‘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.
It was Yeats’s good fortune to have lived in a historical era – that of Irish nationalism – when it seemed possible to reinvent a public role for the poet. In England, the poetic imagination had ceased to act as a political force in the transition from Shelley to Tennyson: in fact, poetry and politics had now come to be constituted as each other’s opposites, in a way which might have come as a surprise to Milton or Blake. Yeats will reach back over the head of this late Romanticism to its early forebears, to the Blake and Shelley who, writing in revolutionary conditions, can speak across the century to his own very different political moment in Ireland. English and Irish literary histories are out of sync; Yeats knocked around for a while with the fag-end of the English Romantics, the poetasters of the London Cheshire Cheese Club, but they couldn’t yield him what he needed any more than could the English novel. Indeed, that novel summed up for him all that was awry with English culture – empiricist, sentimental, moralistic, slavishly mimetic – in contrast to an art that was lavish, extravagant, reckless, ceremonial and fantastic. Even so, in another curious hesitation between myth and irony, he will solemnly immortalise his Cheshire Cheese companions in the knowledge that they were a bunch of dopeheads and deadlegs.
Just as the theatre of Bertolt Brecht was made possible by the existence of a mass socialist movement, so Yeats’s poetic enterprise was enabled by the tide of revolutionary nationalism in Ireland, of which he was the self-appointed mythologer. Whatever his doubts about the philistine middle-class Gaels who made the revolution, one of whom compounded the offence by stealing his sweetheart as well as his political thunder, his poetry remains on terms with politics in a way that much English Modernism does not. In these volatile conditions, the poet could remake himself as hero, activist, rhetorician, cultural gauleiter, man of affairs, in a way no longer possible over the water. Yeats could draw here on the collective, impersonal nature of Irish art, all the way from the ancient bards or filí to the collaborative projects of the Young Irelanders, in a society where the symbolic remained locked into the social. And since the Modernist movement in Europe was straining beyond the clapped-out ego of High Victorianism for some more trans-individual culture, Yeats’s Irish inheritance allowed him to loop time around him, uniting the archaic and the avant garde, the primitive and the progressive, in the manner of the great Modernist artists. If he could do this so effectively, it was partly because Ireland had never enjoyed any very vigorous tradition of liberal individualism, given its clerical repressiveness, the marginal status of its industrial middle class and the communal emphasis of its Catholicism.
The Anglo-Irish Ascendancy into which Yeats was born had dismally failed to give political leadership to the Irish people, and was now, at the very point of its historical demise, trying to atone for this oversight by lending them cultural direction instead. A displaced, self-divided élite was now eagerly offering itself as a bunch of cultural commissars, intent on reviving the Gaelic culture that their ancestors had been intent on suppressing. Before Yeats’s patron Lady Gregory came to collect folklore in the West of Ireland, her future husband William had been busy drafting the notorious Gregory clause in the depths of the Great Famine, which deprived thousands of relief-seeking small farmers of their paltry piece of land and was no doubt responsible for a fair number of unnecessary deaths. Steadily stripped of their political and economic power, the more enlightened of the Anglo-Irish sought to turn their uncomfortably hyphenated status to creative use. Perhaps the hyphen could become bridge rather than obstacle, as those caught between Dublin and London, cabin and big house, could set themselves up as the disinterested mediators between Ireland’s clashing cultures. Perhaps culture itself could displace the rancour of Irish politics, providing a common terrain of symbol and archetype on which all the Irish could assemble. Since those ancient myths and symbols long predated the Reformation, they were conveniently absolved of sectarian animus. The enemy of the more patrician sort of conservative is not just radical politics but the category of politics as such, and from Burke to Scruton (if small things may be compared with great) they seek to oust it with instinct, tradition, unreflective habit. Yeats was the major architect of this project in Fin-de-Siècle Ireland, a kind of Hibernian Arnoldianism which is still alive if unwell today among the liberal intelligentsia of Northern Ireland. In the poeticised nationalism of the Celtic Revival, the Romantic idealism of a marginal sector of the Protestant upper class fused momentarily with the very different Romanticism of the Gaelic Catholic nationalists who were energetically digging their graves. Two dying cultures briefly intersected, as an Anglo-Irishry on the wane raked over the fading embers of a failing Gaelic heritage. Like most disinterested standpoints, however, this one was too palpably self-serving to survive long. If the Celtic Revivalists aimed to deepen and enrich a philistine Irish middle class, they were also out to displace their politics with an aristocratic paternalism which had never been much in evidence among the Irish landlords. It was a noble, generous, deviously self-interested piece of opportunism, which was to end up in the burning of the big houses, the decimation of the sons of Ascendancy in the First World War, and the fleeing of their relatives to the Home Counties.
As the Collected Letters of W.B. Yeats edge their snail-like path into the 20th century, this project is still on the boil, but Yeats’s disillusionment with it is mounting apace. We watch him, in these seven hundred pages of correspondence, on the turn between early symbolism and later oratory, dream and drama, feminine languor and masculine hardness, imagination and will, populism and élitism. Innisfree is gradually giving way to Nietzsche, but in curiously paradoxical style: the aloof, self-delighting autonomy of the Übermensch is at once Yeats’s retreat from a history which isn’t going his way, and a displacement onto the individual life of an ideal of the free, self-determining nation. Just as the Irish dramatic renaissance is about to become materialised in the bricks and mortar of the Abbey Theatre, it is being pushed to the wall, howled down as immoral and unpatriotic by the nationalist press. ‘I have an advantage over you,’ Yeats writes in 1901 to a minor poet, ‘in having a very fierce nation to write for. I have to make everything very hard and clear, as it were. It is like riding a wild horse.’ It doesn’t sound like much of an advantage in some of the glum, dispirited letters here, but Yeats believed in keeping his chin up and his mask on, in facing down the impossible and dancing on the brink of the abyss with a very Anglo-Irish hauteur.
That arrogance is epistemological as well as moral: Yeats spurned English empiricism for the Irish idealism of Bishop Berkeley, which allowed him to believe that if you didn’t like the world you could always invent another one. His art is a performative one, conjuring, mythifying, erasing, memorialising, invoking; ‘Easter 1916’ promulgates the Dublin uprising into authentic historical existence, gathers it into the artifice of eternity, even as it registers its own marginality to the event it records. Yeats’s Nietzschean celebration of will and the creative mind has a streak of cavalier Anglo-Irish violence about it, as that class asserts a last defiant edge over a history from which it is being expelled. If that history is now opaque and untotalisable, Yeats and his colleagues will discover alternative totalities in ancient mythology, the obsessive systematisations of magic, the universal soul of theosophy and the cobbling together of an Irish anti-Enlightenment ‘tradition’ which never really existed as such. The Anglo-Irish had always been a spooky lot, despite their contempt for Catholic superstition, and spectres throng their fiction from Sheridan Lefanu to Oscar Wilde. Dracula, the creation of a Dublin civil servant, is an Ascendancy sort of ghoul, wistfully poring over maps of London in his mouldering castle and finally deprived, like the Irish landlords, of his life-sustaining soil. The crazed precision of magic and occultism, beliefs which are systematic rather than nebulous, could provide Irish Protestants with a substitute for Catholic doctrine and ritual. Some of the letters in this volume are concerned with squabbles in the ranks of the Order of the Golden Dawn, a mystical outfit in which Yeats played a key role; and it is intriguing to see him arguing the toss over the Order’s power-structure, committees and constitution, exercising the virtues of the toughly analytic mind in the cause of a lot of high-toned nonsense. Bathos is one of the most familiar tropes of Irish literary life, and Yeats’s veerings from boardroom to Byzantium display it to the full.
There is a good deal of dross here, with only the occasional nugget; Yeats is more often to be found worrying about page proofs or his poor eyesight or how to spell Cathleen ni Houlihan than laying bare his soul or tossing off a dazzling essay on aesthetics. The arrival of a parcel of underwear is gratefully acknowledged. It is hardly surprising that he has trouble over the spelling of Cathleen ni Houlihan, given that he can’t spell ‘feel’ or ‘sleep’. Legend has it that he was turned down for a chair of English at Trinity College, Dublin because he misspelt ‘professor’ in his application. One or two historic moments nonetheless stand out. Hearing that the young James Joyce is about to soar on his Icarus-like wings from Dublin to Paris, Yeats writes him a kindly note on the advice of Lady Gregory, treats him to breakfast during his London stopover and offers to march him around the odd literary editor. It is a characteristically courteous gesture on Yeats’s part, and an unwittingly ironic one too, since Yeats represented a major part of what Joyce was fleeing from. The arrogant young Joyce was predictably stroppy with the literary editors. He asked one of them whether he might review a particular book, and when the editor replied that he could put his head out of the window and get a hundred people to review it, Joyce asked: ‘Review what? Your head?’ Another historic moment is Yeats’s dishevelled plea to his sweetheart Maud Gonne not to marry the loutish John MacBride, who was to become one of the executed rebels of the Easter Rising. Here, under intense emotional pressure, Yeats’s spelling packs up almost completely, along with his grammar and syntax, collapsing into a garbled semiosis which Julia Kristeva would doubtless find of interest. Maud must not marry MacBride because he is ‘one of the people’ – pretty rich from a man who made a living out of idealising the folk. Years later, Yeats will big-heartedly include MacBride in ‘Easter 1916’, though with the faintest hint that he might always have left him out.
In these early years of the Irish theatre movement, Yeats is besieged on all sides – by choleric priests, philistine nationalists, outraged Irish Irelanders, journalistic hacks and yahoos. It is remarkable how he keeps his cool, unfailingly generous, large-spirited and self-composed as these letters are. Shuttling incessantly from Dublin to London, with the occasional touchdown for a spot of fine living in Lady Gregory’s Coole Park, he snatches time to drop gracious notes to unknown authors who have sent him their work, usually just when his eyesight is playing him up. The latter part of the volume records his trip to the United States, where like his compatriot Oscar Wilde before him he swapped his poetic trinkets for the natives’ hospitality and charmed them into Celticist fervour. John Kelly, general editor of the Letters, probably knows more about this literary period in Ireland than anyone alive, and with the capable assistance of Ronald Schuchard has produced another scholarly masterpiece, deploying his immense erudition with tact and verve in a marvel of intricate cross-referencing and annotation. This is one of the great works of literary scholarship of our time, devoted to a man of such towering stature that he can begin a letter by remarking: ‘I return Tables of the Law, corrected in pencil.’ If we did not know that Tables of the Law was a literary work, we might well suspect that here was one greater than Moses.
Vivian Mercier, one of the leading luminaries of Anglo-Irish literature, died in 1989, and his widow, the novelist Eilís Dillon, has assembled Modern Irish Literature: Sources and Founders from some of his essays. Most students these days tend to stick to Yeats and Joyce, Heaney and Friel, rather than launch out into Moore, Morgan, Maturin and Mangan, to stay only with that letter of the alphabet. The generous range of Mercier’s pieces, from 18th-century Gaelic antiquarianism to ‘Samuel Beckett and the Bible’, thus comes as a timely reminder of the limits of fashion. As Declan Kiberd remarks in an affectionate Introduction, Mercier was one of the last of the gentleman scholars, and one does not turn to his work for path-breaking concepts or supersubtle analysis. What one gets instead is the presence of a genial, well-stocked, humane mind lovingly immersed in its subject-matter, unbuttoned and anecdotal but painstaking in its scholarship. Mercier taught himself Irish in his mid-thirties, and some of the fruits of that labour are evident here in his authoritative discussion of translations of Gaelic texts. The volume is crammed with minor delights: Synge’s scientific background, Yeats’s humour, the influence of Racine on Beckett or of Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet on Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist. It also contains Mercier’s seminal essay on the influence of evangelical Protestantism on the Celtic Revival, and a weighty centrepiece on Bernard Shaw. Of all Irish authors, Shaw, with his Dublin Southside accent, has perhaps been the one most thoroughly appropriated by the English literary canon; so it is refreshing to be reminded of just how profoundly Irish a writer he was.
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