Yeatsâ€™s Political Identities
Allison, Jonathan, ed. Yeatsâ€™s Political Identities: Selected Essays. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1996. 352 pp. $44.50.
Reviewed by Marjorie Perloff
Published in ANQ 10, no. 4 (Fall 1997): 53-55.
Conor Cruise Oâ€™Brienâ€™s remarkable â€œPassion and Cunning: An Essay on the Politics of W. B. Yeatsâ€ (1965) sets the stage for this excellent collection of essays on the vexed relationship between the poetic and the political in Yeatsâ€™s oeuvre. Citing the poetâ€™s letters, Senate speeches, essays, and poems, Oâ€™Brien is able to show that from 1922 on Yeats flirted with authoritarian politics and that after 1932, when the De Valera government took power, he became an advocate of the Fascist Blueshirts. Although Yeatsâ€™s involvement with the Blueshirts was brief, his turn away from Fascism was not motivated, Oâ€™Brien argues, by a change of heart so much as by the recognition that the Fascists would not prevail. Yeats liked to be on the winning side.
Oâ€™Brien attributes Yeatsâ€™s sympathy for Fascism? to his â€œprofound and tragic intuitive–and intelligent–awareness, in his maturity and old age, of what the First World War had set loose, of what was already moving towards Hitler and the Second World Warâ€ (50). In this reading, Yeatsâ€™s attitudes are symptomatic of the larger political malaise of entre deux guerres. In â€œFrom Democracy to Authority,â€ Elizabeth Cullingford, who tries to defend Yeats against Oâ€™Brienâ€™s severe charges, gives a different twist to this notion of Yeats as representative Irishman. To begin with, she argues, Mussoliniâ€™s Fascism in the Italy of the twenties had little in common with its later incarnations, much less with Hitlerâ€™s Nazism: â€œAdmiration for Mussolini was widespread among European conservatives, who regarded him as Italyâ€™s deliverer from the menace of Bolshevismâ€ (62). Accordingly, â€œThe disordered state of the post-war world, the collapse of liberalism into chaos and anarchy, and above all the troubles in Ireland, led Yeats into the mistake of emphasizing stability rather than activism in Italyâ€ (63). By the late thirties, Cullingford suggests, Yeats, always the passionate individualist, had turned away from Fascist notions of collectivity; moreover, Yeats was never anti-Semitic and, had he lived, he would surely have been disgusted by Hitlerâ€™s actions.
I am not convinced by this argument. There were, after all, plenty of European poets between the wars who were not taken in by Mussolini even if he did create the hierarchical order Yeats longed for and even if he did make the trains run on time. The more important question is not what Yeats believed but why he so believed and how his beliefs enter his poetry. Here the third essay in Allisonâ€™s collection, R. F. Fosterâ€™s â€œProtestant Magic: W. B. Yeats and the Spell of History,â€ published for the first time here, is especially valuable. Foster tries to understand Yeats in terms of his Irish Protestant identity. Marginalized both by the Irish Catholics and the English, Yeats was also marginalized by his economic position, his membership in what Foster calls the â€œclerical-bourgeoisâ€ class of Irish Protestants, â€œland agents rather than landlords, fallen on poorer timesâ€ (93). This â€œcurious subcultureâ€ was defined by â€œa race-memory of elitismâ€ (the vanished aristocracy of the great country houses) and â€œa predisposition toward seeking refuge in the occultâ€ (102). Foster is particularly good at showing how these strains came together, how Yeatsâ€™s occultism was a peculiarly Protestant brand. When Yeats began to strike elaborate poses of aristocratic grandeur, as he did after his marriage and acquisition of Thoor Ballylee, he was compensating for years of alienation as a lower middle-class Irish Protestant in both Catholic Ireland and anti-Irish England.
Did these poses hurt his poetry? Seamus Deane (â€œYeats and the Idea of Revolutionâ€) thinks they did. â€œThe Statues,â€ for example, is spoiled by its â€œstrained rhetoric,â€ a â€œkind of oratory which arises from convictions that lie outside the poemâ€™s range of referenceâ€ (133). Yeats, Deane argues in his brilliant essay, pits an apocalyptic sexuality and death against the mob and democracy; he strains for a romantic transfiguration that would absolve him from the everyday life around him. And in another outstanding essay excerpted by Allison, David Lloyd, building on the work of Paul de Man, shows that Yeatsâ€™s syntactic ambiguities (e.g., â€œByzantiumâ€™sâ€ â€œA mouth that has no moisture and no breath / Breathless mouths may summon,â€ where it isnâ€™t clear which is subject, which object of the verb) arise intentionally â€œin the vanishing of [the] real referentâ€ (189); the poems in question defy interpretation in their drive toward transcendence, a gnosis outside historical time. To probe the later poems closely is to see that â€œviolence and deathâ€ are often â€œthe condition of any act of foundationâ€ (196).
This was a point Harold Bloom made some time ago in his Yeats (1971) and increasingly critics are coming to understand that Yeatsâ€™s â€œdifficultyâ€ is of a very special sort, that the rhetorical questions like â€œWhatâ€™s water but the generated soul?â€ in â€œCoole Park and Ballylee 1931â€ cannot be answered. But whereas Bloom attributed Yeatsâ€™s sometime obscurantism to his occult concerns, the critics in this volume–and Declan Hiberdâ€™s essay â€œInventing Irelandsâ€ belongs to this group–understand the drive toward allegory, which Lloyd discusses so fully, to be a political question.
How, ask Oâ€™Brien and Lloyd, do we account for the special power, the â€œobsessive, haunting qualityâ€ (182) of Yeatsâ€™s poetry, given its frequently appalling politics? They never quite get around to answering this question, and Deane never quite explains his own personal fascination with Yeatsâ€™s work, and neither do the shorter essays at the back of Allisonâ€™s book that try to defend Yeats from charges of authoritarianism. In â€œWhat Stalked through the Post Office?â€, Augustine Martin takes on Deane at some length, reading â€œThe Statuesâ€ as a confrontation of the â€œfilthy modern tide,â€ to recover the â€œconjunction of art and heroism,â€ a â€œnew unity of beingâ€ (278). But isnâ€™t this drive toward unity of being precisely the escape from history Deane derides? Again, when in his short â€œThe Modernist under Siege,â€ Ronald Bush tries to refute Terry Eagletonâ€™s critique of the â€œâ€˜massive symbolic totalitiesâ€™â€ that â€œmystified [Yeatsâ€™s] bourgeois purposeâ€ (328) by showing how the succeeding drafts of Purgatory testify to that playâ€™s increasing complexity and skepticism, he still canâ€™t get around the fact that, in W. J. McCormackâ€™s words, Purgatory illustrates the poetâ€™s â€œpreference for synchronic order at the expense of diachronic logicâ€ (329). Similarly, Hazard Adamsâ€™s case for an â€œantithetical Yeats, one who saw that there are â€œthree sides to every argumentâ€ (310) doesnâ€™t get around the arguments raised especially by Foster and Lloyd as to Yeatsâ€™s frequent refusal to follow his own dialectic to its conclusion.
My own view is that Yeats doesnâ€™t need the kinds of â€œdefenseâ€ Bush, Adams, Martin, and David Krause in his â€œThe De-Yeatsification Cabalâ€ put forward. For Oâ€™Brien, Deane, Foster, and Lloyd are themselves devoted Yeatsians; their careful reconsiderations of the â€œYeats problemâ€ makes the poet seem all the more subtle and amazing. Indeed, their critiques show that Yeatsâ€™s poetry and prose uncannily anticipated the burning issues of the late twentieth century: colonialism, nationalism, the assault on democracy between the wars, the appeal of fascism in times of chaos, the fear of â€œcrowds and power,â€ the relation of mythologizing schema to political realities. It is Yeatsâ€™s enormous range, his actual engagement in the political and cultural life of his day that now strikes us as so remarkable. For how many later poets have been so engaged, so responsive (for better or worse) to their culture? Not all the essays Allison collects are equally well argued, and his Introduction could have been more incisive and better organized. Nevertheless, Yeatsâ€™s Political Identities is an important contribution, not only to Yeats studies, but to our revised understanding of the modernist ethos.