Yeats and labour

  • Patrick Macfarlane

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis examines how W.B. Yeats’s view of labour developed over his lifetime. It focuses primarily on Yeats’s poetry, though consideration is also made of his letters, essays, plays, and speeches. The five chapters of the thesis are organised chronologically. Chapter 1 argues that Yeats’s early poetry makes sympathetic connections between the plight of artists and the working class, and suggests that the division of labour contributes to the hardships faced by both. However, his writing also reveals excitement about the ability of poetry to direct others’ labour. Chapter 2 examines Yeats’s anxiety about the future of Ireland’s Protestant elites at the turn of the twentieth century, and his diminished sympathy for unskilled labour. Yeats claims that these elites, like skilled artisans, justify their existence by making things beautiful. Chapter 3 shows that, around the time of his marriage, Yeats drew on the myth of Pygmalion to distinguish between different aspects of artistic labour. His poetry suggests that while such labour may bring inanimate beauty alive, it may also draw life out of the artist. In response, he proposes a model of reciprocal artistic servitude. Chapter 4 considers Yeats’s veneration of sprezzatura and vigour following the First World War, and his idea that poetic composition formed part of his alchemical ‘Great Work’. The chapter also examines Yeats’s reliance on his wife’s labour, arguing that he occluded her contribution to protect what he saw as the masculine nature of his work. Finally, Chapter 5 argues that the enthusiasm evident in Yeats’s late poetry for both liberty and hierarchy at work can be attributed to his growing identification as a Protestant. Yeats came to see poetic labour as the means of transcending the labour of creating new life, and proving the poet both instrument of, and co-heir to, the divine.
Date of AwardDec 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SponsorsArts & Humanities Research Council & City of London Corporation
SupervisorGail McConnell (Supervisor) & Fran Brearton (Supervisor)


  • Irish poetry
  • Ireland
  • Poetry
  • Labour
  • Yeats

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