- The Collected Letters of W.B. Yeats. Vol. III: 1901-1904 edited by John Kelly and Ronald Schuchard
Oxford, 781 pp, £35.00, May 1994, ISBN 0 19 812683 2
- Modern Irish Literature: Sources and Founders by Vivian Mercier
Oxford, 381 pp, £30.00, April 1994, ISBN 0 19 812074 5
‘I dreamed last night I was hanged,’ W.B.Yeats once announced, ‘but was the life and soul of the party.’ It is impossible with such oracular Yeatsian pronouncements to separate mask from reality, the poseur from the sincere eccentric. Auden called Yeats ‘silly like us’, but he was really just being polite: this table-rapping, spirit-summoning Rosicrucian was a lot sillier than most of us. Few major modern writers have been, in terms of their intellectual interests, so completely off the wall. But Yeats was one of the last great self-fashioners, and it is never quite possible to know how far he credited his own scrupulously cultivated absurdities, or even what ‘credited’ there would actually mean. On the one hand, there was the Celtic visionary who when he lived in Oxford couldn’t cross Broad Street without taking his life in his hands. On the other hand, there was the hard-headed Protestant with (as his father told him) the virtues of an analytic mind, the crafty operator who could launch a theatre and help organise a political rally. Writing of the way leprechauns spin on their pointed hats, he inserts the scholarly reservation: ‘but only in the north-eastern counties’. Is Yeats here sending up the reader, the folklorists, or mocking his own relentlessly mythopoeic mind? Or is he sending up nobody at all? A poet who literally lives in one of his own symbols, a half-ruined tower in County Galway, is either peculiarly self-mythologising or unusually self-ironising, and the question with this posturing, passionate man is sometimes undecidable.
Vol. 16 No. 15 · 4 August 1994
Once more, in his review of The Collected Letters of W.B. Yeats and Vivian Mercier’s Modern Irish Literature (LRB, 7 July), Terry Eagleton’s little red lamp flickers before the tabernacle of Irish nationalism, marking the presence of that ill-defined deity with all the authority of an Englishman.
For some years now, since the miraculous discovery of his Irish roots among the headstones of County Galway, this peculiar Marxist has parodied Irish history to the benefit of an English audience and a nationalist cause he has patently never bothered to understand. It is one thing to peddle Ladybird introductions to critical theory, feeding off the ignorance of Continental thought among the English educational establishment, of which he is such a conventional part, to pass himself off as an original thinker. It is quite another repeatedly to seed through his views on lrish affairs the latent sectarianism into which the English so often fall either from cunning or sloppy thinking. Everywhere in Eagleton’s work the word ‘Anglo-Irish’ is interchange-able with the word ‘Protestant’. This, of course, is entirely consonant with the strictures of a particular version of Irish nationalism, which needs to qualify the ‘nationalism’ of Protestants. For the god of Irish nationalism has many personae, only one of which, it seems, is permitted an altar.
The bottom line of Eagleton’s analysis is exposed if one imagines Yeats, Hyde, Mitchel, even Tone or Parnell, having been born Catholic. Out goes their ‘uncomfortably hyphenated status’, and out goes the consistent qualification of their nationalism as ‘colonial’, ‘cultural’ or ‘poeticised’. Out goes so much, in fact, that even a Catholic Englishman finds himself more Irish than the Irish themselves, with a place at left-back in the national squad. Were they only Catholic, Protestants with nationalist inclinations would be drawn close into the warm company huddled round the tabernacle from which the pure light of real nationalism sends out rays like the rising sun.
Out too would go the complications within that ‘real nationalism’ itself – complications which make it possible for an interloper like Eagleton to pursue a new intellectual colonialism without embarrassment, and which give to him a place in the sun denied to individuals whose entire energies were and are given over to the very real tasks of living in a violent island, 19th and 20th-century Ireland – Terry Eagleton’s intellectual Majorca. Those individuals who are or were Protestant, even if they be Yeats, or Mitchel, or the late Ronnie Bunting of the IRSP, are doomed never to have done enough to lose the sectarian tag of their birth.