‘When a Deeper Need Enters’

Politics in the Poetry of Yeats & Heaney

There are no political neutrals—not even among churchmen or poets. Two Irish poets help to illustrate my point: William Butler Yeats, who died in 1939, and Seamus Heaney, who died last year on August 30.

William Butler Yeats, every English major’s idea of an Irish poet, spent much of his life engaged (seldom successfully) in politics. But the sort of politics in which he was engaged changed a good deal as the years passed. Like many of the Anglo-Irish, Yeats had fallen head over heels in love with the earlier strains of Irish nationalism, much of it arising among the Irish Protestant elite with their romantic cult of the so-called Celtic Twilight. Furthermore, what love Yeats had for Irish nationalism was intimately tied up with his love for Maud Gonne, the woman he imagined to be the reincarnation of Helen of Troy. Her persistent refusal of his several marriage proposals had much to do with the changes in his politics. 

Toward the end of his life, Yeats wrote a poem that eventually appeared in his Last Poems 1936–1939. Titled “Politics,” it begins with a quotation from Thomas Mann: “In our time the destiny of man presents its meaning in political terms.” Yeats disagreed:


To read the rest of this article please login or become a subscriber.

About the Author

Patrick J. Ryan, SJ, is the Laurence J. McGinley Professor of Religion and Society at Fordham University.