- Yeats, Ireland and Fascism by Elizabeth Cullingford
Macmillan, 251 pp, £15.00, February 1981, ISBN 0 333 26199 2
In July 1933, at the height of his involvement with the Blueshirts, the Irish Fascist organisation, Yeats wrote: ‘It is amusing to live in a country where men will always act. Where nobody is satisfied with thought … The chance of being shot is raising everybody’s spirits enormously.’ However invigorating the prospect, the fulfilment did not come. In Ireland, the Ireland of the Free State, the serious shooting had stopped. The most notable engagement between Irish Fascists and Republicans took place in Spain, during the Civil War; even that had a comic aspect, being entirely accidental. Still, Ireland in the Thirties did seem to retain the capacity for virile action, attractive to a certain disposition, which Yeats had finely described some forty years earlier as ‘that love of force common among a certain type of literary men. The impatience of minds trained to see further than they can go …’ Standish O’Grady was the victim of that analysis, but there is the possibility of a choice irony in turning it upon Yeats himself. Societies in which ‘men will always act’ are clearly preferable, if you are a reader or re-reader of Nietzsche (as was Yeats in 1936-7), to ‘sacerdotal aristocracies’ in which there prevail, as The Genealogy of Morals tells us, ‘habits which, averse as they are to action, constitute a compound of introspection and explosive emotionalism, as a result of which there appears that introspective morbidity and neurasthenia, which adheres almost inevitably to all priests at all times.’
In fact, the First Essay of Nietzsche’s work is alive with phrases that have come to have a Yeatsian redolence: ‘the pathos of nobility and distance’, ‘the plebeianism of the modern spirit, which is of English origin’. But the pursuit of Nietzschean traces in Yeats’s writings of the Thirties almost certainly leads to a distorted view of the poet’s politics. Since John Quinn sent him a volume of selections from Nietzsche in 1902, Yeats had been a fascinated admirer. The Nietzsche he aligned with Blake and Shelley in Ideas of Good and Evil, while acknowledged to be ‘violent’, was clearly on the side of the good angels of art and poetry and against those ‘busy with government’, the ‘men of darkness’. It is still generally believed that Yeats passed from this early and blameless romanticism, into Irish nationalist politics, occultism, senatorial conservatism, and emerged, in the last decade of his life, as a Fascist, with a history of admiration for Mussolini, and with the wildness of On the Boiler as characteristic of his degraded or defeated intelligence. Now, with Elizabeth Cullingford’s book to aid us, we need no longer be guilty of such facile misreadings.
The solid virtues of the book – its exactness of reference, its respect for chronology, its anxiety to provide a context for every text, its emphasis on the political aspect of A Vision through all its rewritings – are weakened by the author’s insistence on maintaining an argument with Conor Cruise O’Brien’s article of 1965, ‘Passion and Cunning: An Essay on the Politics of W.B. Yeats’. Dr O’Brien was not the only commentator to have called Yeats a Fascist; nor was he the most persuasive. Dr Cullingford’s constant returning to the article in question has the effect of diverting our attention from Yeats to Dr O’Brien. Her claim is, in brief, that Yeats is essentially a political writer, whose attitudes were formed by Irish nationalism (of the John O’Leary school) and modified by William Morris socialism, democracy, Toryism and Fascism. These last four, it appears, were flirtations: nationalism was the abiding passion. When Yeats sought to develop it into a political philosophy, he came up with something more akin to the Burke of the 1790s than to anything which can properly be associated with Mussolini, Hitler, Nietzsche or the Hegelian-Marxist tradition.
Dr Cullingford’s Yeats thus appears to us as a man prone to infection from many sources but wonderfully immune to any of the advanced forms of the accompanying diseases. She says, on page 72, that ‘Yeats’s position could be defined as aristocratic populism’; on page 235, the phrase is ‘aristocratic liberalism’. In one of the intervening chapters, we are confronted with Yeats’s attitudes towards violence and apocalypse. Yet, at that crucial point, there is evasion. The poem ‘The Second Coming’ is, in the author’s words, central to a discussion of ‘Yeats’s attitude to apocalypse, to bloodshed, and indeed to fascism’. But one page later the discussion is over, most of it taken up by two glosses on the poem supplied by Yeats himself. Yeats is allowed to domesticate his own poetry in his letters, commentaries and essays. He is a brilliant, even ruthless advocate in his own behalf. But the evidence of the poems is irrefutable. Yeats’s attitudes towards apocalypse and violence are even more complex than this book shows; and they are of great importance when we try to estimate the quality (not just the fact) of his attraction to Fascism. It may be true that Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia in 1935 disgusted Yeats and turned him against the Italian dictator. But that does not explain the nature of Yeats’s initial fondness for the idea of authority embodied in Italian Fascism and in the Action Francaise of Charles Maurras. I think it quite wrong to claim that Yeats had no conception of the violence associated with both these movements. It was possible to know. Equally, it is impossible to believe that their association with violence would have disqualified them from his consideration.
Yeats did not like violence as such. But he did admire the idea of violence. ‘I admire,’ he said, ‘pikes and rifles in the abstract but to use them would be sectarian.’ This is reminiscent of the notice tacked up on a church door by Pat Frayne, William Carleton’s teacher. It listed the usual subjects and closed with ‘Physics, by theory only; Metaphysics, practically’. Yeats was a practical metaphysician. His textbook is A Vision. His theme is freedom. His counter-theme is history. His method is dialectical. ‘History is necessity until it takes fire in someone’s head and becomes freedom or virtue.’ Freedom and virtue transformed Fate into Destiny. Such a transformation was central to the legendary lives of those who formed the Yeatsian Pantheon – Parnell and Synge, Cuchulainn and Deirdre, Pearse and Kevin O’Higgins. As for the rest, the mass of people not vivified by the traditions of the folk or the aristocracy, there was no destiny, merely fate. For Yeats, authority was not exclusively a matter of self-discipline: it also implied the subjugation of others to precisely those forces which the self had, in achieving freedom, overcome. Or, on the other hand, there were those who surrendered their freedom, the possibility of Destiny, to History, and were locked into the prison house of political language and political gesture: all of them women – Maud Gonne, Constance Markiewicz, the widows or sisters of the murdered and executed political leaders. Petrified hatred, lax feeling; conviction and intensity; the living and the legendary; the few and the many – these are the antinomies of his thought, the idioms he deployed when he spoke of violence, espousing its necessity in theory, hating its appearance in practice. The conflict between them became more pronounced after he had completed the first draft of A Vision, his mind preoccupied, as Dr Cullingford demonstrates, by the significance of the Bolshevik Revolution and its bearing upon Ireland and the shattered Europe of the First World War. Once he had arranged his stylistic patterns of experience, once he had given to history the form of magic and to magic the substance of history, he was doomed to see further than he could ever go. Force had changed everything – in Ireland, Russia, Europe. Liberalism was not merely defunct, it was deservedly so, for it lacked energy, it had forgotten its barbarous origins. The recovery of those origins was now necessary.
Even though Yeats’s two three-year spells in the Senate kept him close to some of the meaner practicalities of political life, when he left it was on a bombastic Anglo-Irish note, bestowing upon the Irish Ascendancy the tradition of government, upon the Irish revolutionaries the tradition of sacrifice, and upon the Irish nation the burden of climbing clear of the ‘filthy modern tide’ which had wrecked everybody else. A blood sacrifice, a long period of violence, the need for authority and strong government – these were all local ingredients of the Irish as they were general ingredients of the European scene. Yeats charged all past history with the plight of his own time. Galvanised by that shock, history took on the pattern of a cyclic variation between anarchy and order, barbarism and civility, heroes and masses. In those terms, which he in part created for himself, which were in part given to him, Yeats had to admire the energy of a fury which spawned as well as wrecked. Violence was, in effect, not just the agent of change, but change itself. Rather than bring order to chaos in his poems, Yeats brought chaos into contact with order to see which would survive. There is an element sometimes terrifying, always insistent, now and then monotonous, in Yeats’s late poetry. It is risk – the risk of a pose that has begun to transcend itself, the risk of matter unamenable to form, yet seeking it.
Dr Cullingford wants to excuse Yeats, to explain that he might have had bad moments but was, overall, given to decent, not to savage politics. I would like to be more convinced. Although it is very useful to see A Vision in a political light, this does not entirely repress the fact that the vocabulary and apparatus of that strange work is occultist, and that there is a strong linkage between Yeats’s Fascism and his occultism. I would guess that the theory of race is the bridge between them, race being the occult or Gnostic version of the State of official ideology. The sense of there being knowledge, of a dark, powerful and indeterminate kind, accessible to us once the threshold of reason has been lowered, once the censorship of society has been removed, has a permanent appeal for many people. Yeats, convinced that this knowledge was more accessible to the Irish, with their legends, folk tales, without their John Stuart Mills, Parliament or gutter press, spent much of his life encouraging them, and encouraging himself, to discover this arcane knowledge. Each time contact was made, the message was the same: blood and apocalypse. Whatever the venue – the General Post Office, the Valley of the Black Pig, Salamis or the Somme – the bitter fruit of knowledge was eaten but not entirely digested. The trend towards disaster filled Yeats (and Pound) with the sense that a revelation was at hand, that fragmentation could only be overcome by accepting chaos as total doom. ‘Disaster opens the eyes of conscience,’ said Wordsworth, during the French Revolution. But in the 20th century, disaster opened the eyes of prophecy. The cryptic messages came back in a strange mixture of languages. Knowledge that had been sleeping for two thousand years was now, ‘vexed to nightmare’, coming to be born.
Fascism was the political form of occultism. While it is associated with nationalism, it bears no necessary relation to it. Elizabeth Cullingford has not faced the problem of the occult and its political articulation in Yeats’s thought. Had she been less anxious to demolish the O’Brien essay (which she effectively does by demonstrating Yeats’s passionate and sustained adherence to Irish nationalism and the important difference between the stimulation of anti-English feeling and the promotion of Fascist doctrine), she might have given herself more space for the treatment of this still intransigent problem. Going back to July 1933, we read Yeats saying: ‘I find myself constantly urging the despotic rule of the educated classes as the only end to our troubles. (Let all this sleep in your ear.) I know half a dozen men any one of whom may be Caesar – or Catiline ...’ With Hitler in power and O’Duffy preening himself at the head of his Blueshirt army, we might indeed have used the poet’s line against himself ‘and wondered what was left for massacre to save’.