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"Call back the soul": Yeats, Ireland and the aesthetics of cultural renewal in the Oxford book of modern verse.

In his selection of Irish writers, included in The Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1936), Yeats expresses his theories of the Irish poet's unique role in modern cultural renewal. He does so by applying the paradigm he created for Irish cultural nationalism to a grander scale. Yeats explains his paradigm in a speech before the Irish Academy of Letters, on 17 August 1937. Yeats, as Foster notes, "integrated the inevitable Ascendency triumvirate of WBY, Gregory, and Synge into the iconography of the Irish revolution and the 'people of Ireland"'(AP 596). In a poem composed for the occasion, "The Municipal Gallery Revisited," Yeats emphasizes that "the Ascendency is an essential part of the new Ireland" (AP 596) and, that together with rural Ireland, they can create a nation founded in aesthetic values that can redeem the Irish people. He writes,
   John Synge, I and Augusta Gregory, thought
   All that we did, all that we said or sang
   Must come from contact with the soil, from that
   Contact everything Antaeus-like grew strong.
   We three alone in modern times had brought
   Everything down to that sole test again,
   Dream of the noble and the beggar-man. (VP 603)

Brian Arkins explains the significance of the classical analogy: "Yeats writes of ... a type of life and art that is rooted in the ordinary experiences of human existence, 'in contact with the soil.' From this contact ... all their efforts were increasingly successful like those of the giant Anteaus, who, whenever he was thrown down, arose stronger than before through contact with his mother, the Earth" (89). Yeats believed in the power of the rural peasant and believed in the value of contact with the soil, but he also believed that such contact can only redeem the people of Ireland if its end is an artistic vision in an ascendancy ideal. As Donald Childs points out in Modernism and Eugenics, Yeats felt that the" modern world is degenerating ... because humankind is degenerating" (149). Thus, the aristocratic presence is essential for revitalization. However, Yeats would write that he has "noticed that clairvoyance, prevision, and allied gifts, rare among the educated classes, are common among peasants" ("OB" 238). Therefore, contact with the soil, with the peasant, and with myth and folk tradition is equally essential for renewal. He thought his brand of cultural nationalism could liberate the Irish people not only from the political bondage but from conflict and infighting. An aesthetic cultural renewal, according the Yeats, could also free the modern world from an abyss of degeneration and, as he wrote in the journal To-Morrow, "call back the soul to its ancient sovereignty" ("TAAW" 4).

Yeats accepted a commission from Oxford's editors to compile the volume in the early Fall of 1934. In a letter to his wife, dated October 23rd, he writes that he "has been asked to edit 'The Oxford Book of Modern Verse." A few months later, as he notes in a letter to Lady Londonderry of July 1935, he finds the work "a heavy delightful labour." In the coming months, the labor would prove too heavy and he relinquished the responsibility for editing proofs to his wife, although he would summon his energies to write the introduction: A "peculiarly Yeatsian testament of intellectual autobiography, at once affirmative and allusive, and a declaration of the sustaining power of tradition" (Foster, AP 560). The introduction frames the anthology, suggesting thematic relationships between the chronologically arranged selections. Indeed, Yeats structured The Oxford Book of Modern Verse not according to nationality but rather chronologically, beginning with the late-Victorian poets Pater, Blunt, and Hopkins and ending with Auden, Spender, and George Barker. However, Yeats does discuss nationality when he introduces Irish writers. He indicates that his work should be read in relation to their work. He uses "we" repeatedly. Within that discussion, he uses the same paradigm he used for cultural nationalism and Irish renewal: Anglo-Irish and rural peasant working together. Yeats invites readers to compare his work with theirs and along the thematic lines he mentions. In his introduction, he discusses Irish poets naming his "Ascendency" partners, Lady Gregory and John Synge, but also mentioning Padraic Colum, Joseph Campbell, Frank O'Connor and James Stephens; Yeats specifically notes their work with Irish "folk tradition" (xiii). He also discusses Oliver St. John Gogarty, calling his poetry, "heroic song" and noting Gogarty's escape from "every prospect of death" (xv) by plunging into the ice-cold Liffey. Yeats groups himself with these writers, repeatedly using the pronoun "we" (i.e. "We remembered the Gaelic poets" [xiv] and "We have more affinity" [xv]). For Yeats, the context of nationality is crucial for Irish writing.

In his introductory remarks, Yeats writes that in "Ireland" there "still lives almost undisturbed the last folk tradition of western Europe" (xiii), and it is this folk tradition, as critics such as George Cusack have pointed out, that gives Ireland, in Yeats's view, "the potential to inspire great art because, unlike most modern nations, its literary tradition retained a sense of its timeless origins" (44). In a radio broadcast from October 1936, Yeats contrasts Ireland with England, discussing how the modern "English movement, checked by the realism of Eliot, the social passion of the war poets, gave way to an impersonal philosophical poetry. Because Ireland has a still living folk tradition, her poets cannot get it out of their heads that they themselves, good-tempered or bad-tempered, tall or short, will be remembered by the common people. Instead of turning to impersonal philosophy, they have hardened and deepened their personalities" ("MP" 100-101). Ireland's folk traditions, her myths, have, in Yeats's view, a revitalizing power, as Terence Brown notes: "mythology is deemed to possess explanatory force for the modern mind.... the incoherencies of the self, dispersed in time, memory and in self-division, the disorder of the social world and of history, are momentarily made amenable to a transcendent pattern inscribed in the old tale. That temporary achievement permeates the present with meanings not otherwise readily available to contemporary consciousness" (211). An awareness of those meanings, gives art the potential to heal divisions within a society, bringing it, as John Hutchinson's reading of Yeats makes clear, from a condition of 'degeneration' to 'regeneration' (132). Yeats's introduction frames and contextualizes his selections, bringing out certain themes and associations between writers and poems. In his choice of Irish writing, Yeats draws attention to what he sees as the Irish poet's role in the modern world as a voice of renewal.

In his choices of John Synge's poetry for inclusion in the Oxford anthology, Yeats focuses on noble suffering producing an artistic vision that can serve as a catalyst for regeneration. In his introductory remarks, Yeats identifies two qualities in the writings of John Synge that he admires: 1) "John Synge brought back masculinity to Irish verse with his harsh disillusionment" (xiii); and 2) "[W]hen the folk movement seemed to support vague political mass excitement, ... [he] began to create passionate masterful personality" (xiii-xiv). In these qualities, Yeats envisions both a parallel with his vision of modernity and a model for recovery. In raising the first issue, Yeats enters into a dialogue with Matthew Arnold, who identified the characteristics of the feminized Celt as "undisciplined, anarchical, and turbulent" (86), words that could easily describe Yeats's views of the modern world and the poetic response to those conditions. Specifically, elsewhere in his introduction, Yeats writes that "Change has come suddenly" (xxviii); that nature has become "a flux where man drowned or swam;" (xxviii) and that modern man knows nothing but "abstract patterns, generalizations, [and] mathematical equations" (xxix). Just as "it was W B Yeats who provided the fullest articulation of the attack on Arnold" (Pittock 78) in his early essays, Yeats in The Oxford Book of Modern Poetry, puts forward a similar formula to restore "masculinity" to modern verse and modern culture. In "1886, Yeats began in an article on the Unionist poet Sir Samuel Ferguson, to reconstruct that image [of Arnold's feminized Celt] with a new emphasis on the 'persistence, implacable hate, implacable love"' (Pittock 78) that can reveal the substance of "the Celtic heart" (27) in which "the personal perplexities of life grew dim and there alone remained its noble sorrows and its noble joys" (27). Yeats expresses a similar view of the modern artist "because that private soul is always behind our knowledge, though always hidden it must be the sole source of pain, stupefaction, evil" (xxx). Whether he writes of the Celtic heart or the modern soul, Yeats advocates a personal, even if bitter, reaction to turbulent conditions. Such a response reaffirms individuality and personal identity, even as the world around the individual writer disintegrates into chaos.

The ideal response, as expressed in John Synge's "An OldWoman's Lamentations" and Yeats's "From 'Oedipus at Colonus,"' explores themes of disenchantment and implacability, all of which reaffirm the individual's heart and soul. Both poems present the perspective of a person dealing with issues associated with aging, a perspective familiar to the Yeats of 1934. The figures in the poems review their lives and express a sense of harsh disillusionment at physical and spiritual decay. In "Oedipus" the poet proclaims that "delight becomes death longing" (90) and that "Death, despair, division of families, all entanglements of mankind grow" (90). He affirms that "Never to have lived is best.... Never to have drawn the breath of life, never to have looked into the eye of day" (91). In these lines, Yeats elevates suffering through language. The repetition of the "d" sound in "delight," "death," and "despair, division" near the start of the poem together with the repetition of the phrase, "never to have" three times near the end of the poem lends a rhetorical strength to the poet's rage against time and fate. He uses the strength of language, reflecting an internal strength, to speak out against the empty promises of life, and in doing so, the poet asserts his individuality. He could not and cannot control fate, but he can control his response to it and in doing so refine his "soul." Similarly, the old woman, in Synge's poem, states that the "man I had love ... is dead thirty years and over it, and it is I am left behind, grey and aged" (149). After proclaiming the power of her former beauty in phrases such as "eyes with a big gay look out of them would bring folly from a great scholar" (150), she says that "It's of the like of that we old hags do be thinking, of the good times are gone away from us, and we crouching on our hunkers by a little fire of twigs, soon kindled and soon spent, we that were the pick of many" (150). Yeats admired the poem, commenting on its "imaginative richness and [its] ... sting and tang of reality" ("Synge" 243). Synge clearly draws the picture of a witch, an "old hag," crouching over a "little fire." The passion inspired by her former beauty gone, she sits discontented, conjuring words rather than sexual admiration. However, in her disenchantment with life, she discovers the powers of expression. Rather than inspire passion in others, she inspires herself, recalling Yeats comments about how "profound philosophy" comes from looking into the "abyss." In the Old Woman's case, her abyss is the decay of her physical form. Her profound philosophy lies in her imaginatively rich response. Both the hag and the poet in "Oedipus" assert their imaginative control of their responses to harsh reality.

They both also respond with a persistent hate and a persistent love, juxtaposing the "noble sorrows" and "noble joys" Yeats saw as "defeating the perplexities of life" in an affirmation of the "soul." The poet in "Oedipus," speaks of "that old wandering beggar and those God-hated children," (91) juxtaposing them with "laughing dancers" (91), and a "bride ... carried to the bridegroom's chamber through torchlight and tumultuous song" (91). In laying hate and love side-by-side, the poet emphasizes their relationship, their ability to heighten the impact of one another. Moreover, the image of the bridal bed stresses sexual pleasure and the continuation of life, the perpetuation of the cycles of sorrow and joy. Failing "never to have lived," the poet asserts that the "second best's a gay goodnight and quickly turn away" (91). The poet argues that to cherish the noble joy of life is to embrace the "gay goodnight" and then embrace its end, leaving it before the moment can leave you. The poet indicates that an individual must "quickly turn away" before the joy of the moment fades. Such advice recalls "gaiety transforming all that dread," (VP 565) from Yeats "Lapis Lazuli." In both, complete absorption in the moment of joy means yielding to an implacable love, despite the knowledge that that joy will fade. With the fading of that joy comes implacable hatred at the injustices of life, recalled by a "travel-wearied, aged man" (90). In just the same way, Synge's Old Woman juxtaposes memories of joyful youth with her current decrepit age: "When I do be minding the good days I had, minding what I was one time, and what it is I'm come to ... it wouldn't be much set me raging in the streets" (149). Her rage follows in a crescendo of questions, filled with the love of her former beauty and the hatred of her current state: "Where is the round forehead I had, and the fine hair.... Where are the pointed shoulders ... and the long arms and nice hands" (150). The series of questions climax in her plea, "Where is my bosom as white as any, or my straight rounded sides" (150). She appears to answer the questions by starting the subsequent line with the words, "It's the way" but then confounds a reader's expectations by describing her present state, with a "nose" that "has a hook on it" (150). In so clearly cherishing her youth and despising her old age, and by speaking or "raging" so eloquently on both, the Old Woman asserts her identity, even in her state of disillusionment In an essay titled, "The Celtic Romances," Yeats presents a Finn that time has "left ... steel and fire" (55), free from "[y]outh, with all its weaknesses, with all its generosity" (55). The poet of "Oedipus" and the Old Woman make of themselves "steel and fire" in the raging against the effects of age. The words transfigure their current state, lending it something of permanence in the face of turbulent flux. It is just such rage that Yeats asks of Modern artists in order to assert the power of the individual and of art in the face of chaotic times.

In his introductory remarks on the Irish-language tradition, Yeats writes that "We remembered the Gaelic poets of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries wandering, after the flight of the Catholic nobility, among the boorish and the ignorant, singing their loneliness and their rage.... Frank O'Connor made them symbols of our pride" (xiv). For Yeats, the complementary contribution of the Irish-language tradition involves an earthly lyricism based in pride. Just as Synge's verse supports a masculine response to the stereotype of the passive Celt and a response to Modern passivity in the face of change and flux, the pride of the Irish-language tradition puts an end to the "mischief [that] began at the end of the seventeenth century when man became passive before a mechanized nature" (xxvii). Yeats articulates a similar mischief in Modern poetry: In discussing what he sees as the shortcomings of Turner and Eliot, Yeats acknowledges that "[c]hange has come suddenly" (xxviii); however, whereas Eliot and Turner believe that man "moves among objects for which he accepts no responsibility, among the mapped and measured" (xxviii), Yeats sees that "flux is in the mind, not of it perhaps, but in it" (xxxi). By this, Yeats advocates a recognition that the individual has control over change and mutability. Flux in not inherent to the mind. Rather, it is a condition with which the mind can cope. In his choices of Anglo-Irish verse, Yeats offers persistence in hate and love in order to counteract passivity. In his choice of Irish-language verse, Yeats advocates a lyricism based in pride in order to illustrate the power of the soul in overcoming passivity.

Early in his career, Yeats used the character of Michael Robartes to illustrate a similar understanding of pride, writing that "Hanrahan is the simplicity of an imagination too changeable to gather permanent possessions ...; and Michael Robartes is the pride of the imagination brooding upon the greatness of its possessions; ... while Aedh is the myrrh and frankincense that the imagination offers continually before all that it loves" (VP 803). Roy Foster observes that Robartes "conveys regrets of a lover who cannot quite convince himself, nor loose himself in love" (AM 215). Like the Modern poet who does not accept responsibility for that which he considers to "mapped and measured," Robartes unknowingly holds a part of himself back, believing that he is instead held back by unchangeable circumstances. However, unlike Modern poets who remain passive in the face of circumstances, Robartes is able to approach, in Yeats's construction, lyrical potency, even as he "presents the fulfillment of love as the loss of potency and of life itself" (AM 215). In doing so, Robartes, in Foster's reading of the three characters, approaches Aedh's imaginative achievement in that Aedh's poetry "strikes a note of desperation, and the longing for total possession in death" (AM 215). Essentially, Robartes can stand as a symbol of the circumstances faced by the Modern artist whose pride is both what has the potential to pacify him but also that which can empower him to forge a lyrical response to circumstances.

Like the poets who were displaced by "The Flight of the Earls," the Old Woman in Frank O'Connor's "The Old Woman of Beare Regrets Lost Youth," says that she "had my day with kings" (400). She was intimate with the aristocracy: "We gave all our heats to men./Men most dear,/Horseman, huntsman, charioteer./We gave them love with all our will/But the master did not fill. ... And long since the foaming steed,/And the chariot with its speed,/And the charioteer went by" (398). She expresses not simply outrage, not the diminishing of value in her loss but rather the full acknowledgement of loss and of her sorrow: "Tis not age that makes my pain/But the eye that sees so plain/That when all I love decays/Femon's ways are gold again" (399). She understands that the Femon (Feiman, Co Tipperary) plains will yield another crop, another harvest but that she will not be rejuvenated. In her pride, she removes herself from the cycles of time. She sees herself as existing outside of renewable change and places her circumstances firmly in a state of meaningless flux. In doing so, she nonetheless gives voice to her individual suffering, and, in this sense, takes control over it not managing or mapping it as much as elevating it to a lyrical state. She is not passive, but rather finds the key to individual renewal in the lyrical lament, the poetic insight that has the power to stir the soul and to stand as a symbol of creative response.

For Yeats, "the Irish language held the key ... to the lost imagination of the whole nation" (Kiberd 59). That key is rooted in the lyrical nature of Irish verse, and "Towards the end of his life Yeats found in a young writer named Frank O'Connor the translator of whom he had always dreamed--a man with a profound insight into the texture of Gaelic poetry and an equal mastery of the English poets" (Kiberd 59). Through Frank O'Connor's writing, the key to the lost imagination of not simply the Irish nation but a rejuvenating force for Modern poetry world might also be found.

Whereas Synge's poem achieved artistic transcendence through rhetorical strength (i.e. the repetition of sounds and words), O'Connor's "Old Woman" achieves transcendence through metaphor and imagery that are rooted in the seasons and in the four elements. She reflects that "Once again for ill or good/Spring will come and I shall see/Everything but me renewed./Summer sun and autumn sun,/ These I knew and these are gone,/And the winter time of men/Comes and these come not again." (400). She clearly links her aging process to the cycle of the seasons. However, she notes that natural cycles engender renewal and reinvigoration. Her personal cycle exists outside of the natural cycle. She represents her isolation from nature in her language linked to the seasons. That same sense of isolation comes through in her language linked to the four elements. She reflects that "Ebbtide is all my grief;/I am ebbing like the seas" (398) in the beginning of the poem. Likewise, at the end of the poem, she also reflects that "Floodtide!/And the swifter tides that fall,/All have reached me ebb and flow,/Ay, and now I know them all./Happy Island of the sea,/Tide on tide shall come to thee,/But to me no waters fare" (401). Speaking of her "Eyes that loved the sun/Age my grief has taken one,/And the other too will take" (401). Like the changing seasons, the four elements, seemingly constant, also stand as metaphors for irrecoverable change. The "sun," representing fire and air does remain as does the "Happy Island" but their permanence lies beyond her reach. Also lying beyond her reach are the spiritual implications of the sun and of the Happy Isles, the land of eternal youth in Irish folklore. The poems reflect despair, but the Old Woman's reflections also contain a strength in her metaphors of rootedness with the elements and the seasons. The strength of these metaphors and her individual perspective give her artistic expression a power. She sees the cycle of the seasons, sees renewal, but also sees her demise, her ebb tide. However, it is in the manifestation of her loss, in her creative response, that she is able to transform her material circumstances into the basis for lyricism. In her lament, she creates a monument not only to her lost beauty but also to her individual soul, which is capable not only of clearly seeing her loss but also of erecting a lasting monument to her suffering. Her monument, rooted in images of nature and the seasons, stands as a counterpoint to Synge's noble suffering and aristocratic vision. Both endorse an individual reaction in the face of violent flux and change.

The second quality Yeats admired in Synge's writing, specifically, "when the folk movement seemed to support vague political mass excitement, ... [he] began to create passionate masterful personality" (xiii-xiv), finds expression in the distinction the Oxford anthology makes between social passion and individual passion. In making this distinction, Yeats turns towards heroic expression and war poetry. When Yeats referenced Synge's "harsh disillusionment" and masculinity, Yeats echoed his early writings on the true, masculine Celtic heart as a source for national revival. Looking at modern poetry coming from "the great war" (xxxiv) Yeats, while acknowledging the poets' "exceptional courage" (xxxiv), nonetheless rejected their poems, concluding that "passive suffering is not a theme for poetry. In all the great tragedies, tragedy is a joy to the man who dies.... When man has withdrawn into the quicksilver at the back of the mirror no great event becomes luminous in his mind" (xxxiv). James Longenbach explains Yeats's ideas regarding the war poets, writing that another "way to explain Yeats's lack of sympathy would be to say that the most successful war poetry (especially Owen's) continued to be written out of a diminished aesthetic" (112). Yeats gives expression to such a dirnimshed aesthetic in his introduction, explaining that "Spender has said that the poetry of belief must supersede that of personality ...

If I understand aright this difficult art has compelled them to seek beyond the flux something unchanging, inviolate" (xxxviii). Yeats's saw Spender's beliefs arising from the war, introducing them by indicating that "Ten years after the war certain poets combined the modern vocabulary.... with the sense of suffering learnt from the war poets" (xxxv). Yeats notes that for the poets he admired that "sense of suffering [was] no longer passive" (xxxv). However, that sense of passivity yields individual control over circumstances and diminishes the power of an individual's response. For Yeats, the true heroic response lies in the validation of individual passion over an effort to escape flux through the diminished aesthetic of social expression.

Yeats reinforces the power of individual artistic vision by including "An Irish Airman foresees His Death" together with comments on social passion and on the war poets. An Irish airman offers Yeats the opportunity not only to lament the loss of Robert Gregory but also to use the tragedy of the First World War to highlight his political and cultural agenda. An Irish airman occupies an intermediate state between combatant parties. His nation is not a party to the conflict. Moreover, an Irish airman brings into the field of early-twentieth-century combat and its consequent metaphors for the disintegration of the certainties of Modern life. The rejuvenating vision of the Irish artist that is capable of transforming the material circumstances of the fields of disintegration into cultural renewal. That the figure on which the airman is based, was a member of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, makes that metaphor all the more fitting and poignant for Yeats, given his view that it is the combined vision of the aristocrat and the peasant that has the potential to renew. Like the Anglo-Irish, the airman occupies a place not quite of the earth but who must recognize his rootedness in order to achieve a spiritual transformation. Yeats's view stresses individual, transformative passion as opposed to a collective political response. In his introductory remarks, he explains that "the concentration of philosophy and social passion of the school of Day Lewis and in MacNeice lay beyond my desire" (xli). Earlier in his career, his criticism of social passion was far less subtle. In the preface to "The Well of the Saints," Yeats explains that social passion "is part of the tyranny of impersonal things" and "a veiled or open propaganda," whose expression "decays when it no longer makes more beautiful, or more vivid, the language which unites it to all life" (218). Yeats's renunciation of social passion lies in what he sees as its elevation of politics or social reform over artistic renewal. For Yeats, culture has the potential to reform and renew in a more lasting way than political reform because it achieves true revolution through its recognition of and appeal to the individual soul. Political movements, for Yeats, begin with good intentions but fail to achieve true or lasting reform because they ignore the soul.

In his decision to include "An Irish Airman" in The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, Yeats must have known that it stands in the place of war poems he refused to include. In the introduction Yeats observes that much "of modern war poetry was pacifist, revolutionary" even as "the men who created the communism of the masses ... believed that religion, art, philosophy, expressed economic change, that the shell secreted the fish." In subordinating art and other expressions of the soul to the power of economic forces, those poets, in Yeats's view, reject the soul's sovereignty. He writes that "but were a poet sensitive to the best thought of his time to accept that belief, when time is restoring the soul's autonomy, it would be as though he had swallowed a stone and kept it in his bowels. None of these men have accepted it, communism is their Deus ex Machina, their Santa Claus, their happy ending, but speaking as a poet, I prefer tragedy to tragic-comedy" (xxxvii). The persona of the Irish Airman, modeled on Robert Gregory, rejects social allegiances in favor of the soul. He says that, "Those I fight I do not hate,/ Those that I guard I do not love" (87). He does say that he countryman are "Kiltartan's poor" (87) but adds that "No likely end could bring them loss/Or leave them happier than before" (87). The political consequences of the war will not change the material conditions of the airman's countryman. He doesn't fight for England out of a sense of patriotism not is he motivated by hatred for the enemy. Rather, he embraces the "lonely impulse of delight" (87) that, in the context of The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, stands for an embrace of the "soul's autonomy" and the power of artistic vision. The impulse, when measured against mere existence, reaffirms the supremacy of the soul. The impulse transcends war, politics, and death, subsequently, elevating the airman's vision to the realm of artistic immortality. Even its loneliness, in this context, becomes a strength in that it represents a rejection of a collective, social response. The airman articulates what another character of Yeats's, Owen Aherne declares: "I know nothing certain as yet but this-I am to become completely alive, that is, completely passionate, for beauty is only another name for perfect passion" (VSR 158). The airman's manner of coming to terms with his death, once again, values the individual's reaction to the overwhelming forces of fate that lie beyond his control and embraces a "perfect passion" or that "lonely impulse" as opposed to social passion.

Yeats saw in the poetry of Oliver St. John Gogarty an expression of heroic individual passion, writing that

[t]welve years ago Oliver Gogarty was captured by his enemies, imprisoned in a deserted house on the edge of the Liffey with every prospect of death. Pleading a natural necessity he got into the garden, plunged under a shower of revolver bullets and as he swam the ice-cold December stream promised it, should it land him in safety, two swans. I was present when he fulfilled that vow. His poetry fits the incident, a gay, stoical--no, I will not withhold the word--heroic song. Irish by tradition and many ancestors, I love, though I have nothing to offer but the philosophy they deride, swashbucklers, horsemen, swift indifferent men. (xv)

In "Portrait with Background," Oliver St. John Gogarty contemplates the eternal nature of love, heroic passion, and slavery in the context of Irish myth, the Norman conquest, and the Great War. He writes that "we are living in War-rife time-/Knights of the air and submarine men cruising" (174). Setting the scene, Gogarty transitions into a lament for a lost age, the "Broken dream of the men of a few acres/ Ruling a country" (175). The conquest brought with it "the long day with its leisure and its duty" (175) but then observes that "Founded on steel is the edifice of Beauty" (175). Finally, in a reference to the devotions of courtly love, brought with "Strongbow and Henry" (174), Gogarty comments that "your long limbs and your golden hair affright men/Slaves are their souls, and instinctively they hate them" (175). The poem simultaneously idealizes the poetry and culture of Norman Ireland, likening it to a woman's beauty, while it also describes its hold on men as slavery. The poem implies that icons of beauty can be deceptive. Once they pass from a living form to an "edifice of steel" they yield their humanity and individual passion to a slave-like devotion to the fleshless ideal. The poem's associations between the "rigid law, the long spear and the horsemen/Riding in steel" (174) and the weapons of World War I suggests that when the individual yields self-possessions to a desire to possess that individual looses control over their soul. Gogarty's poem reinforces Yeats's value of individual passion over social passion in that it values individual over institutionalized beauty. Once the admiration for a woman's beauty becomes an obsession, the poem argues, the obsessed enslave their souls to an ideal rather than to their passion for the woman. To reinforce the point, Gogarty includes references to the totalitarian rule of the Norman while simultaneously references the beauty of courtly love. Even in Gogarty's reference to "Knights of the air" can be discerned the connection between courtly devotion and violence.

In "O Boys! O Boys," Gogarty creates the persona of a heroic poet, rejected by his contemporaries. The poet's fate recalls what in his essay on Ferguson, Yeats wrote of his ideal audience: "those young men clustered here and there throughout out land, whom the passion in which heroic deeds are possible and heroic poetry credible" (17). Yeats's essay suggests a hidden, heroic elite who can appreciate the heroic potential in the human soul. The speaker in Gogarty's poem, however, "spoke to incredulous fools" who "listened only to smirk" (182). Nonetheless, the poet feels compelled to tell his tale "of a wonderful town,/Built on a lake of gold,/With many a barge and raft/A float in the cooling sun,/And lutes upon the lake" (182). In the poet's ideal town, commerce has stopped: The barges do not take their wares away from the town and even the sun "cools" rather than provides heat. The movement comes from the sound of "lutes upon the lake." Art reigns above commerce. However, in the world to which the poet speaks, he is greeted with derision and skepticism. The institutions that breed his audience, whom he describes as a "solicitor's clerk" (181), also breed contempt for an imaginative response. Nonetheless, the poet continues to speak, compelled by heroic desire and individual passion. The heroes of Gogarty's poetry are not the swashbucklers and grim warriors of Yeats's dream, but rather poets who feel compelled to articulate their vision of truth and passion. In doing so, they manifest heroic values and stand against not only the world of commerce but also against the skepticism of the Modern cultural movement that derides the individual in favor of the social.

Yeats choice of his poems to include in The Oxford Book of Modern Verse reflects the characteristics he attributes to the Irish : a rootedness in tradition and myth, an individual artistic vision, and an awareness of the heroic power of artistic expression to renew and revitalize. Reading his introductory remarks as a frame for Yeats's self-definition as an Irish modern writer casts light onto what John Hayward called a volume that will "surprise and bewilder a great many people" (3) in his review of The Oxford Book of Modern Verse in The Spectator. Indeed, critical attention has fulfilled Hayward's predictions, focusing, as Gale Schricker points out, on Yeats's favoritism of "friends and fellow countrymen" (185) and his neglect of "his truly great poetic peers" (185). Moreover, as Foster observes, the "anthology was perceived as all the more eccentric because it carried the Oxford imprint: the blue and gold binding was supposed to convey authority, definitiveness, and permanence. But these were qualities which no reviewer was prepared to accord" (AP 564). However, Yeats's anthology of modern poetry offers critics an opportunity to witness Yeats's theories of the modern world and modern writing in practice. One aspect of that theory and practice lies in his choices of Irish writers and of Irish poetry, choices that present images of individual passion and poetic transcendence and renewal.

Yeats's views on the modern world and on the role of the Irish are not unique to The Oxford Book of Modern Verse. K.P.S. Jochum makes note of Yeats's concept of the modern world in The Reception of W.B. Yeats in Europe, writing that "Yeats's aristocratic ethos results in a diagnosis ... of the modern world as a period of degeneration and commonness" (171). Such times can breed fear but might also yield a hope for renewal, as Yeats points out in his 1936 broadcast on "Modern Poetry": "I think profound philosophy must come from terror. An abyss opens under our feet; inherited convictions, the pre-suppositions of our thoughts ... drop into the abyss" (97). The source of that profound philosophy is artistic expression, although much of the modern movement has, according to Yeats, turned away from the arts' revitalizing potential. In ToMorrow 1924, Yeats wrote, in thoughts on the modern movement and the Irish nation, that "We condemn, though not without sympathy, those who would escape from banal mechanism through technical investigation and experiment. We proclaim that these bring no escape, for new form comes from new subject matter, and new subject matter must flow from the human soul restored to all its courage, to all its audacity: We dismiss all demagogues and call back the soul to its ancient sovereignty, and declare that it can do whatever it please, being made, as antiquity affirmed, from the imperishable substance of the stars" ("TAAW" 4). Yeats uses the same paradigm for cultural renewal of the modern world that he uses for Irish cultural nationalism: An artistic synthesis of aristocratic sensibilities and sensitivities with the wisdom of common folk and mythological traditions.


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Bernard McKenna

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Author:McKenna, Bernard
Publication:Yeats Eliot Review
Date:Mar 22, 2010
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