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Utopia in Decay: yeats's decadent dystopias.

Not long after Ezra Pound decided to modernize W. B. Yeats, the younger poet famously observed that "Uncle William" was coming along quite nicely. His only lament was that the elder poet was "still dragging some of the reeds of the 'nineties in his hair" (Ellmann 212). Only after his editorial collaboration with Yeats on the collection Responsibilities, which he reviewed with a distinct sense of self-satisfaction for Poetry magazine, could Pound safely announce that Yeats's poems were "no longer romantically Celtic" (qtd. in Brown 212). Despite his self-assurance, however, Pound was overly quick to dismiss the lingering influence of the decadent nineties on Yeats's poetic sensibility.

Perhaps because he was excessively concerned with moving Yeats away from florid expression and towards the stark economy of language that was becoming a staple of modernism, Pound seems to have willfully ignored the decadent motifs that still informed Yeats's imagination well into his career. Though it would be impossible to trace all the residual influences of decadence on Yeats's later work, one decadent motif informed his earliest verses and carried through to one of his most famous later poems.

Continental decadent artists, such as Charles Baudelaire and J. K. Huysmans, cultivated an aesthetic of decay and decline which stood in stark contrast to the utopian visions of many late Victorian "aesthetic" artists, who believed in the undeniable forward progress of human civilization. According to Dennis Denisoff's article "Decadence and Aestheticism," "aesthetic doctrine ... suggests that one's private utopia is at hand, if one would only learn to ignore the domineering bourgeoisie" (32). Aesthetic utopianism, thus defined, is rooted in the thinking of figures like William Morris, who sought to heal the societal ills of his time by promoting a recrudescence of idealized medieval art and modes of production. (1) At its core, this brand of utopianism carries with it the ephemeral promise of a newly defined Aristotelian good life--a life that defies the claims of capitalism, industrialism, and imperial conquest and seeks cultural progress through the creation of beautiful artifice. This uniquely nineteenth century aesthetic utopian desire to create a better world by reforming culture, both actually and imaginatively, was mirrored by the widespread contemporary Irish desire to realize a new national/cultural rebirth. Despite resemblance between aesthetic utopianism and Irish nationalism, however, lofty dreams of revolution were offset in the minds of some of Ireland's more sensitive artists by an inherent distrust of the progressive promises of aesthetic utopianism--a distrust that was itself patently decadent. It has long been a common practice to conflate aestheticism and decadence and view the movements as two sides.of the same coin; (2) however, it is important to remember that the aesthetic utopian vision given voice by thinkers, such as Morris, is contrary to the desires, anxieties, and impulses of the decadent movement. Decadent artists such as Huysmans and Baudelaire, on the continent, and, later, Lionel Johnson and Ernest Dowson, in England, rejected progressive fantasies and idealized notions of beauty in favor of the artistic promises of decay. Their unapologetic rejection of aesthetic utopianism provides a fissure that may very well allow us to challenge traditional narratives of Victorian optimism and come to a more refined understanding of the nature of the decadent dystopian vision--a vision that was both absorbed and transformed by Yeats.

In order to understand the effect of the decadent aesthetic on Yeats's own work I will first isolate and examine the anti-utopian motif in decadent literature. I will then suggest connections between the continental decadent artist Joris-Karl Huysmans and his Irish contemporary by demonstrating their shared rejection of ideal aesthetic utopianism in favor of a more complex and conflicted decadent vision. Next, I will draw out the differences in the two artists' approach to this phenomenon in order to suggest that the decadent dystopian vision underwent a transformation when confronted with Yeats's simultaneous distrust of the false promises of utopianism and inescapable desire for the political efficacy of utopian nationalism. Finally, I will demonstrate that the decadent dystopias of Yeats's early verse find new expression in one of his most famous "modernist" poems. My hope is that by calling attention to the manner in which continental and Irish subversive treatments of modern ideal utopianism darkly mirror one another I might provide a more complete understanding of the relationship between decadence and modernism as it is reflected in the various complex and contentious reactions to the fin de siecle.

Before proceeding to a consideration of exactly how Huysmans and his Irish counterparts undermine aesthetic utopianism, we must pursue a more historicized definition of the utopian vision. It is my contention that these authors' anti-utopian impulses are themselves closer to Sir Thomas More's original conception of utopia as a seemingly ideal but subtly disturbing "no place" than they are to later notions of utopia as an ideal sociopolitical framework. When I speak of this Morian utopia, I do not do so in what has come be the conventional sense. The utopian tendency of thought was not originally an Aristotelian tendency toward developing a perfect imaginary polis. Such interpretations of the term have developed from readings of More's Utopia that mistakenly assume that the author is articulating his personal vision of an ideal social order. Upon closer inspection, More's work does nothing of the sort; rather, it demonstrates the Platonic mode of thought that seeks to create an isolated environment in which the mind might be free to examine both its own complex hidden desires and the limitations thereof? We must never forget that Plato's Republic is itself, to put it very simply, an exercise in the dialogical interrogation of ideas under the auspices of a treatise on justice, not an attempt to create an ideal civilization. A Morian/Platonic utopian vision is not an end to be pursued for its own sake because the visionary can never be a complete participant in the imaginary polis that he constructs. Utopia, in this sense, is a world created by the artist in which the imagination is free to separate itself from the restraints of its natural environment, envision alternate realities, and then critique those visions. This Morian/Platonic utopian vision reemerges in the decadent imagination as subtle dystopian vision, and it finds its voice in different ways in both the literary and political twilight of Europe and the dawn of Irish cultural nationalism.

On the continent, the anti-utopian vision is best embodied by the work of Huysmans, whose novel A Rebours is recognized as a quintessentially decadent work. In the novel, the author's imaginary pleasure palace, his aesthetic utopia, is both hauntingly attractive in its sensual splendor and deeply appalling in its destructive, degenerative power. Huysmans' uniquely decadent anti-utopian vision reemerges in Yeats's poetry, and an examination of this lineage may allow us to trace the line of artistic descent from literary decadence to literary modernism. Yeats's idealized islands are awe-inspiring and beautiful in a manner that suggests aesthetic utopianism, but they are tainted by a sterile artificiality that undermines both their aesthetic and emotional allure, as well as the author's own romantic desires, in favor of a more complex representation of his sordid reality. The anti-utopian vision that heralds the twilight of art, civilization, and beauty in the continental decadent A Rebours is adopted and transformed by Yeats, for whom the Celtic twilight was the first step towards an unrealized and strangely unsettling national political and artistic dawning. Like Huysmans, Yeats rejects the false promises of aesthetic preservation of the past as a mode of revivifying culture, yet unlike Huysmans, the sometimes-nationalist

Yeats is still clearly drawn to idealized utopian visions. In other words, the decadent dystopian aesthetic is transformed by Yeats into a paradoxical vision of imaginary lands that simultaneously embody both his sincere desire for a better future and his artistic distrust of blind idealization. The ascent of Ireland as an aspiring independent artistic and political force demanded that men like Yeats envision the promises and possibilities of the future. Yeats, however, was schooled in continental decadence and compelled to interrogate his own visions by subjecting them to the destructive force of an imagination akin to that of Plato and More.

I. Utopia and Its Discontents: Huysmans, Wilde, and the Decadent Undermining of Morris

Cassandra Laity's introduction to the recent special issue of Modernism/Modernity on "Decadent Aestheticism and Modernism" rightly encourages readers to step outside of the almost automatic tendency to speak of Charles Baudelaire as "the 'father' of modernism" (427), but the issue as a whole seems to be formulated around a potentially comparable simplifcation. The tendency to avoid the difficult task of differentiating between aestheticism and decadence is understandable because the two movements are so interrelated, and some artists even seem to have moved rather freely between aestheticism and decadence; nevertheless, drawing somewhat sharper, though necessarily rather fuzzy distinctions between decadence and aestheticism is imperative to any discussion of the art of the fin de siecle and its effects on later movements. If, as Dennisoff has already informed us, "aesthetic doctrine ... suggests that one's private utopia is at hand, if one would only learn to ignore the domineering bourgeoisie," then we may think of decadence as rooted in the belief that "Western culture ... has habitualised a view of birth and growth as positive, and decay and death as negative, when in fact they are all part of one indivisible, non-progressive package" (32). Decadence rejects the preservation of transcendent beauty in material artifice in favor of a chthonic obsession with the decay of artifice. While the Morrisian aesthete aspires to an idealized utopia, the decadent denies even the desirability of progress. The anti-utopian impulse is just such a denial, and, while it is only one example of the differences that exist between the aesthetic and decadent movements, its prominence in the work of both Huysmans and his Irish contemporary makes it a useful point of departure from the usual conflation of decadence and aestheticism.

A Rebours (1884) illustrates the continental decadent movement away from aesthetic utopianism by exposing the painful implications of Walter Pater's belief in the continual and unrestrained pursuit of ecstasy (Pater 328). Des Esseintes' degenerative pursuit of a "quickened sense of life" through the creation of a sensual utopia is self-defeating, and as such stands as an implicit critique of personal aesthetic utopianism. When we first meet Des Esseintes he is already "a frail man of thirty ... anemic and highly strung, with hollow cheeks, cold eyes of steely blue ... [and] papery hands" (3-4). He is the last of a once-noble bloodline and the broken product of generations of excess and inbreeding. He is an embodiment of Max Nordau's degenerate, whose "fin-de-siecle disposition" and neurasthenia make him a sterile creature of "malformations and infirmities" (Nordau 15). He is infected with the mal du siecle, and his sensual exploits have already left him impotent, neurotic, and incapable of enjoying even the mildest gastronomic delights. In order to escape the frenetic Parisian lifestyle, Des Esseintes flees to the isolation of the suburbs, where he creates a perverse monastery in which to "steep himself in peace and quiet for the rest of his days" (10). Once established there, he surrounds himself with all the opulent artificial beauty and rare finely-printed books prescribed by the aesthetic movement and remains, in Huysmans' own words, "brutishly determined to wallow in the mud of his own carnality" (211). The act of decorating, perfuming, and constantly altering his surroundings even seems to fit Morris' understanding of "real art," which "is the expression by man of his pleasure in labor" (58). (4) While I am certain that Morris would not have viewed Des Esseintes' "labor" as especially productive, it is undeniably artistic and aesthetically pleasing, if at times ridiculous.

To recount Des Esseintes' various extravagances, though entertaining, is less important to my project than to examine his decline, because it is this gradual process of degeneration that illustrates both the futility of aesthetic attempts to create ideal personal utopias and the sublimity of the decadent dystopian vision. It is far too easy to allow the decadent anti-narrative of A Rebours, with its overwhelming digressions and painful attention to minutiae, to blind us to the fact that the novel establishes an easily discernible plot. To treat the novel as nothing more than a portrait of the decadent lifestyle of a "freak," as J. M. Synge once put it, is not enough (Davis 51). Des Esseintes is a quintessential decadent to everyone but himself. His goal is never degeneration for degeneration's sake. On the contrary, his clearly articulated aim is to create a peaceful personal utopia of pleasure and solitude. Blind to the fact that his artificial paradise is slowly killing him, Des Esseintes continues to torture his body and mind with physical and intellectual excess until he is forced by his doctor to quit the country and return to the city that he despises. What is truly amazing is the fact that Des Esseintes still views "his haven" as truly perfect and tries to convince his doctors that he is fit to remain (202). Separated from his created utopia, he is left to rail impotently against the real world crying "crumble then, society! perish old world!" (203). We are the witnesses of Des Esseintes' failed experiment, and his twilight vision and its implicit critique of positive progressive aesthetic utopianism are unavoidable.

A Rebours is an ode to decay, and its sentiment of unavoidable and welcome European cultural and political decomposition is one apocalyptically echoed in Nordau's prophecy that "The day is over, the night draws on" (Nordau 13). Even a contemporary as artistically minded as Arthur Symons, critically the polar opposite of the bombastic Nordau, cannot help but comment that the self-conscious "spiritual and moral perversity" of the decadent movement "has all the qualities that mark the end of great periods, the qualities that we find in the Greek and Latin decadence" (Symons 858-859). Characters like Des Esseintes bear the symptoms of societal collapse, and in this sense Huysmans' novel and its subversive utopian vision called upon contemporary readers to abandon the false shelter of personal aesthetic utopianism and embrace degeneration as both desirable and good. For, at its heart, decadence only manifests itself through aberrant sexuality and sensuality, which are consequences, not causes. As Denisoff notes in his essay "The Dissipating Nature of Decadent Paganism from Pater to Yeats," "It was commentary on the movement such as Max Nordau's Degeneration (1892) and Arthur Symons's 'The Decadent Movement in Literature' (1893) ... that most forcefully developed the early critical association of Decadence with the unnatural, the deviant, and the sickly" (432). The quiddity of the continental decadent aesthetic is not simply sensual/sexual excess. It is the experience of lost dominance, cultural/spiritual decay, and the confused pursuit of oblivion. In the hands of Irish artists, this decadent aesthetic became less an end in itself and more a counterbalance to the equivocal utopian desires of Ireland's greatest artists.

Oscar Wilde shared in this decadent aesthetic, and while he is not the focus of this essay, I would be remiss if I did not briefly address his role in the Irish assimilation of decadence. (5) To invoke another standard narrative, the scandal surrounding the fall of Oscar Wilde resulted in a general artistic migration away from traditionally decadent themes and language. Arthur Symons's decision to recast "The Decadent Movement in Literature" as the more spiritualized and less controversial book The Symbolist Movement in Literature is symptomatic of a highly conscious recoding of decadence by the survivors and inheritors of the "tragic generation." Aside from consciously dissociating himself from the decadent movement in The Trembling of the Veil, Yeats, in his famous directive to J. M. Synge, seems to have sought to separate the younger artist from the corrupting influence of the decadent continental atmosphere in favor of the uniquely Irish setting of the Aran Islands. Yet by bringing a decadent aesthetic into contact with Irish scenes, life, and myth, Yeats manages to strike the balance between continental decadence and aestheticism and create a new Irish decadent aesthetic that continues to undermine idealized utopianism while simultaneously longing for a better future for Ireland and its people.

II. The Anti-Utopian Aesthetic and Yeats's Island Poems

While Huysmans' novel called for his readers to abandon aesthetic hope in favor of decadent despair, an emerging Irish poet called upon his countrymen to transform the dusk of nations into the Celtic twilight --a time of national rebirth and artistic renaissance for a country not traditionally associated with the production of great art. Yeats's essay "Hopes and Fears for Irish Literature" (1892), a clear play on Morris's Hopes and Fears for Art (1882), condemns contemporary English and continental poetry as "an end in itself" that "has nothing to do with thought, nothing to do with philosophy, nothing to do with life" (258). Embracing twilight imagery, Yeats affirms that "The age that has produced [this poetry] is getting old and feeble," and he boasts that "in Ireland we are living in a young age, full of hope and promise" (259). In his Study of Celtic Literature (1867) Matthew Arnold identifies in the Irish sensibility "the power of quick and strong perception and emotion," which he claims to be "one of the very prime constituents of genius;" however, he also calls attention to the fact that "the Celt has not produced great poetical works" (90, 87). Rather than refuting Arnold, Yeats acknowledges that "Here in Ireland the art of living interests us greatly, and the art of writing but little," but he then chooses to turn the tables on the English critic by claiming that Ireland is bound by "the limitations of dawn" while England and France are bound by "the limitations of sunset" (260). Therefore, as both a poet and critic, Yeats strove to establish ideals for Irish art and culture on an international scale, but his shrewd poetic mind simultaneously rejected the sterile artificiality of aesthetic utopianism.

From early poems such as "The Indian to his Love" to later poems such as "Sailing to Byzantium," Yeats's poetry repeatedly presents the reader with Morian island utopias (6) that are haunted by the artificiality of their own perfection. (7) Like Huysmans, Yeats subtly subverts his imagined utopias; however, while the former does so as an expression of decadent despair, the latter does so in order to critique the sterility of English and French aesthetics in favor of a living and robust Irish poetic. One might argue that, whereas Huysmans celebrates the decadent festival of decline and death, Yeats celebrates the decadent festival of ascension and new life.

Yet such a distinction brings with it various problems. Since continental decadence is generally associated with national decline, or at least imperial decline, a "decadent festival of ascension" seems paradoxical. The solution to this paradox is that Yeats's decadence is reflective of Ireland's own political history and character. In a sense, his national identity allows the poet to employ the decadent anti-utopian motif without succumbing to unmitigated fatalism. As Michael North points out in his book The Political Aesthetic of Yeats, Eliot, and Pound, Yeats's poetry embodies "an internal contest between individualism and nationalism, right and duty, freedom and history" (21). The poet dreamed of an idealized Ireland and actively worked, at times, to see that dream realized; however, he also crafted an anti-utopian aesthetic that functioned as an active critique of his own progressive desires. By creating Island utopias that were themselves infected with the taint of inescapable decay, Yeats transformed Huysmans' continental decadent vision, which viewed decay as an unavoidable end in itself, into a uniquely Irish decadent vision, which undermined progressive utopianism in order to create a more nuanced utopian vision--one that destroys itself in an act of artistic exploration of conflicting desires and anxieties.

The island, for both More and Yeats, is a symbol of great importance. Yeats's poetry as a whole repeatedly returns to island settings and images, but nowhere is this central symbol more bountifully employed than in his earliest verses. The Wanderings of Oisin (1889) is too long for an adequate treatment here, but it is worth mentioning that all three of Oisin's stomping grounds in the land of the faeries are timeless islands that the hero eventually deserts in order to return to a sordid reality. The next volume, Crossways (1889) quickly takes up the image of the otherworldly island anew. The island of "The Indian to his Love" (1886) (8) stands outside of time and geography and operates as a utopian space in which Yeats is free to both express and interrogate his deepest desires. It is important to note that the speaker of the poem, the unnamed lovesick Indian, and his beloved auditor are not actually on the island of which he speaks in the first stanza:
   The Island dreams under the dawn
   And great boughs drop tranquility;
   The peahens dance on a smooth lawn,
   The parrot sways upon a tree,
   Raging at his own image in the enamelled sea.

   (Yeats Reader 6)


We as readers are not privy to exactly which island the speaker has in mind. It is as if we had walked in on a conversation. We imagine that the discourse must have begun along the lines of "So, my dear, let me tell you about the Island such-and-such and what we will do there." Like More's Hythloday, the Indian speaks of a place that, for us, is no-place; this locational ambiguity allows the reader imaginative space, in which the possibility exists that the Indian could, in some strange fashion, be speaking of Ireland itself. The first line of the next stanza, "Here we will moor our lonely ship," provides the illusion of in-placement, but if the speaker and his love were actually on the island, then the first stanza would simply consist of him describing the scenery to her. Instead, we must assume that the speaker is creating a utopia in his mind and describing it to his beloved. In this sense, "The Indian to his Love" is a two-sided utopian vision. On one side, the Indian imagines what he believes to be an ideal personal aesthetic utopia. On the other, the poet, who knows that we are the poem's true audience, creates an anti-utopian vision replete with subtle hints that the Indian's paradise is in fact an artificial cage.

In order to enhance our sense of the island's repellent artificiality, Yeats combines images of twilight and artifice with poignant rhythmic shifts. At the outset, day is dawning over the dreaming island. This image invites us to view the island as Yeats's Ireland, which welcomes the dawn while the continent passes into twilight, and the boughs that drop tranquility seem to prefigure the peace that "comes dropping slow ... from the veils of the morning" on another of Yeats's untouchable island utopias. The rich beauty of this scene is soon disturbed by the parrot, whom we find "Raging at his own image in the enamelled sea." (9) Like a strangely inverted Narcissus, like Caliban looking into his glass, the parrot is repulsed by his own image as it appears in the artificially "enamelled sea." This bird, a staple of the exotic natural beauty of the West Indies, is driven to madness by the sterile confines of the Indian's aesthetic utopia, and we are shocked out of this romanticized vision by both the image of the parrot and the painful shift in rhythm that it introduces to the stanza.

Lines one through four are not bound by any strictly set metrics, but each is constituted of eight syllables, four of which are tightly packed stressed syllables that produce a sort of languorous semi-iambic rising rhythm (The Island dreams under the dawn). We are aurally lulled into the same gentle dream sleep as the Island, while the lines and the words and the syllables themselves almost drop from the tongue as tranquility drops from the bows. The abab rhyming couplets and the comfortable metric flow draw us into a state of ease and surety and mimic the regular rhythm of the peahens' dance as well as the seemingly gentle back-and-forth of the swaying parrot. Form extends from content and pulls us into a brief sensory identification with and longing for peace, which we almost subconsciously associate with the island. Consequently, we are completely unprepared for what happens in the final line. The poet breaks the spatial continuity of the preceding lines by sprawling line five out over thirteen syllables (Raging at his own image in the enamelled sea). In an act of unnerving syncopation, Yeats accelerates the cadence by inundating the line with unstressed syllables that break the comfortable rhythm of the poem and make us unconsciously speed up our reading in a futile attempt to force the jarring line to fit the form we have come to expect. The parrot's rage at being trapped in this artificial utopian cage awakens us from the trance of the first four lines and invites us into Yeats's decadent anti-utopian vision.

The three remaining stanzas follow the same metrical format, and the beautiful images of each are consistently crippled by thoughts of "the unquiet lands," "wings that gleam and dart," and "the water's drowsy blaze." Rather than allowing his speaker to establish an untainted aesthetic utopian vision of the new post-dawn Ireland in the guise of the unnamed island, Yeats tempers the vision with a subtle yet forceful critique of its artificiality. By doing so, the poet is not simply separating himself from his aesthetic, continental counterparts by framing artificiality as distasteful; he is interrogating his own desire for an idealized Ireland by creating a decadent dystopia within the frame of a love song.

Up to this point, I have insisted upon similarities between Yeats's anti-utopias and those constructed by his decadent contemporaries, but it is also important to reiterate the differences that make the Irish poet's vision unique. The degree to which Yeats's artistic project differed from and surpassed that of his contemporaries can better be gasped if we consider the decadent poetry of one of his more intimate peers. In the summer of 1896, Yeats ventured to the Aran Islands with the poet/critic Arthur Symons, who was so moved by the holiday diversion that he composed a collection of thoroughly decadent poems titled Images of Good and Evil, which he published the same year as The Symbolist Movement in Literature, 1899. The very name of Symons' book of verse is a testament to the complex relationship that he shared with Yeats, who, in a clear homage to Symons' collection of decadent verse, titled his famous 1903 collection of essays Ideas of Good and Evil. A particular poem sequence from Images of Good and Evil, titled simply "In Ireland," is clearly influenced by the twilight imagery of the early decadent Yeats of poems such as "The Indian to his Love."

The poem is set in the "Isles of Aran," and it reads like a cheap knockoff of Yeats, or like the doggerel of second-rate "Celtic twilight" Irish poets; however, it is still a poem of interest for our discussion because it turns the landscape of the Islands into a menacing decadent vision that is patently continental in its untempered ennui and fatalism. The poem is short, so I will quote it in its entirety.
   In the twilight of the year,
   Here, about these twilight ways,
   When the grey moth night drew near,
   Fluttering on a faint flying,
   I would linger out the day's
   Delicate and moth-grey dying.
   Grey, and faint with sleep, the sea
   Should enfold me, and release,
   Some old peace to dwell with me.
   I would quiet the long crying
   Of my heart with mournful peace,
   The grey sea's, in its low sighing.

   (Images 145)


Symons pictures the island of Inishmaan as a place of twilight, where the poet, like Des Esseintes, hopes to "linger out" his days before death. The only color on this island--this country for old men--is grey, and the peace afforded by the enfolding sea is "mournful peace." Symons clearly lacks the subtlety of Yeats's poetic sensibility, and his creation of a twilight island paradise is far too overtly decadent in its obsession with decay, death, and melancholy to match the delicate introspective power of Yeats's Irish, decadent anti-utopian vision. Symons' vision of Aran is an example of the unadulterated continental decadence that informed, but failed to define, Yeats's sensibility.

III. Decadent Reeds in Modernist Hair Before the turn of the century, Yeats's mind was haunted by idealized but patently unattainable islands. The longing for particularly Irish utopian islands can be clearly seen in "The Lake Isle of Innisfree," but the poem is also suffused with the certain knowledge that such perfection is unattainable. Like the faery land of "The Stolen Child," which promises freedom from pain at the cost of the child's humanity, Yeats's islands can only promise a sterile ideal that the poet must reject lest he become nothing more than a mindless nationalist or merely, in Pounds words, "romantically Celtic." Of course, as I have hinted, Yeats continued to construct unsettling, island anti-utopias well after the decline of the decadent movement. The aged poet, grown tired of the vicissitudes of life, disenchanted with the country that rejected John Synge, and weary of the political troubles that racked his country, was tempted to seek solace in a truly unchanging and perfect utopia.

Though separated by decades from "The Indian to his Love," "Sailing to Byzantium" is the most complex manifestation of Yeats's anti-utopian aesthetic. (10) His earlier personal utopias were substitutes for an idealized Ireland, but his decadent distrust of perfection and the false promises of progress led the younger Yeats to subtly subvert his own nationalist desires. In "Sailing," the aged poet tries to leave the dream of a perfect Ireland behind in favor of a city that symbolically represents immortal art. The poem famously opens with a renunciation of the imperfect world of life and death--the real and troubled Ireland, where "all neglect / Monuments of unageing intellect." Such a place is no country for old men and cannot stand as the sole object of utopian desire. Compelled by a longing for immortality and artistic perfection, the speaker sails to what Richard Ellmann calls "Yeats's holy city of the imagination" (253). In order to enter into this seemingly ideal city, however, he must give up the debate between Self and Soul.
   O sages standing in God's holy fire
   As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
   Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
   And be the singing-masters of my soul.
   Consume my heart away; sick with desire
  And fastened to a dying animal ...


He must allow the sages to consume his heart away before he can pass into the "artifice of eternity." For Yeats, who despised the Platonic divide between body and soul, such perfection is illusory at best.

Deprived of his imperfect, decaying body, the speaker will take the form of a golden bird, but, like the parrot of "The Indian to his Love," this bird will be trapped in a sterile and frighteningly artificial world. Though he has been saved from the painful cycles of life and death that characterize his home country, the poet/bird must now spend eternity keeping "a drowsy Emperor awake" and singing of the very passage of time from which he has excluded himself. This Byzantium only wears the trappings of a personal, aesthetic utopia. The perfection offered to the aging artists in "Sailing" is shown to be as illusory as that offered by the young poet's bucolic Ireland. Such artificial utopias, Yeats would have us know, are as susceptible to decay as Des Esseintes' decadent cloister, and as potentially destructive.

The anti-utopian vision that heralds the twilight of art, civilization, and beauty in the decadent continental novel A Rebours was transformed by Yeats, for whom the Celtic twilight was the first step towards a yet unrealized national political and artistic dawning. Yeats was torn between the paradox of his nationalist desires and decadent needs, but the decadent anti-utopian aesthetic that grew out of this paradox enabled them to seek to revivify Irish culture without succumbing to the blind ideology of nationalism. By allowing his imagination to inhabit spaces where the competing demands of aesthetic perfection and decadent decay could share the artist's duty of creation and destruction, Yeats transformed the decadent anti-utopian vision and participated in the genesis of a new modernist aesthetic.

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Symons, Arthur. Images of Good and Evil. London: William Heinemann, 1899. Print.

Sylvester, R. S. '"Si Hythlodaeo Credimus": Vision and Revision in More's Utopia.' Essential Articles in the Study of Thomas More. R. S. Sylvester and Germain Marc'hadour Eds. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1977. Print.

Vendler, Helen. Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 2007. Print.

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1988. Print.

Yeats, W. B. "The Celtic Element in Literature." Cosmopolis. Vol. 10 (1898): 675-686. Web. September 11, 2010

-- "Hopes and Fears for Irish Literature." The Collected Works of W. B. Yeats: Volume IX. John Frayne and Madeleine Marchaterre Eds. New York: Scribner, 2004. Print.

--. The Yeats Reader. New York: Scribner Poetry, 2002. Print.

(1) For further evidence of Morris' utopian aesthetic I would refer my readers to Elizabeth Carolyn Miller's article "William Morris, Print Culture, and the Politics of Aestheticism," in which Miller very convincingly demonstrates Morris's use of print as a medium for promoting his aesthetic utopian aims.

(2) A recent special issue of Modernism/Modernity referenced the cultural capital of this pairing in its title Decadent Aestheticism and Modernism.

(3) Though the argument that More subverts his own utopia is controversial, it has enjoyed ample critical support for some time. See, for example, R. S. Sylvester's "'Si Hythlodaeo Credimus': Vision and Revision in More's Utopia" (Sylvester 290-301).

(4) In her essay, "William Morris, Print Culture, and the Politics of Aestheticism," Elizabeth Carolyn Miller identifies Morris' brand of aestheticism as "a movement that opposed the idealist conflation of beauty and morality, but adhered to idealism in its rejection of the ugliness of naturalism, its insistence on the artist's freedom as a necessary condition for the creation of beauty, and its utopian belief in art's potential to create, as Wilde put it, 'a new world that will be more marvelous, more enduring, and more time than the world that common eyes look upon, and through which common natures seek to realize their perfection'" (478).

(5) The importance of Wilde as a transitional figure from the old aestheticism to the new decadence cannot be overemphasized. While we do not have the time to adequately discuss Wilde in relation to utopianism, Carolyn Lesjak's essay "Utopia, Use, and the Everyday: Oscar Wilde and a New Economy of Pleasure" provides an interesting comparison of both artists' understandings of the social function of art: "Art is defined by Morris as the expression of pleasure in labor, and his Utopia in News from Nowhere is one of artisans. Oscar Wilde provides a counter-narrative to Victorian conventions of imagining, also through art, an expanded notion of needs and use which privileges pleasure and the imagination over utility. What their utopian visions share is the premise that alienated labor results in an alienation from the very objects of human production" (180). Her later analysis of Dorian Gray raises interesting questions about the nature of the decadent utopian vision.

(6) While Byzantium is not technically an island, it is repeatedly depicted in Yeats's poetry as an isolated land approachable only by water.

(7) Though scholars like Edward Said have attempted to characterize Yeats's early verse as "liberationism and Utopian revolutionism," Stephen Reagan's essay "W. B. Yeats and Irish Cultural Politics in the 1890's" does much to illustrate the exaggerated nature of such claims (Reagan 69).

(8) The poem as we have it today is markedly different from the original. Yeats revised the poem several times before settling on the final incarnation, which I have chosen to analyze in this paper because I believe that the author's revisions have enhanced rather than altered the original essence of the poem.

(9) This parrot's rage at seeing his own image is strikingly similar to that of Caliban in Wilde's preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890/1). Wilde, like Yeats, is an Irish decadent inheritor of Huysmans, and it is possible that Yeats's parrot and its decadent distaste for aesthetic utopianism could have influenced Wilde's poignant decadent image.

(10) Since better minds than mine have dissected this famous poem, I will eschew any laborious summary in favor of a more concentrated explication. Those interested in an extended explication of the poem's formal complexity and thematic/symbolic framework would be well served to consult Helen Vendler's Our Secret Discipline (27-38).
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Author:Lockerd, Martin
Publication:Yeats Eliot Review
Date:Sep 22, 2011
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