The Presence of Religion and Politics in the Prose and Poetry of William Butler Yeats

I will attempt to discuss the religious and political views of iconic Irish author William Butler Yeats, who incorporated several hints of his religions and political ideological views in his prose and poetry. First, it is necessary to give a brief summary of Yeats’s religious and political background that would later influence his writings. Yeats was the grandson of a Protestant minister who in no doubt inspired his own Protestantism. While still identifying as a protestant, Yeats became more spiritually separated from his grandfather, adopted interests in astrology, mysticism, and occult, which most Christian denominations, especially Protestantism during this period, heavily reprimanded. Yeats became more radical as the years passed, at least by the standards of mid-century evangelical Christianity, and as the years went by, he developed a fascination with reincarnation and séances to communicate with the dead. In 1886, Yeats interests in the paranormal inspired him to form the Dublin Lodge of the Hermetic Society, an offshoot of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a late 19th century organization that encouraged spiritual growth by participating in acts which virtually all major Christian denominations considered sacrilegious.

While a member of the Hermetic Society, Yeats became interested in communicating with the dead and witchcraft. Yeats remained a Protestant by name alone, and the only relationship the Hermetic Society shares with Christianity with are that of Christian mysticism, which is an ideology in itself inspired from Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, far removed from Yeats’ familial denomination of Protestantism.

Yeats and his family were already in Ireland’s religious minority by being protestant, a nation that statistically favored Catholicism, and Yeats distanced himself even further from his nation by his newfound interest in mysticism. He found a way to include Judeo-Christian teachings in his new age occult by incorporating cabalistic elements. He believed that authors who wrote poetry had supernatural intervention; he concluded that to create an imaginary world with just mere words was a gift from the paranormal. Much separated from his father and grandfather, Yeats believed Catholicism, which was prominent in Ireland, and even Protestantism, were too bland, too commercialized, too conventional and lacked imagination. Thus, he believed, in order to enter in the spiritual world of poetry, one must free themselves from the confinement of organized religions and be open to exploring many unconventional spiritual possibilities.

Yeats hints at his new spirituality in his 1892 poem “To Ireland in the Coming Times.” I believe the title alone refers to the new spirituality Yeats wants to bring to Ireland. The opening lines of “Know that I would accounted be / True brother of a company / That sang, to sweeten Ireland’s wrong” suggests that it is Yeats’s destiny to bring his newly acquired mysticism to save Ireland’s incorrect path to salvation, or its “wrong.” Yeats is the man “accounted” for the job; he refers to himself as a “true brother” of the teachings of the Golden Dawn, and considered himself Ireland’s savior. Then, the poem states that an awakened spiritualism will come to anyone who intellectually seeks it; the lines read “Because to him who ponders well, / My rhymes more than their rhyming tell / Of things I discovered in the deep, / Where only body’s laid asleep.” This suggests the story of the new spiritual Yeats has discovered through deep thinking and meditation, and now his purpose is to bring it to the Irish people. Yeats mentions that he will not be alone in bringing the news to Ireland, but that Thomas Davis, James Mangan (who is referenced in James Joyce’s Araby), and Samuel Ferguson, three intellectual poets whom all had an important role in the Irish Renaissance will aid him in doing so. Each of the three poets were major influences of Yeats and shared his passion for spiritualism. Davis was a Protestant but shared Yeats utopist view of finding common ground between Catholicism and Protestantism and uniting the two denominations. Mangan was a Roman Catholic educated at a Jesuit school. Ferguson, like Yeats, was also a Protestant who had a knack for mythology and politics, and heavily supported the Irish Parliament.

Like his religious values, Yeats incorporated several of his political views and ideals into his prose and poetry. Yeats mainly used his poetry to convey his political and religious views in an attempt to inform the public through art. In “Easter 1916,” for example, Yeats never blatantly publically endorsed the side of the patriotic Irish republicans or the Brits. He kept the stanzas vague enough that the poem could appeal to both sides of the war. With lines such as “Whatever green is worn / Are changed, changed utterly / A terrible beauty is born” and other lines describing the exchange between Irish and British forces and scenery amongst the battle, Yeats did not spend time castigating and shaming the British army but rather was being objective as his poetry would allow him. Yeats does, however, mention four fallen heroes from the Irish Rebellion, that of MacDonagh, MacBride, Connolly, and Pearse, without mentioning any soldiers from the British Army, and one might use this to argue this is enough evidence to suggest Yeats was defending the Irish rebels. It’s very likely, however, that Yeats, being an Irish native himself, and identifying as an Irish Nationalist, was not familiar with iconic British soldiers as he was with his own countrymen, and rightfully so would not try to tell a story from a mimicked British perspective.

Yeats believed that religion, or rather, spiritualism (while a matter semantics, I am uncomfortable using the word “religion” because I feel that implies an organized methodology, i.e. a system with a set of specific rules, contrary to Yeats who tended to have an independent, free-flowing spirituality nonaligned with mainstream ideologies) could successfully mingle with politics. Yeats did not believe in a separate of church and state, as with most inhabitants of Ireland in this era, and felt if spirituality were understood correctly it could serve as the foundation in unifying Ireland politically. The relationship between spirituality and politics is illustrated in several of Yeats’s poetry.

In “Sailing to Byzantium,” for instance, Yeats speaks of the once-perfect utopia that was later conquered. “The young / In one another’s arms, birds in the trees / …Monuments of unaging intellect” describe Byzantium as a land of youth, vigor, and vitality. I believe Yeats wants readers to feel that Byzantium, before the conquer, was a near-perfect utopia. He compares Byzantium here as a stand-in for old Ireland before the rebellion. The conquering of Byzantium is analogous to the Easter Rising. After the conquering of Byzantium, the utopia quickly became a dystopia. Yeats likes using the element of contrast here; and alternates between the utopia turned dystopia in a matter of a couple lines. “–These dying generations – at their song,” describes the deaths in the conquering of Byzantium but serves as a metaphor for those who died in the Rising whom Yeats greatly admired. “Whatever is begotten born and dies. / Caught in that sensual music of neglect / Monuments of unaging intellect” describe the destruction of Byzantium, not unlike what happened to Ireland during and after the Rising. The first line “whatever is begotten…” hints to the idea that a utopia cannot exist forever, and eventually will be overthrown. Yeats here is insinuating that one must enjoy life while they can, for this world is temporary, which also brings in his religious connotation. The “whatever” in the line could not only be a metaphor for old Ireland, but for the universe itself and humanity’s temporary time here. “That sensual music” is the patriotic songs and songs of rebellion that were played during battle. “Monuments of unaging intellect” refer to the static, unchanging position one has regarding politics; a soldier, or politician, will pick which side of battle in which to support and participate, based on his geographic location, community and culture without any substantial reasoning or rationality and consequently closing his/her mind to alternative views.

In “Byzantium,” a later poem by Yeats, Yeats still uses the land of Byzantium as a metaphor for Ireland, but tells the story from a different perspective. While “Sailing to Byzantium” deals with the character discovering the battle in real time, “Byzantium” deals with its character reflecting on its aftermath. In this poem, the battle is now but a memory; “The unpurged images of day recede;” and “The Emperor’s drunken soldiery are abed;” both attest to the battle now being over and how it’s a memory in its citizens minds. The Emperor in this case is a metaphor for the soldiers who fought the battle sometimes inebriated. The second stanza of the poem reflects Yeats’s spiritual openness and eagerness for supernatural exploration; “Before me floats an image, man or shade, / Shade more than a man, more image than a shade;” could attest to his interest in the paranormal. He sees an image, or a shade, but ponders that it could very well be a “man” taking form in an image, hence hinting at paranormal communication. Yeats uses several words relating to religious themes, including miracle, spirit, life, death, and “blood” which in this context (similar to the Eucharist) symbolizes the dolphin’s transformation. Here, Yeats could be referring to reincarnation or spiritual rejuvenation (what many Protestant’s call being “born again) when he writes “Astraddle on the dolphin’s mire and blood, / Spirit after spirit! The smithies break the flood,” and “Miracle, bird, or golden handiwork, /…And all complexities of mire or blood.” Even more, these lines illustrate that even non-human animals are capable of changing forms, or were once human and now inhabit a new body (reincarnation). Yeats choice of the word “changeless” in the line “In glory of changeless metal” relates to the soul of the animals (when I say animals, I include humans) which is unchanging. The “Spirit after spirit[s]” Yeats sees “astraddle” on the dolphin’s could be referring to the death of those who lost their lives in battle whose now souls are riding on the dolphin’s back. “That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea” is more symbolism of the aftermath. Yeats uses first person again, and strangely, Yeats, as the protagonist, observes the horrible aftermath of the battle but strangely remains calm. He takes what he sees for granted, as if he’s been down this path before. To him, it’s a routine visual illustration. One might say that he’s completely indifferent and neutral to his surroundings. His ability to remain calm and content is reflective of his expanding spirituality; he’s in a state of meditation and is less bothered by repercussions in the physical, material world.

The aptly titled “Politics” is another strong political poem by Yeats that mocks society’s fascination with picking political sides and instead uses metaphors to show true politics are not about picking a side but all about protecting the unification of universal ideals. For sake of easy argument, we will assume the first-person protagonist of the poem is Yeats. When the poem begins, Yeats is fixated on the idea picking political sides. He struggles with idea of choosing Roman, Russian and Spanish politics. The line reads “My attention fix / On Roman or on Russian / Or on Spanish politics / Yet here’s a travelled man that knows / What he talks about”. Here, Yeats, unfamiliar with which political side he should take part, meets an experienced intelligent drifter who knows his stuff, for lack of a better term. What Yeats might be suggesting with these lines is that people often are quick to pick political sides without knowing too much about the topic or the situation at hand; citizens tend to base politics not on what entirely on intellect, but on familial upbringing, the culture in which they were raised, and the community that surrounds them.

Yeats then meets a politician “That has read and thought / And maybe what they say is true / Of war and war’s alarm”. Here, Yeats is mocking the high platform of trust its citizens give to politicians, who think of them as omnipotent divine-like figures, who trust them when they say war is necessary.   Yeats could also be criticizing the decisions of Irish politicians as well as those of British during the Rebellion. He equates a politician’s decisions to mere “thoughts” equalizing them to just citizens with opinions and hunches who, unlike average civilians, have the power to act on these opinions and hunches.

Then, the overall message in “Politics” shows in its opening line which reads “How can I, that girl standing there,” and the poem finishes with “But O that I were young again / And held her in my arms.” We know this “girl” that Yeats discovers is central to this poem. Yeats is immediately stricken by the beauty and youth of the girl upon first sight, and then temporarily forgets the political affiliations which brought him to that spot, and instead realized what’s more important. Beauty. Youth. Innocence. Yeats saw this girl and he was reminded of a better time in Ireland; he reflected on a time without war, a time of peace, and an imaginary hypothetical world where citizens eradicated any political affiliations and instead put their energy into love and world peace. Something can be said that ignorance is bliss, as Yeats illustrates, the child-like innocence is often lost when adulthood is reached. I feel “Politics” has influenced several songs in popular culture. The Beatles famous hit “I Saw Her Standing There” shares a similar line with the opening line of poem, and shares a similar plot involving a first-person perspective who stops for a moment of reflection when he runs into a young, innocent girl. The song itself was inspired by an earlier song called “Seventeen Come Sunday,” written before the poem by Yeats, where the protagonist runs into a girl during his morning stroll and begins a conversation exchange. “I’m Seventeen Come Sunday” was first published about a century before wrote “Politics” and became popular in Ireland; the story itself was inspired from several folk stories that existed decades before this, including the 1810 “Maid and the Soldier.” Yeats’s recycled “Politics” is not a new concept, but the poem serves to remind readers to distance themselves from the trivial and focus on real concerns of the human heart.

Yeats play The Hour-Glass is another masterpiece filled with his Yeats spiritual mysticism. Unlike his poetry, Yeats was no longer limited to brief lines and metaphors but could express a story in a direct narrative. In the play, a wise man questions his surroundings – the observable reality in front of him. The wise man lives his life learning his senses can be deceiving. He states “I have indeed denied everything and have
taught others to deny. I have believed in nothing but what my
senses told me.” Here, the wise man’s philosophy in the play can be said to be borrowed from the Rene Descartes’ “I think before I am” philosophy where sensual observations can very well be illusions Yeats shares the view of this character as he chooses the name “wise man” for him while the character who disregards his teachings is known as the “fool.” The wise man almost has a Jesus quality. He wants to teach his wisdom to others tells the townspeople “If there is one amongst you that believes, he will be my
best friend. Surely there is one amongst you” which is similar to when the biblical Jesus told others those who believe will share his kingdom in Heaven. Others begin to deny what the Wise Man tells them, thinking of him as the equivalent of a blasphemer.

In The Hour-Glass Yeats attempts to combine rationalism and intellectualism with spirituality and the supernatural. Beginning with the Age of Enlightenment, rationalism and religion/theology were typically considered mutually exclusive. Yeats, however, tried to combine elements of Descartian philosophy with that of an open belief in a higher power or the supernatural. The wise man in the story was told by angel to teach his intellectualism to the townspeople; the wise man was both an intellectual but a deeply spiritual man. Yeats believed the two could find common ground, and continued to push this view in his poetry and prose his whole life.  By the end of the play, the wise man submits to the angel, “And all knowing, I cry that whatso God has willed, on the instant be fulfilled, though that be my damnation” symbolizing that true happiness comes when humans (animals) submit to that which is higher than we are. This philosophy relates back to “Byzantium” when the protagonist was indifferent to the destruction of battle, because he learned to deny what his senses told him were truth. Yeats Irish Protestantism background, commingled with his love of high art and utopian politics, and interest in the paranormal, all contributed to his unique style of poetry. Yeats was always outspoken about his beliefs, and like anyone, his confrontational style attracted as many enemies as it did fans. Yeats, however, was always inclined to defend another fellow writer in the name of high art, as he did after the Playboy Rights in defense of John Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World. Yeats held a greater regard for the afterlife, of spiritual realm outside of this observable world, and pursued to find it; along the journey, however, he defended those who inspired him. “I know that I shall meet my fate somewhere among the clouds above,” said Yeats. “Yet those that I fight I do not hate, those that I guard I do not love.


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