Ireland’s William Butler Yeats received the Nobel Prize for literature 100 years ago this month. The Nobel Foundation cited “his always inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation.”The Nobel Prize in Literature 1923. NobelPrize.org.
Yeats began publishing poetry in his 20s during the Irish Land War of the 1880s. The Nobel Prize came a few months after the end of the Irish Civil War, which concluded a decade of revolutionary activity that Yeats captured in several remarkable poems. See:
- September 1913 (“Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone, It’s with O’Leary in the grave.”)
- Easter, 1916 (“All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.”)
- The Second Coming (“Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”)
Yeats had visited the United States in 1920, during the war of independence, following his earlier stops in 1903/4, 1911, and 1914. Here is a selection of U.S. press commentary about his Nobel Prize:
“The honor … may be unexpected but it is not undeserved. … Mr. Yeats has a highly distinctive place among his fellows. None of the neo-Celtic school, except perhaps the late J.M. Synge, has surpassed him in originality; none has equaled him in the mystic charm which is the very essence of the Celtic genius. The work of Mr. Yeats is not to be judged, however, by any limited standard; its Celtic quality is only part of its appeal. … Mr. Yeats’s lyrics are as purely Celtic as anything could be, yet they are not alien to the English mind. He has gone to Ireland for his themes and made them of universal interest. Only a great poet could have done that.””An Irish Poet Wins the Nobel Prize”, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Nov. 16. 1923.
“The influence of Yeats is great and growing. Quotations from him are frequently used by other writers to strike the keynote of an idea or to illustrate the trend of modern literature. … He is a pioneer of a memorable initiative of poetical and dramatic art and a leader in national life, aspiration and attainment.””Deservedly Honored”, The Buffalo (N.Y.) Times, Nov. 16, 1923.
“Mr. Yeats is a true nationalist in his land, a student of the traditional in Irish literature, a patron of the astonishing Irish theater, and a member of the Irish Senate. He has been an interesting visitor to this country in the recent past. His fame was secure without this signal honor; if it attracts new readers to his works the Novel foundation, in thus honoring the poet, will in a large measure have justified its activity.””A Prize for an Irish Poet”, The (Brooklyn, N.Y.) Standard Union, Nov. 18, 1923.
Yeats made several glancing references to America in his Dec. 15, 1923, Nobel lecture. He returned to the United States one last time in 1932/32, cumulatively spending more than a year in the country.”W.B. Yeats in the USA, 1903-1932″, Embassy of Ireland USA website. He died in 1939, aged 73.
Three other Irish writers subsequently received the Nobel Prize in literature: George Bernard Shaw, 1925; Samuel Beckett, 1969; and Seamus Heaney, 1998.
|↑1||The Nobel Prize in Literature 1923. NobelPrize.org.|
|↑2||”An Irish Poet Wins the Nobel Prize”, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Nov. 16. 1923.|
|↑3||”Deservedly Honored”, The Buffalo (N.Y.) Times, Nov. 16, 1923.|
|↑4||”A Prize for an Irish Poet”, The (Brooklyn, N.Y.) Standard Union, Nov. 18, 1923.|
|↑5||”W.B. Yeats in the USA, 1903-1932″, Embassy of Ireland USA website.|