1923 : William Butler Yeats

1923 : William Butler Yeats

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“for his always inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation”



June 13, 1865

Place of birth


Dublin, Ireland



Jan 28, 1939

Place of death


Menton, Alpes-Maritimes, France







Notable award(s)


Nobel Prize in Literature 1923


William Butler Yeats was born on June 13, 1865 in Georgeville near Saymount Castle, Dublin (Ireland). Son of the painter John Butler Yeats and Susan Poyexfen Yeats, a Protestant Anglo-Irish family. His grandfather, also named William Butler Yeats, was rector of the Church of Ireland, while his father was a nationalist skeptical and atheist. The character of the young Yeats was a combination of both. The biographer Richard Ellmann writes about it: He chose a faith eccentric somewhere between the orthodox beliefs of his grandfather and the non-Orthodox disbelief of his father.In 1867, two years, Yeats moved with his family to London, at number 23 Fitzroy Street. There remained only five years, in July 1872 he returned with his mother and siblings to the Irish county of Sligo, home of his grandparents, William and Elizabeth Pollexfen in Merville. There are soaked in fairy tales that he had the simple people of Ireland, and his mother told many stories about the elves and gnomes, while the rural people recount their experiences with the “little people”. No doubt his stay forever marked his character, as he himself would write: The place that really had a greater influence on my life was Sligo. In October 1874 returns again with his family to London and settled in Edith Villas. There, his father was related to a group of painters prerrafaelitas. In the spring of 1877 William begins his studies at the London School of Godolphin in Hammersmith, but given the limited success of his father as a painter march in the summer of 1881 Balscadden Cottage, in Howth, near Dublin. Yeats began to write and read poetry. He studied at Erasmus Smith High School until December 1883. At that time he was a student and applied little distracted, and the only thing that seemed really interested in was poetry. In 1884 tried in vain to gain access to Trinity College, but much later and admitted his regret at the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin, where he studied painting. There he met George Russell (known under the pseudonym AE), who started in the world of the supernatural and esoteric. He began to write poetry and to experiment with symbolic visions and hallucinations. Detests science, which was in direct contrast to the poetry, beauty and truth, and begins to feel attracted by Buddhism (he had already renounced the Orthodox religion in 1880). In April 1885 published in the Dublin University Review his early poems. In June the same year he founded the Society Hermeneutics of Dublin next to George Russell and Charles Johnson. In April the following year he left the Metropolitan School of Art and published in October on a private Mosada. Meet John O’Leary, who had been in prison five years in British jails and fifteen in exile. O’Leary transmiteio Yeats to their nationalist ideas, and even came to feel attracted by W. Morris, but was not able to follow their doctrines because socializing and distrusted by the masses of the proletariat. In April 1887 he moved with his family to London. There he joins a group of poets in decline as Ernest Rhys, Arthur Symons, Ernest Dowson, Lionel Johson, and so on., With whom he formed a literary club: The Rymers Club. There also Yeats discovers the Theosophical Society, a new movement that claimed to be able to offer a synthesis of religion, science and philosophy. In May 1887 he visited its founder, Madame Helena P. Blavatsky, who was also involved in a series of meetings espitiristas. After having engaged in several conversations with her and a lot of time for meditation, Yeats joined the famous Theosophical Society of London in November 1888. He also was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and its successors orders from 1890 to 1921. In 1889 published his first collection of poems, The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems (The pilgrimages of Oisin and Other Poems). The day January 30, 1889 there is a fundamental fact in the life of Yeats, met Maud Gonne, who would be of great importance in his life. Despite its show of love, Maud always refused to Yeats. He proposed marriage in 1891, but not agreed. In 1899 he went to Paris to visit her hand to ask, but was again replied in the negative. Maud Gonne married in February 1903 with John McBride, a veteran of war. Years later he went to visit her once more to Normandy in the hope of layoffs, so a year later proposed marriage to Iseult, the daughter of Maud, but the result was identical to her mother. Despite this, Maud Gonne was a very important place in the poetry of Yeats. Many of his poems to the show as a beautiful young queen with floors of inciting the Irish to prove. His patriotism due to influence Yeats. In 1896 he returned to Ireland where she was appointed to the movement of the literary renaissance of his country and befriended the author theatrical nationalist lady Isabella Augusta Gregory, with whom founded the Irish National Theater (1901). Yeats wrote for this company, of which he was director until his death. Several of his plays were inspired by the Celtic mythological past, and they often revolved around the Celtic hero Cuchulainn, being assembled in “4 pieces for Dance” (1921). They had strong influence of symbolism and not the theater, which was beginning to be known in Europe. This was noticeable in the ritualization of the work and the drama that used masks and gestures, as well as the inclusion of choirs, dances and ceremonial music. Also the symbolic elements were in poetic tone of talks, which broke out as mystical and dreamlike. For their performances, their works were more apt to be represented before a small audience, so that contributed to the development of theater camera Other drama highlights are The Countess Kathleen Yeats, a nationalist, and Deirdre, a tragedy in verse. The most fruitful period of Yeats was the work of his maturity and old age. Among the first volumes of poetry include The green hull, Responsibilities and Wild Swans Coole, which demonstrates a profound evolution of his lyrical language, it becomes personal, vigorous, accurate and dazzling. In 1925 he wrote the treaty A vision, which expresses his belief in the intimate connection between the poetic imagination and reality universal. According to historian Giordano Berti (in “Keys and Secrets of the Tarot,” Editorial Salvat, Barcelona 2005, p.23) in this work, the most mysterious of the Irish poet, he lives the memory of the esoteric teaching of the Golden Dawn Tarot ; The “28 Incarnations”, as Yeats said, are steps in the transformation of the self. Born of this material, at the suggestion of Ezra Pound, beautiful and poetic colleciones Tower (1928), The staircase (1933) and last poems and plays, including the celebrated “Towards Byzantium ‘, Yeats reached the zenith of his poetry. His poetry, which despite its innovative spirit, is usually characterized by its formal care. Likewise, was a symbolist and used images that reflected the universal consciousness of cultures. In 1923 he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and his country to independence from the United Kingdom, was elected senator in the Irish Free State.


Selected works:

  • Mosada : a Dramatic Poem – Dublin : Sealy, Bryers & Walker, 1886

  • The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems – London : Kegan Paul, Trench & Company, 1889

  • The Countess Kathleen and Various Legends and Lyrics – London : Unwin, 1892

  • The Celtic Twilight – London : Lawrence & Bullen, 1893 – Rev. and enl. ed. 1902

  • The Land of Heart’s Desire – London : Unwin, 1894

  • Poems – London : Unwin, 1895

  • The Secret Rose – London : Lawrence & Bullen, 1897

  • The Wind among the Reeds – London : Elkin Mathews, 1899

  • The Shadowy Waters – London : Hodder & Stoughton, 1900

  • Cathleen ni Houlihan – London : Bullen, 1902

  • Where There Is Nothing – New York : John Lane, 1902

  • Ideas of Good and Evil – London : Bullen, 1903

  • In the Seven Woods : Being Poems Chiefly of the Irish Heroic Age – Dundrum : Dun Emer Press, 1903

  • The Hour Glass : a Morality – London : Heinemann, 1903

  • The Hour Glass and Other Plays – London : Macmillan, 1904

  • The King’s Threshold; and On Baile’s Strand. – London : Bullen, 1904

  • Stories of Red Hanrahan – Dundrum : Dun Emer Press, 1905

  • Poems, 1899-1905 – Dublin : Maunsel, 1906

  • The Poetical Works of William B. Yeats – London : Macmillan, 1906-1907. – Rev. ed. 1912

  • Deirdre – Dublin : Maunsel, 1907

  • Discoveries : a Volume of Essays. – Dundrum : Dun Emer Press, 1907

  • The Golden Helmet – New York : John Quinn, 1908

  • The Collected Works in Verse and Prose of William Butler Yeats – Stratford-on-Avon: Shakespeare Head Press, 1908 – 8 vol.

  • The Green Helmet and Other Poems – Dundrum : Cuala Press, 1910 – Enl. ed. 1912

  • Synge and the Ireland of His Time – Dundrum : Cuala Press, 1911

  • The Cutting of an Agate – New York : Macmillan, 1912

  • Poems Written in Discouragement – Dumdrum : Cuala Press, 1913

  • Responsibilities : Poem and a Play – Dundrum : Cuala Press, 1914.

  • Reveries Over Childhood and Youth – Dundrum : Cuala Press, 1915

  • The Wild Swans at Coole : Other Verses and a Play in Verse – Dundrum : Cuala Press, 1917

  • Per Amica Silentia Lunae – London : Macmillan, 1918

  • Michael Robartes and the Dancer – Dundrum : Cuala Press, [1921]. – Expanded ed. 1994

  • Four Plays for Dancers – London : Macmillan, 1921

  • Four Years – Dundrum : Cuala Press, 1921

  • The Trembling of the Veil – London : Laurie, 1922

  • Later Poems – London : Macmillan, 1922

  • The Player Queen – London : Macmillan, 1922

  • Plays and Controversies – London : Macmillan, 1923

  • Essays – London : Macmillan, 1924

  • The Cat and the Moon – Dublin : Cuala Press, 1924

  • The Bounty of Sweden : a Meditation, and a Lecture, Delivered Before The Royal Swedish Academy, and Certain Notes – Cuala Press, 1925

  • Early Poems and Stories – London : Macmillan, 1925

  • A Vision – London : Laurie, 1925 – Rev. ed. 1937

  • Estrangement – Dublin : Cuala Press, 1926

  • Autobiographies : Reveries Over Childhood and Youth – London : Macmillan, 1926

  • October Blast – Dublin : Cuala Press, 1927

  • The Tower – London : Macmillan, 1928

  • The Death of Synge and Other Passages from an Old Diary – Dublin : Cuala Press, 1928

  • A Packet for Ezra Pound – Dublin : Cuala Press, 1929

  • The Winding Stair – New York : Fountain Press, 1929 – Enl. ed. 1933

  • Stories of Michael Robartes and His Friends – Dublin : Cuala Press, 1931

  • Words for Music Perhaps and Other Poems – Dublin : Cuala Press, 1932

  • The Collected Poems – New York : Macmillan, 1933

  • Letters to the New Island / edited with an introduction by Horace Reynolds – Harvard Univ. Press, 1934

  • The Words upon the Window Pane – Dublin : Cuala Press, 1934

  • Wheels and Butterflies – London : Macmillan, 1934

  • The Collected Plays – London : Macmillan, 1934

  • The King of the Great Clock Tower – Dublin : Cuala Press, 1934

  • A Full Moon in March – London : Macmillan, 1935

  • Dramatis Person? – Dublin : Cuala Press, 1935

  • Poems – Dublin : Cuala Press, 1935

  • Nine One-Act Plays – London : Macmillan, 1937

  • Essays 1931 to 1936 – Dublin : Cuala Press, 1937

  • The Herne’s Egg and Other Plays – New York : Macmillan, 1938

  • New Poems – Dublin : Cuala Press, 1938

  • Letters on Poetry from W. B. Yeats to Dorothy Wellesley. – Oxford Univ. press, 1940

  • Last Poems and Plays – London : Macmillan, 1940

  • If I Were Four-and-Twenty – Dublin :Cuala Press, 1940

  • The Poems of W. B. Yeats – London: Macmillan, 1949. – 2 vol.

  • The Collected Plays of W. B. Yeats – London : Macmillan, 1952

  • Senate Speeches / edited by Donald R. Pearce – Bloomington : Indiana University Press, 1960

  • Explorations – London : Macmillan, 1962

  • The Speckled Bird / edited by William O’Donnell – Dublin : Cuala Press, 1974

  • The Collected Letters of W.B. Yeats / edited by John Kelly; associate editor Eric Domville – Oxford, 1986–. – 4 vol.

  • The Collected Works of W. B. Yeats / Richard J. Finneran and George Mills Harper, general editors. – London & New York : Macmillan, 1989 – 4 vol.

  • Mythologies / edited by Warwick Gould and Deirdre Toomey – Basingstoke : Palgrave Macmillan, 2005

Literature (a selection):

  • Unterecker, John Eugene, A Reader’s Guide to William Butler Yeats – New York : Noonday Press, 1959

  • Yeats : a Collection of Critical Essays / ed. by John Unterecker – Englewood Cliffs, N.J. : Prentice-Hall, 1963

  • Parkinson, Thomas, W.B. Yeats : the Later Poetry – Berkeley : California U.P.; Cambridge U.P, 1964

  • W. B. Yeats : the Critical Heritage / ed. by A. Norman Jeffares – London : Routledge & Kegan, 1977

  • Bramsback, Birgit, Folklore and W. B. Yeats : the Function of Folklore Elements in Three Early Plays – Uppsala Univ., 1984

  • Jeffares, Alexander Norman, W.B. Yeats : a New Biography – London : Hutchinson, 1988

  • Pierce, David, Yeats’s Worlds : Ireland, England and the Poetic Imagination – New Haven : Yale University Press, 1995

  • Foster, Robert Fitzroy, W. B. Yeats : a Life. 1, The Apprentice Mage – Oxford Univ. Press, 1997

  • Muldoon, Paul, The End of the Poem: “All souls’ night” by W.B. Yeats – Oxford University Press, 2000

  • Kelly, John S., A W. B. Yeats Chronology – Basingstoke : Palgrave Macmillan, 2003

  • Foster, Robert Fitzroy, W. B. Yeats : a Life. 2, The Arch-Poet : 1915-1939. – Oxford Univ. Press, 2003

  • Doggett, Rob, Deep-Rooted Things : Empire and Nation in the Poetry and Drama of William Butler Yeats – Notre Dame, IN : Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 2006

  • Bell, Vereen M., Yeats and the Logic of Formalism – Columbia, MO : Univ. of Missouri Press, 2006


1923: Nobel Prize in Literature.

Presentation Speech:

Presentation Speech by Per Hallstrom, Chairman of the Nobel Committee of the Swedish Academy, on December 10, 1923

Very early, in the first bloom of youth, William Butler Yeats emerged as a poet with an indisputable right to the name; his autobiography shows that the inner promptings of the poet determined his relations to the world even when he was a mere boy. He has developed organically in the direction indicated by his emotional and intellectual life from the very beginning.

He was born in an artistic home – in Dublin – thus beauty naturally became a vital necessity for him. He showed artistic powers, and his education was devoted to the satisfying of this tendency; little effort was made to secure traditional schooling. He was educated for the most part in England, his second fatherland; nonetheless his decisive development was linked to Ireland, chiefly to the comparatively unspoiled Celtic district of Connaught where his family had their summer home. There he inhaled the imaginative mysticism of popular belief and popular stories which is the most distinctive feature of his people, and amidst a primitive nature of mountain and sea he became absorbed in a passionate endeavour to capture its very soul.

The soul of nature was to him no empty phrase, for Celtic pantheism, the belief in the existence of living, personal powers behind the world of phenomena, which most of the people had retained, seized hold of Yeats’s imagination and fed his innate and strong religious needs. When he came nearest to the scientific spirit of his time, in zealous observations of the life of nature, he characteristically concentrated on the sequence of various bird notes at daybreak and the flight of moths as the stars of twilight were kindled. The boy got so far in his intimacy with the rhythm of the solar day that he could determine the time quite exactly by such natural signs. From this intimate communion with the sounds of morning and nighttime, his poetry later received many of its most captivating traits.

He abandoned his training in the fine arts soon after he had grown up in order to devote himself to poetry, for which his inclination was strongest. But this training is evident throughout his whole career, both in the intensity with which he worships form and personal style and, still more, in the paradoxically audacious solution of problems in which his acute but fragmentary philosophical speculation sought its way to what he needed for his own peculiar nature.

The literary world he entered, when he settled down in London at the end of the eighties, did not offer him much positively, but it at least offered him fellowship in opposition, which to pugnacious youth seems particularly dear. It was filled with weariness and rebellion toward the spirit of the times which had prevailed just before, namely that of dogmatic natural science and naturalistic art. There were few whose hostility was so deeply grounded as that of Yeats, altogether intuitive, visionary, and indomitably spiritualistic as he was.

He was disturbed not only by the cocksureness of natural science and the narrowness of reality-aping art; even more, he was horrified by the dissolution of personality and the frigidity which issued from scepticism, by the desiccation of imagination and emotional life in a world which at best had faith only in a collective and automatic progression to the sacred land of Cockaigne. Events proved him to be terribly right: the paradise which could be reached by humanity with such schooling, we have now the dubious advantage of enjoying.

Even more beautiful kinds of social utopianism, represented by the greatly admired poet William Morris, did not captivate such an individualist as young Yeats. Later he found his way to the people, and then not as an abstract conception, but as the Irish people, to whom he had been close as a child. What he sought in that people was not the masses stirred by present day demands, but an historically developed soul which he wished to arouse to more conscious life.

In the intellectual unrest of London, things nationally Irish remained dear to Yeats’s heart; this feeling was nurtured by summer visits to his homeland and by comprehensive studies of its folklore and customs. His earlier lyrics are almost exclusively built on his impressions from these. His early poems immediately won high esteem in England because the new material, with its strong appeal to the imagination, received a form which, despite its special characteristics, was nevertheless linked closely with several of the noblest traditions of English poetry. The blending together of Celtic and English, which had never been successfully effected in the political sphere, became a reality here in the world of poetic imagination – a symptom of no small spiritual significance.

However much Yeats had read of English masters, his verse has a new character. The cadence and the colours have changed, as if they had been moved to another air – that of the Celtic twilight by the sea. There is a greater element of song than is usual in modern English poetry. The music is more melancholy, and, under the gentle rhythm, which for all its freedom moves as securely as a sleepwalker, we have a hint of yet another rhythm with the slow breathing of the wind and the eternal pulse of the powers of nature. When this art reaches its highest level it is absolutely magical, but it is seldom easy to grasp. It is indeed often so obscure that an effort is needed to understand it. This obscurity lies partly in the mysticism of the actual subject, but perhaps just as much in the Celtic temperament, which seems to be more distinguished by fire, delicacy, and penetration than by clearness. But no small part may have been played by the tendencies of the time: symbolism and l’art pour l’art, chiefly absorbed by the task of finding the boldly appropriate word.

Yeats’s association with the life of a people saved him from the barrenness which attended so much of the effort for beauty that marked his age. Around him as the central point and leader arose, within a group of his countrymen in the literary world of London, that mighty movement which has been named the Celtic Revival and which created a new national literature, an Anglo-Irish literature.

The foremost and most versatile poet of this group was Yeats. His rousing and rallying personality caused the movement to grow and flower very quickly, by giving a common aim to hitherto scattered forces or by encouraging new forces previously unconscious of their existence.

Then, too, the Irish Theatre came into existence. Yeats’s active propaganda created both a stage and a public, and the first performance was given with his drama The Countess Cathleen (1892). This work, extraordinarily rich in poetry was followed by a series of poetic dramas. all on Irish subjects drawn mainly from the old heroic sagas. The most beautiful among these are Deirdre (1907), the fateful tragedy of the Irish Helen; The Green Helmet (1910), a merrily heroic myth of a peculiarly primitive wildness; and above all The King’s Threshold (1904), where the simple material has been permeated by thought of a rare grandeur and depth. The quarrel about the place and rank of the bard at the king’s court here gives rise to the ever-burning question as to how much spiritual things are to hold good in our world, and whether they are to be received with true or false faith. With the claims on which the hero stakes his life, he defends in the supremacy of poetry all that makes the life of man beautiful and worthy. It would not become all poets to put forward such claims, but Yeats could do so: his idealism has never been dulled, nor has the severity of his art. In these dramatic pieces his verse attains a rare beauty and sureness of style.

Most enchanting, however, is his art in The Land of Heart’s Desire (1894), which has all the magic of fairy poetry and all the freshness of spring, in its clear but as it were dreamy melody. Dramatically, also, this work is one of his finest; and it might be called the flower of his poetry, had he not also written the little prose drama Cathleen ni Hoolihan (1902), which is at once his simplest folk play and his most classically perfect work.

Here more powerfully than anywhere else he touches the patriotic string. The subject is Ireland’s struggle for liberty throughout the ages, and the chief personage is Ireland herself, impersonated by a wandering beggar woman. But we hear no simple tone of hatred, and the profound pathos of the piece is more restrained than in any other comparable poem. We hear only the purest and highest part of the nation’s feeling; the words are few and the action the simplest possible. The whole thing is greatness without a touch of affectation. The subject, having come to Yeats in a dream, has retained its visionary stamp of being a gift from above-a conception not foreign to Yeats’s aesthetic philosophy.

Much more might be said of Yeats’s work, but it must suffice to mention the ways followed by his dramas of recent years. They have often been romantic by virtue of their strange and uncommon material, but they have generally striven after classic simplicity of form. This classicism has been gradually developed into bold archaism; the poet has sought to attain the primitive plasticity found in the beginning of all dramatic art. He has devoted much intensive, acute thought to the task of emancipating himself from the modern stage, with its scenery that disturbs the picture called up by the imagination, with its plays whose features are necessarily exaggerated by the footlights, with its audience’s demand for realistic illusion. Yeats wishes to bring out the poem as it was born in the poet’s vision; he has given form to this vision following Greek and Japanese models. Thus he has revived the use of masks and has found a great place for the actors’ gestures to the accompaniment of simple music.

In the pieces thus simplified and brought to a strict stylistic unity, whose subjects are still taken by preference from the hero legends of Ireland, he has sometimes attained a fascinating effect, even for the mere reader, both in the highly compressed dialogue and in the choruses with their deep lyrical tone. All this, however, is in its period of growth, and it is not yet possible to decide whether the sacrifices made are fully compensated for by what has been gained. These pieces, though in themselves highly noteworthy, will probably find greater difficulty in becoming popular than the earlier ones.

In these plays as well as in his clearest and most beautiful lyrics, Yeats has achieved what few poets have been able to do: he has succeeded in preserving contact with his people while upholding the most aristocratic artistry. His poetical work has arisen in an exclusively artistic milieu which has had many perils; but without abjuring the articles of his aesthetic faith, his burning and questing personality, ever aiming at the ideal, has contrived to keep itself free from aesthetic emptiness. He has been able to follow the spirit that early appointed him the interpreter of his country, a country that had long waited for someone to bestow on it a voice. It is not too much to call such a life’s work great.

Nobel Lecture:

December 15, 1923

The Irish Dramatic Movement

I have chosen as my theme the Irish Dramatic Movement because when I remember the great honour that you have conferred upon me, I cannot forget many known and unknown persons. Perhaps the English committees would never have sent you my name if I had written no plays, no dramatic criticism, if my Iyric poetry had not a quality of speech practised upon the stage, perhaps even – though this could be no portion of their deliberate thought – if it were not in some degree the symbol of a movement. I wish to tell the Royal Academy of Sweden of the labours, triumphs, and troubles of my fellow workers.The modern literature of Ireland, and indeed all that stir of thought which prepared for the Anglo-Irish War, began when Parnell fell from power in 1891. A disillusioned and embittered Ireland turned away from parliamentary politics; an event was conceived and the race began, as I think, to be troubled by that event’s long gestation. Dr. Hyde founded the Gaelic League, which was for many years to substitute for political argument a Gaelic grammar, and for political meetings village gatherings, where songs were sung and stories told in the Gaelic language. Meanwhile I had begun a movement in English, in the language in which modern Ireland thinks and does its business; founded certain societies where clerks, working men, men of all classes, could study those Irish poets, novelists, and historians who had written in English, and as much of Gaelic literature as had been translated into English. But the great mass of our people, accustomed to interminable political speeches, read little, and so from the very start we felt that we must have a theatre of our own. The theatres of Dublin had nothing about them that we could call our own. They were empty buildings hired by the English travelling companies and we wanted Irish plays and Irish players. When we thought of these plays we thought of everything that was romantic and poetical, for the nationalism we had called up – like that every generation had called up in moments of discouragement – was romantic and poetical. It was not, however, until I met in 1896 Lady Gregory, a member of an old Galway family, who had spent her life between two Galway houses, the house where she was born and the house into which she was married, that such a theatre became possible. All about her lived a peasantry who told stories in a form of English which has much of its syntax from Gaelic, much of its vocabulary from Tudor English, but it was very slowly that we discovered in that speech of theirs our most powerful dramatic instrument, not indeed until she began to write. Though my plays were written without dialect and in English blank verse, I think she was attracted to our movement because their subject matter differed but little from the subject matter of the country stories. Her own house has been protected by her presence, but the house where she was born was burned down by incendiaries some few months ago; and there has been like disorder over the greater part of Ireland. A trumpery dispute about an acre of land can rouse our people to monstrous savagery, and if in their war with the English auxiliary police they were shown no mercy they showed none: murder answered murder. Yet ignorance and violence can remember the noblest beauty. I have in Galway a little old tower, and when I climb to the top of it I can see at no great distance a green field where stood once the thatched cottage of a famous country beauty, the mistress of a small local landed proprietor. I have spoken to old men and women who remembered her, though all are dead now, and they spoke of her as the old men upon the wall of Troy spoke of Helen; nor did man and woman differ in their praise. One old woman, of whose youth the neighbors cherished a scandalous tale, said of her, I tremble all over when I think of her; and there was another old woman on the neighbouring mountain who said, The sun and the moon never shone on anybody so handsome, and her skin was so white that it looked blue, and she had two little blushes on her cheeks. And there were men that told of the crowds that gathered to look at her upon a fair day, and of a man who got his death swimming a river, that he might look at her. It was a song written by the Gaelic poet Raftery that brought her such great fame and the cottagers still sing it, though there are not so many to sing it as when I was young:

O star of light and O sun in harvest,O amber hair, O my share of the world,It is Mary Hynes, the calm and easy woman,Has beauty in her body and in her mind.

It seemed as if the ancient world lay all about us with its freedom of imagination, its delight in good stories, in man’s force and woman’s beauty, and that all we had to do was to make the town think as the country felt; yet we soon discovered that the town could only think town thought.In the country you are alone with your own violence, your own heaviness, and with the common tragedy of life, and if you have any artistic capacity you desire beautiful emotion; and, certain that the seasons will be the same always, care not how fantastic its expression.1 In the town, where everybody crowds upon you, it is your neighbour not yourself that you hate and, if you are not to embitter his life and your own life, perhaps even if you are not to murder him in some kind of revolutionary frenzy, somebody must teach reality and justice. You will hate that teacher for a while, calling his books and plays ugly, misdirected, morbid or something of that kind, but you must agree with him in the end. We were to find ourselves in a quarrel with public opinion that compelled us against our own will and the will of our players to become always more realistic, substituting dialect for verse, common speech for dialect.I had told Lady Gregory that I saw no likelihood of getting money for a theatre and so must put away that hope, and she promised to find the money among her friends. Her neighbour, Mr. Edward Martyn, paid for our first performances; and our first players came from England; but presently we began our real work with a little company of Irish amateurs. Somebody had asked me at a lecture, Where will you get your actors? and I said, I will go into some crowded room and put the name of everybody in it on a piece of paper and put all those pieces of paper into a hat and draw the first twelve. I have often wondered at that prophecy, for though it was spoken probably to confound and confuse a questioner, it was very nearly fulfilled. Our two best men actors were not indeed chosen by chance, for one was a stage-struck solicitor’s clerk and the other a working man who had toured Ireland in a theatrical company managed by a negro. I doubt if he had learned much in it, for its methods were rough and noisy, the negro whitening his face when he played a white man, and, so strong is stage convention, blackening it when he played a black man. If a player had to open a letter on the stage I have no doubt that he struck it with the flat of his hand, as I have seen players do in my youth, a gesture that lost its meaning generations ago when blotting paper was substituted for sand. We got our women, however, from a little political society which described its object as educating the children of the poor, which meant, according to its enemies, teaching them a catechism that began with this question, What is the origin of evil?, and the answer, England.And they came to us for patriotic reasons and acted from precisely the same impulse that had made them teach, and yet two of them proved players of genius: Miss Allgood and Miss Maire O Neill. They were sisters, one all simplicity, her mind shaped by folk song and folk stories; the other sophisticated, lyrical, and subtle. I do not know what their thoughts were as that strange new power awoke within them, but I think they must have suffered from a bad conscience, a feeling that the old patriotic impulse had gone, that they had given themselves up to vanity or ambition. Yet I think it was that first misunderstanding of themselves that made their peculiar genius possible, for had they come to us with theatrical ambitions they would have imitated some well known English player and sighed for well-known English plays. Nor would they have found their genius if we had not remained for a long time obscure like the bird within its shell, playing in little halls, generally in some shabby, out-of-the-way street. We could experiment and wait, with nothing to fear but political misunderstanding. We had little money and at first needed little, twenty-five pounds given by Lady Gregory and twenty pounds by myself and a few pounds picked up here and there. And our theatrical organization was preposterous, players and authors all sat together and settled by vote what play should be performed and who should play it. It took a series of disturbances, weeks of argument, during which no performance could be given, before Lady Gregory and John Synge and I were put in control. And our relations with the public were even more disturbed. One play was violently attacked by the patriotic press because it described a married peasant woman who had a lover, and when we published the old Aran folk tale upon which it was founded, the press said the story had been copied from some decadent author of Pagan Rome. Presently Lady Gregory wrote her first comedy. My verse plays were not long enough to fill an evening and so she wrote a little play on a country love story in the dialect of her neighbourhood. A countryman returns from America with a hundred pounds and discovers his old sweetheart married to a bankrupt farmer. He plays cards with the farmer and, by cheating against himself, gives him the hundred pounds. The company refused to perform that play because they said to admit an emigrant’s return with a hundred pounds would encourage emigration. We produced evidence of returned emigrants with much larger sums but were told that only made the matter worse. Then after this interminable argument had worn us all out, Lady Gregory agreed to reduce the sum to twenty and the actors gave way. That little play was sentimental and conventional, but her next discovered her genius. She, too, had desired to serve, and that genius must have seemed miraculous to herself. She was in middle life and had written nothing but a volume of political memoirs and had no interest in the theatre.Nobody reading today her Seven Short Plays can understand why one of them, now an Irish classic, The Rising of the Moon, could not be performed for two years because of political hostility. A policeman discovers an escaped Fenian prisoner and lets him free, because the prisoner has aroused with some old songs the half forgotten patriotism of his youth. The players would not perform it because they said it was an unpatriotic act to admit that a policeman was capable of patriotism. One well known leader of the mob wrote to me, How can the Dublin mob be expected to fight the police if it looks upon them as capable of patriotism? When performed at last the play was received with enthusiasm, but only to get us into new trouble. The chief Unionist Dublin newspaper denounced it for slandering his Majesty’s forces, and Dublin Castle, the centre of English Government in Ireland, denied to us privileges which we had shared with the other Dublin theatres, of buying for stage purposes the cast off clothes of the police. Castle and Press alike knew that the police had frequently let off political prisoners but that only made the matter worse. Every political party had the same desire to substitute for life, which never does the same thing twice, a bundle of reliable principles and assertions. Nor did religious orthodoxy like us any better than political; my Countess Cathleen was denounced by Cardinal Logue as an heretical play, and when I wrote that we would like to perform foreign masterpieces, a Nationalist newspaper declared that a foreign masterpiece is a very dangerous thing. The little halls where we performed could hold a couple of hundred people at the utmost and our audience was often not more than twenty or thirty, and we performed but two or three times a month and during our periods of quarrelling not even that. But there was no lack of leading articles, we were from the first a recognised public danger. Two events brought us victory, a friend gave us a theatre, and we found a strange man of genius, John Synge. After a particularly angry leading article I had come in front of the curtain and appealed to the hundred people of the audience for their support. When I came down from the stage an old friend, Miss Horniman, from whom I had been expecting a contribution of twenty pounds, said, I will find you a theatre. She found and altered for our purpose what is now the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, and gave us a small subsidy for a few years.I had met John Synge in Paris in 1896. Somebody had said, There is an Irishman living on the top floor of your hotel; I will introduce you. I was very poor, but he was much poorer. He belonged to a very old Irish family and though a simple, courteous man, remembered it and was haughty and lonely. With just enough to keep him from starvation, and not always from half starvation, he had wandered about Europe travelling third class or upon foot, playing his fiddle to poor men on the road or in their cottages. He was the man that we needed because he was the only man I have ever known incapable of a political thought or of a humanitarian purpose. He could walk the roadside all day with some poor man without any desire to do him good, or for any reason except that he liked him. He was to do for Ireland, though more by his influence on other dramatists than by his direct influence, what Robert Burns did for Scotland. When Scotland thought herself gloomy and religious, Providence restored her imaginative spontaneity by raising up Robert Burns to commend drink and the devil. I did not, however, see what was to come when I advised John Synge to go to a wild island off the Galway coast and study its life because that life had never been expressed in literature. He had learned Gaelic at College, and I told him that, as I would have told it to any young man who had learned Gaelic and wanted to write. When he found that wild island he became happy for the first time, escaping as he said from the nullity of the rich and the squalor of the poor. He had bad health, he could not stand the island hardship long, but he would go to and fro between there and Dublin.Burns himself could not have more shocked a gathering of Scotch clergy than did he our players. Some of the women got about him and begged him to write a play about the rebellion of ’98, and pointed out very truthfully that a play on such a patriotic theme would be a great success. He returned at the end of a fortnight with a scenario upon which he had toiled in his laborious way. Two women take refuge in a cave, a Protestant woman and a Catholic, and carry on an interminable argument about the merits of their respective religions. The Catholic woman denounces Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth, and the Protestant woman the Inquisition and the Pope. They argue in low voices because one is afraid of being ravished by the rebels and the other by the loyal soldiers. But at last either the Protestant or the Catholic says that she prefers any fate to remaining any longer in such wicked company and climbs out. The play was neither written nor performed, and neither then nor at any later time could I discover whether Synge understood the shock that he was giving. He certainly did not foresee in any way the trouble that his greatest play brought on us all.When I had landed from a fishing yawl on the middle of the island of Aran, a few months before my first meeting with Synge, a little group of islanders, who had gathered to watch a stranger’s arrival, brought me to the oldest man upon the island. He spoke but two sentences, speaking them very slowly, If any gentleman has done a crime we’ll hide him. There was a gentleman that killed his father and I had him in my house three months till he got away to America. It was a play founded on that old man’s story Synge brought back with him. A young man arrives at a little public house and tells the publican’s daughter that he has murdered his father. He so tells it that he has all her sympathy, and every time he retells it, with new exaggerations and additions, he wins the sympathy of somebody or other, for it is the countryman’s habit to be against the law. The countryman thinks the more terrible the crime the greater must the provocation have been. The young man himself under the excitement of his own story becomes gay, energetic, and lucky. He prospers in love and comes in first at the local races and bankrupts the roulette table afterwards. Then the father arrives with his head bandaged but very lively, and the people turn upon the impostor. To win back their esteem he takes up a spade to kill his father in earnest, but horrified at the threat of what had sounded so well in the story, they bind him to hand over to the police. The father releases him and father and son walk off together, the son, still buoyed up by his imagination, announcing that he will be master henceforth. Picturesque, poetical, fantastical, a masterpiece of style and of music, the supreme work of our dialect theatre, it roused the populace to fury. We played it under police protection, seventy police in the theatre the last night, and five hundred, some newspaper said, keeping order in the streets outside. It is never played before any Irish audience for the first time without something or other being flung at the players. In New York a currant cake and a watch were flung, the owner of the watch claiming it at the stage door afterwards. The Dublin audience has, however, long since accepted the play. It has noticed, I think, that everyone upon the stage is somehow lovable and companionable, and that Synge described, through an exaggerated symbolism, a reality which he loved precisely because he loved all reality. So far from being, as they had thought, a politician working in the interests of England, he was so little a politician that the world merely amused him and touched his pity. Yet when Synge died in 1910 opinion had hardly changed, we were playing to an almost empty theatre and were continually denounced in the Press. Our victory was won by those who had learned from him courage and sincerity but belonged to a different school. Synge’s work, the work of Lady Gregory, my own Cathleen ni Houlihan, and my Hour glass in its prose form, are characteristic of our first ambition. They bring the imagination and speech of the country, all that poetical tradition descended from the middle ages, to the people of the town. Those who learned from Synge had often little knowledge of the country and always little interest in its dialect. Their plays are frequently attacks upon obvious abuses, the bribery at the appointment of a dispensary Doctor, the attempts of some local politician to remain friends with all parties. Indeed the young Ministers and party politicians of the Free State have had, I think, some of their education from our plays. Then, too, there are many comedies which are not political satires, though they are concerned with the life of the politic ridden people of the town. Of these Mr. Lennox Robinson’s are the best known; his Whiteheaded Boy has been played in England and America. Of late it has seemed as if this school were coming to an end, for the old plots are repeated with slight variations and the characterization grows mechanical. It is too soon yet to say what will come to us from the melodrama and tragedy of the last four years, but if we can pay our players and keep our theatre open, something will come. We are burdened with debt, for we have come through war and civil war and audiences grow thin when there is firing in the streets. We have, however, survived so much that I believe in our luck, and think that I have a right to say I end my lecture in the middle or even perhaps at the beginning of the story. But certainly I have said enough to make you understand why, when I received from the hands of your King the great honour your Academy has conferred upon me, I felt that a young man’s ghost should have stood upon one side of me and at the other a living woman in her vigorous old age. I have seen little in this last week that would not have been memorable and exciting to Synge and to Lady Gregory, for Sweden has achieved more than we have hoped for our own country. I think most of all perhaps of that splendid spectacle of your court, a family beloved and able that has gathered about it not the rank only but the intellect of its country. No like spectacle will in Ireland show its work of discipline and of taste, though it might satisfy a need of the race no institution created by English or American democracy can satisfy.


* Yeats maintained that his lecture was written down from memory. It seems therefore appropriate to incorporate here certain improvements he made in a version published the in The Bounty of Sweden (The Cuala Press, Dublin, I925).1 I was in my Galway house during the first months of civil war, the railway bridges blown up and the roads blocked with stones and trees. For the first week there were no newspapers, no reliable news, we did not know who had won nor who had lost, and even after newspapers came, one never knew what was happening on the other side of the hill or of the line of trees. Ford cars passed the house from time to time with coffins’ standing upon end between the seats, and sometimes at night we heard an explosion, and once by day saw the smoke made by the burning of a great neighbouring house. Men must have lived so through many tumultuous centuries. One felt an overmastering desire not to grow unhappy or embittered, not to lose all sense of the beauty of nature. A stare (our West of Ireland name for a starling) had built in a hole beside my window and I made these verses out of the feeling of the moment:

The bees build in the crevicesOf loosening masonry, and thereThe mother birds bring grubs and fies.My wall is loosening, honey beesCome build in the empty house of the stare.We are closed in, and the key turnedOn our uncertainty; somewhereA man is killed, or a house is burned,Yet no clear fact to be discerned:Come build in the empty house of the stare.

That is only the beginning but it runs on in the same mood. Presently a strange thing happened; I began to smell honey in places where honey could not be, at the end of a stone passage or at some windy turn of the road and it came always with certain thoughts. When I got back to Dublin I was with angry people, who argued over everything or were eager to know the exact facts. They were in the mood that makes realistic drama.2 Our first performances were paid for by Mr. Edward Martyn, a Galway landowner with a house, part fourteenth century, part that pretentious modern Gothic once dear to Irish Catholic families. He had a great hall adorned with repeating patterns by that dreary decorator Crace, where he played Palestrina upon an organ, and a study with pictures of the poets in poor stained glass, where he read Ibsen and the Fathers of the Church and nothing else. A sensible friendly man with intelligence, strength of purpose, and a charming manner, he shrank from women like a medieval monk and between him and all experience came one overwhelming terror If I do such and such a thing or read such and such a book I may lose my soul. My Countess Cathleen and a play of his own were our first performances. My play’s heroine, having sold her soul to the devil, gets it back again because God only sees the motive not the deed, and her motive is to save starving people from selling their souls for their bodies’ sake. When all our announcements had been made Martyn withdrew his support because a priest told him that the play was heretical. I got two priests to say that it was not and he was satisfied, for we have democratic ideals. He withdrew permanently, however, after a few months, foreseeing further peril to his soul. He died a couple of months ago and with him died a family founded in the twelfth century. An unhappy, childless, laborious, unfinished man, typical of an Ireland that is passing away.3 Josef Strzygowski in his Origin of Christian Church Art (a translation of a series of lectures, delivered in Upsala in 1919) says that art flourishes less at courts than anywhere else in the world. For at the seat of power everything is subordinated to politics; the forces willing to accept this fact are always welcome; those which are not willing must either emigrate or remain aloof. The danger to art and literature comes today from the tyranny and persuasions of revolutionary societies and forms of political and religious propaganda. The persuasion has corrupted much modern English literature; and during the twenty years that led up to our national revolution the tyranny wasted the greater part of the energy of Irish dramatists and poets. They had to remain perpetually on the watch to defend their creation; and the more natural the creation the more difficult the defence.Since I gave my lecture we have produced Juno and the Paycock by Mr. O’Casey, the greatest success we have had for years. In this play, which draws its characters and scenes from the Dublin slums, a mind, not unlike that of Dostoevsky, looks upon the violence and tragedy of civil war. There is assassination, sudden poverty, and the humour of drunkards and the philosophy of wastrels, and there is little but the out-worn theme of seduction, and perhaps a phrase or two of mechanical humour, to show that its author has not finished his artistic education. He is a working bricklayer who was taken out to be shot by English soldiers in mistake for somebody else, but escaped in a moment of confusion. He knows thoroughly the life which he describes.


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