Ever since the arrival of the first Norman knights in the 12th century, the island of Ireland has seen a substantial amount of conflict. From struggles with foreign powers and rulers to conflict within itself. As a result of the many centuries of conflict, the country developed into one of sharply drawn divisions even between fellow Irishmen and women; this conflict is to be found in the works of Irish authors, who either directly or indirectly addressed these issues. Beyond these divisions within communities, there are also divisions within the self. Irish literature has long dealt with ideas of separation, from the concurrent existence of magical worlds alongside the natural world in Irish mythology, to the controversial condemnation of gossip in Brinsley MacNamara’s The Valley of the Squinting Windows. For the purposes of this essay, the author will examine On being asked for a War Poem, Easter 1916, and Ego Dominus Tuus by W.B. Yeats, along with The Tolland Man, and Punishment by Seamus Heaney.
Throughout the course of their lives, peoples’ opinions and viewpoints can change. If not, then there would be no such thing as personal growth. What is interesting about the works of published authors is that it may be possible to track their changing beliefs. Yeats is no exception to this. In a general way, his style develops and he becomes more serious in his later years. Under Ben Bulben in particular has a maturity and wisdom lacking in some of his earlier poems:
“Irish poets learn your trade
Sing whatever is well made,
Scorn the sort now growing up
All out of shape from toe to top,
Their unremembering hearts and heads
Base-born products of base beds.” (lines 68–73)
Through the span of his career, Yeats was witness to major events both in Ireland and abroad — events that featured in and influenced his poetry. During World War One, he was asked by Henry James to pen a poem for inclusion in a collection to raise money for Belgium refugees. The final poem was written in August 1915. It was written with the purpose of showing his political stance on the war. The poem was originally titled To a friend who has asked me to sign his manifesto to the neutral nations. Aside from being quite lengthy, it resists a more traditional war poem title which places it on one side or another of the conflict. The title would morph until it finally became known as On being asked for a War Poem, which although still ambivalent, can be read with more feeling.
Yeats had always been conflicted by his views of violence in comparison to his views on Irish nationalism and idealism. In his personal life, this can be found in his love for Maud Gonne, her beauty attracting him whilst her zealotry repelled him. By the time Yeats came to publish this poem in 1917, his views on conflict had changed as he had come into close contact with it. As a major figure in the Irish Literary Revival, Yeats had Nationalist opinions. Upon hearing of the Rising he admitted to Lady Gregory that he was deeply affected. On being asked for a War Poem puts forth the argument that as a poet he shouldn’t say much, believing that a poet cannot do much with his pen:
“I think it better that in times like these
A poet’s mouth be silent, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right […]” (lines 1–3)
He seems to be of the mind that a poet is better off pleasing a young girl or an “old man upon a winter’s night” (6), suggesting that a poet is of better value as entertainment, as a distraction. However, once the Rising erupted and he saw how affected he was, there was a division in this opinion. McDonald suggests that in the subtle changes to the poem by 1917 create in the work an “added sense of dignity.” Though this is quite an assumption to be based on a title, the author believes that with a poet such as Yeats, each poem of his work is more than just the sum of its parts.
First published in 1921, Yeats wrote Easter 1916 as a direct, personal response to the events of Easter Week and feels like the poet working through his emotions regarding the Rising. The recurring theme of the poem, the idea that Ireland has passed the point of no return and been “changed utterly,” is a powerful one. The fact that a poem which is considered one of the 20th century’s most powerful political poems was written by a man whose opinions towards violence were ambivalent and who felt uncomfortable writing war poems is remarkable.
Yeats far preferred romantic literary nationalism to the insurrectionary nationalism that gained traction around this time. In its contents, the poem marks the changing point of Irish history, where the division between past struggles and future hope would be marked for many people. In a wider sense, it is representative of a division within the self. Yeats’ view of the Rising and its aftermath as “a terrible beauty” (line 80) is one held by Irish people following the execution of the Proclamation signatories. This event would galvanise the Irish republicans to increase the resistance to English rule and would eventually lead to the gaining of Independence. Beyond Yeats’ conflicted emotions around the violence, this poem is an expression of the strongest division in Irish history, which would largely be separated into pre-Rising and post-Rising.
There is also a division within community expressed in Yeats’ before and after snapshots of those killed In the Rising. One man, for example, whom Yeats imagines “[a] drunk vainglorious lout” (line 32) who had “done most bitter wrong / To some who are near my heart” (lines 33–34). Despite this seemingly negative portrayal of this individual, Yeats goes on to say:
“Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
A terrible beauty is born.” (lines 35–40)
To this author’s eye, there may be some slight satire in these lines, lampooning the glorification of people killed in the violent pursuit of freedom despite their shortcomings in life. However, the author believes this to be unintentional. Instead Yeats makes a point about the division between personal life and the call to nationalism.
The final poem by Yeats that the author shall discuss in the essay is Ego Dominus Tuus, published alongside On being asked for a War Poem in the poetry collection The Wild Swans at Coole. This poem takes the form of a dialogue between two characters named Hic (“this” in Latin) and Ille (“that”). The use of enjambment echoes the rise and fall of human conversation. Yeats once wrote on rhythm: “If certain sensitive persons listen persistently to the ticking of a watch, or gaze persistently on the monotonous flashing of a light, they fall into the hypnotic trance” (362). This poem draws in the reader by this rise and fall, this imitation of life, and allows the reader to delve into its meaning. The two men are written as having opposing ideals. Hic is a practical and conventional man, whereas Ille is an idealist who laments that the present day has lost touch with the past. The poem functions as a debate over whether literature should be an extension and expression of the creator’s personal life or be an idealization separate from the creator’s experience.
The inner division between the want to be authentic and the desire to be more than who you are can be read in the following lines spoken by Ille:
“By the help of an image
I call to my own opposite, summon all
That I have handled least, least looked upon.” (lines 8–10)
In these lines Ille is calling out for an image (ie: expression of self) that is the opposite to him, hopefully a better version of himself. The third line suggests that he is also calling upon his untapped potential in experiences he has not lived. The response by Hic is simple and short: “And I would find myself and not an image” (line 10). Hic has no desire for idealised images of self, instead choosing to find power through who he truly is. He rejects Ille’s desire of an idealised image as hollow, emphasising the importance of his reality over Ille’s idealism.
Ego Dominus Tuus features, in particular, the notion of the mask and the concept of the double self. The dialogue alludes to the poetry of writers such as Dante and John Keats and compares the works of each with their life experiences. However, through Ille, Yeats laments the “lost nonchalance of the hand,” and speaks to the seriousness with which artists take their crafts by refusing to separate work from personal lives. In a reference to Keats the poem contrasts his poetry to his real-life circumstances:
“[…] certainly he sank into his grave
His senses and his heart unsatisfied,
And made — being poor, ailing and ignorant,
Shut out from all the luxury of the world,
The coarse-bred son of a livery stablekeeper —
Luxuriant song.” (lines 57–62)
This poem deals with the idea of divisions within the artistic temperament. It presents the work of poets as a mask that the artists create for themselves, the face that they chose to present to the world. The author believes this to be a complex theme, one that makes this poem one of Yeats’ most interesting.
In his “Feeling Into Words” lecture, Heaney discusses his motivations for discussing the troubles: “I felt it imperative to discover a field of force in which […] it would be possible to encompass the perspectives of a humane reason and at the same time to grant the religious intensity of the violence, its deplorable authenticity and complexity.” The Troubles resulted in the sharpest divide in Irish history, with communities split down the middle (sometimes geographically as is the case in certain areas of Belfast even to this day). People who lived in the North had to decide which “side” they were on, alienating them from their fellow citizens.
In his collection North, from which two of the named poems have been selected, Heaney’s thematic concern is with violence itself, and how tensions in the North fuelled the violence of the Troubles. Hufstader believes that to read his poems as nationalist propaganda is to “miss the true concern of these poems — violence itself — and their greatness.”
Written in 1969, The Tollund Man is at first glance a piece written solely regarding the bog body of the same name. Heaney uses the striking image of the blackened body as a symbol of events in the North. The narrator of the poem, upon viewing the Tollund Man, becomes enthralled by the physical details of the body, even briefly identifying with him:
“His last gruel of winter seeds
Caked in his stomach,
Naked except for
The cap, noose and girdle,
I will stand a long time.
Bridegroom to the goddess,
She tightened her torc on him” (lines 7–13).
The positioning of the personal pronoun is interesting, as it places the individual in the midst of the symbols of violence and his own death. This is Heaney’s way of saying that individuals in the North are surrounded by violence in their everyday life, overwhelmed by the visualisation of the threat of death.
Another division is the divide between past and present, and the clash of religious beliefs throughout time. The poem recognises the strong pull of both this primitive religion and Christianity being strong enough to replace the other in turn, the two locked in a constant battle. The clash between religions has long been a source of creative inspiration, but it was also the main source of conflict during the Troubles. The Tollund Man is framed as a victim of religious violence, drawing direct parallels to the victims of sectarian violence. The final stanza of the poem begins with the phrase: “sad freedom” (line 33). What exactly is this sad freedom that Heaney is speaking of? To the author of this paper, this freedom is the liberty from the violence of the Tollund Man’s life. From the sectarian divides to the division between life and death. The sadness comes from the requirement of death to experience peace. The final stanza of the poem is an expression of understanding cruelty when one has experienced it:
“Out here in Jutland
In the old man-killing parishes
I will feel lost,
Unhappy and at home.” (lines 41–44)
Like The Tollund Man, Heaney’s Punishment uses the image of a bog body to link the idea of archaic and modern sacrifices. The body in the poem is Windedy I, previously known as the Windeby Girl. The poem equates the Iron Age with the Troubles; Windeby I was believed to have been executed as a punishment. It is likely that the punishment was carried out by a community, which is where Heaney wants the reader to link the image to the Troubles. The punishment is related to the tarring and feathering carried by members the IRA on harbourers and sympathisers of British soldiers.
Heaney is making a point by placing the brutality at the centre of a poem linking the past and present. Through linking the ancient with the modern, he is saying that humanity has not changed. Humans still fight with each other and make people suffer. In their conflict, they sow the seeds of enduring division, such as happened in the North. The brutality of the punishments drives home the primitivism of these acts, condemning those who commit them. One of the most startling images of the poem is from the moment the body was discovered:
“I can see her drowned
body in the bog,
the weighing stone,
the floating rods and boughs.
Under which at first
she was a barked sapling
that is dug up” (lines 9–16)
In these lines we see that the body was not recognised as human at first. The brutal act of murder has robbed the individual of all humanity, reducing them to something less than equal. The ability to view someone else as less than, to be able to draw the line dividing “us and them” or “you and I” is what leads to such violence. By losing a connection with others’ humanity (and by extension ours), we reduce each other to nothing more than the vegetation our bodies are laid in. Heaney attempts to undo this damage by humanising the body:
“[…] her shaved head
like a stubble of black corn,
her blindfold a soiled bandage,
her noose a ring
the memories of love.” (lines 17–22)
It is possible that in this act of giving the woman back her humanity, Heaney himself is attempting to make up for silence in his past, when he witnessed the cruelty of the troubles. Thus there is an inner division — to remain silent but safe, or speak out and endanger yourself. We get the sense that Heaney is struggling with this issue: “I almost love you / but would have cast, I know, / the stones of silence” (lines 29–31).
In his work Heaney addresses the largest division of the Troubles, the decision to stand by or to speak out. The human reaction is one of self-preservation. Hancock writes that Heaney “recognises that his task is to adjudicate between humane reason and ethnic bonds.” However the challenge lies in the division between “civilised outrage” and the uncomfortable “understand[ing of] tribal, intimate revenge” (lines 43–44). The tit-for-tat killings of the Troubles permeates every line of the poem, as does the divide between people with differing opinions.
The history of Ireland is one of division. Whether it is land being divided amongst conquerors, between views on the future of the country, to the fight over disputed counties, conflict has been a common feature. It is only natural that the literature of the country would reflect this, as it is almost ingrained in the Irish peoples’ psyche. The poems the author has discussed have examined the scope of this division, ranging from tangible divides in communities to more internal, personal divides. W.B. Yeats and Seamus Heaney are perhaps the most famous poets to come from Ireland, as well as the most talented. A close reading of their work shows how carefully constructed they are, with levels of meaning that unfurl before the reader. They also provide insight into the mentality of Irish people during their respective eras, voicing opinions and divisions of opinions that impacted their reader and beyond.
Selected Poems. W.B. Yeats. Penguin Modern Classics, Penguin, London, 2000.
New Selected Poems 1966–1987. Seamus Heaney. Faber and Faber, London, 1990.
Hancock, T. “’Daring to make free’: Seamus Heaney and Ulster Politics, 1968–1979.” Sourced from Blackboard.
Heaney, S. Finders Keepers: Selected Prose 1971–2001. Faber and Faber, London, 2003.
Hufstader, Jonathan. “‘Coming to Consciousness by Jumping in Graves’: Heaney’s Bog Poems and the Politics of ‘North.’” Irish University Review, vol. 26, no. 1, 1996, pp. 61–74. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25484649.
McDonald, Peter. “Yeats and Remorse”. Chatterton Lecture on Poetry: Proceedings of the British Academy 94 p. 179. https://www.thebritishacademy.ac.uk/pubs/proc/files/94p173.pdf?_ga=2.241066947.1564987855.1543887280-1261160911.1543887280