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15 Irish Renaissance in Poetry and Drama
(W. B. Yeats, J. M. Synge, A. Gregory, and S. O’Casey)
W(illiam) B(utler) Yeats (1865 – 1939)
- b. in Dublin
- relig. by temperament x but: unable to believe in Christian orthodoxy
- inclined to the traditions of esoteric thought: mysticism, folklore, theosophy, spiritualism, and
- moved btw (a) Dublin, (b) London, and (c) Sligo (west of Ir.):
(a) Ir. nationalism: poetry contrib. to the rejuvenated Ir. culture
(b) the important poets of the day: poetry in the dreamy Pre-Raphaelite tradition
(c) life of countryside peasantry: poetry in the folklore tradition
 Poetry:
- created a symbolic system of his own = mystical and quasi-mystical ideas based on a variety of sources
common to W. Blake and P. B. Shelley
- the system strengthens the coherence of his poetic imagery
- able to communicate the significance of his symbols by the way he expresses and organises them even to
readers who know nothing of his system
- asserts the power of a mystical vision and an often passionate sexuality and sensuality
- presses for both spiritual and political commitment
 phase 1 = a self-consciously Romantic poet: (ca 1890s)
- < E. Spenser, P.B. Shelley, and W. Blake
- < Sligo experience
- Gaelic poetry from the heroic age of Ir. history
- precise natural imagery, country place names, and themes from folklore: “The Stolen Child”
- links even neoplatonic ideas with the Ir. heroic themes  gives dignity and style to his imagery not
normally associated with this sort of poetic dreaminess: “The Rose of the World”
- a habit of revising earlier poems in later printings
- also a co-founder of the ‘Rhymer’s Club’ (1890 – 1904)
The Celtic Twilight (1893):
- = an essay
- explains his notion of poetry
- combines an escapist post-Paterian aestheticism x a nationalistic Celticism: withdraws into ideal
landscapes of Celtic legends (Innisfree) = an alternative way of seeing and repres. the world
“The Lake Isle of Innisfree”:
- controls the handling of the imagery to achieve a haunting quality
“The Man Who Dreamed of Faeryland”:
- contrasts human activities x strangeness of nature
“The Madness of King Goll”:
- the disturbing sense of the otherness of the natural world drives the king mad
 phase 2 = Ir. nationalist: (ca 1900s)
- < F. Nietzsche > a more active stance  a more masculine, simpler, and more pop. style
- < Maud Gonne (1866 – 1953 [= an Ir. actress and violent nationalist]) > refused to marry her: “No
Second Troy”
- < Augusta Gregory > invited to her country house Coole Park (county Galway) to experience the
‘country house ideal’ = an aristocratic life of elegance and leisure imposing order on chaos: “A Prayer
for My Daughter”
- detests the middle classes with their Philistine money grubbing, finds his ideal characters above them
(aristocracy), or bellow them (peasants and beggars) because of the own tradition they have and live
accord. to
- abandons ‘impersonal beauty’ in favour of ‘the normal, passionate, reasoning self’
- combines the colloquial with the formal: “The Folly of Being Comforted”, “Adam’s Curse”, & oth.
In the Seven Woods (1903)
The Green Helmet and Other Poems (1910)
“The Wild Swans at Coole”, “In the Seven Woods”, and “Coole Park, 1929”:
- < inspired by A. Gregory’s house and surroundings
 phase 3 = a national figure: (ca 1910s)
- < A. Gregory > co-founded the ‘Irish Literary Theatre’ (1899 – 1901), actively participated in play
- makes poetry pronouncements on public controversies
- after the defeat of his cause by the Rom. Cath. middle class representatives moves to En.
- after the Easter Rising (1916 [= an attempt of Ir. republicans to force independence from the UK, led
largely by a group of poets rather than military minded people; the rebellion suppressed, the leaders
executed] returns to Ir.
- occupies, refurbishes, and renames the Norman tower on A. Gregory’s land to mark his new
commitment = central symbol of his later poetry
- becomes a senator supporting the Protestant landed class
- during the WW I preocc. with the Easter Rising x not with the war x but: “An Irish Airman Foresees His
Death”, on the death of A. Gregory’s only child in WW I
The Wild Swans at Coole (1919) and Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1821):
- combines the colloquial and the formal
- adds a metaphysical and an epigrammatic element
- experiments with different kinds of rhythm
The Trembling of the Veil (1922):
- recalls the members and meetings of the ‘Rhymer’s Club’
- > later incorporated into his Autobiographies
A Vision (1925, 1937):
- = a highly speculative essay
- works out the elements of the symbolic system derived from his wife’s automatic writing he believed to
have been dictated by spirits
- develops a theory of the movements of history and of the different types of personality = each related in
various complicated ways to a different phase of the moon
 phase 4 = the mature realist-symbolist-Metaphysical poet (ca 1920s)
- subject matter: revolutionary politics x personal regret, evocations of ideal past x prophecy, private
agonising over the process of ageing x celebration of cultural history
- recurrent symbol of winding stairs and spirals of all kinds:
(a) symbol of life = a journey up a spiral staircase, both repetitious and progressive
(b) symbol of the means resolving contraries and paradoxes
The Tower (1928)
The Winding Stair and Other Poems (1933)
- opening: ‘Between extremities / Man runs his course’
- presents an argument framed by contraries and complements: dialogues btw soul and heart, evocations of
the public domain of the soldier and the withdrawal of the meditating saint, etc.
“Leda and the Swan”:
- = a tense sonnet
- conc.: the rape of Leda by a superb, mastering bird, and the long-term consequences of the rape in the
ruin of Troy and the murder of Agamemnon
joins the human x the divine, transforms the intimate into the public, the woman’s violation into a wider
human tragedy
- [note: Leda and Zeus’s illegitimate daughter = Helen of Gr., married the King of Sparta Menelaus and
was abducted by Paris of Troy; Leda’s legitimate daughter = Clytemnestra, married Agamemnon,
murdered him because of her lover, and was herself murdered by her son Orestes]
“Sailing to Byzantinum”:
- escapes from the turbulence of life to the calm eternity of art
“After Long Silence”
 phase 5: (ca 1930s)
- last poems of a controlled x but: startling wildness
-  consid. the greatest 20th c. poet of the E language
 Drama:
- aimed:
(a) to create a ‘poetical or legendary drama’ within an ‘only symbolic and decorative setting’, and to
turn away from the ‘common realities’ of H. Ibsen’s work and his own early drama
(b) to create a national dramatic style drawing from Ir. traditions, and to provide a focus for future
national, and nationalist, aspiration
- acquired the ‘Abbey Theatre’ in Dublin (1904) together with his associates, incl. A. Gregory, George
Moore (1852 – 1933), and J(ohn) M(illington) Synge
The Countess Kathleen (1892):
- = an early episodic poetic drama
- mixes folkloric elements x nationalism
- > inaugurated the ‘Ir. Literary Theatre’
Cathleen ni Houlihan
The Golden Helmet
The Hour Glass
‘The Cuchulain Sequence’:
- = a sequence of plays conc. with the ancient hero C.
- an increasingly innovative stage technique
> On Baile’s Strand (1903):
- opens the sequence
- the characters reflect abstract ideas
> At the Hawk’s Well (1916):
- < the symbolic patterns of the Japanese Noh drama recommended to him by Ezra Pound (1885 – 1972) >
a freer symbolic and ritual drama
- C. transfigured into a series of patterned words and symbols emphasised by light effects, masks, dance,
and the music of a drum, gong, and zither
- climax: a ritualistic dance
> Purgatory and The Death of Cuchulain (both 1939):
- incl. bare stages, hauntings, and disconcerting shifts of time-perspective
John Millington Synge (1871 – 1909)
- = more conventionally shaped plays
- minimises conventional action, achieves the singular effect through language
- echoes the rhythms of the Western Ir. E moulded by Gaelic syntax and provincial Cath.
- his mature plays perfect a distinctively Ir. comic form
- < London 17th c. comedies
Riders to the Sea (1904):
- = a short ‘poetic’ play
- suggests the perennial failure of those working with and on the sea
- subsumes characters and action in a choric flow expressive of a submissive fatalism
The Tinker’s Wedding (1903 – 7)
The Well of the Saints (1905)
The Playboy of the Western World (1907):
- set on the remote Mayo coastline
- an isolated rural community disturbed by the arrival of a fugitive = a supposed parricide
- concl.: the fugitive departs with his thrice ‘resurrected’ father in a triumphant act of myth-making in
which he claims to go away ‘like a gallant captain with his heathen slave’
- minimises action in favour of words and the illusion words create
Lady Augusta Gregory (1852 – 1932)
- < her nurse = a native Ir. speaker, made her familiar with histories and legends of the local area
- a cultural nationalist: the main organiser and driving force of the ‘Irish Literary Revival’
- made her house at Coole Park a meeting place for the leading Revival figures, incl. W. B. Yeats [see
also: his “The Wild Swans at Coole”, & oth.]
- co-founded the Irish Literary Theatre (1899 – 1901: collapsed due to lack of funding) > the Irish
National Theatre (1904+) > the Abbey Theatre
- contrib. to the renaissance esp. of Ir. drama: one of the Abbey’s most prolific playwrights, a director, and
an occasional stage manager
- her only child killed in WW I [see also: W. B. Yeats’s “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death”]
- a dramatist and folklorist
- author of a number of short plays and books retelling stories from Ir. mythology
- an unusual ear for dialect:
(a) wrote in an attempted transliteration of the Hiberno-E dialect spoken around Coole Park =
‘Kiltartanese’, from the nearby village Kiltartan
(b) co-authored W. B. Yeats’s early plays, esp. the dialogue passages involving peasant characters
Cuchulain of Muirthemne (1902), Gods and Fighting Men (1904), & oth.:
- = coll. of Kiltartanese versions of Ir. myths
A Book of Saints and Wonders (1906), The Kiltartan History Book (1909), The Kiltartan Wonder Book
(1910), & oth.:
- = coll. of tales from the area around her Coole Park home
Spreading the News (1904), The Rising of the Moon (1906), the tragedy The Gaol Gate (1906) and The
Workhouse Ward (1908):
- = one-act plays about the Ir. peasantry
The White Cockade (1905), The Canavans (1906), and The Deliverer (1911):
- = Ir. folk-history plays
Our Irish Theatre: A Chapter of Autobiography (1913)
Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland (1920):
- = a 2-vol. study of the folklore of her native area
Sean O’Casey (1880 – 1964)
- b. John Casey, at the peak of his association with the nationalist Gaelic League known as Sean O
- a poor Protestant Dubliner by birth
- = the last major early 20th c. Ir. dramatist to be associated with the Dublin Abbey Theatre
- his plays based on his own experience of the sounds, rhetoric, prejudices, frustrations, and manners of
tenement dwellers of the Dublin slums
- avoids romanticising Ir., fantasising about its past or its bloody present, or poeticising the vigorously
rhythmical language of the Dublin poor
- avoids apologising the troubles of Ir., or taking sides with its oppressor x its supposed liberators
- his poor:
(a) caught up in a struggle disrupting their lives x rather than enhancing or transfiguring them
(b) no dumb victims x but: uncomprehending and unwilling sufferers for sb’s else cause
- tragedies x but: relieved by a wit as instinctive as irreverent: ‘the whole worl’s in a state o’chassis’ in
Juno and the Paycock (1924)
 Dublin Drama:
The Shadow of a Gunman (1923):
- < J. M. Synge’s Playboy of the Western World
- the theme of deception and self-deception x but: ironically set against a revolutionary and urban
background instead of the rural one
- set in a tenement back room, in the time of the ‘Black and Tan’ repression (1920)
- the title itself ambiguous: the gunman of the play = a sham, not the supposed warrior, the ‘poet and
poltroon’, dying violently x but: the girl who looking upon him as a hero, the ‘Helen of Troy come to
live in a tenement’
Juno and the Paycock (1924):
- set in a single tenement room in the time of the Irish Civil War (1922 – 23)
- [‘Anglo-Irish Treaty’ (1921) establ. the Irish Free State, precursor of today’s Rep. of Ir., as a dominion
within the UK x but: the Northern Ir. opted out of the Ir. Free State  ‘Irish Civil War’ (1922 –23) btw
supporters and opponents of the Treaty, result: the anti-Treaty IRA forces defeated, the Treaty accepted]
The Plough and the Stars (1926):
- set in / around the rooms of an old tenement house, in the time shortly before and during the Easter
- the tenement both partially detached from the political struggle x bound up in its confusions, injustices,
and bloody accidents
 London Drama:
- moved to En. (1926)
- his later plays marred by awkwardness and socialist rhetoric  neither managed to recall the tense and
unsentimental energy of his Abbey plays
The Silver Tassie (1928):
- = an experimental ‘Tragi-Comedy’ marred by accentuated paradoxes
- commented on the WW I
- rejected by the Abbey Theatre, performed in a London theatre
Red Roses for Me (1943)
Cock-a-Doodle Dandy (1949) and The Bishop’s Bonfire (1955):
- = anti-clerical and anti-capitalist analyses of modern Ir.