Identity: its Embrace and Resistance in William Butler Yeats’s Poetry

What do people search for? Everyone searches for something, so what is it that people search for? For some it is power and fame, for others it is a sense of identity and belonging. For William Butler Yeats it is the former, but his search for identity is not for himself, but for the people of Ireland. Yeats sees the people of Ireland without the identity he believes they should have and also without an identity that is unifying. To Yeats, the people have lost the value of what it means to be Irish. The Irish come from the old Celtic culture and according to Yeats the modern Irish man/woman has forgotten about their Celtic roots. Being Celtic and having that identity meant valuing life and nature. One found a sense of romanticism and heroism within nature and within one’s self. However, according to Yeats the modern Irish person has separated himself/herself from that sense of identity. The modern Irish person has also separated himself/herself from other Irish men/women. The focus now is on the individual, not people as a whole, much like in a tribal sense. Not only do the people of Ireland lack the identity they should have, but also an identity that connects them all. Yeats seeks to use poetry to embody a specific sense of identity within people that he feels was embodied within the Celtic Irish of the past, but has been lost within the modern Irish people.
Yeats writes many poems about the romanticism of what he thinks the Irish identity should be. Many of these poems contain a sense of the old Celtic culture that found beauty within nature, much like the poets of the Romantic period. The poem’s The Fisherman and Easter 1916 do more than contain a sense of identity; they illustrate what that identity is according to Yeats. They also pull Yeats himself within his own poetry, where the reader sees just how much Yeats advocates for this identity for the Irish people. However, these two poems do more than just advocate Yeats’s sense of an Irish national identity. These poems lead the reader to Yeats’s emotional state and connect the reader to Yeats in a very personal way. One of the poems illustrates Yeats in a state that has lost hope in the Irish people. He feels that they are unable to recognize what the ‘true’ Irish identity looks like. In a last ditch effect, Yeats vividly depicts his sense of an Irish identity tangled with his emotional struggles of the inability of the Irish people. The other poem questions the act of attaining what he has been trying to compel the people of Ireland to attain. This poem shows the reader a Yeats that is celebrating the act of the Irish taking on the identity he has always wanted them to take on, yet at the same time questioning such an act. These two poems illustrate the importance attaining a certain sense of identity is to Yeats, but also a Yeats that fights and struggles with that attainment of an Irish identity.
William Wordsworth, poet and theorist writes about the Poet and what it means to be a poet. “What is a Poet?”(Leitch 567). Wordsworth put the Poet on a high pedestal if you will compared to the rest of the world. He acknowledges the Poet being someone who is in a heighted position over others because of what a Poet can accomplish through poetry. Wordsworth says:
He is a man speaking to men: a man, it is true, endued with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankind; a man pleased with his own passions and volitions, and who rejoices more than other men in the spirit of life that is in him; delighting to contemplate similar volitions and passions as manifested in the goings-on of the Universe, and habitually impelled to create them where he does not find them. (Leitch 567)
Wordsworth is saying that Poets understand nature and what it means to be a living person better than others because he is a Poet. True or not of Wordsworth statement about the Poet and what that means in relationship to fellow humanity is one thing, regardless of it being right or wrong Yeats embodies Wordsworth statement, at least of all to himself and to his poetry. Yeats does see himself knowing what is better for the Irish people than others and a reason for that is because he is a poet. He feels that because he is a poet he understands those relationships of nature and man better than others and that is evident within his poetry, but also the identity that he feels the Irish should inhabit. The identity that the Irish should inhabit according to Yeats is an identity that looks at nature and its relationship between man/woman, but also the romanticism and heroism that follows that relationship. Yeats’s poetry emphasizes how Yeats as a Poet knows and can understand what is better for people in this case specifically the Irish over others.
Yeats’s poem The Fisherman deals with the inability of the Irish people to form a unified national identity. Yeats within this poem has an emotional feeling of sorrowful remorse for hope. Yeats struggles with bringing awareness to the Irish people for establishing a true national identity. By this Yeats through the poem suggests, the need to seek an identity that encompasses everyone and embraces the old Irish/Celtic idea of identity. The poem indicates that (He feels not only) are the Irish people separating themselves from each other, but they are separating themselves from their ancestors. After years of advocating this within his poetry, Yeats in the poem illustrates his despair that the people of Ireland will not come to this recognition, at least in his life time. Therefore, he feels that hope for a unified Irish national identity is dead and in the poem expresses pity and regret for that ideal.
Yeats’s poem “The Fisherman” brings forth Yeats’s struggle with urging people to become aware of his sense of identity, which he wants them to take on and the sorrow he feels that the Irish are unable to do that. This poem illustrates Yeats’s frustration with the idea of hope and progression; but progression in the sense of unity not progression in the sense of technological advancement. Instead the poem embraces sorrow and despair. The first section of the poem, however, illustrates a last thread of hope. It is a faint and fleeting sense of hope.
Although I can see him still,
The freckled man who goes
To a grey place on a hill
In grey Connemara clothes (Yeats 61)
The first line gives the reader a sense of hope and that hope is not lost because this image the speaker envisions is still able to be seen. The imagery of grey and hills illustrates Ireland in a very natural sense. Ireland is a place of mist, rain, and bogs that creates a greyness that encompasses the land. The land is the “hills” and out of this “grey place on a hill” Ireland as a land of nature is being depicted. Yeats is referencing a natural Ireland of nature and how that notion of Ireland is fading. The line “although I can see him still,” demonstrates that Yeats representation of this natural Ireland is faded and gone because the “him” that represents that ideal is barely able to be seen.
Scholar Shyamal Bagchee looks at the character of the fisherman and the representation Yeats is making with the reference to with the character of the fisherman. Yeats is using the fisherman character to represent an old Ireland before the age of technology as modern society knows it. Bagchee goes on to state, “The distinction central to the meaning of “The Fisherman” is between what Yeats elsewhere describes as the “filthy modern tide: and the noble, passionate and incorruptible Celtic character of the fisherman”(Bagchee 53). The image of the “grey Connemara clothes” is a very Irish Celtic image, but again it is a faded image. Yeats is making a clear distinction as Bagchee suggests between the Celtic Irish identity and the “filthy modern tide” Irish identity. The ‘filthy modern’ identity is the identity that does not embrace the old Irish/Celtic ways of life. Yeats is not suggesting that modern Irish people dress, talk, and live like the Irish/Celtic people of the past, at least in a physical material way. However, he is suggesting that modern Irish people have forgotten how one looks at life and the philosophy of nature. That is what he wants the people of Ireland to remember and embrace, not as individuals, but as a united nation.
The second part of The Fisherman illustrates the loss all hope and now Yeats through the speaker of the poem is disconnecting himself from the rest of the Irish people. He feels lost and unresponsive because he feels the people with the awareness to not be limited are dead. Now all that is left are those with the inability to do so.
What I had hoped ‘twould be
To write for my own race
And the reality;
The living men that I hate,
The dead man that I loved.(Yeats 61)
What Yeats is alluding to, is that his race, or the Irish people are not heeding what he says about their current state of affairs, so it is as if he doesn’t write at all. Yeats, through the speaker, is establishing a sense of how a national Irish identity should look, but is instead falling short of that image. The hope however, is a diminished hope that is not to be experienced. As he goes on, he stops addressing what should be, or what is not, but the “reality” of what is. All the men that have stood up to the oppressive nature within and against Ireland are dead, or as Yeats puts it, “the dead man that I loved,” for now there is no more. The speaker has come to hate “the living men” for they limit themselves and in turn become oppressors that contribute to their oppressive state. This oppressive state is a state that not only suppresses freedom, but the ability to establish an Irish identity that embraces the old Celtic sense of identity.
Yeats’s last section of his poem The Fisherman is a direct response to the people of Ireland, which embodies a political state of lack towards the people’s inability to form a national identity. It is a response that is supposed to shock them to their very core with his anger and a sorrowful remorse of their inability.
A man who does not exist,
A man who is but a dream;
And cried, ‘Before I am old
I shall have written him one
Poem maybe as cold
And passionate as the dawn.’(Yeats 62)
The “man who does not exist,” is Yeats’s reference to the Irish people’s inability to liberate themselves from the oppressive state of the English and of themselves. The “dream” is Yeats’s vision of liberating Ireland from oppression. To Yeats that dream is now unattainable and that is why it is now a dream, because dreams are not attainable in the realm of the physical. The rest of the lines are about Yeats’s anger and frustration. “He is a vehement person full of contempt for the vulgar crowd that surrounds him”(Bagchee 53). Bagchee is talking about the emotional state of the fisherman and in a way the emotional state of Yeats.
Yeats sees himself as the embodiment of what it is to embody the notion of an Irish identity, much like the fisherman in Yeats’s poem. The “him” he writes is the people of Ireland and the act of writing a poem “cold and passionate as the dawn,” is his respite upon the people. The dawn is not passionate because it is cold and desolate before the rise of the sun. The dawn is a time of reservation and fear that the day will bring folly. He wants to forsake the people for their inability to act. The ‘man who does not exist’ is the core of Yeats’s whole poem. The ‘man’ refers to the Ireland that no longer exists. The old sense of romanticism and a relationship with nature is no longer part of the identity of the Irish people. That notion is what ‘does not exist” and it is that notion that Yeats holds dear to his sense of identity for the himself and the Irish people. It is also the reason that Yeats becomes in a state of sorrowful remorse because he feels his sense of identity will not be resurrected and exemplified within the Irish people, which is illustrated within the poem.
The poem Easter 1916 deals with the Irish people finally forming a unified national identity. The poem is written after the act of “Bloody Sunday” that occurred in April 1916. The “Bloody Sunday” of 1916 was a rebellion of fifteen hundred Irishmen of the Irish Republican Army and the Irish Republican Socialist Party, which took over the streets of Dublin for three days in an attempt to gain independence from England. Only sixteen Irishmen died and all of them were executed. However, those sixteen men were the leaders of many Irish parties and sacrificed themselves in order for the people of Ireland to see the need to join together as a unified nation. Easter 1916 is about the act of Ireland finally gaining a unified national identity and for Yeats regaining his hope of such an accomplishment.
Emerging into Yeats’s “Easter 1916” we see the other side of Yeats; a side that has hope and is able to finally celebrate a national identity that is unified and becoming unified. Yeats wrote to Lady Gregory saying: “I had no idea that any public event could so deeply move me”(Foster 21). The rebellion showed that Ireland can bring the people together as a whole and fight against the real enemies that seek to oppress Ireland and its people. Yeats writes “Easter 1916” to a degree as a ballad for those men that lead the rebellion and puts himself among those men, it is also a poem that questions the acts of the rebellion. He does not question the ideals behind the act, nor what the rebellion achieved. However, he does question the way in which the rebellion was carried out and performed.
Violence is not something Yeats condoned. In later sections of Easter 1916 Yeats voices his uncertainty at gaining everything you wanted for Ireland because it was gained through the acts of violence. Michael Wood in his essay about Yeats and his outlook of violence states, “The suggestion is that the two acts of violence are intimately connected. It is because we cannot deal with the first, cannot coherently live with the news it seems to bring, that we find ourselves, in an ugly, excitable mood of fake reluctance, half-awaiting the second”(Wood 19). Wood is illustrating Yeats fear that violence will only lead to more violence. After the first act of violence towards liberation according to Yeats there will be a second.
The first section of “Easter 1916” Yeats is connecting himself with the men responsible for the 1916 Dublin rebellion. He is also setting up the notion he deems the “terrible beauty” and what exactly that is.
I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey (Yeats 83)
In the first line the “them” refers to the leaders of the rebellion, which Yeats later names them. Right off Yeats is paving the way for the rebellion or act, which is very much a political statement surround by political issues. The “I” that starts the poem off is very much Yeats putting himself within the poem. John Wilson Foster is a scholar who looks at Yeats’s need to identify himself with “Bloody Sunday”.
“By choosing to allude rather than refer to the rebels he had met, and by pitching his allusions between the daily and the legendary, the familiar and the reverent, Yeats leaves room to insert himself into the event”(Foster 24).
By inserting himself within the poem, Yeats is inserting his notion of what an Irish person’s identity should be within 1916 Dublin rebellion. The notion of the romantic Irish/Celtic country identity is being implemented in association with the leaders of the rebellion, the same leaders that brought the Irish people to a understanding of attaining a unified national identity.
It is not only the act of unifying the people of Ireland Yeats wants to be associated with, but it is the notion of what that identity entails. Scholar Jalal Uddin Khan writes about Yeats and his influence and need for Irish nationalism. “Yeats’s commitment to Irish nationalism and Celtic culture was deep and unequivocal as was his opposition to Irish Unionism. However, his first priority was to have a rich and rejuvenated Irish culture rather than political freedom, unless that comes through a peaceful political dialogue”(Khan 43). Yeats wanted a unified nation that would stand up to the oppression being done to Ireland, but what he wanted even more was Ireland to claim a certain identity. Not just any unified identity, but the identity Yeats felt the Irish should have and embody.
Easter 1916 goes on to illustrate the unification of Ireland. How the Irish are no longer separated by various parties, but now are gathered together in union to tackle the issue of oppression and also to form a true national identity. In The Fisherman Yeats’s frustration for the Irish people’s inability to claim the national identity he wants them to claim is vividly painted. However, in this poem now the Irish people are embracing such an identity.
Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream. (Yeats 85)
The “hearts with one purpose alone,” is the illustration of Ireland being unified. Ireland is no longer separated by numerous ideas of nationalism and identity. Now one notion of nationalism and identity is within the Irish and has allowed them to unify ‘with one purpose alone’. The talk of ‘summer; and winter’ is Yeats connecting nature to the now formed national identity. Nature to Yeats, metaphorically speaks to the imagery of the old Celtic idea of identity. Also the word ‘through’ illustrates the connecting of the past to the present and the people to that past, a past Yeats has long tried to recapture within the Irish people. The line ‘enchanted to a stone,’ speaks to connecting the present Irish people back to the identity of nature and romanticism. Nature and how nature is looked at was a huge part of the identity of the Irish/Celtics. Modern day Ireland moved away from the notion of nature and romanticism with the advancement of technology, but now the people of Ireland are embracing the notion of nature and the romance that that notion brings.
Khan in his essay on Yeats and nationalism writes about the ‘stone’ and how these natural symbols connect to Yeats representation of the fisherman character. “Were we to ‘stand’ upon this stone we would, like the fisherman, know of wisdom, calmness, a childlike simplicity. Yeats wanted to write for his dreamed fisherman a poem worthy of the fisherman’s contemplative and coldly passionate pursuit, as he wishes to write a poem worthy of Pearse and MacDough and their calm, unswerving dedication to an imagined insurrection”(Kahn 30). Pearse and MacDough are two of the leaders of the 1916 Dublin rebellion. By Yeats connecting “Bloody Sunday,” Pearse, and MacDough to the character of the fisherman Yeats is instilling his notion of Irish identity to an event the people of Ireland are forming around. Thus entangles the people of Ireland within Yeats identity, which than becomes the identity of Ireland once again.
The final section of Easter 1916 speaks to the uneasiness Yeats felt toward how a national identity was achieved.
Was it needless death after all? (Yeats 85)
Again, violence is an act Yeats rejected. He believed violence only created more violence. However, there was a part of him that recognized what has been achieved in history through violence. Yeats dubbed the term ‘tragic joy,’ which adheres to attaining something through the means of violence. Jahan Ramazani looks at Yeats’s ‘tragic joy’ and that notion changes Yeats views and outlook of issues such as violence, death, and suicide. “It would be more nearly accurate to say that the theory of the sublime is close to being a theory of what Yeats calls ‘tragic joy,’ for the sublime transforms the painful spectacle of destruction and death into a joyful assertion of human freedom and transcendence”(Ramazani 163). It is this assertion of turning ‘the painful spectacle of destruction’ into a joyful transcendence that Yeats struggles with. He feels great things were attained from the 1916 Dublin rebellion, but at what cost, and was the cost truly worth it? Yeats uses his poetry to make others aware of such a question. However, by using poetry to question such an ideal Yeats is uses poetry as a tool to work out his own struggles and the struggles of
Khan also writes about the uneasiness Yeats felt and the questions he had about the rebellion and what was achieved from it. “However, the tragic event of Easter 1916 seemed to have brought back the heroism of the past, romanticizing Ireland anew and turning the earlier poetic statement, “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,” into an “old fashioned” cliché”(Khan 43). Khan is making the point that even though Yeats is against violence and he is uneasy about the means in which the Irish become unified and gained a national identity. It is an identity of ‘old,’ it is the identity Yeats always wanted Ireland to regain and embrace once more. The cause for such may have been an unwanted way of attainment, but for Yeats doesn’t the end justify the means? The last few lines of the poem addresses such a question.
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly;
A terrible beauty is born. (Yeats 85)
Yeats is using the last couple of lines to express the act of change. His uneasiness is not gone, but it is almost as if it is irrelevant. The violence has been done, the ‘terrible beauty is born,’ and there is nothing that can be done about it. Now, it is a time for change. Yeats alludes to the possibilities that that change could be a bad change when he writes ‘in time to be,’ or it could be a change that changes the Irish and Ireland for the better. Yeats ends with “a terrible beauty is born,” because he wants people to understand and feel the terribleness of what it took to achieve a unified national identity. Yeats’s notion of ‘terrible beauty’ is also giving way to Yeats saying that good and joy can still come out of a terrible act, such as violence.
Yeats searches for an identity for the Irish people, which he uses his poetry to explore and express his sense of identity. Poetry is a tool and Yeats’s uses it to find and illustrate ideas that he believes should be the ideas that are followed. He believes this, because as a Poet he sees himself in a position that is more able to understand and express ideas such as identity than others that are not a Poet; because of such people are unable to understand concepts like identity the way poets can. The Fisherman and Easter 1916 are used to advocate and celebrate Yeats’s sense of identity. The Fisherman is a piece that very clearly depicts his sense of identity as one that embraces the old Celtic senses of romanticism and heroism that deal with nature and its relationship to man. Where Easter 1916 depicts Yeats’s celebratory acts of the Irish finally embracing his sense of Identity, but also questioning the acts of how they came to embrace his sense of identity.
The ability to look at both poems The Fisherman and Easter 1916 allows one to understand the sense of identity Yeats pushes upon the Irish people and at the same time struggle with the acceptance of that identity. Through his poetry Yeats creates and advocates for a specific sense of an Irish identity. It is this identity that is seen in The Fisherman. Yeats feels as a Poet he knows better and that his sense of identity is the correct identity, which is evident through his anger and sorrow depicted in the poem. Easter 1916, on the other hand illustrates the embracing of Yeats’s sense of identity by the Irish people, yet he struggles with that embrace. The way his identity is attained is through an act he rejects and because of that he struggles with the act of rejecting his own sense of identity. This is important to understand because Yeats uses poetry to advocate a sense of identity, but when that sense of identity is embraced, he uses poetry to resist the embracing of that identity. In a way, it is as if Yeats struggles with his own sense of Poetry. Poetry is a huge force Yeats uses to established and advocate for specific identity. Now Poetry has become a force that resists and struggles with that identity because of how it was attained. Poetry for Yeats is a way to attain but also resist.

Works Cited
Bagchee, Shyamal. “Anxiety of Influence: ‘Resolution and Independence’ and Yeats’s ‘the Fisherman’.” Yeats Eliot Review 5.1 (1978): 51-7. Print.
Foster, John Wilson. “Yeats and the Easter Rising.” Canadian Journal of Irish Studies 11.1 (1985): 21-34. Print.
Khan, Jalal Uddin. “Yeats’s ‘Easter 1916′ and Irish Nationalism.” World Literature Written in English 37.1-2 (1998): 42-59. Print.
Leitch, Vincent B. Ed. The Norton Anthology og Theory and Criticism. W.W Norton & Company Inc, 2010. Print.
Ramazani, Jahan R. “Yeats: Tragic Joy and the Sublime.” The Sublime. Eds. Harold Bloom and Blake Hobby. New York, NY: Bloom’s Literary Criticism, 2010. 255-284. Print. Bloom’s Literary Themes (Bloom’s Literary Themes) .
Wood, Michael. “Yeats and Violence.” London Review of Books 30.16 (2008): 20-5. Print.
Yeats, Willima B. William Butler Yeats: Selected Poems and Four Plays. New York: New York City, 1996. Print.

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