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Yeats's Mask

Margaret Mills Harper
Warwick Gould

Editors’ Introduction

Margaret Mills Harper et Warwick Gould

Texte intégral

  • 1 Louis MacNeice, The Poetry of Yeats (New York: Oxford University Press, 1941), 107; Richard Ellman (...)
  • 2 Ellmann, 4–5. Ellmann’s book appeared in the same year as A. Norman Jeffares’s W. B. Yeats: Man an (...)

1THE MASK, a symbolic object used for disguise, as protection, and in performance in many cultures and for most of human history, has been associated with practices as various as ancient religious ritual and contemporary psychoanalysis. That the Mask had an enduring fascination for Yeats, and that a number of principles that are useful in reading his work can be understood by means of the concepts associated with it, is hardly a surprising notion. Indeed, the opposite is true. Yeats’s Mask is one of the ideas that spans his oeuvre, from poems like ‘The Mask’, to prose texts such as Per Amica Silentia Lunae, to plays that use physical masks, to recurring characters like Cuchulain and influences like that of Wilde, to take several obvious examples. As early as two years after the poet’s death, Louis MacNeice could mention in passing ‘Yeats’s favourite doctrine of the Mask’, knowing his fellow admirers of the poet would agree with its importance, and a decade had not passed before Richard Ellmann entitled his influential literary biography Yeats: The Man and the Masks.1 Both MacNeice and Ellmann began their respective studies with notions of poetry and poets that were commonplaces of the time, that, in Ellmann’s words, ‘a poet has what Thomas Nashe called a “double soul”. The relation of the man and the poet is close but it is not simple.’2

2MacNeice begins his preface with the same assumption, that there is a doubleness of ‘man’ and ‘poet’, and that this binary is crucial:

  • 3 MacNeice, vii.

There is not, to my knowledge – nor do I think there can be – any satisfactory definition of the relationship of poetry to life. I am convinced however, that there is such a relationship and that it is of primary importance; I am also convinced that a poem is a thing in itself, a self-contained organism, a ‘creation’ – I might almost say, saving the presence of philosophers, an absolute.3

  • 4 Nashe’s passage reads: ‘As sweet Angelicall queristers they are continually conuersant in the heau (...)

3Despite Ellmann’s reference to Nashe,4 and MacNeice’s to ‘philosophers’ (or ‘Dr Johnson’, in the sentence that follows the quotation above), MacNeice and Ellmann, writing when and where they did, were likely to consider the mortal self and the aesthetic creation of an artistic self or mask as two distinct items, an easy extension of the assumption that reality falls into that handy structure of Art and Life. To a large degree, Yeats shared this assumption.

4Such assumptions are now part of a historical context available for analytical exposure. Moreover, contemporary Yeats studies can now take advantage of decades of superb textual and archival scholarship. Yeats’s work as a dramatist, rhetorician, and theoretical occultist is now recognized, and correspondingly interdisciplinary scholarship has been pursued. It is, therefore, timely to revisit the Mask. Its obviousness as a relevant term in Yeats studies has ironically contributed to its being overshadowed in the critical landscape: as a commonplace, it can be used in service of other arguments more often than focused on directly. Yet it is not difficult to imagine a number of benefits of reanimating the Mask in light of recent scholarship. After all, the Mask brings into focus a number of concepts fascinatingly relevant to the study of Yeats. For instance, a mask as an object connected with the human body as well as a common synecdoche for notions of self and agency, among others, make it vital to investigations of his form and technique, including poetic and dramatic voice. Insofar as masks are ritual objects in a number of the early religious and philosophical systems of which Yeats was a student, our increased awareness of the details of his spiritual and intellectual development should lead (as it does in several essays in this collection) to understanding the Mask as a continuum rather than one element in a more or less stable binary. In that masks have been common in theatrical practices for millennia, as well as finding dense use in theatrical practice in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (for example, in the theories of Edward Gordon Craig), much can be learned by focusing on the Mask about Yeats’s dramaturgy no less than his intellectual excitement in his studies in classic Athenian drama and Japanese Nó tradition. As Emily Morin argues, Yeats found himself an actor on a different kind of stage in his often overlooked work with the BBC. Many of the essays in this collection use manuscript and newly discovered material to find connections that may surprise readers (as they did the editors) with their apt examinations, in areas that in retrospect seem obvious. Of course, we should look into the ubiquitous narratives of Christ’s Passion, the Chinese verses engraved on the sculpture described in the poem ‘Lapis Lazuli’, personal questions Yeats asked himself about how to control his temper, or the massive reading he undertook to prepare to edit The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, to take a few examples from the essays that follow. In general, all the contributors are less interested in finding a completed ‘Mask’ than noting precise internal variations and probably also the inherent inconsistencies of the idea, the alien quality of finding, in Yeats’s words, that when the hero of classical epic found his mask ‘hanging upon some oak of Dodona’, ‘another’s breath came and went within his breath upon the carven lips, and that his eyes were upon the instant fixed upon a visionary world’ and that, ‘all religious men have believed that there is a hand not ours in the events of life’ (Per Amica Silentia Lunae, CW5 11; Myth 335–36).

5Given the doubling or multiplicity of Yeats’s masks, and the performativity at the heart of the concept of the Mask, it is appropriate that this volume started its life as twin conferences. In the spring of 2009, Alexandra Poulain and Margaret Mills Harper hosted scholars at their respective universities, the Université Charles de Gaulle – Lille III and Georgia State University, to investigate ideas of mask and voice in Yeats’s work. The calls for papers described the aims of the conferences thus:

Yeats’s impressive array of personae or masks combines with the conscious manipulation of voice, ranging from the remote and dignified to the trivial and lowly. Variations on voice and mask are decisive modalities of Yeats’s effort to recreate an oral tradition and thus contribute to the elaboration of Ireland’s cultural identity. On the other hand, they also relate to his histrionic propensity for ‘remaking himself ’ simultaneously with his own creation. Whether collective or individual, ‘identity’ is thus envisaged as plural and dynamic, as performance rather than essence.

  • 5 ‘La voix et le masque dans l’oeuvre de W. B. Yeats: le théâtre des identités’, 6–7 février 2009, U (...)

6Thus, this paradoxical ontology of ‘voice and mask’ in turn calls attention to the element of theatricality at the heart of Yeatsian aesthetics, in dramatic and non-dramatic forms alike. It also invites analyses of the ways in which literature overlaps with, and sometimes seeks to absorb, other art forms, in particular music and the visual arts; central to Yeats’s oeuvre, for instance, is the tension and constant alternation between stasis and kinetic energy.5

7Part of the aim of the twin conferences was to explore differences that would arise from the different settings, of the various papers as well as musical and theatrical performances and displays of archival materials, which were a feature of both events. The two universities at which the conferences took place are outside expected centres of research on Yeats and therefore, the organizers reckoned, possible sites for new ideas, but they are also both locations that might attract significant participants from a range of disciplinary and methodological specialisms. The Université de Lille is a major centre for Irish Studies in Europe and easily accessible from Paris as well as Ireland and the United Kingdom; the research opportunities at Georgia State University include, for the purposes of Yeats study, the links between Irish Studies there and Emory University, also located in Atlanta. The conveners of the conferences felt also that the linked events would be likely to further transatlantic collaboration, a goal that has been met in numerous ways, including the present issue of the Yeats Annual.

8Many thanks are due, first and foremost to Alexandra Poulain, for her inspiration and work on the project; also to Geraldine Higgins and Elizabeth Müller for their work in transforming the events into this publication.

9The ‘Voice and Mask’ project has expanded. The collection now includes some essays developed from presentations given at the two conferences and others that were not part of the original events. This issue of the Yeats Annual fills out the contours of what we hope are informational as well as provocative new readings and directions for further thought on this subject. The essays are ordered in roughly chronological sequence, beginning with Warwick Gould’s analysis of the development of the concept of the Mask before its fully developed form in about 1918, to Michael Cade-Stewart’s study of the connections Yeats made from his wide reading in contemporary English-language poetry in his role of editor of The Oxford Book of Modern Verse and his multiple masks as presented in New Poems.

  • 6 We thank Steve L. Adams, Margaret Mills Harper, Ann Christian Harper, Richard Edmond Finneran and (...)

10In addition to the essays published here for the first time, we are happy to reprint ‘The Manuscript of “Leo Africanus”’, a dialogue in letters written by Yeats in 1915 between himself and the sixteenth-century travel writer Johannes Leo Africanus (al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Fasi). The dialogue, a significant experiment featuring Yeats’s assumption of the Mask of a spirit who arrived in séance, and later as a Frustrator in the sessions of automatic writing with George Yeats, forms a significant part of the ‘phantasmagoria’ of Yeats’s spiritual experimentation. The edited text with accompanying essay by Steve L. Adams and George Mills Harper, first published in Yeats Annual No. 1 edited by Richard J. Finneran, has long been difficult of access; now that Yeats Annual is published digitally, it is possible to redress this situation.6 As a final chapter of the essays in this Annual, the ‘Leo Africanus’ letters offer a concrete sense of what the concept meant to Yeats: aesthetics here blend seamlessly into serious, even agonizing, personal commitment to the Mask, an exploration that is challenging as only that ‘of all imaginable things | The most unlike’ (VP 371) can be.

11October 2013


1 Louis MacNeice, The Poetry of Yeats (New York: Oxford University Press, 1941), 107; Richard Ellmann, Yeats: The Man and the Masks (New York: Macmillan, 1948).

2 Ellmann, 4–5. Ellmann’s book appeared in the same year as A. Norman Jeffares’s W. B. Yeats: Man and Poet (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1949) which explores doubleness in a less theorized way. The two books were the first significant biographically based studies after Joseph Hone’s and made rival claims on the critical attention of the public.

3 MacNeice, vii.

4 Nashe’s passage reads: ‘As sweet Angelicall queristers they are continually conuersant in the heauen of Arts, heauen it selfe is but the highest height of knowledge, he that knowes himself & all things else, knowes the meanes to be happie : happie, thrice happie are they whom God hath doubled his spirite vppon, and giuen a double soule vnto to be Poets.’ (The Unfortunate Traveller or, The Life of Jack Wilton (London: 1594), quoted from the edition by H. B. Brett-Smith (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1927, Percy Reprints), 42.

5 ‘La voix et le masque dans l’oeuvre de W. B. Yeats: le théâtre des identités’, 6–7 février 2009, Université Charles-de-Gaulle, Lille III. In addition to Professors Poulain and Harper, the scientific committee of the French conference included Prof. Carle Bonnafous-Murat (Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle, Paris III) and Dr. Elizabeth Muller (Université de Nantes); keynote speakers were Nicholas Grene (Trinity College Dublin) and Jacqueline Genet (Université de Caen). Yeats’s Anniversary Conference: ‘Voice and Mask: Performing Identities’, 15–16 May 2009, Georgia State University, Atlanta, Georgia. In addition to Professors Harper and Poulain, the organizing committee included Prof. Geraldine Higgins (Emory University) and Dr. Elizabeth Muller; keynote speakers were James Pethica (Williams College) and James Flannery (Emory University).

6 We thank Steve L. Adams, Margaret Mills Harper, Ann Christian Harper, Richard Edmond Finneran and Catherine Finneran for their permission and encouragement to republish this essay.


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