Printer Friendly

Yeats's politics since 1943: approaches and reproaches.

The king answered and said to the Chaldeans, 'The thing is gone from me: if ye will not make known unto me the dream, with the interpretation thereof, ye shall be cut in pieces, and your houses shall be made a dunghill. (Daniel 2.5)

In the Tryal of Persons accused for Crimes against the State, the Method used is much more short and commendable: The Judge, first sends to sound the Disposition of those in Power; after which he can easily hang or save the Criminal, strictly observing all the Forms of Law. (Gulliver's Travels, Book iv, Chapter 5)

Despite the popularity of James Joyce (1882-1941), and the contrary fame of Samuel Beckett (1906-89), few would dispute that W. B. Yeats (1865-1939) remains unchallenged as the dominant figure in Irish culture of the twentieth century and after. Various reasons could be advanced to confirm this unremarkable fact. By a comparison with the other names cited, there is the poet's long residence in Ireland and his direct service to the cause of national independence. Beyond these consolidating facts, one might also note how the term 'dominant' is peculiarly appropriate to Yeats, given his assertive personality both as a writer and as a public figure. There is, however, a psychological or ideological dimension which transcends facticity. Dominance was never an objective for Beckett, and Joyce took a more ironic view of his position in the Irish firmament.

The date of Yeats's death, January 1939, contributed much to the consolidation of his fame. In echoing what he termed John Mitchel's prayer--'Send war in our time, O Lord'--the ageing poet publicly confirmed his passionate desire for conflict, bloody and extensive conflict. Privately, he vacillated. Writing to a journalist friend, as late as 2 October 1938, he admitted a degree of satisfaction with the Munich Agreement: 'My own releif [sic] was immense, even if had given up my beleif [sic] in peace last Monday. It would have been a long war & I should not have lived to see the end of its dark tunnel.' (1) Some disappointment at his inevitable missing the final stages of the conflict is as evident as relief at its postponement.

Within a few months, the Irish Free State which Yeats had assisted into life stood outside the cataclysmic events of the World War. In its isolation, the country looked back to a heritage which provided more consolation than spiritual guidance. Joyce's death in Zurich, prefigured for some in the obscurity of Finnegans Wake, merely confirmed his remoteness from local Irish preoccupations. Meanwhile, Mr Beckett was not leaving Paris or, at least, not leaving it for other than the rigours of a semi-fugitive existence in Roussillon. Mr Yeats, having died a few kilometres further south, lay in a temporary grave awaiting the end of hostilities and an Irish naval corvette to repatriate him.

At home, the short story writer, Sean O'Faolain (1900-91), bravely established a literary journal (The Bell, 1940-54) which also provided an outlet for dissident opinion. He and his successor as editor, Peadar O'Donnell (1893-1986), were assisted by the essayist Hubert Butler (1900-91). (2) All three thought in political terms, to different and non-exclusive degrees. All three might have been termed 'men of the left', though Butler came from a gentry branch of an aristocratic family, and O'Faolain was a Harvard graduate. Alone among them, O'Donnell came of plebeian stock. Yet all three adhered in some way to a republican ideal looking back to the French-inspired United Irishmen of the 1790s. Their principles and problems endured under contemporary pressures--of Catholic nationalism in Ireland, imperial British prestige among the democracies, and the threat of fascism from the European continent.

The posthumous Yeats registered more positively with his fellow-poets. Anglican, Ulster-born and London-based Louis MacNeice (1907-63) published a sympathetic but not uncritical study, The Poetry of W. B. Yeats in 1941. His Catholic southern counterpart, Austin Clarke (1896-1974), had been more directly influenced by Yeats, both as poet and later as playwright. Indeed, he contemplated writing a biography but gave up in frustration. Influence, in this case, accommodated antagonism, for the younger poet felt that Yeats had frozen him out of the Abbey Theatre while also feeling (rightly) that Yeats had made possible what Clarke achieved in poetry and verse drama. MacNeice's impatience with some of Yeats's assumptions about class, and Clarke's experience of his manipulative genius, combine to portray the dominance, and need for dominance, which played such a large part in the older man's psyche.

Despite the tributes paid by the younger generation of Irish writers, Yeats remained at a distance partly of his own making. Other writers--the poet Patrick Kavanagh (1904-67) and the short-story writer Frank O'Connor (1903-66), for example--may have been freer to express the need to escape Yeats's dominance; but freedom, need, and escape make up a very strange triad. The truth is, Yeats was an embarrassment, though nobody could quite articulate the nature or locus of the problem. It involved more than his literary achievement, overbearing though that could be at times. Yet it was associated with his greatness, like Achilles' heel, or the wound of Philoctetes. In 1941, the American critic Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) published a remarkable collection of seven essays which used the paradox of the Grecian hero as an underlying theme in his study of modern literature though (as he put it) only Andr, Gide (1869-1951) and the now-forgotten John Jay Chapman had outwardly employed the story of Philoctetes' never-failing bow and never-healing wound as a double emblem of the modern predicament. Yeats has no place in Wilson's survey, though Finnegans Wake has. Seamus Heaney has, of course, more recently assimilated the bitter truths of the Greek story to the extensive repertoire of Irish reliance on mythic explorations into political and social malaise. (3)

The Yeats critics avoided such profound typological enquiries. Historians kept their distance, as if Yeats had not seen to that. While both he and Joyce soon acquired bands of 'critical' followers, these critics were for the most part explicators, admirers, vindicators. After 1945, the study of Irish literature was taken up enthusiastically in the United States, and to a lesser extent in Europe and Great Britain. The humanities were identified as a reliable subject-area for development, especially where violently anti-humanistic (or simply anti-human) social and political cultures had given rise to the War and all its ultimately revealed horrors. Ireland was innocent of that history (or so it seemed), and additionally it had never shown any leanings towards Communism, now the new enemy in Cold War re-alignments.

Although he might decline the honour, Denis Donoghue should be acknowledged as one of the few critics who have identified a concept through which Yeats's poetry and politics can be treated together. The concept is power. (4) The little book containing this valuable insight was written in place of a biography for which Donoghue was contracted but for which he found himself constitutionally unsuited; his self-denying honesty should be applauded. Yeats's biographers have played a major role in shaping public and academic response to their subject, quite beyond anything effected in the case of Joyce or Beckett. After some differences with the poet's estate, Donoghue resigned his commission. The task of writing an authorized biography was then undertaken by the historian, F. S. L. Lyons (1923-83), who died suddenly but whose files were taken over by Roy Foster, the appointed successor. Foster's two-volume life of Yeats is completed with the publication of The Arch Poet in 2003. Once again Yeats is dominant.

Given the various revolutions turning over what passes for cultural debate in Ireland, it is an achievement on Foster's part essentially to bring us back to where the first biographer, Joseph Hone (1882-1959), left us in 1943. Much detail has been added, including some which would have been deemed damaging in years gone by. Thus we learn of Yeats's drug taking and masturbation. But on the political front, little has changed. In the intervening years, Conor Cruise O'Brien published 'Passion and Cunning: An Essay on the Politics of W. B. Yeats' (1965) which Foster passes over without comment. The Cruiser we occasionally meet in The Apprentice Mage (1997) and The Arch Poet (2003) is Francis, whose most valuable asset for the voluminous biographer is an ability to do good imitations of Yeats in the Dublin Arts Club. Foster more resembles father than son. In fairness, one should add that the succession of biographers from Hone onwards imposes a suspect legacy of discretion. In the same key, Elizabeth Cullingford replied to Cruise O'Brien with Yeats, Ireland, and Fascism (1981), a title in which Ireland discreetly keeps Yeats and Fascism apart.

Let us take two major political concerns of the 1930s: Nazi Germany and the Spanish Civil War. These are matters on which commentators have almost universally found Yeats on the side of the angels. Or rather, these are matters from which commentators have chosen to avert their gaze. A minor occurrence in Roy Foster's second volume can set the ball rolling. In connection with the events of 27 February 1933 and after, we are told that 'Yeats refused to sign a petition got up by English writers against the Reichstag Fire tribunal proceedings in March' and 'it is likely that this is because it seemed a Communist ploy'. (5) This confuses matters with great expedition. First, no trial was arranged until July, nor did it commence until late September. Consequently, and in the absence of any detailed reference from the biographer, we must suspect that the English petition in March condemned the German government's suspension of civil rights, the closure of newspapers, and the opening (22 March) of the first concentration camp at Dachau. The Communist Plot had been Herman Goering's instant explanation of an assault on democratic assembly almost certainly planned in his own department. Of the five defendants eventually tried (21 September to 23 December), the four self-attested Communists were acquitted in the bizarrest of show-trials, leaving only a mentally defective Dutch labourer to be guillotined (10 January 1934). Yeats was not alone in refusing to sign protests but, as a man of genuine political experience and as a poet who claimed insight into the ways of history, his complacency deserves comment, even a little analysis. With the events now listed chronologically, we can see that the politics of Yeats's refusal was centred on his indifference to draconian limitations of civil liberties by a regime less than six weeks in power. That Yeats also concurred with Nazi propaganda in 1933 (independent of its influence, if you wish) set a pattern maintained on later, and perhaps graver, occasions. Like Kristallnacht in November 1938.

The canonical instance of gaze-averting is Elizabeth Cullingford's Yeats, Ireland and Fascism (1981) written to refute Cruise O'Brien. The view that 'Yeats's curiosity about fascism centred upon Mussolini, and did not long survive Hitler's accession to power' can only be maintained with a peculiarly wide-angled and steady distraction. (6) For example, in Hone's biography of 1943 we find an awkward footnote: 'It may be mentioned here, although Hauptmann had nothing to do with the matter, that in 1934 Yeats quite unexpectedly, as author of The Countess Cathleen, received the Goethe Plakette from the Oberburgermeister of Frankfort.' (7) The immediate awkwardness of this arises from its place in the biographer's narrative: discussing Yeats's acquaintance with the German playwright Gerhart Hauptmann (1862-1946) in the Italy of 1929, Hone anticipates an event of June 1934 and then never adverts to the matter again. The longer-term awkwardness turns on his successors' determined avoidance of Yeats's Frankfurt honour until I disinterred it in 1988. For my trouble, I was accused of scurrility in suggesting that Nazis might have manipulated so great a man. (8) Of course, this is not the only evidence of Yeats's interest in Nazi Germany which Cullingford avoided: there is the later and better documented approval of Nazi legislation which Yeats very deliberately communicated to the Dublin press in August 1938. (9)

The Goethe-Plakette business presents compelling challenges to the biographer. During the Second World War, when Hone was seeing his book into print, there was no possibility of checking sources in Frankfurt or elsewhere in Germany. While this situation indemnified him in certain regards, it is clear from his reference to Hauptmann that he knew more about the award than he committed to paper. For further example, alluding to The Countess Cathleen, Hone fails to mention that the play was produced in the Frankfurter Schauspielhaus in February 1934 as the second prong of a double honour--the Plakette and the production. In 1943, it was understandably impolitic to venture much further into Yeats's relations with a German theatre and a Nazi Oberburgermeister: no such inhibitions affected Hone's immediate successors, Richard Ellmann in 1948 and A. N. Jeffares in 1949.

Each of these biographers carried a bag. By inheritance Jewish, Ellmann was still attached to the American forces in Britain when he travelled to Dublin to meet Mrs Yeats in September 1945 and thus embark on his remarkable career as the biographer of three great writers, Yeats, Joyce, and Wilde, and as the insightfully sympathetic critic of Irish culture in general. In the US navy, Ellmann's role was not a combat one, and I am not aware that he took part in the invasion of Europe or the occupation of Germany. On the contrary, he was based in London, concerned with communications (Office of Strategic Services) and perhaps intelligence matters. As a Jew, he naturally felt the gross enormity of Nazi barbarism with peculiar sensitivity. From a private source, I have learned that years later a motoring-holiday planned to take the family from France into Germany was silently revised almost immediately after the car crossed the frontier: Ellmann turned round and drove out silently. We may then surmise that he found it morally difficult to absorb Hone's footnote and its possible implications when he came to write Yeats, the Man and the Masks (1948).

Being native-Irish born, Jeffares was unique in his generation as a pioneering major scholar of Yeats. Educated at High School Dublin, where Yeats had briefly been a pupil in the 1880s, he then studied classics at Trinity College, before proceeding to Oxford and a career in Eng. Lit. His first appointment (in the academic year 1945/6) was at the University of Groningen, on the Dutch side of the German border. (10) Despite this diplomatic move, Jeffares's bag (it might seem) was to be subjectively close where Ellmann was objectively distant. There have been, however, one or two other items weighing on Jeffares's biographical work--he has published a new biography (1988) as well as W. B. Yeats: Man and Poet in 1949. Weighing, that is, on the issue of Yeats's politics, with specific reference to Nazi Germany. In 1936, the young Derry Jeffares travelled with a party of sixth-formers from various Dublin schools on a summer holiday in Germany. It is virtually certain his brother George--later a Communist and second-hand car salesman--did not. It had been a memorable trip, including the Olympics, the Czech border (how prescient of the organizers!), Dresden, and Cologne, not omitting the capital. When the Irish party debouched from a train in Berlin, a Storm-troopers' band provided musical accompaniment as all marched off 'in the centre of a long parade of Hitler Youth'. (11) It is difficult to think it difficult to remember German honours, having enjoyed that reception and taken up a continental lectureship. Yet Jeffares has never referred to Yeats's Frankfurt successes--neither in 1949 nor in 1988.

Let us put the material in order. Hone notes the Frankfurt Plakette by February 1943. The war ends in 1945, followed by a truly horrifying disclosure of the Holocaust and the destruction of European Jewry. Within three years, Ellmann sees Yeats, the Man and the Masks into print, omitting any reference to the award emanating from the state dedicated to exterminating his people. One year on, Jeffares publishes W. B. Yeats: Man and Poet, omitting any reference to the award emanating from the state which he had visited himself during its Olympic annus mirabilis, and on whose frontier he had been living for some recent years. These are heroic acts of amnesia, albeit the product of contrasting personal impulses in the two biographers.

Nevertheless, it must be admitted that the Goethe-Gong, despatched to Yeats by Friedrich Krebs, Nazi Oberburgermeister of Frankfurt in June 1934, is a minor matter. The other nominee/recipients for that year were literary nobodies--Hermann Stehr (a blood-and-soil novelist), Ernst Krieck (the rector of Frankfurt University who fired Martin Buber, Max Horkheimer, Karl Mannheim, Paul Tillich etc. in 1933), and Josef Goebbels (doubtless as author of a play, 'Der Wanderer'). At least fifty of these tin trophies had been dished out by the end of 1934. (12) By comparison, the Spanish Civil War is a major, defining event in the 1930s.

In this connection, Hone has nothing to say. Ellmann took the trouble to note that Eoin O'Duffy, leader of the Blueshirts, 'happily did not prove a very helpful acquisition to the Falange' when, in November 1936, the general led an Irish brigade to fight on Franco's side. (13) This certainly makes clear Ellmann's own attitude to the fascist insurrection, but it occludes much more that could have been said about Yeats, his perilously symmetrical fears of Communism and politicized Catholicism. Mrs Yeats, on the other hand, had made plain her detestation of the Blueshirts, and Mrs Yeats took Ellmann into her confidence in September 1945 and thereafter. Though the Second World War intervened between the Spanish War and their conversations in Palmerston Road, only six years had passed since the death of her husband. If Yeats had expressed himself positively on the Spanish issue--that is, if he had explicitly committed himself to a position closer to theirs than had been his wont--it seems unlikely that she and Ellmann would have connived in suppressing the matter.

Yet that, in effect, is what the latest and greatest Yeats biographer would have us believe. In The Arch-Poet, Roy Foster accepts Elizabeth Cullingford's acceptance of the claim, made by the great Chilean Communist poet, Pablo Neruda (1904-73), that Yeats wrote a letter of support for the Spanish Republican government in the summer of 1937. And why not? After all, the source is a poet, and the effect is to align Yeats on the side of political decency. More relevant, perhaps, would be the observation that the claim (if substantiated) would put Yeats alongside Eamon de Valera in adopting a legitimistic view of the Spanish struggle, that is, acknowledging Franco to be in armed rebellion against a properly constituted (and, as it happens, democratically elected) government. If de Valera had succeeded in swallowing his own pride as a double rebel against Britain and the Irish Free State, was not Yeats all the more remarkable in stomaching both democracy in Spain and de Valera in Dail Eireann?

The claim, however, had the bewitching clarity and smallness of things seen through the wrong end of a telescope. It had been made in a posthumously published volume of memoirs, prepared from Neruda's literary remains by two editors, and thus lay at a distance from possibilities of verification and (it seems) of corroboration also. On the strength of a forty-year-old wisp of one man's recollection, Cullingford was able to dismiss Yeats's earlier 'flirtation' with fascism, and totally ignore his subsequent endorsement of Nazi legislation. Instead, readers were treated to a virtual reality; Yeats 'had stepped, briefly but decisively, out of the purely Irish context: he had made public his rejection of fascism'. (14)

Few colons have exercised that exemplary control of rubbish managed in the example just quoted. Downstream of 1981, the authorized biographer observes in 2003, with even greater audacity of thought, how 'this would now align [Yeats] against his ex-comrades on the right of Irish politics'. (15)

If Yeats, Fascism and Ireland is the centrifugal locus of 'spin' in the treatment of the poet's politics, there is no shortage of burnt-out satellites, black holes, UFOs, and alien presences in the wider circuit of academic discussion. The transmission of ignorance could be well illustrated in the line which reaches from Cullingford in 1981 to W. B. Yeats: A Beginner's Guide (2002). The latter, written by the aptly named Frank Startup, devotes two pages to the topic of Yeats's politics, and in the course of these relies exclusively on Edward Said's selective reading of Cullingford's selective response to Conor Cruise O'Brien. Accordingly, 'Yeats is saying that more than violence is needed, and that liberation is about more than seizing power.' (16) That the author of Orientalism should figure as the source for this revealing if infantile summary is lamentable, though responsibility lies less with Said than with Cullingford. (17)

In the final decade or so of his life, Edward Said became occasionally associated with the Field Day project, commencing with a pamphlet scarcely longer than its title, Nationalism, Colonialism and Literature: Yeats and Decolonization (1988). In the course of this, he referred to the surprise he felt on discovering the claim of Yeats's publicly defending the Spanish Republic in what he described nimbly as 'the first volume' of Neruda's Memoirs, a description which conceals their posthumous and edited condition. (18) The element of surprise did not prompt Said to question or seek to verify the claim; on the contrary he moved in the next sentence to concur in Cullingford's interpretation of Yeats's late politics. Though Orientalism (1978) had brilliantly combined cultural analysis with literary and political history, Said was not inclined to engage in any historical research with reference to the project of re-packaging Yeats for post-colonial graduate consumerism. In this he was undoubtedly supported and encouraged by the Field Day team then in the process of re-orientating themselves to Middle America through Seamus Deane's appointment to a professorship at the University of Notre Dame (home of 'the Fighting Irish'). Complaining that R. P. Blackmur had read Yeats's poetry a-historically, Said could invoke Frantz Fanon and quote the following lines in support:
 Scorn the sort now growing up
 All out of shape from toe to top,
 Their unremembering hearts and heads
 Base-born products of base beds.

 ('Under Ben Bulben')

That these lines bear some relation with Yeats's commitment to eugenics, and that this commitment lay alongside his positive endorsement of Nazi legislation in August 1938, would seem to me a historical datum almost banal in its obviousness. (19) But the heart of Field Day long ago hardened against historical research, despite some notable efforts by Tom Paulin and Tom Kilroy, and hardened especially against any research threatening to disclose links between Irish republicanism and continental politics.

The first paragraph of 'Dumbness and Eloquence: A Note on English as We Write It in Ireland' (20) repeatedly implies that the Great Famine of 1845-50 was an intentional act of British genocidal policy. This is no still point in Deane's turning world. Shifting balletically from the citation of folklore (where the genocide was, allegedly, an inherited belief) to an assumption of established fact, he thereafter re-classifies the genocide as an atrocity--euphemistically, one supposes. But when atrocity is constantly partnered with the term 'modernity' we finally reach a fabulous Ireland where no other atrocities were ever committed, a place daily threatened by the modernity of historical revisionism. No wonder Deane welcomed The Arch-Poet in his Irish Times review, for in his pre-emptive eclipse of fascism's dark moon of 1933-34 Foster has erased the IRA's own record of recent atrocity. His is the Yeats biography suited to an era in which those used to power have to jockey with Yahoos for a stall in cabinet.

Historical revisionism has certainly beset inherited accounts of the Spanish Civil War. The conventional view, promulgated by Yeats, that the Catholic Church backed the rebels, was not the case in absolutely every instance. Fr Michael O'Flanagan (1876-1942), a former vice-president of Sinn Fein and a scholar, was eloquently pro-Republican, even addressing a rally in Madison Square Gardens in New York. At the Battle of Jarama in February 1937, two Irish volunteers on the republican side were killed whom Yeats might have been expected to know of. One was the poet Charlie Donnelly (1910-37), part of a brilliant generation of young writers including Denis Devlin (1908-59) and Flann O'Brien (1912-66) who had been together at University College, Dublin. The other was Robert Hilliard, an ordained clergyman of the Church of Ireland. Such figures might be thought exemplary in Yeats's platoon of dare-devils, but there is no evidence that he had even heard of them.

Other names were well-known. Frank Ryan (1902-1944) has long been a hero on the Left, due to his leading a small band of Irish republicans to fight for the Madrid government: his subsequent incarceration in Burgos led to a bizarre 'rescue' leaving him stranded in wartime Berlin. Feargal McGarry has recently shown how frail Ryan's anti-fascist politics had been and how easily he was manipulated by the Nazis. More important in the present context is McGarry's disinterment of an Irish declaration of support for the Spanish Republic, to be signed by members of 'the middle-class intelligentsia', in the spring of 1937, after Jarama. A prime mover declared, 'Sean O'Casey is sympathetic and I suppose Yeats is.' In the end, the whole project collapsed in apathy: not even O'Casey (who lived in England) lent his name to the venture. (21) If Yeats could not bring himself to sign a domestic petition, couched in deliberately non-partisan terms, it seems unlikely he would have committed himself to the Second International Congress of Writers and its cohort of dedicated anti-fascist Stalinists.

A letter from Yeats to Neruda, or to the Congress, remains untraced. Ellmann in 1945 to 1948 evidently did not find evidence of such a thing, nor of any approach to Yeats by the Congress's organizers. These things seem to have escaped A. N. Jeffares's notice also, though he too worked closely with Mrs Yeats in the immediate post-war period. When the fallow acre of Yeats's politics was turned over by Conor Cruise O'Brien in the 1960s, the Neruda connection and the related public support of the Spanish Republic still remained invisible, even to that more sympathetic pair of gimlet eyes. Neither McGarry, nor Valentine Cunningham, has found anything in the 1930s to corroborate the Neruda claim. (22)

In addition to Elizabeth Cullingford, four other students of Yeats's politics published accounts or critiques in the years from 1981 to 1988. Grattan Freyer's W. B. Yeats and the Anti-Democratic Tradition is the most intriguing, not least because the author had also written about Peadar O'Donnell. Bernard J. Krimm spends much time rebuking Conor Cruise O'Brien in W. B. Yeats and the Emergence of the Irish Free State. Geoffrey Thurley's Turbulent Dream: Passion and Politics in the Poetry of W. B. Yeats has been unfairly neglected, largely because it was published obscurely in Australia, and its author died young. Paul Scott Stanfield, with Yeats and Politics in the 1930s, converted a PhD thesis into a short monograph. All succeed in missing Yeats's well-publicized German honour in February 1934, and, less culpably, miss the reference by Neruda to the Spanish Civil War and Yeats's alleged support for the republican government. With the exception of Freyer, all are concerned to show the poet to have been a liberal-minded conservative constitutionalist in politics.

Cullingford should be properly congratulated on finding the reference in Neruda's posthumous Memoirs. It is her treatment of the material which gives rise to dismay. The lack of any primary evidence whatsoever, likewise of any corroboration through another secondary source, not to mention the absence of any plausibility in the claim, has been adequately noted. Neruda, however, referred not only to Yeats in the sentences quoted but also to the Swedish novelist, Selma Lagerlof (1858-1940). Her early themes in suggestive ways matched Yeats's concern with folk tradition, the mingling of supernatural and natural agencies, and the value of rural life. On the other hand, her work also possessed a strong moral and social dimension, increasingly so after the Great War. It would go a long way towards substantiating part at least of the Neruda claim about Yeats, if its counterpart could be verified in the case of Selma Lagerlof. Numerous biographies exist, not to mention correspondence and critical studies. In methodological terms, responsibility clearly lies with those predisposed to accept the claim about Yeats.

We can, however, offer a modicum of assistance. In her 1986 study of Swedish writers' attitudes to 'the poets' war', Asa Risberg is emphatic in declaring that Lagerlof took a neutral stance in relation to the political aspect of events in Spain, concerning herself exclusively with the humanitarian dimension. In a footnote, she spells out the implications to the effect that 'there is nothing to support Pablo Neruda's claim in his memoirs that Selma Lagerlof officially supported the Spanish Republic'. For the benefit of those (like myself) ignorant of the Swedish language, the author provides a summary in English, the relevant passage of which notes that 'humanitarian aid was also given support by Selma Lagerlof, but she made no political statement.' (23) On writers' attitudes to the Spanish Civil War, Neruda's Memoirs now float free, unsupported by primary evidence in the cases both of Lagerlof and Yeats. In the case of the Swede, they are demonstrably irreconcilable with the historical and biographical record. Thus the authority for Yeats's one alleged act of anti-fascism is shown to be less even than Nebuchadnezzar's dream idol with its feet of clay--Neruda has no feet at all, as the most elementary exercise in historical verification could have established from the moment of its publication. Yet it has been paraded round the post-colonial seminar and the Senior Common Room like a seraphic feather from Boccaccio's Decameron.

The unseemly rush of short biographies which clustered round the publication of Foster's first volume (1997) did not on the whole much trouble itself with political matters. A. N. Jeffares, in W. B. Yeats, a New Biography (1988), wrote with commendable frankness about the poet's late rapscallion bed-room antics, while remaining mum on the German and Spanish issues. His colleague at the University of Stirling, Alasdair D. F. Macrae, transformed the ectoplasmic correspondence between Yeats and Neruda into a literary debt without, of course, offering any evidence because (as we now find) there never was any evidence. As for awards and distinctions conferred on the poet, Keith Alldritt has not (I think) missed a single honorary degree while remaining scarcely lambent on the Frankfurt business. Brenda Maddox's George's Ghosts (1999) valuably broke taboos in other regards, while Terence Brown conceded the Goethe-Plakette, remaining non-interventionist on the Spanish Civil War. (24)

That brings us back to the affable, yet enigmatic Richard Ellmann. In 1967, he published what was for him a minor contribution to Irish literary studies, Eminent Domain: Yeats Among Wilde, Joyce, Pound, Eliot and Auden, the sub-title of which surely if softly echoes 'Among School Children'. One of his gifts as a biographer was an ability to spot apparently unimportant details and to transform them into symbols of larger significance. For example, he observes that both Yeats and Auden were grandsons of Anglican clergymen. This leads him to discuss their different relations to Christianity, and to record the younger poet's distaste for the 'Southern Californian' aspect of the older. 'In Memoriam W. B. Yeats' naturally follows, and then a most unexpected question: 'What would Yeats have said if he had had to memorialise Auden' instead of the other way round?

Ellmann's answer--Yeats would advise more silliness, or lament that the deceased had not lived to become a 'wild old wicked man'--may not wholly satisfy. It takes its place in a chapter called 'Gazebos and Gashouses'. The two architectural forms appear to align with the two poets' preferred social horizons, that of landed estate for Yeats, that of the urban masses for Auden. But if Auden were dead, and Yeats still alive, then in that extended imagined time the gashouses might not simply be the oddly named gasometers of L. P. Lowry drawings; they might be not temples of domestic light and power, but sepulchres and charnel houses. It is at best a hint, certainly not a reference. With equal care, Ellmann mentions 'Yeats's later flirtations with aristocracy, and even fascism' as if paraphrasing without citing George Orwell's forthright declaration of 1942 that the Irish poet had reached fascism 'by the aristocratic route'. (25) These almost fantasy-like thoughts about Yeats elegizing the younger left-wing 'thirties anti-fascist (and husband of Erika Mann) may have their own root in Ellmann's first book. 'One can imagine that, had Yeats lived on during the second World War, he would have had little to say about its issues, and would have merely repeated with more conviction a remark he made somewhat at random about the first war, "We should not attribute a very high degree of reality to the Great War."' (26)

In fact, Yeats had said quite enough about one of the issues underpinning the Second World War, Nazi Germany's systematic expropriation of Jewish property as a prelude to the Final Solution. It is a typical irony of Yeatsian scholarship that we find the evidence preserved, not in any of the dedicated studies of the poet's politics, but in a lengthy study of his debt to eighteenth-century Ireland by Donald Torchiana. Speaking after the premiSre of 'Purgatory' in August 1938, Yeats had said:

In my play, a spirit suffers because of its share, when alive, in the destruction of an honoured house; that destruction is taking place all over Ireland to-day. Sometimes it is the result of poverty, but more often because a new individualistic generation has lost interest in the ancient sanctities.

I know of old houses, old pictures, old furniture that have been sold without apparent regret. In some few cases a house has been destroyed by a misalliance. I have founded my play on this exceptional case, partly because of my interest in certain problems of eugenics, partly because it enables me to depict more vividly than would otherwise be possible the tragedy of the house.

In Germany there is special legislation to enable old families to go on living where their fathers lived. The problem is not Irish, but European, though it is perhaps more acute here than elsewhere. (27)

One needs not just the silence of lambs but the wisdom of serpents to avoid this step-by-step declension from a lament for the Big House under de Valera, through the pathos of the auction room, into the Nurenberg provision whereby Jewish proprietors were dispossessed in favour of Aryan re-appropriators of property once owned by Aryan ancestors. Cullingford is wholly silent on this issue. Foster asks, is this not unforgivably myopic? and does not wait for an answer. (28)

Old ... old ... old.... Yeats's repeated emphasis on what for him is an unchallengeable value should not intimidate us from understanding him in other terms. It does no good to lapse into mimicry of the poet's addiction to this adjective or its grander form, 'ancient'. The Dublin Evening Mail quoted Yeats as saying that 'Purgatory' contained his belief about this world and the next. Torchiana, however, relates these observations to an earlier lecture which Yeats had delivered on tour in America and then developed as a Commentary included with 'The King of the Great Tower', 'A Parnellite at Parnell's Funeral', and others in a volume published by the Cuala Press (April 1934). In the lecture, Yeats had dwelt approvingly on a passage in Bernard Shaw's 'John Bull's Other Island' where a character--Peter Keegan, a former or suspended priest--discourses on Hell. 'There is only one place of horror and torment known to my religion; and that place is Hell. Therefore it is plain to me that this earth of ours must be hell, and that we are all here [...] to expiate crimes committed by us in a former existence.' (29)

In apparent contrast to Yeats's summary of 'Purgatory', Shaw's Keegan is concerned with this world and its predecessor, or our condition and the previous existences for which we now do penance in suffering. Yet the common relationship in both is philosophical determinism of a rather crude kind, owing something to the theological predestinarianism associated with the doctrines of John Calvin. What Yeats ignores in reading Shaw is that the account of earth-as-hell is specific to a limited individual dramatic character; it can be understood only in a context which includes Broadbent, Larry, Nora, Hodson, and sundry others. Through his own play, he expounds beliefs, evidently unaffected by and simply projected by the dramatic means: the nameless characters (Boy, Old Man, Lady) are subordinate to what is uttered. And given the stated meaning of the play, in terms of houses and destruction, misalliance and eugenics, what we find is a monstrous predestinarian politics.

Old, in this reading, is 'former', with the important assumption of also being sanctioned or sanctified. On one level of implication, it signifies the world before the Fall; on another, society before democratic politics; on a third, property before commercial alienation; on yet another, biological succession (or ancestry) without pollution (the key word of 'Purgatory'). Some at least of these significations are impossible or, rather, fantastical. Though impossible, they can be sites of desire even to the death. When a previous existence and the present can be overlapped with the present existence and the next, the present gets (in a Freudian terminology) over-determined. It is what is, for too many reasons or as the result of too many causes. In a different terminology, this is totalitarianism.

The aspect of the fictive Fr Keegan which appealed to Yeats was a hyperbolic identification of 'this earth' with hell. What did we do 'when we were alive', he wonders, 'to get sent here?' As Keegan shortly explains, he is only pretending to talk to a grasshopper, a qualification to his theology which Yeats might have been wise to notice. But let the question stand, as Yeats in the spring of 1934 obviously liked it. Let us subject it to a species of Kantian categorical imperative. The result might read like this, commencing in March 1933, when Yeats thought better of protesting at the suspension of German legal norms: what had scores of thousands of German Jews done in a past life 'to get sent' to Dachau and its successors, up to and including the gashouses at Auschwitz? The cultivation of such views cannot be regarded as an apolitical mental activity.

(1) Yeats to Edith Shackleton Heald, 2 October [1938], for text see The Collected Letters of W. B. Yeats, ed. by John Kelly and others (Charlottesville: InteLex Corporation, 2002), accession no 7307.

(2) Hubert Butler's writings have been collected in four volumes (Dublin: Lilliput Press): Escape from the Anthill (1985), The Children of Drancy (1988), Grandmother and Wolfe Tone (1990), In the Land of Nod (1996).

(3) Edmund Wilson, The Wound and the Bow; Seven Studies in Literature (rev. edn) (London: Allen, 1952).

(4) Denis Donoghue, William Butler Yeats, 2nd edn (New York: Ecco Press, 1988). Chapter 1, passim.

(5) R. F. Foster, W. B. Yeats, a Life. II: The Arch-Poet (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 468.

(6) Elizabeth Cullingford, Yeats, Ireland and Fascism (London: Macmillan, 1981), p. 144.

(7) Joseph Hone, W. B. Yeats 1865-1939 (London: Macmillan, 1942 [1943]), p. 403.

(8) See K. P. S. Jochum, 'Yeats and the Goethe-Plakette: An Unpublished Letter and its Context', Yeats Annual, 15 (2002), 281-87. In Blood Kindred (London: Pimlico, 2005), I describe at some length the many awkward circumstances of the affair which Jochum chose to ignore.

(9) Quite apart from reports of Yeats's remarks in the Dublin newspapers, see Donald T. Torchiana, Yeats and Georgian Ireland (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1966), pp. 357-58.

(10) See A. N. Jeffares, A Poet and a Theatre; Inaugural Lecture ... May 21st. 1946 (Groningen: Wolters, 1946). On the final page (p. 20) the speaker acknowledges the good offices of the British Council acting 'as intermediary in my appointment'.

(11) See 'Our German Tour' by G. D. H. M., in High School's magazine, The Erasmian, December 1936, pp. 67-69.

(12) For Goebbels, see Armin and Renate Schmid, Frankfurt in Sturmischer Zeit 1930-1933 (Stuttgart: Konrad Theiss, 1987), pp. 194-95. I discuss Yeats's links with Frankfurt in greater detail in my political biography of the poet, Blood Kindred.

(13) Richard Ellmann, Yeats; the Man and the Masks, corrected edn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), p. 277.

(14) Cullingford, p. 223.

(15) Foster, The Arch-Poet, p. 575.

(16) Frank Startup, W. B. Yeats: A Beginner's Guide (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2002), p. 70.

(17) For Edward Said's last contribution to the Irish debate, see 'Afterword' in Ireland and Postcolonial Theory, ed. by Clare Carroll and Patricia King (Cork: Cork University Press, 2003), pp. 177-85.

(18) Edward W. Said, Nationalism, Colonialism and Literature: Yeats and Decolonization (Derry: Field Day, 1988), p. 19.

(19) See Donald Childs, Modernism and Eugenics: Woolf, Eliot, Yeats and the Culture of Degeneration (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), for an extensive treatment of Yeats's early engagement with eugenical ideas.

(20) In Carroll and King, Ireland and Postcolonial Theory, pp. 109-21.

(21) Feargal McGarry, Irish Politics and the Spanish Civil War (Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 1999), p. 95. Since the mid-1990s, a vast corpus of detailed historical research into the culture and politics of twentieth-century Ireland has been published, as relevant to the biography of Yeats as it is repugnant to the idees fixes of Field Day.

(22) See Valentine Cunningham, British Writers of the Thirties (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988). I am grateful to Dr Cunningham for confirming in conversation that he had not found any evidence of Yeats's association with the Congress of Writers.

(23) Aso Risberg, Diktarnas Krig [The Poets' War] (Stockholm: Almqvist, 1986), pp. 201, 239. I am grateful Annika Lindskog and Helena Forsas-Scott of the Department of Scandanavian Studies, University College London, for their assistance in this matter, especially to Dr Lindskog for her translation.

(24) Keith Alldritt, W. B. Yeats, the Man and the Milieu (London: Murray, 1997); Terence Brown, The Life of W. B. Yeats (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999). Alasdair D. F. Macrae, W. B. Yeats; A Literary Life (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1995). Brenda Maddox, George's Ghosts; A New Life of W. B. Yeats (London: Picador, 1999).

(25) Richard Ellmann, Eminent Domain: Yeats Among Wilde, Eliot, Joyce, Pound, Eliot and Auden (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), pp. 97-126.

(26) Ellmann, Yeats: The Man and the Masks, p. 278.

(27) Torchiana, W. B. Yeats and Georgian Ireland, pp. 357-58, quoting Irish Independent, 13 August 1938.

(28) Foster, The Arch-Poet, p. 628.

(29) I quote here from the material as presented by Torchiana (pp. 358-59) who, in turn, uses Curtis Bradford's re-construction of Yeats's lecture. Is it impossible that Shaw's Keegan, who speaks a gentlemanly brogue, is in part a satiric portrayal of Yeats?
COPYRIGHT 2005 Modern Humanities Research Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2005 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:McCormack, W.J.
Publication:Yearbook of English Studies
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2005
Previous Article:From Inis Fraoigh to Innisfree ... and back again? Sense of place in poetry in Irish since 1950.
Next Article:'The best banned in the land': censorship and Irish writing since 1950.

Related Articles
Posthumous impresario.
The Poet As Politician.
Recovering the Black Female Body: Self Representations by African American Women.
Yeats and Maud Gonne: (auto)biographical and artistic intersection.
Modernism and Eugenics: Woolf, Eliot, Yeats, and the Culture of Degeneration.
'Altering the past': Northern Irish poetry and modern canons.
Seamus Deane: between Burke and Adorno.
The Theatre of Nation: Irish Drama and Cultural Nationalism 1890-1916.
Ethics and politics; selected essays; v.2.
Nietzsche and the rebirth of the tragic.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters