Historical Context

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Irish Nationalism and the Nineteenth- Century Literary Renaissance
The Protestant English were the dominant economic, political, and cultural force in Ireland beginning in the sixteenth century, when they settled large parts of Ireland. Throughout the seventeenth century, these Anglo-Irish, with the support of the British Crown, confiscated land from local Irish Catholics and instituted repressive laws that prohibited Catholics from working in many professions and from owning property. The English language replaced Irish Gaelic as the language of everyday speech and literature, helping to stifle traditional Irish culture.

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Britain granted Ireland’s Parliament legislative independence in 1780. Even though the entire Irish Parliament was Protestant, it granted to Catholics a number of reforms in religious practice and land ownership—but not the right to vote. Irish Catholics rebelled against English domination in 1798, but their uprising was quelled and the Irish Parliament disbanded. Three years later, the Act of Union made Ireland a part of the United Kingdom.

In 1842, Irish poet and activist Thomas Davis and other writers founded a weekly newspaper, The Nation, which published the political writing and literature that was later credited with sparking in many Irish a renewed sense of nationalism. Before this, much Irish literature was written merely to entertain or to poke fun at local customs; after the middle of the nineteenth century Irish literature began to focus on political concerns.

Literary activities during the final years of the nineteenth century have prompted historians to refer to this period as the Irish Renaissance. The writers of the time were interested in using traditional Irish folk tales and myths as the inspiration for a rebirth of Irish literature. Irish nationalist activists, including John O’Leary and Yeats, met as the Young Ireland Society, organized to promote Irish nationalism through Irish literature. Yeats helped organize the Irish Literary Society in London in 1891 and the National Literary Society in Dublin in 1892. Both societies were formed to promote the independence of Ireland from England through the development of Irish national literature and arts.

The Gaelic League emerged in 1893 to work toward the reinstatement of Irish as the spoken language of Ireland. That same year, Douglas Hyde published a collection of Irish Gaelic folktales translated into English, and Yeats published The Celtic Twilight, a collection of his articles on Irish legends.

The full force of the Irish literary rebirth was felt especially in the theatre. In 1902, Yeats and Lady Gregory founded the Irish Literary Theatre (later called the Irish National Theatre Society), and in 1904, thanks to the contributions of a generous patron, they were able to produce their plays in Dublin’s famed Abbey Theatre.

The Abbey Theater
Yeats and his close friend and patron, Lady Gregory, established the Irish Literary Theatre in 1902 in Dublin to encourage Irish playwrights to create dramatic works that addressed life in Ireland. Many Irish writers at that point hesitated to produce works that did not reflect the dominant Protestant English culture, but Lady Gregory and Yeats believed that Irish nationalism could be strengthened through the creation of a national literature. Lady Gregory and Yeats encouraged dramatists to include in their plays Irish peasants, folk tales, history, and mythical heroes and legends.

The theater company appeared in various locations but by 1904 had use of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre through the contributions of a wealthy patron, Annie Elizabeth Horniman, and changed its name to the Irish National Theatre Society. The company soon gained a popular following by producing the plays of such dramatic luminaries as Sean O’Casey and John Synge. Synge presented his controversial play The Playboy of the Western World at the Abbey Theatre in 1907.

Critics maintain that the quality of the productions at the Abbey declined after Yeats’s death in 1939. In 1951, a fire forced the company to move to another theater, but in 1966 the Abbey reopened and by 2001 it contained an acting school as well as a second stage for more experimental productions. The theater also expanded its scope to include classical plays such as those by William Shakespeare and plays by contemporary European playwrights.

Literary Style

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Stream-of-Consciousness Writing Style
In his Autobiographies, Yeats writes very long paragraphs, many of which are more than one page in length. This style gives the reader the feeling of someone telling a story with many characters and numerous plots that are all somehow connected. The stream-of-consciousness style allows Yeats to move from topic to topic as they seem to occur spontaneously in his thought, unrestricted by the demands of conventional order.

Commentators on Yeats’s autobiographical essays have noted that places and dates are not necessarily accurate; however, these lapses do not generally disrupt the atmosphere of the work. While the individual essays are generally arranged in chronological order, time is not a central organizing device. More important are the individuals and what they did, according to Yeats’s memory, and how they affected his life.

Yeats’s Autobiographies is comprised of a series of essays published individually. The two essays Yeats wrote on his life through the late 1800s, ‘‘Reveries Over Childhood and Youth’’ and ‘‘The Trembling of the Veil,’’ were originally published in 1915 and 1922, respectively. In 1926, these two essays were published as one work. The years from 1896 through Yeats’s reception of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923 are detailed in four essays: ‘‘Dramatis Personae,’’ ‘‘Estrangement,’’ ‘‘The Death of Synge,’’ and ‘‘The Bounty of Sweden.’’ All six essays were collected in 1955 for presentation in one volume as Autobiographies.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Edwards, Diane Tolomeo, ‘‘William Butler Yeats,’’ in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 98: Modern British Essayists, edited by Robert Baum, Gale Research, 1990, pp. 328–41.

Heaney, Seamus, ‘‘All Ireland’s Bard,’’ in Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 280, No. 5, November 1997, pp. 155–60.

Reid, B. L., ‘‘William Butler Yeats,’’ in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 19: British Poets, edited by Donald E. Stanford, Gale Research, 1983, pp. 399–452.

Spencer, Theodore, ‘‘The Later Poetry of W. B. Yeats,’’ in Literary Opinion in America, edited by Morton Dauwen Zabel, Harper, 1962, pp. 270–81.

Stillwell, Edith, ‘‘William Butler Yeats,’’ in Aspects of Modern Poetry, Duckworth, 1934, pp. 73–89.

Wilson, Edmund, ‘‘W. B. Yeats,’’ in Axel’s Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870–1930, Scribner’s, 1931, pp. 26–63.

Further Reading
Bogan, Louise, ‘‘William Butler Yeats,’’ in Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 161, No. 5, May 1938, pp. 637–44. This article, published not long before Yeats’s death in early 1939, expresses appreciation of the aging poet and dramatist and includes an overview of his life and accomplishments.

Cahill, Thomas, How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe, Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 1995. This book covers, in a relatively light manner, the early history of Ireland, including the legends and myths of many characters in whom Yeats was interested in his search for a unifying Irish literature.

Foster, R. F., W. B. Yeats, A Life, Vol. 1: The Apprentice Mage 1865–1914, Oxford University Press, 1997. This is the first in a planned series of two biographical volumes on the life of Yeats. In this volume, R. F. Foster covers the writer’s life through his middle years, when he was especially involved in Irish drama and in running the famed Abbey Theatre.

Shaw, Robert B., ‘‘Tragic Generations,’’ in Poetry, Vol. 175, No. 3, p. 210. In this article, Robert Shaw compares the state of poetry at the end of the twentieth century with poetry at the end of the nineteenth century, with an especially close examination of those poets Yeats referred to in his essay ‘‘The Trembling of the Veil’’ in Autobiographies.

Compare and Contrast

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1920s: In 1923, Yeats wins the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Today: The Irish poet Seamus Heaney wins a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995. The 1998 Nobel Peace Prize is awarded to two Irishmen seeking to find a solution to the violence still besetting their homeland. The Nobel Prize Committee describes Roman Catholic co-winner John Hume, leader and one of the founders of the moderate Social Democratic and Labour Party, as ‘‘the clearest and most consistent of Northern Ireland’s political leaders.’’ The prize’s other recipient, David Trimble, Protestant head of the Ulster Unionist Party, ‘‘showed great political courage when, at a critical stage of the process, he advocated solutions which led to the peace agreement,’’ according to the Nobel Prize Committee.

1920s: Ireland suffers through the Anglo-Irish War, three years of guerrilla warfare between the Irish Republican Army supporting Ireland’s independence from Britain. The Anglo-Irish Treaty creates the Irish Free State consisting of twentysix counties in the southern Roman Catholic portion of Ireland. The Irish Free State exists within the Commonwealth of Nations with a status equal to that of Canada and only a modi- fied oath of allegiance to the British monarch. Yeats serves as a Free State senator from 1922 through 1928. The remaining six Protestant counties accept limited home rule as Northern Ireland. Many Protestants in Northern Ireland view their separation from the Catholic south and union with Britain as a way to maintain their religion and dominant position. Many Irish Catholics, however, view the partition as simply the most recent evidence of British injustice against the Irish people.

Today: The Irish Free State is now the sovereign Republic of Ireland, without an oath of allegiance to the British Crown. Northern Ireland remains politically connected to the United Kingdom, and tensions continue between the Catholic minority and the Protestant majority.

1920s: Autobiographies and memoirs such as Yeats’s essays are written and published primarily by famous people or those who have held important positions in government, the arts, or science.

Today: Published autobiographies and memoirs are hugely popular and are written as often by the nonfamous as by the famous. The Internet bookseller Amazon.com lists more than thirty-two thousand titles in this category.

1920s: The monetary award for the 1923 Nobel Prize for Literature, won by Yeats, is the smallest ever issued by the Nobel Committee, 114,000 Swedish kroner.

Today: The prize for the 2000 Nobel Prize for Literature is nine million Swedish kroner, or about $915,000. This amount is the largest sum of money ever awarded for this prize in literature.

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