March 3, 2016

THE E’ER INSCRUTABLE | 1916 Annus Rosae: W.B. Yeats and the Wind of Love and Hate

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Courtesy of RTÉ Archives

“I, too, await

The hour of thy great wind of love and hate. When shall the stars be blown about the sky,

Like the sparks blown out of a smithy, and die? Surely thine hour has come, thy great wind blows, Far-off, most secret, and inviolate rose?”

To the Secret Rose, W.B. Yeats

The morning of April 24, 1916, began for the residents of Dublin as any other in the wartime Irish metropolis. Lilian Stokes, observing in a personal recollection, remembered her first reaction of the day as dismay that the tramway service had seemingly come to an inexplicable halt. Nervous crowds had begun to gather in the morning air. The routine of the city would not continue as normal, not today: the Irish Volunteers were throwing up barricades on the streets and brandishing green, Gaelic flags. Trinity College and Dublin Castle were being stormed. The British garrison was scrambling into action from a rudely disrupted early morning slumber. An Irish Republic was proclaimed aloud with a read declaration from the General Post Office on Sackville Street. The stupor of civilian humdrum whipped itself into a terrified frenzy. There were no trams. The Easter Rising had begun.

Despite all this, William Butler Yeats, the Nobel Laureate and a man who by his own admission possessed “from [his] mother’s womb / A fanatic heart,” had no idea that the Rising was to begin. He was not even in Ireland. The uproar of hatred for the Anglo overlords and the boorishness of some of the Irish patriots had for a long time unnerved him. He nevertheless later claimed that a play of his had served as the direct spark of the revolution; this is not a wantonly made claim. The ringleaders of the Easter Rising, unpossessed of the purely nihilistic urge towards property wreckage of Bolshevism, were fixated on the enactment of a lyric drama on Yeatsian terms. This would be a theatrical Rising, imbued with the efficacy of expression of Noh Theatre, and performed wearing masks from the Golden Age of Irish heroism. Yeats, whether he participated or not in the Rising, was this rebellion’s high priest, offering his popular ethnology, lyric, and prose theatre to the cause.

The aforementioned play Cathleen ni Houlihan, published and first performed in 1902, was a short, vignette-ish story of Irish life at the turn of the revolutionary 18th century. A young, soon-to-be-married man is bewitched from the stifling confines of domestic life by the eponymous elderly woman who comes to his family’s homestead seeking hospitality; the sound of an excited crowd murmurs up from the coast. The aged Cathleen explains that she desires neither money nor food and drink, though both are offered to her: “If anyone would give me help, he must give me help, he must give me all.” The young lover, his red cheeks soon to turn pale, his unborn children to be christened without a father, follows Cathleen wordlessly offstage in a trance: the French have landed at Killala; Ireland has taken up arms. The elderly Cathleen, as one character states, has taken on the aspect of “a young girl… and the walk of a queen.”

Personified Ireland. Cathleen was merely another in a long series of ethereally beautiful women leading young Irishmen to their untimely deaths. Yeats himself eagerly collected folk ballads of Mary Hynes, a Connacht girl of such heavenly aspect that men hastily tramping through the night to see her were reportedly wont to stumble and drown in fast-flowing rivers and icy springs. An image of Éire emerges: she is organic, and living. In his völkisch compendium Celtic Twilight, Yeats writes of landscapes populated by Sidhe, faery-folk, whose mischievous and proud personalities inhabit the hollows and sandstone caves of the seaside. This Irish soil bred ghosts. Past battles and Druid ceremonies left organic particles of memory strewn about the fields and atop burial mounds. Éire is rosy-cheeked Mary and the bent-backed old woman of Beare: vivacious and light-seeking in her health, or, conversely, as aimless and desiccated as a blocked, dried-up well.

The latter image, from a choral section of Yeats’ At the Hawk’s Well, was the preponderant by 1916. The soul of the nation, like the neglected rose tree in one of Yeats’ poems, had been wilted by “politic words…or maybe but a wind that blows / Across the bitter sea.” So said Yeats. For Patrick Pearse, Joseph Mary Plunkett, James Connolly and Thomas MacDonagh, signatories of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic and dandies of the Irish Volunteers, this humiliation could not remain so. Yeats, in “The Rose Tree” of 1917, retrospectively explains their solution. How could Mary and Cathleen be made young again? “‘It [the eponymous rose tree] needs to be but watered,’ / James Connolly replied… ‘But where can we draw water… / When all the wells are parched away?’ / ‘…O plain as plain can be / There’s nothing but our own red blood / Can make a right Rose Tree.’” A similar sentiment had been expressed in the poem selected to open this article, written nearly fifteen years earlier, and finds echoes in the poetry and polemic of the Volunteers themselves: “I will stand up before the Gall as Christ hung naked on the tree!” wrote Patrick Pearse in his play The Singer. No redemption was possible without copious shedding of blood.

This rose blazed in the hearts of the men of 1916. Their rebellion collapsed after six days of fighting. Swathes of Dublin lay in ruins. The inner core of Rising’s leadership was decimated in a wave of hangings and firing squad executions. In the attached photo, an observer points to the precise spot in a yard in Kilmainham Jail where sixteen rebels were shot. Yeats, observing from Britain, was horrified. One poignant fragment of Plunkett’s from “The Mask” implores, in nerve-wracked anticipation of his death, an unnamed godly presence:

“Now is my claim from thence That you should hear your heart’s Pleading in my defence

Before your praise departs

And all your grace goes hence.”

Entflohene Götter! 1916 was the year of one of the last truly romantic rebellions, the Easter Rising, unleashed and extinguished with equal swiftness. This was the sort of cockaded, fiery-hearted spectacle of ’48 and ’70 in France, albeit aggravated by a past of abuses even more grim. Aimé Césaire’s aphoristic insistence that Nazism embodied the evils of colonialism played out on a European stage bears repeating: Ireland had its plantations and artificial famines too. It was a history of squalor; parliamentary avenues for self-government had been dangled tauntingly before the Irish and snatched away at the outbreak of war in 1914. In the tempered fever of 1916, however, a terrible new beauty would be born.

The tree, the rose vaster than death, ringed with the fragrance of heaped human sacrifice, was watered. An Irish Free State was founded in 1922.

“Tá Gráinne Mhaol ag teacht thar sáile óglaigh armtha léi mar gharda,

Gaeil iad féin is ní Francaigh ná Spáinnigh ‘s cuirfidh siad ruaig ar Ghallaibh.”

Óró sé do bheatha abhaile, traditional Irish ballad

Griffin Smith-Nichols is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. Interested in studying Classics, he enjoys cultural criticism, cheap literature, the company of long-moribund civilizations and self-reference in the third person. The E’er Inscrutable appears on alternate Wednesdays this semester. He can be reached at [email protected].