Stanford University Home

Stanford News Archive

Stanford Report, April 18, 2001

Roy Foster: Yeats emerged as poet of Irish Revolution, despite past political beliefs


"A terrible beauty is born." It may be the most famous refrain in English poetry.

In 1916, anyone in Ireland who heard William Butler Yeats's "Easter 1916," the poem to which the verse belongs, would have interpreted it "as an endorsement of Republicanism, pure and simple," said Roy Foster, the Carroll Professor of Irish History at Oxford University.

However, Yeats did not have the poem published until 1920, and he remained publicly silent on the Irish Revolution until close to the end, Foster notes. When the struggle began, in 1912, Yeats was no longer the revolutionary he once had been. Indeed, he was an advocate of home rule –- that is, of setting up an Irish Parliament with control of domestic affairs.

Still, Yeats emerged as the poet of the Revolution and, in 1922, was appointed a senator of the Irish Free State. What happened?

In his lecture April 6, "The Politics of Poetry: W.B. Yeats and the Irish Revolution 1912-1922," Foster discussed how Yeats's political views changed during that decade.

Foster was one of more than 100 scholars who read papers at the three-day Pacific Coast Conference on British Studies April 6-8, an annual event held this year at Stanford. The three-day conference began under gray skies and rain.

"We even have arranged, with great difficulty, English weather," quipped history Professor Peter Stansky, chair of the conference program committee.

Foster is currently working on the second volume of his authorized biography of Yeats. The first volume, W.B. Yeats, A Life I: The Apprentice Mage 1865-1914 (Oxford, 1997), has won critical accolades in Britain and the United States. The British Council and the Stanford Humanities Center made Foster's attendance at the conference possible.

By 1912 and 1913, Yeats was, despite his Fenian past, a "home ruler who had long agreed to disagree with some of his own revolutionary comrades, like Maude Gonne," Foster said.

In addition, Yeats had by this time fallen out bitterly with Arthur Griffith, a radical nationalist who helped to found the political movement Sinn Fein.

"Yeats was surprisingly ready to concede that Ulster Protestants had a case for fearing Catholic intolerance in an autonomous Ireland, but he also argued that it was in their own interest, as well as in all Ireland's interest, to accept home rule," Foster said.

In a speech he gave in favor of home rule, Yeats compared Irish society to a stagnant pond filled with junk, including the two old boots of Catholic bigotry and Protestant bigotry. Yeats believed that home rule could undam this pond, Foster said.

"Of course, this wasn't going to happen. The pond wouldn't be gently undammed by a constitutional act. It would be dynamited by a revolution," he said.

And Yeats adapted his public persona so that he emerged in 1922 as the founding father of a new nation, Foster said.

For most of the Revolution, however, Yeats avoided taking a political stance in public. He was nevertheless astonished by the uprising of Easter 1916, during which Irish nationalists armed themselves and rebelled against British rule.

Yeats wrote "Easter 1916" between May and September of that year and read it to a relatively small group of people. But he did not have it published. And despite the fact that the poem would be widely read as an endorsement of the revolution, it is an ambiguous poem.

"It emphasized not only the bewildered and delusional state of the rebels, but it moves on to a plea for the flashing, changing joy of life rather than the harsh stone of fanatical opinion fixed in the effluvial stream," Foster said.

When the Revolution descended into guerrilla warfare in 1919, Yeats "kept his counsel," Foster said, and even considered moving to Japan or Italy to get away from the conflict. "He was considered to have lost touch with public affairs," Foster said.

Roy Foster.
photo: L.A. Cicero