William Butler Yeats Early Poetry Term Paper

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Yeats justification of contemporary Irish Nationalism by creating a myth of the Irish past:

The use of magic, myth and folklore in the poetry of W.B. Yeats, specifically in his book "The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems."

Although the poetry of the Irish W.B. Yeats is largely known today for the writer's espousal of a spare, harsh modernism, in his early 20th century poetry, Yeats' tone in verse also had a substantial mythological component. To justify his views of the Irish independence movement and the value of Irish history, Yeats created his own form of elegiac verse. This verse both recreated the ancient forms of Irish epic myths, based upon old folkloric tales, and also created a new self-enclosed schema of mythology within the framework of the poet's own individualistic vision.

The contrast between the modernist and the folklorist within Yeats is widely accepted by most contemporary critics of Irish verse. Most agree that Yeats' poetry can be divided into two periods, the first lasting from 1886 to about 1900. (Yeats, Columbia Encyclopedia, 2001) Because the poetry of the early period owes such a strong debt to the Pre-Raphaelites movement that has since fallen into critical and popular disfavor, those who enjoy Yeats' modernist works and vision tend to discredit this period of time in his writings. However, critics such as Howard Bloom have made a strong case for the value inherent in many of these poems, particularly "The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems," originally published in three parts in 1889.

In contrast to his later, more famous works, this period of Yeats largely centered on Irish mythology and themes of the past, rather upon the individualistic, internal concerns of the human self, as was commensurate with modernism and Yeats later modernist attitudes and concerns. These poems often have a mystical, slow-paced, and lyrical style and quality. Among the best-known poems of the period are "Falling of Leaves," "When You Are Old," and particularly, "The Lake Isle of Innisfree." The last poem is one of the few that continues to be popular in the contemporary Irish and modernist canon, perhaps because of its greater emphasis on internal, rather than external concerns. Also, the speaker of this poem is quite self-evidently 'the poet' as opposed to the assumed dramatic character of "The Wanderings of Oisin." "Innisfree" makes use of a harsh beginning, "And now I will go..." that jarringly takes the reader into the poet's vision and world in a way that would be stressed to an even greater degree in Yeats later more symbolic and modernist works.

However, these poems, particularly "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" is not entirely representative of the totality of Yeats early works. They must not be viewed as singular works, of this early era of Yeats poetry, but rather considered holistically in terms of the poet's general attitudes that he was crafting towards Irish and Irish nationalism. In more characteristic poems such as early poetic work, "The Wanderings of Oisin," the Irish poet W.B. Yeats manifested his hopes to create a new form of mythological structure for contemporary Ireland by returning to the use of magic, myth, and folklore in the history of his native land.

Despite the archaic style of many of these poems, rather than view this period simply as a narrow expression of Yeats' attempt to imitate a medieval style, or the British Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, this period of the poet's writings should be seen as his attempt, as part of the Irish nationalist movement, to stake a literary claim for the value of his native land and history, through the use of historical and folkloric myths, characters, and tropes, as well as his struggle to craft an epic that was both old and new in its ideology and intent for the evolving Ireland and its nationalist movement.

The poem "The Wanderings of Oisin" specifically and self-consciously evolves as an epic poem. Its narrative evolves over the course of several books, much like the Greek "Odyssey" or the "Iliad" Yeats had studied over the course of his education. "Oisin" is thus self-consciously a narrative of nation building from its very inception, albeit in the form of a dialogue rather than a singular, linear narrative in the voice of the poet. It begins in the form of the title's Oisin having a dialogue with St. Patrick, the patron saint of Yeats' Ireland, the man who drove the snakes away.

But unlike the epics of Greece, this is not a happy epic. Rather it is an epic of loss and sadness. Oisin has lost his pagan Ireland, the Ireland of his early life, that he was forced to leave. A less satisfying and inferior copy, in the hero's eyes, has supplanted the Ireland of his youth. St. Patrick rejects Oisin and rejects his vision and history, condemning the man to penance and mourning if he does not accept Christ. Thus this epic of Irish mythology ultimately takes on the form of rejection, rather than harmony and fulfillment.

Although Yeats takes on the persona of a nationalist poet, it is interesting that, over the course of the narrative, he does not include a prologue to his tale, nor does he take on the voice of a distanced, observing poet, as do some nationalist epics. For instance, Homer the poet invoked the muse before letting the narrative of the tale take over his epic. Instead, Yeats makes use of drama. The actors of the poem take on other voices and personas. However, this element of the "The Wanderings of Oisin" could be read as self-consciously Irish in nature. Drama and dramatic monologue was very much a part of the evolving Irish tradition of nationalist expression. Yeats was particularly concerned that such mythical dramas have a place in the burgeoning Irish theater. "Yeats' efforts to foster Irish nationalism were inspired for years by Maud Gonne, an Irish patriot for whom he had a hopeless passion. In 1898 with Lady Augusta Gregory he founded the Irish Literary Theatre in Dublin in 1899." ("Yeats," Columbia Encyclopedia, 2001)

In fact, in many areas, the poem "Oisin" takes on a rather uneasy tension between poetic description and narrative dialogues and arguments by the characters. The poem begins when St. Patrick rather stiffly prompts Oisin to speak of "three centuries, poets sing, / Of dalliance with a demon thing." ("The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems," Part I) The plot of the poem takes the form of Oisin telling of his traveling to several mythological islands, only to find, upon his return to the 'reality' of his native Ireland, all of his companions dead and the old, Celtic faith that he left supplanted by the Christian faith of St. Patrick. "You are still wrecked with heathen dreams," St. Patrick accuses the hero. ("The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems," Part I)

The dialogue between Oisin and Patrick helps to show how Irish history is not simply equated with contemporary, outdated and medieval Catholicism, but is a complex dialogue between a pagan past and a present day Christian theology. The intense sensuality of the women of the poem the hero Oisin meets also highlights the sensual beauty of Ireland's history The contrast of pagan love by women who embody the Irish spirit of "passionate Maeve," whom were then, smothered by St. Patrick's Christianity is constantly referred to, again reinforcing the sense of a lost, displaced past that the epic reinforces rather than harmoniously brings together at its end. (Maeve will serve as the subject of another of Yeats' early mythological poems, "The Old Age of Queen Maeve."

These beautiful women are passionate in a way that Christian women are not. Oisin's great love, named Niamh states:

loved no man, though kings besought,

Until the Danaan poets brought

Rhyme that rhymed upon Oisin's name,

And now I am dizzy with the thought

Of all that wisdom and the fame

Of battles broken by his hands,

Of stories builded by his words

That are like colored Asian birds

At evening in their rainless lands.'

She immediately enchants the hero as much as she is by him. In a similar vein, he exclaims in response:

Patrick, by your brazen bell,

There was no limb of mine but fell

Into a desperate gulph of love!

The poem's evolution of dialogue between pagan and Christian, however, does not necessarily presume the superiority of one figure over the other, as Oisin's sadness and St. Patrick's narrow view of the island's pagan past neither seem 'complete.' The point of the poem is to add complexity to the texture of the history of Ireland, and to show that it is larger than the presumed Catholic, sterile ideological underpinnings assumed by many non-Irish and indeed many individuals of Irish ancestry themselves. The resonance with the images and language used to describe the women of the poem that recall the Arthurian legends Lady of the Lake suggests, again in a Pre-Raphelite vein, an attempt, conscious or unconscious upon Yeats part, to make…

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