing the effects of the war again taking interest in how the violence influences the larger public and taking on his public persona.

In the fifth part ‘Road at My Door' Yeats describes the presence of the fights right outside his door but chooses to describe it in a very jesting manner. There are no great soldiers standing outside but a man "comes cracking jokes of civil war/ As though to die by gunshot were/ The finest play under the sun." Similarly to "Easter 1916" and "Sixteen Dead Men" the participants are described as actors on a stage, the soldier as "a heavy built Falstaffian man." They are playing a role which will, similarly to the rebels in 1916, be later transformed to serve national purpose. Yeats' disdain is also visible as the men come simply to make jokes with him as well to listen to Yeats "complain/ Of the foul weather, hail and rain/ A pear-tree broken by the storm." While he took time to describe the participants in the Easter Rising in this particular poem everyone is conjoined in one unnamed soldier. And while at first the speaker may seem jealous of these men, a motif that does not appear in the previous poems, he quickly abandons this feeling and turns away.

Although he describes that "A man is killed, or a house burned" and "That dead young soldier in his blood" he points out that "no clear fact is to be discerned" as he is unable to make sense of the events around him. While the airman in the First World War and the participants of the Easter Rising are still recognized by Yeats as having an ideal that he either agrees or disagrees with and which will be transformed after their death to serve other people's politics those fighting now follow the already altered, empty ideals and are driven only by violence which is the reason that Yeats chooses to turn away from them. He gives the example of Jacques Molay, a templar knight, whose death was used centuries after his execution to stir passions for others' gains. Although men are screaming "vengeance on the murderers of Jacques Molay" they are as follows:

The rage driven, rage-tormented, and rage-hungry troop,

Trooper belabouring trooper, biting an arm or at face,

Plunges towards nothing, arms an fingers spreading wide.

This nothing is what finally makes Yeats "turn away and shut the door." While he may have seen Easter Rising as the work of intellectual heroes and patriots the Civil War is a conflict where men scream empty slogans and Yeats turns to follow his preferred ‘national image' in his own ancestral house and nature rather than in the actual fight for ‘national freedom.'


From the analysis of these four poems, although there are many others where Yeats focuses on the topics of nationalism and national image, we can observe his complicated relationship between the ideals he observed and the reality of how they were used in the first half of the 20th century in Ireland.

Updated: Feb 21, 2024
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Theme of Nationalism in the Poetry of William Butler Yeats. (2024, Feb 21). Retrieved from

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