Pilgrim Soul — The poetry and politics of Yeats

Pilgrim Soul — The poetry and politics of Yeats

SONJA TIERNAN reviews Pilgrim Soul: WB Yeats and the Ireland of his Time by Daniel Mulhall

ON November 28, 1923, Oliver St John Gogarty passed a motion in the Free State Seanad, congratulating his fellow senator WB Yeats on his award of the Nobel Prize for Literature, describing it as ‘the most significant thing that has befallen this country’ since the Treaty. The Irish Independent newspaper announced “Senator Yeats’ prize” as “A Tribute to Irish Civilization”.

To mark this centenary, former Irish Ambassador Daniel Mulhall has published a book which he describes as focusing on “Yeats’s poetry and his Irishness”. The title Pilgrim Soul is fittingly taken from Yeats’ poem When You Are Old an ode to his lifelong muse and unrequited love, Maud Gonne.

Yeats may be the most written about Irish literary figure. A quick search of the National Library of Ireland catalogue throws up hundreds of biographies, edited volumes, and essays. It was therefore an ambitious task for Mulhall to write a book on Yeats to add to the breadth of knowledge in existence. Mulhall has succeeded in producing a unique, accessible and engaging examination of the first Irish author to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

What makes this book unique is Mulhall’s personal approach, shaped by his diplomatic background. In a recent article reflecting on the importance of the Humanities, Mulhall describes how ‘Early in my diplomatic career, during my time at the Embassy in New Delhi (1980-83), I came to understand the value of our history and our literature in profiling Ireland.’ Anecdotes abound in Pilgrim Soul which highlight the importance of Yeats’s literature in profiling Ireland abroad.

Mulhall recalls a lunch with Mrs. Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit. Then in her eighties, Pandit had been a freedom fighter for Indian independence, and later a politician and a distinguished diplomat. She was elected president of the United Nations General Assembly in 1953, the first woman to hold this post. She was the daughter of the nationalist leader Motilal Nehru, and sister of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India. During the lunch Mrs. Pandit recited two of Yeats’s poems, and explained to Mulhall how Yeats’s work, ‘had been a source of inspiration and strength to the Nehru family during their incarceration as opponents of British rule in India.’

The nine chapters of Pilgrim Soul are littered with engaging reflections and follow a chronological pattern. Each chapter opens with a key poem by Yeats contextualized by the historical events that shaped this writing.

In placing Yeats firmly at the centre of the Irish Literary Revival of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Mulhall makes a convincing argument that through his literature Yeats helped reshape mindsets of Irish people during this period. Up until the events of World War One, home rule was sought by Irish nationalists, content with self-government within the British Empire.

While acknowledging the importance of the Easter Rising in bringing about a change in Irish mindsets, Mulhall argues that Yeats “talked up the uniqueness of Ireland’s past in a manner that made it inconceivable that such people could settle for a subordinate political status”. Thus, for Mulhall, Yeats was central in the fight for securing Irish independence through cultural nationalism.

The Irish Decade of Centenaries (2012-2023) has been marked by the remembrance of seminal events that led to Irish independence and shaped modern Ireland. This has included turbulent episodes including World War One, the Easter Rising, the War of Independence and the Civil War. Pilgrim Soul is a welcome assessment of a significant literary figure whose writings offer us an exceptional view of this tumultuous time.

As we near the end of the decade of centenaries, it is appropriate for us to not only commemorate those who died or suffered throughout this period but also to celebrate Irish achievements. Mulhall’s book stands as a fine tribute to Irish cultural achievements, including most notably the award in 1923 of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Yeats.


About the reviewer

Sonja Tiernan is the coordinator of the Irish Humanities Alliance based at the Royal Irish Academy. Prior to this she was the Eamon Cleary Chair of Irish Studies at the University of Otago, New Zealand and previously she was based at Liverpool Hope University for nine years. Her most recent books include Irish Women’s Speeches in two volumes published by UCD Press in 2021 and 2022.

Sonja Tiernan