Mourn– and then Onward!

By Sam Alexander

In his later years, William Butler Yeats was not fond of “Mourn—and then Onward!,” the short poem he published in United Ireland four days after the death of Charles Stuart Parnell in 1891.[1] He excluded it from the Collected Poems and balked when it was reprinted as a memorial for Arthur Griffith in 1922, writing to Lady Gregory that he could see “no trace of merit” in the lyric.[2] The poet’s own dismissive attitude may explain why even critics interested in Yeats’s understanding of Parnell have overlooked “Mourn,” or read it as a mechanical exercise in nationalist politics. In his assessment of Yeats’s “literary Parnellism,” Malcolm Brown quotes only the title of the poem, which he calls “a doctrinaire statement of the Fenian line.”[3] Always suspicious of Yeats’s “cunning,” Conor Cruise O’Brien takes the view that the poem was motivated not by an instinctive sense that the time had come for Irish poetry to succeed Irish politics (pace Richard Ellmann), but by Yeats’s desire to increase his readership by winning over the Parnellite readers of United Ireland (Parnell’s last newspaper): “[I]n Ireland there is no better platform than a hero’s coffin.”[4] These readings associate “Mourn” with the concerns of a young, ambitious, nationalist poet, isolating it from the later Parnell poems (starting with “To a Shade” in 1913) that occupy a more prominent place in Yeats’s oeuvre. While it does not exhibit the same formal workmanship as these later poems (it was written in under three days), the poem does help illuminate Yeats’s early approach to the figure who would come to play such an important role in his political thought.

A photograph of Parnell in 1886 taken by Katherine (Kitty) O’Shea. Source: the Multitext Project in Irish History at University College Cork, Ireland:

Perhaps most important in this regard is the image, in the last stanza, of Parnell’s memory as a “burning pillar” like that which guides the Israelites in the desert (Exodus 13:21). This allusion offers the story of Moses, the leader who guides his people to the Promised Land without entering it himself, as a model for understanding Parnell’s life and premature death. (The correspondence is not precise, since Parnell’s people did not, in his lifetime, reach the promised land of Home Rule). The Moses analogy highlights an aspect of Parnell’s background that helps explain Yeats’s identification with the fallen leader. As an Egyptian who is really a Jew, Moses can be identified with both oppressor and oppressed. Similarly, Parnell the nationalist leader was at the same time an Anglo-Irish Protestant with links to Yeats’s beloved eighteenth century; in fact, one of his ancestors, Thomas Parnell, was the (absentee) Archdeacon of Clogher, a poet who counted Pope and Swift among his friends.[5]

This dual status would have appealed even to the young Yeats. While he had not yet embraced the cult of the aristocracy that would mark his later years, Yeats in 1891 was already struggling with the paradox of being a poet of English descent constructing an essential Irish identity through mythology and legend (as he had in The Wanderings of Oisin, published two years before Parnell’s death). As John Kelly points out, other Protestant writers of the Irish Literary Renaissance would be attracted to the Moses-Parnell analogy for the same reason. Lady Gregory, for example, presented in The Deliverer (1911) a transparent allegory that could have only one act, since the “crushed and miserable race” that Moses plans to lead out of Egypt turns against him and stones him to death just as they are about to depart on their journey. [6]

In his reading of “Mourn—and then Onward” (of which he, like Brown, quotes only the title), Kelly argues that the poem exemplifies one of the key differences between literary treatments of Parnell by Protestants (Yeats, Gregory, and others like Lennox Robinson) and by the middle-class Catholic James Joyce in “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in particular. While Joyce treats Parnell’s death largely in terms of betrayal and irreparable defeat—a proof of the futility of Irish nationalism that Stephen Dedalus cites in his refusal to become entangled in the movement—Yeats’s allusion to Moses implies “ultimate success under new leadership.”[7] This reading implicitly prioritizes the final stanza:

Mourn—and then onward, there is no returning
He guides ye from the tomb;
His memory now is a tall pillar, burning
Before us in the gloom!

These are the most optimistic lines in the poem, and they fit well with the image of Yeats as eagerly anticipating his new role in the post-Parnell Ireland—a narrative first devised by Richard Ellmann in his influential biography. Quoting a letter written to John O’Leary after Parnell’s divorce case, in which Yeats describes the controversy as “exciting,” Ellmann argues that the poet “seems to have grasped instinctively that the time had come to act,” by replacing Parnellite politics with his own literary approach to national revitalization.[8] But Ellmann does not comment the next sentence in the letter to O’Leary, in which Yeats continues, “Hope he will hold on, as it has driven up into dust & vacuum no end of insincerities.”[9] This suggests that the fall of Parnell was, while perhaps exciting to Yeats, also an ominous illustration of the pitfalls of public life and the caprice of the crowd. If Kelly and Ellmann are right— if Yeats did hope, in a sense, to succeed Parnell— then the poet might reasonably have expected a fate similar to that of the fallen politician.

Not surprisingly, then, the poem as a whole conveys a sense of apprehension not captured in the closing lines. In fact, the final stanza appears to be an afterthought, an obligatory addendum to the three that have preceded it. The “and then onward” of line 9 is spatially separated from the poem by a dash, and while this phrase implies a verb (“move” or “march,” perhaps), that verb is suppressed and so unable to balance the more ominous imperatives that have filled the poem up to this point: Mourn, Be full of sudden fears, Mourn, Mourn. In spite of Yeats’s efforts in the title and final stanza, “Mourn” clearly emphasizes the haunting death of Parnell, not any prospective triumphs that might follow from it: the dominant tone of the poem with regard to the future is one of radical uncertainty. The first line of stanza three, “Mourn on ye grass-green plains of Eri fated,” for example, does not specify what green Ireland is fated to, leaving the reader at the end of the line in much the same position as the Irish people after the fall of their leader. Rather than put an end to this doubt, the next line returns its focus to Parnell, who is “closed” in a darkness as deep as that which surrounds the future of Ireland. And Yeats has already made this connection explicit in the second stanza, which locates the poem’s reader “by the waves that close in our sad nation” (5, emphasis added).[10]

Already in “Mourn—and then Onward!,” Parnell has begun to occupy the role in which Yeats would cast him repeatedly in his later poetry. Not unlike the aged Orpheus in Milton’s symbolic constellation, this fallen leader comes to figure the solitary artist assailed by an unrestrained mob. Parnell is described as inhabiting a “lonely station” during his life, and the actions Yeats ascribes to him suggest the arduous work of the poet described later in “Adam’s Curse”: before his death, Parnell had “laboured on” in the face of great difficulty and, like a sculptor, “moulded the hard years” into a nearly successful struggle for political power.[11] In a journal entry years later, Yeats would associate Parnell’s shape-giving power with his Protestantism: “The sense of form, whether that of Parnell or Grattan or Davis, of form in active life, has always been Protestant in Ireland. O’Connell, the one great Catholic figure, was formless.”[12] This opposition—already detectable in “Mourn” — will also be a key concern of the otherwise quite different “Parnell’s Funeral” (1934), Yeats’s most famous Parnell poem.

  1. ↑ For the text of the poem, see The Variorum Edition of the Poems of W.B. Yeats. ed. Peter Allt and Russel K. Alspach (New York: Macmillan, 1957), pp. 737-738. [VP]
  2. ↑ Quoted in Michael Steinman, Yeats’s Heroic Figures: Wilde, Parnell, Swift, Casement (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1983), p. 82.
  3. ↑ Brown, The Politics of Irish Literature from Thomas Davis to W.B. Yeats (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1972), p. 376.
  4. ↑ O’Brien, “Passion and Cunning: An Essay on the Politics of W.B. Yeats,” in In Excited Reverie: A Centenary Tribute to William Butler Yeats, 1865-1939, ed. Norman Jeffares and K.G.W. Cross (New York: MacMillan, 1965), p. 219.
  5. ↑ F.S.L. Lyons, Charles Stuart Parnell (London: Fontana Press, 1991), p. 16.
  6. ↑ Kelly, “Parnell in Irish Literature,” in Parnell in Perspective. ed. D. George Boyce and Alan O’Day (London: Routledge, 1991), p. 262.
  7. ↑ Kelly, p. 251.
  8. ↑ Ellmann, Yeats: the Man and the Masks (New York: Norton, 1999), p. 103.
  9. ↑ Ibid.
  10. ↑ The verb “close,” in Yeats’s work, almost always accompanies a loss of perception— a covering of eyes or ears (as in “To the People,” lines 32-34: “But I … / … can neither close / The Eye of the mind nor keep my tongue from speech”) (VP 353). The claustrophobia and uncertainty of “closed in” in “Mourn” is echoed in “The Stare’s Nest by My Window,” the sixth section of the Meditations in Time of Civil War: “We are closed in, and the key is turned / On our uncertainty; somewhere / A man is killed, or a house burned, / Yet no clear fact to be discerned… (4-10; VP 424-425). For other uses of the verb in Yeats’s work, see Stephen Maxfield Parish’s Concordance to the Poems of W.B. Yeats (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1963), p. 147.
  11. ↑ “Mourn” 7, 8, 11; “Adam’s Curse” 22 (VP, p. 205).
  12. ↑ Quoted in Steinman, p. 73.