Version classiqueVersion mobile

Bonds of Union

Isabelle Bour
Antoine Mioche

Recolonising Irish Literature? Bringing Yeats back to Dublin

Roy Foster

Texte intégral

1Since this symposium is interdisciplinary, I may be allowed to speak about a poet—but in a historical context. And I should like to present W. B. Yeats as a figure whose practical as well as symbolic importance in Irish politics is immense. In any discussion of the cultural relations between Britain and Ireland under the Union, Yeats looms large, but his image is Protean. He has been enlisted to represent liberationist nationalism, the voice of decolonisation (not quite the same thing), and the rejection of political propaganda in favour of “the pure joy of things not indentured to any cause” (Yeats, Samhain 103). But he has also (reaching out to the other end of the scale) been indicted as the advocate of elite culture—in effect, the culture of the coloniser. In fact, perhaps the most famous recent condemnation of Yeats’s cultural agenda used exactly the image of the Union which preoccupies us here, when the influential literary critic Seamus Deane accused him, a few years ago, of being “infected with the pathology of literary Unionism” (Deane 45-58).

  • 1 Those who became particularly prominent include T. P. O’Connor, Justin McCarthy, and Barry O’Brien (...)
  • 2 For a discussion of this see Hutton, “Publishing the Irish Revival,” and her edition of Francis Fa (...)

2“[T]he pathology of literary unionism” is worth a comment or two. Before looking in detail at Yeats’s position, we might place him against the background of cultural exchange between Ireland and Britain under the Union, though it may look like rather a one-way traffic. Nonetheless the Union, and the literary market it provided, created opportunities for careerist Irish people living by their pens. Nor were these necessarily figures from the elite. Maria Edgeworth and Thomas Moore may come to mind in the earlier years of the Union, and Emily Lawless, Bram Stoker or Somerville and Ross at the end of the nineteenth century; but we should also remember the platoons of Irish journalists who colonised Fleet Street and Grub Street, so much so that Thackeray and others saw the newspaper world of Victorian London as in some sectors an Irish monopoly. By the 1870s the Morning Post, bastion of the conservative English middle classes, was almost entirely staffed by Irish nationalists (O’Donnell 1: 174-6). They were accompanied by playwrights, actormanagers, popular novelists, poets, literary and art critics—all using the qualifications of literacy, education, articulacy and their possession of the English language, which were by-products of thensituation as citizens of the Union.1 The economics of Irish publishing, and the restrictions of copyright law, meant that the London literary market acted with the force of gravitational pull.2 If this was a “pathology”, it was quite a lively one. And if these figures, often from the Catholic lower middle-class, were products of “colonisation,” they were making their quite influential way within the metropolis. Looking at the Irish presence in literary London by the late nineteenth century, it is tempting to turn around Gayatri Spivak’s celebrated question, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Can the Irish subaltern be shut up?

3After Ireland left the Union, of course, this tradition was seen as collaborationist; there is a marked generational shift around 1900 when, as George Moore famously put it, the sceptre of intelligence passed from London to Dublin, and writers like Moore himself (temporarily) returned to the Irish metropolis. But it is not enough noticed that when the Irish literary voice became so fashionable in 1890s London, with the advent of Yeats, Wilde and Shaw, it was building on these foundations. True, Wilde and Shaw, while Irish in their background and conditioning, were not “using” Irishness for cultural advancement; but Yeats was. And the Irish Literary Society he helped to found in 1893, as well as the mutuallyboosting reviewing circles which he indefatigably prospected, were mobilised by Irish people who had worked from established bridgeheads in the world of literary London for a very long time. As Shaw put it, “every Irishman who felt that his business in life was on the higher planes of the cultural professions felt that he must have a metropolitan domicile and an international culture; that is, he felt his first business was to get out of Ireland” (Laurence and Grene 10). The history of Yeats’s relations with his early London publishers shows these networks too, as do his first commissions for folklore collections and anthologies (Kelly). Yeats often said that his master was Balzac, whom he read obsessively, and he often identified with the image of Lucien coming to Paris to make his fortune in Lost Illusions. Young Irish writers of Yeats’s generation looked to London, and did remarkably well there.

  • 3 On the uses of literary Celticism see Brown, Longley.

4In Yeats’s generation, that of the 1890s, they did so by marketing a kind of Irishness, often scaled up into “Celticism.” Their predecessors had followed what Yeats, in another context, called “the way of the chameleon” (Yeats, Autobiographies 251-76); the young Yeats and his circle used their distinctiveness instead. Some of them also subscribed to a more extreme brand of nationalism. But this is not to say that Celticism equalled Irish nationalism; its uses were more multifarious than that. Nonetheless, thanks partly to his influential book The Celtic Twilight, Yeats became the voice of the Celtic Revival in Britain during the 1890s and it branded his image for many years after that3

5I want to look at the implications—political and aesthetic—of his apparent turn away from this role, and the significance of his return to Ireland when his country gained a kind of independence in 1922. In a conference about the Union, I want also to look at the way that accusations of “literary Unionism” continued to dog him during his life and after his death. But it is important to establish him first as a figure quintessentially of that Union, living between Ireland and England—a pattern he returned to in the very last years of his life. Was he then “caught” between England and Ireland? Is he a figure in the pattern of what Ashis Nandy and others would see as “internalised colonisation”? Or an ornament of hybrid culture? And how does his situation relate to his hard-won reputation as national poet?

6Since I have invoked this sort of language, I would like to flee back at once to the hard facts of history and pattern them against Yeats’s life. Not the least of his attractions for a historian is that his life can be mapped against the astonishing upheavals of his country’s history; indeed, in a sense his biography can be mapped as an alternative history of his country. Born in 1865, into the declining Protestant bourgeoisie, he was a child during the period of Gladstone’s disestablishment of the Church of Ireland (1869) and pioneering (if somewhat ineffective) Land Acts of 1870 and 1881; he watched the land war of 1879-82, as the son of an impoverished small landowner (who had decided to become a portrait painter and seek his fortune, like so many other talented Irishmen, in the metropolitan marketplace). As Yeats came to political consciousness, living in London and entering the world of Irish migrant writers, he watched Parnell’s “dark star” (as he later described it) reach its zenith and then fall like a meteor. And from that point—1891, when he was aged 26—he would later decide that Irish politics entered a 25-year vacuum during which cultural energies flowed into the space thus created and educated an Irish generation towards a literary assertion of independence which would in its turn breed political revolution.

  • 4 For discussions of this thesis see Paseta, Maume, Jackson, as well as Bew, Ideology and the Irish (...)

7This is a distinctly partial and unconvincing interpretation of history, but it carries a powerful charge (Foster, “Thinking from Hand to Mouth”; W. B. Yeats, A Life, I). It also glosses over the quarter-century after Parnell’s death which was a period when Home Rule within the Empire was far from moribund; recent Irish historiography has, indeed, concentrated on the ways in which the Union looked like being perpetuated, rather than torn apart, right up to the campaign for independence that followed the Easter Rising of 19164 Of course, Ireland did then assert independence, and at that point Yeats came back to live there and fill the role of national poet for the last two decades of his life, in the 1920s and 1930s. But there is more to say about that too.

8For the moment I should like to re-emphasise his position as the entrepreneur of Celticism within the Union in the 1890s and the peculiarities of his position, socially and politically. His family were Protestant, not grand, but well-connected; their affiliations were with the ruling order in Ireland, but Yeats’s father and the rest of his immediate family were supporters of Home Rule. They lived an uncertain life, shuttling between London, Dublin and Sligo, following a Bohemian lifestyle on very little money. Alienation and marginality was part of the picture; so was a certain cultural confidence and—in Yeats’s three siblings as well as himself—a readiness to bring their artistic wares into the marketplace. This was integral to the way that the Union both enabled and restricted Irish artistic production. Irishness conferred a kind of exoticism which could become culturally fashionable. There was a claim upon supernaturalism, ancient mysteries, otherworldliness, special access to the spiritual—well prepared for by Matthew Arnold and Ernest Renan. In a word, there was the Celtic dream. But, being Irish within the Union, Irish writers were enabled by Celticism to have the best of both worlds: they could exoticise themselves from a commanding position within the literary marketplace, as part of the process which Joep Leerssen has mischievously called “auto-exoticism” (Leersen 35-8). The uses of Celticism could also spread out to include Scotland, Brittany, even Cornwall, as a kind of literary Home Rule All Round—or even an alternative Union. French literary fashion was important here—not only the Symbolistes, nor even just Renan, but the lectures of d’Arbois de Jubainville at the Sorbonne and the occultist Jacobite groups to whom Yeats was introduced in Paris by MacGregor Mathers and Maud Gonne. (I have to say that the fashion for Celticism has seen a great revival in our own day, in France as in America, though the concept looks more and more problematic to historians as well as ethnologists. I refer you to regular Celtic festivals in places like Atlanta, Georgia, where the Celts are presented as a distinct ethnic group with a distinct political history; or, closer to home, a literary gathering held in France in 1996 under the title “L’Imaginaire irlandais” where—as Edna Longley has put it—“Parisian intellectuals raved about celtique spirituality, while Irish writers objected coarsely on the sidelines” [Longley 59].)

9But it carried an undeniable political charge. As Murray Pittock has put it, in the 1890s “Irish or Scottish nationalism, bound up with a Romantic vision of the Celtic past, was not only a politics suited to the Symbolist critique of modern culture, but also a direct attack on the constitutional integrity of the British state” (Pittock 86). And as Yeats was already implicated in Irish nationalist organisations and sustained a belief in a coming Celtic apotheosis at the turn of the century, his political stance tended to follow Maud Gonne’s in seeing the union with Britain as the embrace of Satan. His poem “To Ireland in the Coming Times” marks perhaps the high point of his claim on Irish nationalist probity, from the stance of an ex-Protestant occultist wedded to the idea of a Celtic apotheosis. His revolutionary poetry of the 1890s, and his manifestoes at the time of the Boer War, reiterate this. But through the early 1900s, a progressive estrangement gathered pace, even if he glossed over it later. For one thing, his nationalist muse and love-object Maud Gonne abandoned him; for another, the language of Irish nationalism began to express something alarmingly like a Kulturkampf between Catholic and Protestant; for another, the nationally-minded theatre which Yeats founded, believing like Victor Hugo that “in the theatre the mob becomes a people,” was itself the object of attack from conventional nationalists, particularly when it put on the avant-garde plays of J. M. Synge (Foster, W B. Yeats, A Life I: ch. 11-15). By the time of the First World War, Yeats had retreated from his advanced nationalist posture; the Union had more attractions than it used to have; the British and American publics seemed to appreciate his work more than his fellow-countrymen; he supported constitutional Home Rule, but spent most of his time in England. He was by then nearly fifty, a member of the establishment, and indeed refused a knighthood in 1915.

10The following year of course saw the Easter Rising of 1916, the subsequent radicalisation of Irish political opinion, and Yeats’s own repositioning. It also brought sharply into question whether, or how soon, he would return to live in Ireland, a question of great symbolic importance. (He even bought a symbol to live in—his celebrated, but almost impossibly uncomfortable, tower house in County Galway.) Time and again he had canvassed the question of returning for good; but he had somehow retained a pattern where he spent most of the year in London, except for the summers with his friend Augusta Gregory in Coole Park, where he wrote lyric poetry more easily than anywhere else (though it was never easy). In one of his first letters after the news of the Easter Rising, though, he reflected that it was time to go back and “begin building again” (Letter to John Quinn, 23 May 1916; Wade 614).

11This was not easily done, and the way he did it tells us much about the complex nuances of British-Irish relations under the Union. I have recently traced how his poems, plays and public manifestoes in the period from 1916 to 1922 followed a cautious path between endorsing Irish revolution and calling for an accommodation with Britain (Foster, “Yeats at War”). He tailored his speeches in the USA and elsewhere very carefully; he withheld from publication poems and plays that seemed to take up the rebel cause; he stayed (now in Oxford) with his new young English wife and their small children; he did not take part in political initiatives set up by friends, such as the Irish Convention of 1917; even after 1916 he considered giving lectures in France on behalf of the British Foreign Office. When he did “come out” as a supporter of Sinn Fein, and condemned British policy in Ireland, he did it (after careful preparation) in an Oxford Union debate. And he expressed his horror at the doings of the British military mercenaries in Ireland by invoking Gladstone and Salisbury, and aligning himself with them and with the outmoded notions of honour that the nineteenth century represented. A contemporary witness has left a description. “In twelve minutes of bitter and blazing attack on the English in Ireland he ended; pointed at the busts of the Union’s Prime Ministers. ‘Gladstone! Salisbury! Asquith! They were Victorians. I am a Victorian. They knew the meaning of the words “truth” and “honour” and “justice.” But you do not know the meaning of them. You do not know the language I speak, so I will sit down.’” “No-one who heard that speech,” added this witness, “could question his sincerity as an Irish nationalist” (Foster, “Yeats at War” 75). We may also be struck in it by the anticipation of a bitter quatrain he would put into his great poem “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen”:

We who seven years ago
Spoke of honour and of truth
Shriek with pleasure if we show
The weasel’s twist, the weasel’s tooth.

  • 5 W. B. Yeats, letter to Maud Gonne, 1 Nov. 1938, Maud Gonne and W. B. Yeats papers, Emory Universit (...)
  • 6 See Foster, W. B. Yeats, A Life, II 245-53 for his use of the Nobel ceremony; 206-8 for the Irish (...)

12But what I would like to stress here is that proud claim: “I am a Victorian.” This may seem a surprising identification for a figure seen as not only the poet of national liberation but as one of the founders of modernism; however, there is much about other aspects of Yeats’s life that bears it out. (Long ago I interviewed Frederick Ashton, the great choreographer who had known Yeats in the 1930s; I described Yeats as “avant-garde,” and Ashton retorted “Avantgarde? My dear boy, he was pure ’nineties.”) At the same time, from about 1920 Yeats had been repudiating the British dispensation, endorsing the Irish claim of independence and planning to place his stamp on the cultural life of the new state. From the time of the Treaty that set up the Irish Free State, establishing a nearly autonomous Dominion covering three-quarters of the island, he began looking for a house in Dublin and a role in the new polity. He was a firm supporter of the Treaty (unlike his brother, who remained far more Republican) and felt no difficulty about the partition of Ireland, telling Maud Gonne that if such unpleasant neighbours slammed the door in your face, it was better to turn the key in the lock.5 The new Free State remained in the British Commonwealth and owed allegiance to the King as head of the Commonwealth: this (not partition) was the issue upon which a minority of irreconcilable republicans, led by Eamon de Valera, refused to agree, and which caused the brief and brutal Civil War of 1922-23. Yeats was in no doubt that the Treaty was the best deal possible; and while he felt that Irish cultural independence of English models was essential, he represented the Free State Government on several secret negotiations about the terms of the Oath of Allegiance. His political ambitions went further; he hoped to be made Minister for Arts in the new Government, which did not happen. But he became a Senator, speaking often and influentially; he was an organiser of cultural jamborees such as the Irish Race Congress, held in Paris just after independence, and the Tailteann Games (a sort of cultural Olympics); when he won the Nobel Prize in 1923, he used the occasion to claim it as a recognition that Ireland was now culturally separate from Britain. And his speech receiving it, significantly, was the classic statement of his thesis that Ireland’s political independence had been the necessary outcome of a previous movement for cultural independence. The bonds of both kinds of Union were intertwined, and one could not be broken without the other.6

13So far so good: the poet of liberation has apparently become the father of his country, permitted, unlike, say, Adam Mickiewicz, to see the Promised Land which he has sung into being. But beware of answered prayers. The Free State rapidly became, in Yeats’s view, prey to the wrong kind of pieties and restrictions, especially in the imposition of Catholic social law upon the constitution, outlawing divorce and contraception and imposing literary censorship in the interests of conservative Catholic standards of “purity.” From the early 1920s Yeats took a deliberate and leading part in opposing such restrictions. It should be pointed out that this did not make him a political radical. In fact, the outbreak of the Russian revolution, and a few years later the rise of Mussolini in Italy, preoccupied him greatly, and his thoughts on the present state of the world not only dictated some of his most famous poems in the years after World War I, but also some less noticed pieces of prose. His political meditation of 1919, “If I Were Four and Twenty,” clearly marks out a disillusionment with democracy and an interest in the new forms of authority evolving in European politics; so does the first version of his occult guide-book, A Vision, which was finished in 1925. Moreover, in that year, alarmed by threatened unrest in the new Irish Army which produced a near-mutiny in 1924, he was also entering discussions with like-minded people about the need for a new conservative Irish Party—which was privately described as a “Unionist “party. What Yeats meant by this is not entirely clear, but it seems that he was interested in the status which he thought Ireland enjoyed in the late eighteenth century, with its own parliament and autonomy, and with the English monarch king of Ireland too—two confederated monarchies rather than a federated association within the Commonwealth. He clearly did not realise the extent to which the late eighteenth-century arrangements reserved vital executive powers over Ireland to the British government of the day, but he was not alone in this. And it seems equally clear that this in turn was associated with his ideas about political authority and where it should properly reside. It is incorrect to label these ideas as “totalitarian,” because Yeats was preoccupied with the free development of the creative individual—and, indeed, with the necessity of a leisured and cultured class. But his political ideas certainly tended towards the oligarchic, and increasingly—in the Irish context—to the idea of inherited authority as epitomised by the Ascendancy class of the pre-Union period, whom he idealised to an almost ludicrous level, revolving around his (highly partial) reading of Swift, Berkeley and Burke.

14This is hardly new, but perhaps these inclinations have not been sufficiently mapped against his quarrels with Catholic demonstrations in the 1920s. (Nor have his subversive, sexually frank “Crazy Jane” lyrics been sufficiently related to the political and moral conflicts raging when he wrote them.) I believe that several of his most apparently visionary or cerebral poems of the late 1920s are firmly rooted in the socio-political arguments of the day—“Among School Children,” for instance, is deeply infused with his readings in Italian educational treatises, the philosophy of Croce and Gentile, and his preoccupation with ensuring the free creative development of the individual in the increasingly repressive atmosphere of the Irish Free State (Foster, W. B. Yeats, A Life, II: 319-24). And “In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz” stands for far more than an elegy to lost youth: I read it as another instalment in the great fantasy of Ascendancy culture, which he had begun in poems like “The Tower” and “Blood and the Moon”: moreover, I think that he is placing himself, with his Ascendancy ancestors, against the levelling wind epitomised—now—by these two radical Anglo-Irishwomen (Foster, W. B. Yeats, A Life, II: 347-50). In other ways too, Yeats after the end of the Union invoked earlier periods of the tangled connection between Ireland and England, in a way calculated to scandalise pious nationalists. Perhaps the most outrageous moment came when he was defending Sean O’Casey’s controversial play The Plough and the Stars in 1926. That play was in itself an interrogation of Irish nationalism and implied a sceptical analysis of the Easter Rising and its proclaimed ideals. When Yeats defended the play, in a public speech, he was accused of being a “Cromwellian.” Now, in Ireland Oliver Cromwell stands in the popular mind as the absolute symbol of religious and political oppression, not to mention massacre and the banishing of the Irish across the seas. The accusation against Yeats clearly implied that with his Protestant and Anglo-Irish ancestry, he was not a real Irishman. Instead of repudiating this insult, he chose, in a further speech, to proclaim his identity.

  • 7 For a detailed treatment, see Foster, W. B. Yeats, A Life, II, 304-9.

[H]e had been told... that he was a Cromwellian, and there was a valuable part of Ireland—the Cromwellian part—which had its own patriotism. It was chosen, and it had great qualities... A member of the audience asked would Mr Yeats express his opinion on the patriotism that resented the faults of a country being exposed. Were the people of other countries as sensitive as the Irish, if a play showing their faults was put on the stage, and was such a play likely to be hounded down in other countries, or to be considered beneficial, as having the effect of curing their faults?
Mr Yeats said that he thought a nation was likely to go through that phase, and it was a very natural phase; but he was quite sure that when it reached intellectual maturity it got over that feeling; but every country that had had in any way the opinion of other nations thrust upon it felt that way for a time. The moment a nation reached intellectual maturity, it became exceedingly proud and ceased to be vain and when it became exceedingly proud it did not disguise its faults, because it was satisfied to know what were its qualities and powers; but when it was immature it was exceedingly vain, and did not believe in itself, and so long as it did not believe in itself it wanted other people to think well of it, in order that it might get a little reflected confidence. With success came pride, and with pride came indifference as to whether people were shown in a good or bad light on the stage. As a nation came to intellectual maturity it realised that the only thing that did it any credit was its intellect. (Torchiana 130-31)7

15There is much to admire in this striking passage, where Ireland is personified, using something like a Freudian theory of overcompensation, and applying it to a sort of national inferiority complex. It also has direct personal reference, at the very point where he himself believed he had achieved intellectual maturity, and believed there was no longer any need to be apologetic about his own claims on Irishness. But it was wonderfully at odds with the ruling ideas of the new Irish Free State. When Eamon de Valera, the republican irreconcilable, returned to constitutional politics and was elected to power in 1932, Yeats’s political position became more embattled. De Valera was determined to complete Ireland’s withdrawal from the Commonwealth; though Yeats was actually involved in some of the fruitless negotiations with the British government behind the scenes, there was much about de Valera’s project that seemed to threaten all he held dear. From 1933 he was lending cautious support to the developing “Blueshirt” party, which looked like becoming an Irish variant of fascism. But after writing some obscure and banal “Marching Songs” for them, he quickly disassociated himself. This was largely, I believe, because their kind of politics rapidly tended towards clericalism and Catholic revanche, as well as cultivated a support base of disgruntled farmers, impoverished by de Valera’s policy of economic war with England. Yeats rather approved of de Valera’s ideas on this issue, and was personally impressed by de Valera himself. On the other hand, the Blueshirts and their leader, General O’Duffy, looked more and more like the sort of demotic politics he had long ago set himself against. But in the first stages of their evolution, he had philosophical discussions with some of their political backers, and his unpublished letters and private notebooks show that he had a rather idiosyncratic view of the evolution of fascism as a right-wing descendant of Hegelianism (Communism being its left-wing cousin), which—unlike Communism—ensured the free development of the individual and the safeguarding of the cultured classes. Communism, in fact, stood in Yeats’s view for the elimination of those very social phenomena (Foster, ‘“Our Chosen Colour Is Blue’”).

16His private writings and letters indicate that his interest in the political aspects of fascism petered out—and he cannot be convicted either of support for the Third Reich or of anti-Semitism. But the same kind of evidence shows that he was—like many intellectuals of both Right and Left—increasingly preoccupied by eugenics and what he conceived as the decline of the cultured classes through the unrestricted breeding of the proletariat. His very last political manifesto, published as On the Boiler, makes this starkly clear—so do some of his most challenging late poems, such as “The Statues,” “A Bronze Head” and “Under Ben Bulben.” His play Purgatory suggests, perhaps, that independent Ireland itself is the result of a mésalliance and a misbegotten birth, and that old patterns of hatred will be eternally repeated until social and political authority returns to its proper possessors. The “great gazebo” starts to look like a very exclusive enclosure indeed.

17Yet he should be remembered as the defender of important liberties in independent Ireland, as a consistent advocate of artistic and intellectual freedom, and as a sometimes uncomfortable voice raised in defence of the virtues of tolerance and inclusiveness. He also, as we have seen, invoked the values of what he called “Victorianism” against the actions of the murderous and uncontrolled mercenary forces sent by Lloyd George to Ireland as the Union came under strain: calling the old world, perhaps, into being to redress the balance of the new. What he hoped to make of the new world of independent (some would say, post-colonial) Ireland is another matter. Returning to Ireland in 1922 was for Yeats a defining moment and enabled some of his greatest—if also some of his most uncomfortable, or discomfiting—poetry. It also, symbolically, marked the end of the Union. On some artistic levels, he had liberated himself just as his country ostensibly underwent the same process. The poems collected in The Tower, published in 1928, make it one of the key books of the twentieth century; and The Winding Stair in 1933 runs it close. His poems from the mid-thirties are extraordinary in a different way, interrogating old age, the roots of inspiration, the artistic process, and the gnawing dissatisfactions of sex. At the very end of his life he is also exploring again the intricacies of Indian mysticism, and literally on his deathbed he wrote a play and a series of poems which return to his very earliest inspirations of Gaelic legend as retold by Standish O’Grady. This had been the seedbed of his early nationalism, but now he plays it against the inadequacies of the new order after Ireland left the Union. From the mid-1930s, he himself had taken to spending much of the year in England again, beckoned there by romantic impulses, but also by impatience with much that surrounded him in 1930s Ireland. His own, and Ireland’s, relation to England continued to preoccupy him, and it bursts out in a “General Introduction” he wrote in the late 1930s for a collected edition of his work, but which was not published until long after his death.

no people hate as we do in whom the past is always alive. There are moments when hatred poisons my life and I accuse myself of effeminacy because I have not given it adequate expression... Then I remind myself that though mine is the first English marriage I know of in the direct line, all my family names are English; that I owe my soul to Shakespeare, to Spenser, to Blake, perhaps to William Morris, and to the English language in which I think, speak and write; that everything I love has come to me through English. My hatred tortures me with love, my love with hate. (Callan 63)

  • 8 See, for instance, Foster, “‘When the Newspapers Have Forgotten Me’: Yeats, obituarists and Irishn (...)

18This is, of course, a political as well as a literary reflection. Seamus Deane, whose accusation of “infection with the pathology of literary unionism” began this paper, would read Yeats’s admission of mixed feelings as a kind of confession of Unionist original sin, showing that in the end Yeats went back to his roots, and that those roots went back to the Union, which in turn go back to an alien conquest. It is true that the power of Yeats’s vision may have been sharpened—as with some late-nineteenth-century Russian writers—by the perspective of a member of a declining social elite at a time of social and political transformation. But I would like to suggest that Yeats’s troubled and troubling reaction to the modern Irish world should be—to follow Frederic Jameson’s injunction—more closely historicised; and that it represents a pattern of response as well as challenge. Modern Ireland, as it asserted itself, found it very hard to accommodate Yeats; the invective raised against him in the popular Catholic press, before and after his death, needs to be read to be fully appreciated.8 In large part this was because his non-Catholicism, his Ascendancy background, his status in the British metropolis, his domination of the literary market in London, his deliberate exoticism (even auto-exoticism) were firmly established in the years of the Union. Yeats himself was fond of quoting Napoleon’s statement that, to understand a man, you had to look at what was happening in the world when he was twenty. In his case, that meant 1885-86, when Parnell and Gladstone were playing their brinkmanship game over Home Rule, and a new kind of Irish future beckoned. We never get the future we expect (or deserve?), and when the cards fell differently from Yeats’s own expectations, he swiftly adapted his game. But when independence came and he returned to Ireland to “begin building again,” he carried with him the conditioning and expectations of a background spent—like many other brilliant Irishmen—“caught” in the linguistic, political and intellectual conditions and contradictions of the Union. It may be that both his own work and the intellectual life of his country post-independence were all the richer for it.



Allt Peter and Russell K. Alspach, eds. The Variorum Edition of the Poems of W. B. Yeats, 2nd ed. New York, Macmillan, 1968.

Ayling Ronald, ed. Seven Plays by Sean O’Casey, London, Macmillan, 1985.

Bew Paul, Ideology and the Irish Question: Ulster Unionism and Irish nationalism 1912-1916, Oxford, Clarendon, 1994.

—, John Redmond, Dundalk, Dundalgan, 1996.

Brown Terence, ed. Celticism, Amsterdam, Rodopi, 1990.

Butt Isaac, “The Past and Present State of Literature in Ireland”, Deane, ed., Field Day Anthology I: 1200-12.

Callan Edward, ed. Yeats on Yeats: the last Introductions and the “Dublin” edition, Dublin, Dolmen P, Humanities P, 1981.

Chapman Wayne K. and Warwick Gould, eds. Yeats Annual 15, London, Macmillan, 2002.

Connolly Claire, ed. Theorising Ireland, London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

Deane Seamus, “Heroic style: the tradition of an idea”, 1995. Connolly, ed. 14-26.

Deane Seamus, ed. The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, Vol. 1. Derry: Field Day, 1991.

Fahy Francis, “Ireland in London: Reminiscences, 1921”, Ed. Clare Hutton. Chapman and Gould, eds. 233-80.

Foster Roy, “Marginal Men and Micks on the Make”, Paddy and Mr Punch 281-305.

—,‘“Our Chosen Colour Is Blue’”, Dublin Review 11 (Summer 2003): 83-106.

, Paddy and Mr Punch: connections in Irish and English history, London, Lane, 1993.

, The Irish Story: telling tales and making it up in Ireland, London, Lane, 2001.

—, “Thinking from Hand to Mouth”, Paddy and Mr. Punch 262-80.

, W. B. Yeats, A Life, I: The Apprentice Mage, 1865-1914, Oxford, Oxford UP, 1997.

, W. B. Yeats, A Life, II: The Arch-Poet, 1915-1939, Oxford, Oxford UP, 2003.

—, “‘When the Newspapers Have Forgotten Me’: Yeats, obituarists and Irishness”, The Irish Story 80-94.

—, “Yeats at War: poetic strategies and political reconstruction, 1916-1922”, The Irish Story 58-79.

Heinrick Hugo, A Survey of the Irish in England. 1872. Ed. Alan O’Day. London, Hambledon, 1990.

Hutton Clare, “Publishing the Irish Revival”, Diss., U of Oxford, 2001.

Jackson Alvin, Home Rule: an Irish history 1800-2000, London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2003.

Jeffares A. N., ed. Yeats, Sligo and Ireland, Gerrard’s Cross, Colin Smythe, 1980.

Kelly J. S.; “‘Books and Numberless Dreams’: Yeats’s relations with his early publishers”, Jeffares, ed. 234-53.

Laurence Dan H. and David H. Grene, eds. The Matter with Ireland, 1962, Gainsville, Fla., Florida UP, 2001.

Leersen Joep, Remembrance and Imagination: patterns in the historical and literary representation of Ireland in the nineteenth century, Cork, Cork UP, 1996.

Longley Edna, “The Poetics of Celt and Saxon”, Poetry and Posterity, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 2000.52-89.

Maume Patrick, The Long Gestation: Irish nationalist life 1891-1918, Dublin, Gill and Macmillan, 1999.

Nandy Ashis, The Intimate Enemy: Loss and recovery of self under colonialism, Delhi, Oxford UP, 1983.

O’Casey Sean, The Plough and the Stars, 1926, Ayling, ed. 103-75.

O’Donnell F. Η., A History of the Irish Parliamentary Party. 2 vols. London, Longmans, 1910.

Paseta Senia, Before the Revolution: nationalism, social change and Ireland’s Catholic elite, 1879-1922, Cork, Cork UP, 1999.

Pittock Murray, Spectrum of Decadence: the literature of the 1890s, London, Routledge, 1993.

Sheehy Ian, “Irish Journalists and Litterateurs in Late Victorian London, c. 1870-1910”. Diss., U of Oxford, 2003.

Torchiana Donald, W. B. Yeats and Georgian Ireland, 1966, Washington, Catholic U of America P, 1992.

Wade Allan, ed. The Letters of W. B. Yeats, London, Rupert Hart-Davis, 1954.

Yeats W. B., Autobiographies, London, Macmillan, 1955.

—, “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen”, Allt and Alspach, eds. 428-34.

, Samhain, 1903. Rpt. in W. B. Yeats, Explorations, London, Macmillan, 1962.98-123.


1 Those who became particularly prominent include T. P. O’Connor, Justin McCarthy, and Barry O’Brien. For a consideration see Foster, “Marginal Men,” and the D. Phil thesis by Ian Sheehy on Irish journalists in late Victorian London. For some contemporary reflections, recently reprinted, see Butt, “The Past and Present State of Literature in Ireland” 207, and Heinrick 11.

2 For a discussion of this see Hutton, “Publishing the Irish Revival,” and her edition of Francis Fahy’s memoir, “Ireland in London.”

3 On the uses of literary Celticism see Brown, Longley.

4 For discussions of this thesis see Paseta, Maume, Jackson, as well as Bew, Ideology and the Irish Question, and Bew, John Redmond.

5 W. B. Yeats, letter to Maud Gonne, 1 Nov. 1938, Maud Gonne and W. B. Yeats papers, Emory University, Atlanta. See also Foster, W. B. Yeats, A Life, II 640.

6 See Foster, W. B. Yeats, A Life, II 245-53 for his use of the Nobel ceremony; 206-8 for the Irish Race Congress; 263-8 for the Tailteann Games.

7 For a detailed treatment, see Foster, W. B. Yeats, A Life, II, 304-9.

8 See, for instance, Foster, “‘When the Newspapers Have Forgotten Me’: Yeats, obituarists and Irishness.”


Oxford University
Carroll Professor of Irish History at the University of Oxford and a fellow of Hertford College. He has been a fellow of the British Academy since 1989. His books include biographies of Charles Stewart Parnell and Lord Randolph Churchill; Modern Ireland 1600-1972; Paddy and Mr. Punch; and The Irish Story: Telling Tales and Making It Up in Ireland. The prize-winning first volume of his biography of W. B. Yeats, The Apprentice Mage, 1865-1914, appeared in 1997, and the second and last, The Arch-Poet, 1915-1939 in 2003. He is currently working on a short book based on the Wiles lectures which he delivered at Queen's University Belfast in 2004, under the title “Metamorphoses: The Strange Death of Romantic Ireland c. 1970-2000.”

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2005

Conditions d’utilisation :

Cette publication numérique est issue d’un traitement automatique par reconnaissance optique de caractères.
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search