William Butler Yeats: How Irish Nationalism Shaped His Poetry

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William Butler Yeats was an Irish prose writer, dramatist, and poet who commenced his career in poetry during the 1880s and continued to be a crucial literary figure until he died in 1939. His literary works were a reflection of the society in which he lived. Yeats also played an active role in the struggle for independence, which he echoed in his poetic works. As a result, he is often considered as one of the distinguished poets who advocated for the independence of Ireland (Foley, 2015). Yeats remains one of the most studied and admired writers of the 20th century. The poet originated from Protestant Anglo-Irish minority, with the majority of the members of his community considering themselves as English people born in Ireland. However, Yeats emphasized his Irish nationality and dedicated his life to highlighting the cultural and political disorder evident in the struggle for Ireland’s independence from England (Jeffares, 2013). This paper examines how Yeats’ Irish nationalism influenced his poetry. First, a background of Irish nationalism during the time of his life and activity is presented; further, the influence of his Irish identity on his poetic works is being evaluated.


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To understand the role of nationalism in Yeats’ poetry, some background knowledge on the nationalism of his country is needed. The concept of Irish nationalism emerged during the late 19th– early 20th centuries. Throughout its history as a colony of Britain, Ireland occasionally rebelled against the British, especially during the second half of the 19th century – the time when the Irish independence movement was gaining momentum (Jeffares, 2013). This period coincided with the resurgence of the Irish culture in the course of the 1890s. For a long time, Ireland and Britain primarily differed in nationalism, land, and religion issues. Although Ireland was a colony of Britain, sentiments of Irish nationalism remained strong, but they were stifled by the colonial policies of Great Britain. Irish nationalists were of the belief that Ireland was supposed to be independent and stood against the involvement of the British in Irish matters; as a result, these nationalists wanted the British to leave Ireland. Two forms of nationalism existed in Ireland during the 19th and late 20th centuries, which included parliamentary and revolutionary nationalism (Malins & Purkis, 2014). Revolutionary Irish nationalism was inspired by the French and American revolutions and persisted until the 20th century. Parliamentary nationalism focused on constitutional reforms. It played a significant role in reviving the Irish culture and was against Anglicization of Ireland. Yeats made significant contributions to the parliamentary nationalism (Jeffares, 2013). Although they had common objectives, parliamentary and revolutionary nationalists employed different tactics. All the events relating to Irish nationalism had a significant influence on Yeats’ poetry, particularly the 1916 Easter Rising, which was a historic defining moment for his career in poetry (Foley, 2015). This event motivated Yeats to write “Easter 1916,” which is one of his most famous poems. In addition, the founding of the Irish Free State, as well as the violent developments witnessed in the public life and politics of Ireland afterwards, also had significant influences on the poetic works of Yeats (Foley, 2015).

Yeats is one of the few writers who have had careers that were complex, diverse and extended. For instance, his works span three major literary movements and periods including the Modernist, the Victorian, and the Romantic movements. Suess (2013) describes the works of Yeats as a reflection of the Ireland of his day and the use of art to change the circumstances around him. Suess further points out that Yeats’ poetry spanned the late 19th and 20th centuries. In his early poetic works, Yeats got inspired by the legends and myths regarding ancient Ireland to develop a unique Irish literature. As he grew, he started incorporating themes relating to Irish politics into his poetic works (Jeffares, 2013). By employing his own understanding of nationalism, Yeats made significant contributions to plays and poems that sought to represent the native legends of Ireland.

When going through the poetic works of Yeats, one can notice elements of nationalism. Even during his early years of his career at the age of 22, the imaginative setting that he used in nearly all his works was Ireland (Malins & Purkis, 2014). During his career, he explored themes associated with Irish myths and folklore to produce modern cultured poetry. Some of those themes included criticism of Ireland’s occupation by the English, politics, Irish heroes, Irish landscape, Irish legends and myths, and memories. It is noteworthy to point out that his personal life and career cannot be separated. Yeats often attempted to ensure a link between poetry and his political interests (Vaughan, 2010). A number of factors explain his utilization of Irish elements in his poetic works. First, his childhood experiences played a crucial role. In this respect, his childhood was characterized by youthful anxieties linked to tensions stemming from a troubled family coupled with the political and social divides witnessed during the late 1900s. Yeats witnessed firsthand the conflicts between royal Britain and colonial Ireland. The poetic works of Yeats were extremely entrenched in Ireland. Second, Yeats had an interest in the oral traditional folklore and mythology. This interest, coupled with a heightened sense of Irish identity, inspired Yeats to produce poetry that focused on articulating Celtic mythology and folklore. As a result, his works were an attempt to summarize the national character of Ireland. Nationalism in Yeats poetry was also motivated by the continuing revived interest in Irish folklore and legends (Suess, 2013). At the time, traditional Irish sports and language were promoted to create a unique Irish-style literature. As a result, the literary authors of the time considered themselves as Irish instead of trying to be British. For Yeats, the revival of the Irish culture was a positive development, and his poetry was conceived as a platform for increasing the awareness of his audiences regarding what was taking place around them (Foley, 2015). Fourth, Yeats met with influential people such as Fenian John O’Leary, who was an Irish nationalist and who helped him to publish his poems in the Dublin University Review.

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A number of poetic works of Yeats such as “Sailing to Byzantium,” “Easter 1916,” and “The Second Coming” have elements of Irish nationalism (Malins & Purkis, 2014). The “Second Coming” is one of the most famed Modernist poetries written by Yeats. The Poem depicts the atmosphere of the Europe after the world war through the use of Christian imagery relating to the second coming and the apocalypse. This poem is often considered a turning point in the career of Yeats in poetry. The poem uses an apocalyptic tone, pessimistic mode, and articulates the pessimistic atmosphere that was observed in Europe and the rest of the world following the Great War (Suess, 2013). Since Yeats witnessed significant social troubles while growing, he used the “The Second Coming” to offer a description of the prevailing historical moment using gyres. In the first line, he says, “Turning and turning in the widening gyre,” to denote that it is time for the subsequent phase in history. The primary idea expressed in the poem is the decline of civilization attributed to the society disintegrating. When reading the poem, images of a miserable situation and things being out of control can be noticed, as he says in the third line, “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.” In the poem, chaos, violence, hatred, evil and disorder in the world are presented as the norm. In the first stanza of “The Second Coming,” the speaker is irritated by the world situation – failing governments and bloody revolutions (Jeffares, 2013). Thus, Yeats uses this poem to present the conflicts and turmoil in Ireland characterized by anarchy and chaos.

“Easter 1916” is another poetic work of Yeats that hinges on the political situation in Ireland. It was composed and published in 1921 during the Irish independence struggle prior to the establishment of the Irish Free State during 1922. Foley (2015) describes the poem as Yeats’ approach to mourning those who died in the 1916 Easter Rising and praising the martyrs and the suffering of Ireland during and after the event. The rebellion of the 1916 Easter Rising was a nationalist uprising that was planned to be executed during the Easter Monday of 1916 (Suess, 2013). However, the British captured the German ship that was supposed to supply the nationalists with munitions.


This paper has shown that the poetic works of Yeats, the history of Ireland, and his experiences are inseparable. His career in literary writing is evidence of the relationship that exists between politics and poetry. There is no doubt that his views were influenced by his participation in the politics of Ireland, in particular, the Irish independence movement. When analyzing the poems of Yeats, a heightened sense of Irish identity is noticeable. During the early stages of his career, the Yeats poetry focused on expressing Irish legends and myths. During later stages, themes relating to Irish politics and historical issues were dominant in his works.

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