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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by James Cobourg Hodgins (1866–1953)

By William Butler Yeats (1865–1939)

WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS is the most widely known, if not the greatest in point of original genius, of that remarkable group of Irish writers who sprang into sudden prominence in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. A peculiar thing about the Celtic Movement, as it has come to be called, is that it came into being almost overnight and took the intellectual world by surprise. The literary pundits had not been in the habit of looking to Ireland for anything original or striking in the way of either literature or art. The conditions of life in the “distressful counthry” seemed to preclude anything of the kind. A land poverty-stricken, badly governed, torn with faction, and bled white by enforced emigration was not likely, so the argument ran, to produce that high and enduring type of literature which seems possible of achievement only under conditions of peace, well-being, and a general diffusion of optimism. History would seem to bear out this view. The golden age of any national literature, as a rule, almost exactly synchronizes with full political and material development. That, following the death of Parnell, there should suddenly appear, out of the very heart of the political maelstrom, a new, original, and powerful group of poets and dramatists is a phenomenon almost unique in the history of letters. It is this which makes the whole movement so startlingly dramatic.

To be sure there have always been clever Irishmen. The bead-roll of illustrious sons of Erin is very long. The great majority of them, however, have preferred to carry their goods to distant markets. The truly remarkable thing about the group of young Irishmen known as the Celtic Revivalists is that they have almost wholly confined the field of their exertions to Irish life and history, seeking to give dignity and beauty to the history, achievements, and aspirations of their native land. And they have succeeded. To-day no one doubts that underneath all the wild, chaotic manifestations of political unrest, underneath the squalor and misery engendered by industrial backwardness and dire poverty, there lives and breathes in Ireland a national soul, distinct, original, beautiful, and enamored of the loftiest ideals.

To understand the poetry of Yeats one must clearly grasp the fact that it is in its fundamentals concerned only with Ireland and the Irish. Ireland, in fact, contents him. No matter how far he may wander into the realm of the universal he is sure to come back like a homing pigeon to the land of his desire. He delights in the mere recital of ancient Celtic names. He seems intoxicated by Cuchullan and Aoife, Ængus and Granuaille, Emain and Kincora. Ireland is his chosen field as truly as the Midi is sacred to Mistral or Scotland to Burns.

And, characteristically, it is mostly of the past that he sings, and of the present only as the past seems to live on in it. Even when, as in ‘Kathleen ni Hoolihan,’ he touches the fringe of comparatively recent history it is the ancient soul of Ireland, always yearning for freedom and self-expression, that enchants him. Take, for example, the closing lines of the poignant little drama just mentioned:

  • Bridget—Tell him not to go, Peter.
  • Peter—It’s no use. He doesn’t hear a word we’re saying.
  • Bridget—Try, Delia, and coax him over the fire.
  • Delia—Michael, Michael, you won’t leave me! You won’t join the French and we going to be married to-morrow!
  • [She puts her arms about him.He turns to her as if about to yield.]
  • Old woman’s voice outside.
  • They shall be remembered forever. The people shall hear them forever.
  • Bridget[laying her hand on Patrick’s arm]—Did you see an old woman going down the path?
  • Patrick—I did not, but I saw a young girl and she had the walk of a queen.

  • The old woman is Ireland; Ireland as she appears to the casual eye; but the young girl is the soul of Ireland, always rebellious, defiant, and untamed.

    Yeats is a mystic. It is hard to define just what a mystic is. We may say that he is one for whom the actual and imperfect is always shading off at some point into the impalpable; or one to whom the entire world of sense-impressions is but symbolic of a larger abiding reality. There are many kinds of mystics. Sa’dī was a mystic; so was Emerson; so was Bunyan. But the mysticism of Yeats is his own. To him the past is actually alive in the present. The supernatural is all about us both in a spiritual and in a romantic sense. We may almost touch it in certain exaltations. It broods over the landscape like a tender mist. By the purest sorcery of genius he is able to suffuse his creations with the very light of a supernal world. With him there is no gulf to leap. In defiance of the findings of modern science he proceeds, with a poet’s arrogance, on the assumption that this is a supernatural world; that the happy or unhappy mortals are around us; that the “mystic rose” may blossom into beauty and fragrance anywhere, at any time. It is worth noting that he has put himself on record as a firm believer in crystal-gazing! The following poems will render this criticism clear.