In the spring of 1921, William Butler Yeats was at work on a poem he was calling “Thoughts Upon the Present State of the World.” He told a friend and former lover that he was “writing a series of poems…ot philosophical but simple & passionate, a lamentation over lost peace & lost hope.” Yeats had been living in Oxford since his marriage three years earlier. As he explained to his patron Augusta Gregory, he had decided against returning home because “the constant bad news from Ireland kills my power of poetical work…. I knew that if I did not get out of every kind of public life I would lose my poetical power.” Yeats did not mean that he lacked opinions: in February 1921, a few weeks after writing to Lady Gregory, he denounced British conduct in Ireland during an address to the Oxford Union.
Bad news had been frequent in Ireland for nearly a decade. In 1912 the British House of Commons approved a bill to give Ireland representative government—not independence, but what was called Home Rule. For Irish constitutional nationalists and their Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), it was the fulfillment of decades of work. But the bill could not become law for two years. During the interlude Ulster Unionists organized mass meetings and militias to oppose it, and Irish nationalists created their own militias in response. In September 1914 the bill became law. By then, however, World War I had begun; another new law postponed Irish changes until the the war on the continent should conclude. The IPP supported the war, turning its militia into a recruitment vehicle for the British army. A smaller group of Irish nationalists refused, maintaining their own militia, the Irish Volunteers; a secret group within that group planned an armed uprising.
On the day after Easter 1916, that small group—which included the poet Padraig Pearse and the future Prime Minister Eamon de Valera—seized the Dublin General Post Office and other government buildings; they were soon removed by force. British administrators reacted hastily, executing sixteen of the rebels and incarcerating other nationalists—thus creating martyrs, as Pearse had hoped, and turning Irish opinion sharply toward the more radical nationalist party, Sinn Fein. Yeats wrote three poems in response to the insurrection, among them “Easter 1916” (“A terrible beauty is born”), but chose not to publish any of them at the time.
In December 1918 Sinn Fein won most of the Irish seats in the British Parliament. It then established its own Irish government, while the Volunteers, renamed the Irish Republican Army, began to attack the police. British reinforcements, especially the notorious Black and Tans, former soldiers untrained for police work, tried to strike back, generating by 1920 the sort of tit-for-two-tats counterinsurgency now all too familiar in other parts of the world. Eileen Quinn, a young mother and family acquaintance of Augusta Gregory, was shot dead by Black and Tans; Gregory’s daughter-in-law was nearly killed by the IRA. The Irish War of Independence, also called the Anglo-Irish War, lasted until the Treaty of 1921 created the Irish Free State, less than a republic and more than Home Rule, minus the six Ulster counties that became Northern Ireland. Dissatisfied Volunteers resumed guerrilla campaigns; the Irish Civil War between a pro-Treaty army and anti-Treaty Irregulars continued until 1923.
In 1928 Yeats published The Tower, collecting—along with such now-famous poems as “Leda and the Swan”—the sequence once called “Thoughts Upon the Present State of the World,” rechristened “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen.” It is an ambitious, ambivalent, magnificent, complicated and bitter poem, casting its frustrations in several directions: at the whole course of history, at individual bad actors and at the poet too, along with those who believed what he had once believed, those who allowed themselves to be surprised by the wars of the 1910s, in Ireland and on the continent, regardless of whether they could have worked to prevent them. Poets, in Yeats’s day as in our own, often claim that poems should try to shape political life, or else that poets should not dirty their hands with it. In 1915, in “On Being Asked for a War Poem,” Yeats claimed that he had “no gift to set a statesman right.” But his poems on Ireland say otherwise; they contemplate failures, not of poetry but of statesmen, politics and civilizations, of public life in all its forms. “The poet finds and makes his mask in disappointment, the hero in defeat,” he wrote in an essay of 1917, and so it is with his poems on public events, which imply—none more so than “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen”—that political art can reach its zenith only when political action, as such, has failed.