At the beginnings of the 20th century, modernist literature develops and conflict is one of the main characteristics of the modernist period. W.B. Yeats has felt the need to write about the conflict happening in Ireland and about the need of Irish people to construct their national identity and independence through rebellion. In “Easter, 1916” Yeats had been inspired by Irish nationalism so he wrote a poem about the Easter Rising of 1916. The Irish nationalists staged a revolt against the British government’s rule and they proclaimed an Irish Republic (Greenblatt, 2006). Yeats asserts in “Easter, 1916” that Ireland had “all changed, changed utterly” (15) and he stresses later on that its people “are changed, changed utterly” (79).
Indeed, Irish nationalism started with violent protests against the “cultural, economic, and political subordination of Ireland to the British Crown and Government” (Greenblatt, 2006, p. 1831). Yeats believes that Irish people are tired of “polite meaningless words” (8) and they needed to show their discontent through the birth of “a terrible beauty” (16).
The Irish nationalism had fiery revolutionaries people and “vainglorious lout” (32), like Major John MacBride and Maud Gonne, who were so devoted to the Irish Nationalist cause. The poet is an observer who is walking down the street and meeting the people “at close day” (1) and remarking that they are “coming with vivid faces” (2). Yeats notices that these activists have the blossoming of ingenuity in their blood and they are determined to preserve the Irish history and language. Yeats’s use of the pronoun “I” (1) shows readers that he is quiet detached of the heat and passion which is animating all the people who are present in the poem. Yeats wrote, “I have met them at close day of day.” (1)
According to Greenblatt (2006), Yeats’s nationalism and antinationalism, his divided loyalties to Ireland and to England, find powerfully ambivalent expressions in “Easter, 1916.” The poet is aware of his Irish leaders’ humanity as well as their faultiness. Yeats describes Constance Gore-Booth as an “ignorant good-will, / Her nights in argument / Until her voice grew shrill” (18-20). Then, Yeats portrays Padraic Pearse as a “man” who “had kept a school” and Thomas MacDonagh as a “helper and friend” (24/26). Furthermore, Yeats asserts that Irish mentality “changes minute by minute” in order to metamorphose into true independence. Yeats is indeed aware that common people can believe in change and that they can intensify the drive for independence.
In the same manner, Joyce articulates his hope and fear for Ireland and its heritage relative to the elements of Modernist literature through his narrative called “The Dead.” Joyce, as the true Modernist who wishes to break with the past and the power of patriarchy and imperialism, wrote a short story where readers overhear the character speaking. Joyce portrays the protagonist Gabriel Conroy as a man who is struggling with his “Irish identity, his feelings towards his family and his countrymen.”
Gabriel Conroy is not able to communicate effectively because he is torn between choosing Robert Browning or Shakespeare. Gabriel was “undecided about the lines from Robert Browning for he feared that they would be above the heads of his hearers” and that “some quotation that they could recognize from Shakespeare or from the Melodies would be better” (Greenblatt, 2006, p. 2174). Robert Browning is an English author who is not representative of the national identity of Gabriel Conroy’s native Ireland. Robert Browning does indeed symbolize colonialism. If Gabriel uses his quotations, he would be considered as an antinationalist.
Hence, Joyce is presenting to his readers a protagonist in conflict with the British rule, with his wife, and with his Irish identity. When his wife Gretta tells Gabriel that she is thinking about “a person long ago who used to sing that song,” Gabriel’s smile “passed away” and “a dull anger began to gather again at the back of his mind and the dull fires of his lust began to glow angrily in his veins” (2197). Consequently, Joyce describes his protagonist as a person who lacks confidence and determination. When he thought of his wife who “had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes” (2199), Gabriel’s eyes were filled with tears. Therefore, Joyce’s protagonist portrays the theme of “social and political paralysis in Ireland through his interactions with his Aunts, his peers, and his wife at a social gathering (Schwarz 19, as cited by Ballif, byu.edu).
W.B. Yeats’s poetry and James Joyce’s prose express their concern with the Irish Nationalism movement and the hope for their activist compatriots to achieve an Irish identity.
The uprisings of Easter in 1916 were suppressed in six days and most of the rebels were executed.
Both authors have expressed the facts about Irish life and the hope and desire of the Irish nationalists.