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:


How can I, that girl standing there,

My attention fix

On Roman or on Russian

Or on Spanish politics?

Yet here’s a travelled man that knows

What he talks about,

And there’s a politician

That has read and thought,

And maybe what they say is true

Of war and war’s alarms,

But O that I were young again

And held her in my arms!


In the preface to the written version of his 1923 Nobel Prize lecture, Yeats claimed that he had expected Mann to win the Nobel Prize for literature that year. Yeats spoke extemporaneously at the awards ceremony in Sweden, but later wrote down what he remembered of that address, publishing it as a tiny book under the title The Bounty of Sweden. There Yeats called Mann a “distinguished novelist” but also hinted that he disliked the political themes of Mann’s work: “Herr Mann has many readers, is a famous Novelist with his fixed place in the world & said I to myself, well fitted for such an honor; whereas I am but a writer of plays which are acted by players with a literary mind.” Later in the same slim volume, Yeats writes of the playwright John Millington Synge that “he was the man we needed because he was the only man I have ever known incapable of a political thought or of a humanitarian purpose.” For Yeats, such a characterization was high praise, and especially in the aftermath of the Irish Civil War of 1922–23. Yeats thought of “the work of my generation in Ireland” as “the creation of a literature to express national character and feeling but with no deliberate political aim.” 

In contrast to the later Yeats’s fastidious avoidance of political questions, some of his earlier work addresses those questions directly. Take, for example, “Easter 1916,” his famous paean to the Irish nationalists who announced the birth of the Irish Republic on April 24, 1916. By that time, Yeats himself had largely withdrawn from the nationalist movement, but he could not help admiring the men who took over the General Post Office in Dublin. In the presence of a small and not very enthusiastic crowd, Padraig Pearse read out just after noon that day the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. Within a few weeks the British military, sent in to quell the Easter Rising, had made martyrs of the signatories of that proclamation, including John MacBride, the man who had finally married Maud Gonne.


Was it needless death after all?

For England may keep faith

For all that is done and said.

We know their dream; enough

To know they dreamed and are dead;

And what if excess of love

Bewildered them till they died?

I write it out in verse—

MacDonagh and MacBride

And Connolly and Pearse

Now and in time to be,

Wherever green is worn,

Are changed, changed utterly:

A terrible beauty is born.


But by the time he received the Nobel Prize, Yeats’s work had taken an introspective, apolitical turn. His short but eloquent “On Being Asked for a War Poem,” published in 1919, could have been addressed either to Anglo-Irish loyalists to the Empire, who were concerned with Britain’s fate in World War I, or to Irish nationalists who had begun the Irish War of Independence:


I think it best that in times like these

A poet’s mouth be silent, for in truth

We have no gift to set a statesman right;

He has had enough of meddling who can please

A young girl in the indolence of her youth,

Or an old man upon a winter’s night.


 Yeats’s reluctance as a poet to meddle with the affairs of statesmen did not, however, prevent him from taking a seat in the largely consultative Irish Senate in the Irish Free State in the 1920s. Alienated from the more Republican strains in Irish politics even before the abortive civil war of 1922–23, Yeats drifted further and further to the right. He even allied himself briefly with the fascistic Blueshirts, an ultra-Catholic party headed by General Eoin O’Duffy. Yeats’s prose was often a bit turgid, but never more so than when he was discussing fascism and its aesthetics. In a 1933 letter to Olivia Shakespear, he wrote:

A fascistic opposition is forming behind the scenes to be ready should some tragic situation develop. I find myself constantly urging the despotic rule of the educated classes as the only end to our troubles.... Our chosen color is blue, and blue shirts are marching about all over the country, and their organizer tells me that it was my suggestion—a suggestion I have entirely forgotten—that made them select for their flag a red St Patrick’s cross on a blue ground—all I can remember is that I have always denounced green and commended blue (the color of my early book covers). The chance of being shot is raising everybody’s spirits enormously.   

By then, Yeats seemed to have forgotten what he had written seventeen years earlier: “wherever green is worn...a terrible beauty is born.”

Today, Yeats is mainly remembered for his lyrical works. Outside the academy, few now read his verse dramas or his prose. We have collectively forgiven him his political folly. As W. H. Auden put it in his elegy to Yeats: “You were silly like us; your gift survived it all.” But Auden also famously wrote that “poetry makes nothing happen,” a judgment that would appear to be in keeping with the apolitical tone of Yeats’s late work. Was Auden right?

I think Seamus Heaney, who was born the year that Yeats died, felt quite differently. Raised on a farm in County Derry, Heaney mined his Northern Irish Catholic origins and the events of the recent Irish past in his poetry and prose. Without descending into pamphleteering, Heaney was not afraid to comment on politics in his poems. He disagreed with Archibald MacLeish’s dictum that “a poem should be equal to: / Not true.” In his own Nobel lecture (1995), Heaney says that “poetry can be equal to and true at the same time.” In the same lecture, he had some generous things to say about Yeats, but he also noted that Yeats’s Nobel lecture “barely alluded to the civil war or the war of independence,” even though Yeats was receiving the Nobel Prize only seven months after the surcease of open conflict in the civil war. Heaney describes the civil war as “bloody, savage, and intimate, and for generations to come it would dictate the terms of politics within the twenty-six independent counties of the island known first as the Irish Free State and then subsequently as the Republic of Ireland.” Yeats, Heaney says, “chose to talk instead about the Irish Dramatic Movement” in his Nobel lecture. Yeats “came to Sweden to tell the world that the local work of poets and dramatists had been as important to the transformation of his native place and times as the ambushes of guerrilla armies.”

Heaney hints that Yeats was a bit of an ostrich, burying his head in the Anglo-Irish literature of two generations before in order to avoid the political reality of his own time. Yeats had witnessed some of the violence of the civil war from the vantage point of his restored Norman keep, Thoor Ballylee, located near Gort in County Galway. Both IRA “Irregulars” and Free State soldiers arrived at his door, as Yeats recalls in his poem sequence “Meditation in a Time of Civil War”:


An affable Irregular,

A heavily-built Falstaffian man,

Comes cracking jokes of civil war

As though to die by gunshot were

The finest play under the sun.


Heaney greatly admired the next section of this sequence, “The Stare’s Nest by My Window.” Yeats maintained that in the West of Ireland “stare” was a name for a starling, but it might also suggest the relentless gaze of the natural world at the horrors human animals were perpetrating against their fellow humans in 1922–23. The poem opens with a description of how honey bees are building a hive in a crevice of the crumbling exterior masonry at Thoor Ballylee, a crevice where starlings had once built their nest. Yeats sees in this something like his own nesting with his wife, George, at Thoor Ballylee.


We are closed in, and the key is turned

On our uncertainty: somewhere

A man is killed, or a house burned,

Yet no clear fact is to be discerned:

Come build in the empty house of the stare.


A barricade of stone and wood:

Some fourteen days of civil war;

Last night they trundled down the road

That dead young soldier in his blood:

Come build in the empty house of the stare.


We had fed the heart on fantasies,

The heart’s grown brutal from the fare:

More substance in our enmities

Than in our love; O honey-bees,

Come build in the empty house of the stare.


Heaney mentions in his Nobel lecture how during the “Troubles” in Ireland of the late 1960s and ’70s, “I have heard this poem repeated often, in whole or in part.”

But Heaney was more consistent than Yeats in facing up to the political realities around him, even if he lived outside Northern Ireland after 1972. Like many voluntary exiles, Heaney admitted to feeling a certain guilt about the distance he kept from his native soil. He spent the summer of 1969 in Madrid at a time of great distress in the Irish North. In “Summer 1969,” a poem in a sequence titled “Singing School,” Heaney reflects on the harsh Northern Irish realities of that period:


When the Constabulary covered the mob

Firing into the Falls, I was suffering

Only the bullying sun of Madrid.

Each afternoon, in the casserole heat

Of the flat, as I sweated my way through

The life of Joyce, stinks from the fishmarket

Rose like reek off a flax-dam.

At night on the balcony, gules of wine,

A sense of children in their dark corners,

Old women in black shawls near open windows

The air a canyon rivering in Spanish.

We talked our way home over starlit plains

Where patent leather of the Guardia Civil

Gleamed like fish-bellies in flax-poisoned waters. 


Heaney’s Spanish literary friends urged him to imitate Federico García Lorca, the Spanish writer who engaged with the realities of Spain’s civil war and lost his life in the process. But, of course, such advice is always much easier to give than to follow.


“Go back,” one said, “try to touch the people.”

Another conjured Lorca from his hill.

We sat through death-counts and bullfight reports

On the television, celebrities

Arrived from where the real thing still happened.


The real thing kept happening in Northern Ireland long after the summer of ’69. In fact, the violence would last until the Good Friday Agreement was brokered in 1998. Heaney encountered more than once the brutal edges of the Protestant-Catholic divide in Northern Ireland during the 1970s. A twenty-two-year-old cousin of his, Colum McCartney, was shot dead in 1975 by Protestant Loyalists on a lonely road in Northern Ireland. Heaney, mesmerized by the horror of the event, tried to reconstruct what might have happened that night in “The Strand at Lough Beg” (1979):


What blazed ahead of you? A faked roadblock?

The red lamp swung, the sudden brakes and stalling

Engine, voices, heads hooded and the cold-nosed gun?

Or in your driving mirror, tailing headlights

That pulled out suddenly and flagged you down

Where you weren’t known and far from what you knew:

The lowland clays and waters of Lough Beg,

Church Island’s spire, its soft treeline of yew.


The beauty of his cousin’s native place on Lough Beg, where “across that strand of yours the cattle graze / Up to their bellies in an early mist,” reminds Heaney of the setting of the first Canto of Dante’s Purgatorio. In Heaney’s poem, this comparison clashes suddenly with his imaginative reconstruction of the circumstances that led to the discovery of his cousin lying on the road, still in the process of dying:


I turn because the sweeping of your feet

Has stopped behind me, to find you on your knees

With blood and roadside muck in your hair and eyes,

Then kneel in front of you in brimming grass

And gather up cold handfuls of the dew

To wash you, cousin. I dab you clean with moss

Fine as the drizzle out of a low cloud.

I lift you under the arms and lay you flat.

With rushes that shoot green again, I plait

Green scapulars to wear over your shroud.


In the eighth section of Heaney’s 1984 poetic sequence “Station Island”—named after the site of the famous pilgrimage to St. Patrick’s Purgatory in Lough Derg, County Donegal—the poet meets the same dead cousin. Here Colum McCartney proves to be a most unsettled ghost, angry at his murderer and angry as well at his poet cousin who is walking barefoot on the island’s stony penitential “beds.”


You saw that, and you wrote that—not the fact.

You confused evasion and artistic tact.

The Protestant who shot me through the head

I accuse directly, but indirectly, you

who now atone, perhaps, upon this bed

for the way you whitewashed ugliness and drew

the lovely blinds of the Purgatorio

and saccharined my death with morning dew.


Heaney does not spare himself, either here or in his Nobel lecture in 1995. Northern Irish out of Northern Ireland, he saw that “pride in the ethnic and religious heritage can quickly degenerate into the fascistic,” and yet “our vigilance on that score should not displace our love and trust in the good of the indigenous per se.” He found some hope, at least in 1995, in “the huge acts of faith that have marked the new relations between Palestinians and Israelis, Africans and Afrikaaners, and the way in which walls have come down in Europe and iron curtains have opened.” (At least on the first-mentioned of those acts of faith—between Palestinians and Israelis—the past eighteen years have shaken the foundations of Heaney’s hope.)

In a lecture he gave before the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland on November 5, 2001, “The Whole Thing: On the Good of Poetry,” Heaney addressed the importance of poetry for understanding the deepest reality of any human disaster, and especially of the human and political disaster that unfolded in New York and Washington on September 11 of that year. Heaney reworks one of Horace’s odes (I.34), abridging and expanding it, describing how a disaster, natural or human in its origins, can refocus the mind on realities long ignored.


Anything can happen. You know how Jupiter

Will mostly wait for clouds to gather head

Before he hurls the lightning? Well, just now,

He galloped his thunder-cart and horses


Across a blue sky. It shook the earth

And clogged underneath, the River Styx,

The winding streams, the Atlantic shore itself.

Anything can happen, the tallest things


Be overturned, those in high places daunted

And the ignored regarded. Fortune wheels

And swoops, making the air gasp, tearing off

Crests for sport, letting them drop wherever.


In his prose commentary on this poem, Heaney suggests that the horrific clouds of the collapsing World Trade Center Towers not only caused “the irruption of death into the Manhattan morning” and “grief for the multitudes of victims’ families and friends”; it also “had the intended effect of bringing to new prominence the plight of the Palestinians.” This is a debatable point. The Muslim suicide bombers sought to avenge not just the grievances of the Palestinians but many other historical sorrows of Muslims. When I quoted these words of Heaney’s in a talk I gave at a gathering of alumni of my high school in the spring of 2002, I thought one red-faced member of the audience was going to attack me physically. It’s just as well Heaney wasn’t there himself to deliver his thoughts on the topic.

The poet’s task, according to Heaney in his Nobel lecture, is to speak words “true to the external reality and…sensitive to the inner laws of the poet’s being.” If the poet’s words are true only to the external reality, the poet is no poet at all but instead a pamphleteer. Even if he’s a good pamphleteer, his relevance lasts only as long as his particular topic remains relevant. But if truth to the external reality isn’t sufficient for the poet, it may sometimes be necessary. In his Nobel lecture, Heaney suggests that the poet needs a theme larger than his own immortal longings:

There are times when a deeper need enters, when we want the poem to be not only pleasurably right but compellingly wise, not only a surprising  variation played upon the world, but a returning of the world to itself. We want the surprise to be transitive, like the impatient thump which unexpectedly restores the picture to the television set, or the electric shock which sets the fibrillating heart back to its proper rhythm.

How then, can we—poets no less than non-poets—not fix our attention “on Roman or on Russian or on Spanish politics?” The poet and the playwright, the novelist and the painter, if they wish to go beyond merely entertaining, must engage their imaginations with the concrete situations in which they happen to find themselves living. Some of these are political. Not all, of course. Other dimensions of our experience demand and deserve our attention: the smell of coffee on a cool, clear morning, the permutations of trees as they bud and blossom in spring. Poets need not always pull out all the stops on the organ. But they can’t resign from the human race and busy themselves only with the bric-a-brac on the mantelpiece. Ultimately, Thomas Mann was right and Yeats wrong. To his credit, Heaney realized the importance of the political more and more clearly as his career developed. Alas, that wise voice will speak no more. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam—may his soul be at the right hand of God.

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

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Published in the August 15, 2014 issue: View Contents
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