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The Poet As Politician.

The ideological odyssey of W.B. Yeats

In December 1923, William Butler Yeats, the first Irish writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, seized upon the occasion of his lecture to the Royal Academy of Sweden to present his literary career in political terms. Noting with irony that an English committee had almost certainly forwarded his nomination to the academy, Yeats cast himself as a standard-bearer of Irish nationalism and a champion of Ireland's cultural independence.

"The theatres of Dublin," he recounted in his speech on "The Irish Dramatic Movement," "were empty buildings hired by the English travelling companies, and we wanted Irish plays and Irish players. When we thought of these plays we thought of everything that was romantic and poetical, because the nationalism we had called up--the nationalism every generation had called up in moments of discouragement--was romantic and poetical."

Yeats had reason to regard himself as a political figure of national, even international, importance. He was at the time of this address a senator of the newly established Irish Parliament. Moreover, he spoke not long after the conclusion of a violent guerrilla war waged by the Irish Republican Army against British imperial rule in Ireland and a subsequent civil war, fought between the newly formed army of the Irish Free State and a breakaway wing of IRA irregulars, over the terms of the peace treaty that concluded the Anglo-Irish War of 1919-21. While Yeats could not boast of having fought in the streets against the British, he nonetheless used the occasion of his literary success to claim, retrospectively, a leading role in the national campaign that led to Irish independence in 1922.

One of the many splendid qualities of Terence Brown's recent biography, The Life of W.B. Yeats, is its critical appreciation of the poet's extraordinary cultural accomplishments within the broader context of a brilliantly rendered political and social history of modern Ireland. Brown's Yeats is the consummate late romantic and modernist artist, arguably the greatest lyric poet to write in English in the 20th century and one of the most innovative playwrights of his age. (The magnitude of Yeats' poetic achievement has tended to overshadow his accomplishments as a dramatist. More's the pity. He was quite possibly the most original avant-garde Irish dramatist before Beckett.) Brown, Professor of Modern English Literature in Trinity College, Dublin, is by no means the only biographer of late to take on the life of W.B. Yeats. While neither as comprehensive nor as authoritative as Roy Foster's projected two-volume W.B. Yeats: A Life, the first installment of which has appeared, nor as salacious as Brenda Maddox's recent Yeats's Ghosts: The Secret Life of W.B. Yeats, Brown's book is nonetheless the finest single-volume biography of the Irish poet since the publication of Richard Ellmann's seminal Yeats: The Man and the Masks in 1948.

If the Yeats that Brown portrays is every inch the literary titan, he is also a man of unusual personal complexity immersed in the political, cultural, and religious controversies of the day, a figure who, despite his own occasional championing of l'art pour l'art, struggled to imbue his poems, plays, essays, and stories with political and religious, even cosmic, significance. In the course of a poetic career that stretched from the 1880s to the late 1930s, Yeats adopted many different political masks, including those of radical nationalist, classical liberal, reactionary conservative, and millenarian nihilist. Brown's biography offers us the chance to revisit an era in which the range of political options and ideas was considerably wider than in our own day. If the poetic appeal of extremist politics was more palpable, Brown's book and Yeats' life remind us that grave risks attend the heightened drama and aesthetic appeal of an illiberal era. If we sometimes lament the colorlessness of our modern politician s, whose programs and ideologies are as predictable as their neckwear, we might nonetheless be grateful that in our day no genius in the throes of divine madness lights our way to paradise.

In his Autobiographies, Yeats recalled an Anglo-Irish Protestant childhood set against the backdrop of Fenian (Irish nationalist) violence and the "outrages" of the Land War, agrarian agitations aimed at reforming the neo-feudal system of land tenure in Ireland. Yeats was born in Dublin in 1865, but his earliest memories are of London, and even they are haunted by the specter of violence. In one recollection, a servant warns him that the town will be blown up, and he thereafter "goes to sleep in terror." His earliest recorded memory of the power of poetry harks back to his boyhood days in Ireland and concerns a (presumably Catholic) stable boy who introduces the future Nobel laureate to a book of "Orange rhymes," that is, a popular book of anti-Catholic and anti-Fenian political verse. Yeats recalls that shortly after his first exposure to poetry he was told of "a rumor of a Fenian rising, that rifles had been served out to the Orangemen; and presently, when I began to dream of my future life, I thought I wou ld like to die fighting the Fenians."

But as a young man Yeats would reject the typically pro-British and pro-Unionist views of most Anglo-Irish Protestants and come to share the ardent nationalism of the Fenians. He counted among his closest friends and mentors the nationalist hero John O'Leary, who had been sentenced by the British to 20 years' penal servitude in 1865 for treason against the Crown. Some time after 1885, when he was 20 years old, Yeats himself joined the secret Irish Republican Brotherhood (a descendent of the Fenian Brotherhood of the late 1860s and a predecessor of the IRA). Yeats' participation in an organization pledged to the violent overthrow of British rule in Ireland cannot be dismissed as a passing youthful indiscretion. Brown suggests that Yeats maintained contact with the banned organization as late as 1900, when a few of the more ardent Irish nationalists actively fought for the Boers against the British in South Africa.

Yeats' dreamy pre-Raphaelite poetry of the late 1880s and early 1890s, with its penchant for orientalist fantasy and Celtic mysticism, may seem innocent of political content. But for the young Yeats, who was self-consciously promoting himself to an English readership as an Irish poet, art was politics by other means.

Like so many other participants in the cultural revolution known as the "Irish Revival," Yeats believed that with the political collapse in 1891 of Charles Stewart Parnell (the leader of the Irish Party in the British Parliament and champion of Irish Home Rule), the ground on which the cause of Irish independence would be fought had shifted from the parliamentary to the cultural arena. By 1895, when Yeats had established himself as one of the leading Irish poets of his generation, he had already helped to found the Irish Literary Society of London and the National Literary Society in Dublin.

As the names of these organizations suggest, Yeats was pursuing in an active and public manner the cultural ideal of an independent Irish nation. Nor was this all. Yeats was deeply involved throughout his life in various occult, mystical, and magical pursuits, which included membership in the Theosophical Society and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. But even these occult interests could assume a political valence. In the mid-1890s Yeats, along with Maud Gonne, the woman for whom he yearned and rhapsodized for much of his adult life, hoped to establish a "Celtic Order of Mysteries" in a "Castle of the Heroes," located on an island in Lough Key in Country Roscommon. Yeats' aim, according to Brown, was to "infuse Irish reality, through symbolic rites and ritual enactments, with an ancient spirituality in which paganism and heterodox Christianity combined would help Ireland achieve a transcendent liberation from the crassly materialist world of England's commercial empire."

By 1902 Yeats had joined with other literary figures to establish first the Irish Literary Theatre and then the Irish National Theatre Society (later the Abbey Theater). The 1902 premiere of Cathleen ni Houlihan, co-authored by Yeats and Lady Augusta Gregory, celebrated and memorialized the 1798 rebellion of the United Irishmen against British imperial rule. It proved a popular and critical success, even among such Irish Catholic nationalists as Arthur Griffith, editor of the United Irishman and founder of Sinn Fein, who otherwise resented Yeats for what he regarded as the poet's misrepresentation of the political aspirations and cultural values of Gaelic Ireland's Catholic population.

Yeats' nationalism, like his politics more generally, was never orthodox, no matter how ardently pursued. As behooves a poet, would-be prophet, sometime magus, and political visionary, Yeats had the utmost difficulty adhering to any party line. He intended his brand of cultural nationalism to be an all-inclusive, big-tent movement that would welcome "Protestant and Catholic, Nationalist and Unionist, Parnellite and anti-Parnellite." Nevertheless, by the end of the first decade of the 20th century, Yeats had alienated not only most Protestants, who favored Ireland's remaining within the United Kingdom, but also the great majority of Irish nationalists, who envisioned an independent nation founded upon the twin pillars of Irish Catholicism and Gaelic culture. To his cultural antagonists and political enemies, the most famous Irish poet of the century was simply not Irish enough.

Yet "Easter, 1916," written in the aftermath of the unsuccessful nationalist uprising in Dublin against British rule, is arguably the most famous poem on the subject of Irish politics. Contrasting the gray conformist city of middle-class Dublin before the rebellion with the new world of heroic possibility ushered in by the guerrilla fighters and martyrs of Easter week, Yeats sounds out the names of the new Irish immortals: "I write it out in a verse--/MacDonagh and MacBride/And Connolly and Pearse/Now and in time to be,/Wherever green is worn,/Are changed, changed utterly:/A terrible beauty is born."

Much to his subsequent embarrassment, Yeats had spent Easter week of 1916 not in Dublin but visiting the estate of Sir William Rothenstein in Gloucestershire, England. Yeats, like the vast majority of the Irish population, had been less than enthusiastic about the uprising, believing it to have been quixotic, careless of civilian lives, and perhaps even unnecessary. But Yeats quickly revised his view in the wake of the execution of the rebel leaders by semi-secret British court-martial.

In "Easter, 1916" he succeeded in casting himself as the bard who memorialized the Irish dead (many of whom were personal friends and acquaintances). Though physically absent on the days of reckoning, Yeats, through a poetic act of will, had in effect become the voice of Ireland, the militant prophet who named the founding fathers of the new nation.

Ever since 1965, when Conor Cruise O'Brien savaged Yeats for his apparent fascist sympathies, Yeats' political views have come in for much unfavorable scrutiny. Despite an early friendship with William Morris and his lifelong devotion to Maud Gonne, both of whom embraced one form or another of socialism, Yeats detested all forms of communism and Marxism. But like his younger friend and fellow poet, Ezra Pound, Yeats was nevertheless a frequent and vocal critic of what he regarded as the crass materialism of the modern era. Notwithstanding his own entrepreneurial talents and ultimate financial success, Yeats often conceived of Ireland as an anti-materialist haven for premodern spiritual values. Moreover, Yeats was both by temperament and by ideological affiliation a great skeptic of pure democracy. In short, there is much to be said for the thesis that Yeats was a "radical" conservative, a reactionary critic of modern democracy, and a retrograde champion of the values of the old order. It is therefore all the more curious and surprising that Yeats' senatorial career should exemplify the ideals of classical liberalism.

Against the immediate historical background of a guerrilla war against British rule and the subsequent violence of the Irish Civil War, Sen. Yeats articulated a remarkably capacious, nonsectarian, and culturally heterogeneous concept of the new Irish nation. While he supported government funding of several cultural and scholarly enterprises dear to the interests of artists and intellectuals, Sen. Yeats was nevertheless wary of the powers of the newly created national Irish government.

Yeats opposed what he regarded as the gratuitous or imprudent use of the Gaelic language for official government purposes. He objected, for example, to the mandatory and exclusive use of Gaelic on street signs and on railroad tickets as a mere cultural pretense, or worse, "an attempt to force Irish on those who do not want it." Yeats opposed such linguistic forms of social engineering on practical grounds--the most important thing was for the overwhelmingly English-speaking population to be able to read the name of their destination on a ticket or for them to know with confidence where it was safe to cross a railway line. To institute a more ambitious scheme was to court a backlash against "all Irish thought, all Irish feeling, and all Irish propaganda." The latter sentiment was to prove prophetic.

Yeats seemed especially nervous that the new government might use its power to create a homogenous (and implicitly servile) citizenry. Critics of Yeats' politics have pointed to his growing enthusiasm in the 1920s for Mussolini's Italy. Yeats did indeed speak approvingly in the Senate and the press of Mussolini and Giovanni Gentile, the Italian minister of education. Nevertheless, in his speeches on the Irish educational system, Yeats worried that inferior compulsory public education might prove worse than no schooling. While admiring the Italian educational system, Yeats spoke out against the American and Japanese forms of public schooling on the grounds that they subordinated the good of the individual child to the good of the nation.

Never a systematic or rigorously coherent theorist, Yeats turned a blind eye to the totalitarian political foundation on which the Italian school system was built. Improbably, he persuaded himself that Gentile's philosophy was an elaboration of the thought of Burke and Berkeley, and that the Italian model offered a practical and holistic approach to education consistent with religious freedom and the cultivation of the individual soul.

Yeats' devotion to the rights and liberties of the individual stemmed in no small measure from his belonging to an increasingly beleaguered and vulnerable minority in the Free State: Irish Protestants. It is no accident that Sen. Yeats spoke eloquently and with conviction on behalf of what he hoped Ireland would become: "a modern, tolerant, liberal nation." In the course of his senatorial career, Yeats raised objections to increasing the powers of the constabulary to enter homes without warrant; opposed efforts to bar unaccompanied adolescents from attending the cinema; spoke in favor of official inspections of Irish prisons to ensure that political detainees were being humanely treated; sought to ensure that the Irish judiciary was shielded from the political influence of the executive branch; defended the rights of women to enter the civil service; consistently denounced all attempts to erode what we in America would call the separation of church and state; and vigorously supported copyright legislation de signed to protect the property rights of artists, scholars, and writers.

In general, Yeats favored the free exchange of intellectual and artistic products across national borders. With the exception of his support for measures designed to shield the fledgling Irish stained glass industry from foreign competition, Yeats inclined toward a doctrine of free trade--especially when it involved forms of international cultural exchange.

Most famously, Yeats spoke with great passion against an early attempt to abolish divorce in Ireland. Yeats' ringing and at times caustic rhetoric in defense of the rights of the Protestant minority constitutes his most memorable speech in the Senate: "I think it is tragic that within three years of this country gaining its independence we should be discussing a measure which a minority of this nation considers to be grossly oppressive. I am proud to consider myself a typical man of that minority. We against whom you have done this thing are no petty people. We are one of the great stocks of Europe. We are the people of Burke; we are the people of Grattan; we are the people of Swift, the people of Emmet, the people of Parnell. We have created the most of the modern literature of this country. We have created the best of its political intelligence.... If we have not lost our stamina then your victory will be brief, and your defeat final, and when it comes this nation may be transformed."

Alas, Yeats' rhetoric only served to inflame sectarian passions and failed to persuade his fellow senators. It is a pity, because elsewhere in his speech Yeats articulates a powerful and more broadly appealing reason to reject the proposed measure: It will make less likely the unification of the south and north of Ireland.

Yeats' defense of what he elsewhere referred to as "the liberty of minorities" and his excoriation of "fanaticism" reveal the liberal basis for his conception of Irish nationalism. Though his rhetoric may well have inflamed rather than dampened sectarian passions at the time, Yeats nonetheless articulated a principle of toleration, liberty, and the protection of religious and political rights that would make possible the unification of a diverse and culturally heterogeneous Irish people.

Brown gives rather little attention to Yeats' career in the Senate, but dutifully attends to Yeats' fascination with Italian fascism and his nearly lifelong hostility toward mass democratic politics. He draws attention, for example, to Yeats' brief enthusiasm in 1932 for Gen. Eoin O'Duffy's notorious, if short-lived, "Blueshirts," a paramilitary organization of Irish ex-servicemen that assumed fascist trappings. In fairness to his subject, Brown also notes that in 1929 Yeats took the trouble in print to warn his friend Ezra Pound against his enthusiasm for Italian fascism. Moreover, Brown suggests that in 1924 Yeats may well have played a small role in heading off a military coup d'etat against the fledging Irish Free State.

Brown argues that Yeats' infatuation with the Blueshirts grew out of the poet's "boredom with bourgeois democratic politics" and his "relish for drama, vitality, the heroic, the irrational, passion." Brown observes, however, that Yeats' very resistance to conformity and his love for agonistic struggle would almost certainly have soon made him an outlaw in any truly authoritarian regime.

For Brown, Yeats' poetic imagination was fueled by two countervailing psychic forces: a passion for drama, conflict, and heroic resistance on the one hand, and a profound fear of disorder and the breakdown of civility and custom on the other. Brown thus characterizes Yeats' peculiar crisscrossing of the political terrain of the '20s and '30s as an instance of his "instinctive libertarianism" at war with his "rage for order."

But it's also possible that Yeats' growing interest in fascist politics and eugenics in the 1930s stemmed not so much from an internal division in his character as from the external political developments of the day. Yeats seems to have become disillusioned by what he understood to be the increasing divergence of liberal and democratic principles in Irish political life.

While Brown suggests that Yeats was relatively untroubled by Eamon de Valera's election as prime minister in 1932, I would argue that the poet interpreted de Valera's victory as a sign that Ireland was on the road to an illiberal, albeit democratic, future. Offering a populist and nationalist vision of a rural, Catholic, and Gaelic Ireland, de Valera pursued a policy of cultural and economic protectionism that deepened the Irish economic malaise of the 1930s. As government interference with markets and morals increased, and economic and personal freedoms came under assault, emigration rose at an alarming rate. Though he never expatriated himself, as did such other writers as Joyce, Beckett, and O'Casey, Yeats in his later years spent much of his time nursing body and spirit beyond the confines of his native land.

Even in the late '20s, well before de Valera's election, there were unmistakable signs that a resurgent Catholic majority was prepared to curtail liberties that had been long granted to the Irish population. In 1923 the Irish Parliament passed the Censorship of Films Act, which stipulated that no film could be shown in Ireland without first having obtained a certificate of approval from an official government film censor. Five years later, just as Yeats was retiring from the Senate, a critical and far-reaching Censorship of Publications Act was brought before the Irish Parliament. The bill, which became law in 1929, empowered the Irish government to examine and approve all books and periodicals published or sold in Ireland.

The law granted the government explicit authority to censor materials deemed to be "indecent," which was construed as "calculated to excite sexual passions or to suggest or incite to sexual immorality or in any other way to corrupt or deprave." Even if a work was not judged indecent, it could be banned if it were found to "be injurious or detrimental to or subversive of public morality." Provisions of the act effectively outlawed the advertisement of all forms of birth control. Assisted by the efforts of zealous customs officials, the Censorship Board banned or censored some 1,200 books and 140 periodicals in the 1930s alone. Those in violation of the law were subject to severe penalties, including fines, seizure of property, and imprisonment.

Such far-reaching curtailments of the traditional rights of free speech and free press were no doubt fueled by an increasingly powerful Irish cultural chauvinism; such acts in practice created an embargo on many "foreign" cultural commodities. As Yeats was well aware, these policies, while generally popular with the Irish Catholic majority, in effect discriminated against the tastes, cultural values, and religious practices and beliefs of a dwindling Protestant minority.

Yeats' anxieties concerning the looming threat of majoritarian despotism thus seem to have been well-founded, even prescient. The prospect of an illiberal Irish democracy may well have tempted Yeats, in turn, to take a more extreme and increasingly reactionary view of political and cultural matters in Ireland. It is worth considering that Yeats' political hopes were never founded on the conviction that democracy was the best guarantee of "a modern, tolerant, liberal nation."

Yeats found himself in the uncomfortable position of many political liberals in the 1920s and '30s. Despite the positive connotations of "democracy," the rise of mass political movements during the era by no means heralded the advancement of liberal political goals. Italian fascism, German Nazism, and Russian communism were, we should remember, mass movements that depended for their early success upon a broad base of democratic support. In Ireland, the populist (or at any rate popular) political movement of the day was far more humane and more respectful of the liberal tradition than the right-or left-wing mass movements to be found elsewhere in Europe.

Nonetheless, for Yeats, the power of a majority to effectively curtail even some of the rights and liberties long cherished by an increasingly vulnerable minority was disheartening and disturbing. In Brown's view, "the true foe" for Yeats "was neither of the two great political movements in conflict in continental Europe [fascism and communism], but obscurantist Catholicism, which in the name of democracy suppressed free thought" and "stirred up in him moods of frenzied prejudice against the common herd that have nothing benign about them." In this sense, Yeats' late and disturbing affinity for retrograde politics might well have marked not the fruition of his liberalism but rather the frustration of his liberal aspirations.

Of course, the interplay between the artistic imagination and political engagement is notoriously unpredictable. It is a disturbing paradox that several of Yeats' most inspired lyrics and plays emerged out of the political disillusionment and nihilism of his last years. Few 20th-century poems can rival the bitterness and poignancy of the declining poet's "The Circus Animals' Desertion," with its stark concluding lines: "Now that my ladder's gone/I must lie down where all the ladders start/In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart."

Even fewer modern plays can rival the sublimity and tragic power of Purgatory, which stages the fatal confrontation of a disillusioned man and his callous young son, a vagabond couple adrift amidst the ruins of a haunted Irish landscape. In a work that anticipates the minimalism of Beckett's drama, Yeats envisions a world in which the dead are more alive than the living, and in which all are condemned to repeat endlessly the purgatorial cycles of a malignant political history.

If we seek a redemptive political lesson from these late works, it might be the singular consolation that a distinguishing virtue of a liberal society is its capacity to accommodate the most demonic of muses.

Michael Valdez Moses ( is an associate professor of English at Duke University, a fellow at the National Humanities Center, and author of The Novel and the Globalization of Culture (Oxford University Press).

The Life of W.B. Yeats, by Terence Brown, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 384 pages, $39.50

W.B. Yeats: A Life: The Apprentice Mage, 1865-1914, by R.F. Foster, New York: Oxford University Press, 672 pages, $21.50

Yeats's Ghosts: The Secret Life of W.B. Yeats, by Brenda Maddox, New York:, HarperPerennial, 496 pages, $16
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Title Annotation:new biography of W.B. Yeats examines broader context of poet's life
Author:Moses, Michael Valdez
Article Type:Critical Essay
Date:Feb 1, 2001
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