By the time Yeats was twenty-one, two concerns had already emerged as central in his writing. One, which endured little changed throughout his life, was his rejection of late-Victorian scientific rationalism in favor of Romantic forms of knowledge. His placement of “The Happy Shepherd” at the start of Collected Poems self-consciously signals the centrality of this choice to the formation of his canon. Claiming that the materialist approach of science has yielded only “Grey” and inhuman forms of truth, the poem declares that the realm of imagination, for all its uncertainty, offers the best chance of self-knowledge and solace in a “sick” and hurried world (VP64-5). The second concern, also enduring, but to which Yeats's relationship was often vexed and always evolving, was his desire to identify himself specifically as an Irish writer, and to assert the distinctiveness of “Irishness” as a cultural identity.
His interest in Irish folklore and heroic legend would bring these two seemingly separate preoccupations into intense and productive conjunction, particularly in the first two decades of his career. Folklore and legend offered him subject matter that contrasted sharply with the orthodoxies and concerns of the contemporary urban world, but that he was able to claim as distinctively Irish and draw on in creating master-myths of Irish nationality. As a storehouse of uncanny phenomena, ancient wisdom expressed in metaphorical or allegorical forms, and traditional models of story-telling, folklore appealed to him on occult, philosophical, and literary grounds. Heroic legend likewise attracted him both emotionally and intellectually, since he believed that only heroic action allowed the full expression of selfhood, and thus made possible the kind of passionate, heroic poetry he aspired to write (UPi 84).
From the outset of her career as a cultural nationalist in the late 1890s, Lady Gregory pursued and encouraged both pragmatic and visionary modes of nation-building. The work of restoring 'dignity' to Ireland required practicality as well as idealism, she argued in early essays, with 'adaptable, sagacious' real-world talents needing to be combined with otherworldly, transformative dreams if the country were to achieve both economic and imaginative self-determination. As a writer, activist and patron she consequently sought a balance between the 'real' and the 'ideal' in Ireland – counterpointing her promotion of Irish folklore and legend, for instance, by campaigning against British overtaxation, and encouraging the cause of agricultural organization amid her first flush of enthusiasm for Yeats's writings (Diaries, 147, 135-7). Her involvement in the Irish theatre movement epitomised this distinctive mix of pragmatism and idealism. Both her achievements as a playwright and her decades-long financial and directorial guardianship of the Abbey Theatre would be motivated by her conception of the theatre as a forum in which the practical and the visionary might be combined to effect lasting political, social and imaginative change.
Her participation in the theatre movement began, symptomatically, because of her practical skills. Though she had ‘never been at all interested in theatres’ before meeting Yeats, and at first collaborated with him only as a folklorist, she was captivated by and eager to help him realize his longharboured hopes for a poetic and romantic school of drama that might counter the rise of Ibsenite realism and the dominance of ‘commercial’ considerations in the theatre. During a conversation in summer 1897, when Yeats told her of Edward Martyn’s plays being declined by London managers, she responded by saying that ‘it was a pity we had no Irish theatre where such plays could be given’.
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