Discuss W.B Yeats’ Treatment of Myth and History

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The Lake Isle of Innisfree is a notable literary work by William Butler Yeats. A complete discussion of this literary work is given, which will help you enhance your literary skills and prepare for the exam. Read the main text, key info, Summary, Themes, Characters, Literary Devices, Quotations, Notes, to various questions of The Lake Isle of Innisfree.


Discuss W.B Yeats’ Treatment of Myth and History. 

Or, Critically comment on Yeats’ handling of history and myth with reference to the poems you have read.

In classical Greek, “mythos” signified any story or plot, whether actual or invented. According to its central modern significance, a myth is a system of hereditary stories of ancient origin that a particular cultural group once believed to be accurate. On the other hand, history is a fact. Myth and history form an integral part of W.B. Yeats’s poetry.

Yeats’ Handling of Myth: The myth that Yeats (1865-1939) employed extensively in his poems is directly derived from the source of the legend of Irish heroism. He has wholly absorbed this mythology and created it as a part of his imagination. He believes that literature is not only invested with passion and ancient beliefs are always in danger of degeneration, which he calls the Chronicle of Situation or Emotional Imagination.

“Easter 1916”: The poem “Easter 1916” is based on Irish mythology and politics. In this poem, we see Yeats’s myth-making imagination at work. He transforms and modifies old myths to suit his purpose; he even creates new myths. The poem’s opening lines convey an impression that some legendary figures are coming out of the dead past to participate in the preset activity.

I have met them at close of day   
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey   
Eighteenth-century houses.

Maud Gonne Related to Myth: Many of Yeats’s poems display his love for Maud Gonne. In his poems, we also find the theme of intellectual hatred. According to the poet, Maud Gonne had intellectual hatred because of which she acted foolishly and ruined her happiness by marrying John Mac Bride, a worthless, vainglorious lout. Here, Maud Gonne is symbolically compared with Helen. The beautiful city of Troy was destroyed for her foolishness. Thus, Maud Gonne symbolically becomes a mythological representation of Helen in the modern age. So, the poet symbolically wishes that his daughter should avoid the fault of Maud Gonne.

Yeats’ Handling of History: Yeats’ handling of history is philosophic and far-reaching. The poems expressing Yeats’s sense of history are “The Second Coming, September 1913, Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen and Easter 1916.

Focusing on the Cycles of Civilization: The poem “The Second Coming” illustrates Yeats’s theory of the rise and fall of civilization. This poem is remarkable for expressing his notion that history consists of cycles. Every civilization has a period of its own. According to him, the present cycle of history began with the birth of Christ, but it is about to end. He suggests that the present cycle of history will likely be replaced by another cycle, which is the ruling authority that can be terrifying and cruel.

The Contemporary History of Ireland: Easter 1916 reveals the contemporary history of Ireland. The Easter Rising of 1916 had taken Yeats by surprise. He came to hate those who were very revolutionary, but they achieved heroic dignity. It seemed to Yeats that a terrible beauty had been born. Then, he realized that these Irishmen had achieved permanence, which he set down to celebrate in this poem. The intensity of heroism crossed the normal life cycle and gained stability in flux or instability.

Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.

In this way, Yeats praises the rebel heroes for displaying his patriotic solid intent.

Reflection of Aesthetic and Practical Life: The most acclaimed poem, “Sailing to Byzantium,” is a vivid reminder of Yeats’ keen interest in the historical city of the Eastern Empire and its significance with its art and culture. To Yeats, Byzantium meant that moment in history when religious, aesthetic, and practical life could never be achieved before or after recorded history. Therefore, the poet’s journey symbolizes bringing peace and unity to society.

Attitude to Social and Romantic Issues: “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” is a product of Yeats’s reflection upon the changes brought about by the violence which followed the Easter Rising. His attitude is social and romantic.

But is there any comfort to be found?
Man is in love, and love’s what vanishes.
What more is there to say?

In termination, we can say that Yeats can handle myths and history because he believes in his and every personal idea about history and mythology. He drew upon Ireland’s mythic past to convey timeless truths and used historical events and figures to comment on his time’s political and social issues. Yeats’ ability to blend these two elements, often blurring the lines between myth and history, contributed to the richness and complexity of his literary legacy.