History can be generous or traitorous to even the greatest, the most untouchable of writers. Time can make Nobel Prize winners redundant and can inject new life, fresh significance into the previously unknown. History has been rightly kind to the likes of Miller, Camus and Gunter Grass, it has not been so compassionate towards Kipling, Forster or Wodehouse. History doesn’t know what to do with W.B. Yeats.
Doomed to be consigned to the backs of now defunct bank notes or rarely read anthologies his early romantic works, filled with faeries and fair maidens, have not aged well and his later modernist works appear submerged by the larger ripples of Joyce and Auden. So there is the curious situation where he is held in high esteem, put on a pedestal and then promptly ignored. He has become a legend and as with all legends somehow in being elevated he is relegated, his works promoted in suffocating syllabi seem the stuff of historians, of leather elbow patches and tweed suits, accessed from the highest shelf only through the use of wheeled ladders in dusty libraries. No doubt the futurists were right when they said all critics are useless and dangerous, but only criticism can undo the damage criticism has done. It would do Yeats a great favor, to rescue him from this sterile prison of respectability, if his life and works were truthfully dissected without fear of desecrating his status as a sacred icon. For then at least he would be human and, for better or worse, his works would be alive.
Yeats was a fool, a privileged, talented one, but a fool nonetheless. He held some of the most contemptible and stupid views that can be held, views that weaved together through the years with eugenics and such frauds as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to end under the railway arch entrance to Auschwitz. And yet it is hard not to feel a deep sympathy for a tragic Don Quixote-esque figure who was doomed not because he was born into the wrong time, as has been claimed, but because he clung to a time and set of values that never really existed to begin with.
An avid supporter of the Gaelic Revival, W.B. Yeats promoted the use of the Irish language and the reabsorbtion of Celtic mythology into the modern consciousness. His early poems dealt with traditional subject matters such as fairytales (“The Man Who Dreamed Of Faeryland”), hero-worship (“Cuchulain Comforted”) and Irish places (“The Lake Isle Of Innisfree,” “Under Ben Bulben”). Their lyricism and rhythms suggest that they are somehow musical in character and it is no surprise that many of his poems have been incorporated into Irish folk songs. And some of them are supreme examples of the right words in the right order, that simple but elusive definition of successful poetry. To appreciate his talent, simply read aloud “Sailing to Byzantium,” “The Wandering of Aengus” or “Who goes with Fergus?” as James Joyce did to his dying younger brother. Along with Lady Gregory, he was founder of the notoriously progressive Abbey Theatre that brought Ireland screaming into the twentieth century. All these acts sought to create a cultural renaissance, to revitalize the Irish national identity after the death of its language as the national tongue and the subjugation of its people. Following this philosophy on its logical path, he became a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (a militant elite band of rebels fighting for liberation and democracy or “international terrorists” in today’s rhetoric) and celebrated the heroes of the Easter Rising for their sacrifice. The “terrible beauty” of their martyrdom simultaneously attracted and repulsed him but he did not necessarily share the rebel’s sentiments or their will to power. He respected them from afar, behind the security that an aristocratic poet could possess, and to his credit he made no bones about this; often the issue of involvement and the turning of words into deeds gripped his conscience. Undoubtedly he was, as Edward Said referred, “a poet of decolonization” particularly when he called for protests against the Dublin celebrations of Queen Victoria’s jubilee and deeply opposed the liberal’s use of World War One to delay Irish Home Rule. This led him to perceptively equate the Irish situation with the international effects of imperialism–“all through the Abyssinian war my sympathies were with the Abyssinians”–rather than with his fellow Europeans (the Italian empire). He could see the bigger picture and the fact that the Irish issue struggle was a small part of something larger and internationalist in character.
Realizing, however, that ideology could ruin life (“too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart”) Yeats saw his role not as a propagandist or apologist but as a witness who must simply record history as it evolves: “our part to murmur name upon name”. Yeats never accepted the extremist view that the freedom of Ireland justified any and all means, for he retained an individual conscience too complex to be constrained by any doctrinaire ideology. Indeed he actively opposed the unquestioning militant strand of republicanism, berating Countess Markievicz (the Sinn Fein female MP and first woman to be elected to the House of Commons, though she abstained from taking her seat) for becoming a demagogue, “Blind and leader of the blind, drinking the foul ditch where they lie.” Intelligence, Yeats believed, was corrupted by fanatical hostility and he never ceased associating “violent ways” with “ignorant men.” His conscience at play, he worried, “Did that play of mine send out, certain men the English shot?” about “Cathleen Ni Hoolihan (1902)”, his ode to the female personification of Ireland. Thus he stands as an Irish cultural nationalist rather than strictly a political one, for he despised the self-defeating Catholic streak in Republicanism, which sought merely to swap slavery from London for slavery from Rome or Dublin, supporting James Connolly’s assertion that the puritans among the revolutionaries were “seeking to empty a barrel of rotten apples just to fill it with rotten pears.”
During his life and throughout his works, Yeats was a steadfast defender of free speech and freedom of thought. To his eternal credit, he remained unceasingly loyal to Oscar Wilde and Parnell, whilst the Irish establishment hounded them (“Can someone there recall the Cretan barb that pierced a star?” and “we devoured his heart” respectively), believing that sexuality was a private matter, beyond the reach or concern of the state or the public. This was a man at his most fearless and admirable, using his position to bravely give voice to his conscience even when in a minority of one. At the Abbey Theatre he championed Sean O Casey’s “Plough And The Stars” against rioting puritans who saw it as mocking the blood sacrifice martyrdom of the Easter Rebels. He condemned the riots at Synge’s “Playboy Of The Western World” that had erupted because of the improper mention of woman’s petticoats. He personally addressed an insurgent audience to boos and jeers, “You have disgraced yourself again, is this to be the recurring celebration of the arrival of Irish genius?” a question that was courageously asked in front of a potential lynch mob. Even more than the State he saw the mob (“a frenzied crowd”) as the enemy of free speech and regarded democracy as a form of dictatorship of the majority, a majority easily led and easily hoodwinked. Relishing his self-appointed role of defender of free speech against the conforming philistine crowds, he challenged them “Come, fix upon me that accusing eye, I thirst for accusation” and branded them “the contagion of the throng” and “rats,” who had driven their liberator Parnell to an early grave. Eventually, he became the figurehead of the conflict against Ireland’s swerve down the repressive narrow-minded clerical path, declaring, “An ignorant form of Catholicism is my enemy.” In a sense, he stood up for the values of those remarkable fellows who had died on Easter 1916 (and indeed on 1798) and against the mediocre who had profited in their absence. He also predicted accurately the long-term consequences of basing Irish Civil Law on authoritarian Catholicism; “If you show this country to be governed by catholic ideas alone you will never get the north. You will put a wedge in this country”. This tolerance led him to oppose compulsory Gaelic, fight censorship and support women’s right to work. In terms of sexuality, his lines such as “I offer to love’s play my dark declivities” (boldly spoken from a female perspective), in the repressive Irish climate became declarations of defiance.
The pinnacle of his laissez-faire political stance remains his stand in the Irish Senate asserting the right to divorce. Adopting the Dissenter stance, he celebrated the Protestant tradition (later to harden and bitter with Unionism) of rebellion and tolerance (“We are the people of Parnell and Swift, we have created the best of this land’s political intelligence”) echoing Milton’s phrase, “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience” a freedom that Yeats, like Milton, regarded as “above all other liberties”. He reminded the hypocritical Senate members of the infidelities of their heroes, recalling “O’ Connell and Parnell” by name and asked, “Should their statues be tore down?” and declared to the bishops and their political stooges, “When the iceberg melts [Ireland] will become a tolerant society” and “your victory will be brief and your defeat final.” In the realm of private individual freedom, Yeats was very much a brave radical freethinker even though his idealization of Maud Gonne and his unrequited love for her spawned many a poem but left him emotionally in tatters. Following the logic of Yeats’ outlook on personal freedom and privacy, you could come to the conclusion that Yeats’ complex, often deliberately unsuccessful and often analyzed romantic life was none of anybody’s goddamned business and you would probably be right.
Ironically, considering his defiant defense of personal free will against judgment, in the sphere of public politics, Yeats toyed with Fascist ideas about class, eugenics and democracy. Following aristocratic tradition, he was liberal concerning private sexual and artistic freedoms, freedoms rationed only to those who were by accident of birth born into privileged enough backgrounds to enjoy them, but was ruthlessly autocratic about public freedom and equality. He supported the death penalty and floggings and voted for the repression of republican irregular dissidents after the assassination of Kevin O Higgins (Vice President and Minister Of Justice). In support of draconian measures he at least attempted an explanation, “One does not vote for treason bills out of hatred for anyone but because one believes they are necessary to protect harmless people against anxiety, danger, poverty perhaps death.” This substantiated his belief that the death of romantic Ireland was caused by those “who fumble in a greasy till.” He favored authoritarian government as a bulwark against the anarchy of human nature and the omnipotent threat of the lower classes. A disciple of Hobbes’ “Leviathan”, he retained the traditional conservative dim view of humanity as fallen, corrupt and so in need of protection and pre-emptive acts of getting your retaliation in first. This intense traditionalism included seeing the Celtic past through rose-tinted spectacles as a utopia lost (“And ancient Ireland knew it all,”) to the extent Orwell accused him of “throwing overboard whatever good the past two thousand years have achieved.” It leads you to think that despite his obvious literary talent Yeats’ snobbish upbringing had perhaps made him too distanced from ordinary people and the distance made him go slightly soft in the head.
Yeats reflected his distaste for the working classes by associating democracy with mob rule and regarding politics, rather pompously, simply as the battlefield between the educated versus the uneducated rabble. The Russian Revolution, and the precedent for social rebellion it had encouraged, consumed him with terror and as with most bourgeoisie, the fear of communism caused him to swing politically to the security of the far right. He saw the uprisings–the defiant saying of enough’s enough by the common man and woman–not as an admirable stirring of the human spirit, but as a threat to apparently god-given status and wealth, a threat to the world of myths, the imaginary worlds of grateful peasants content with their lot and honorable aristocrats he had conjured within his head. This is reflected in “The Second Coming” where “things fall apart, the centre cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, the blood dimmed tide is loosed,” the best” (the aristocrats) “lack all conviction while the worst” (the proles) “are full of passionate intensity.” And the chilling lines “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” Thus the demands of the working people for common human decency in their treatment had apocalyptic connotations for Yeats, a man easily taken in by talk of ouija boards, seances and Masonic secret lodges. This led him to lend irrational support for fascists like Mussolini and Eoin O’Duffy’s homegrown Blueshirt equivalent. He often proudly quoted Mussolini: “We will trample upon the decomposing body of the goddess of liberty” and future generations for Yeats would have “for their task, not the widening of liberty but the recovery from its errors.” He went so far as to call Fascism “the best modern way” and claimed the Fascists found their “eloquence upon knowledge”. George Orwell was his most perceptive critic when he attacked Yeats’ naivety: “[Yeats] fails to see that the new authoritarian civilization will not be aristocratic. It will be ruled by anonymous millionaires, shiny bottomed bureaucrats and murdering gangsters.” Yeats struggled to see that he belonged not to the chivalrous Victorian age of the aristocracy but the all-consuming nihilistic totalitarian age of the Fascists. In fact, the chivalrous age, which he desperately clung to, had never existed to begin with, filled as it was with exploitation and poverty of which he was all too blissfully ignorant.
Though his interest in Fascism was a mere flirtation (as with Eliot, Pound and the Futurists) he retained many of the characteristics of Fascist thought. He called for the abolition of parliamentary government to be replaced by a hierarchical state ruled by “the ablest,” rather than the most popular. His opinion of women was distinctly anti-feminist and patriarchal and he wished his daughter to grow up “courteous rather than clever”, denying women intellectual ability: “an intellectual hatred is the worst so let her think opinions are accursed.” “May she become a flourishing hidden tree” effectively summarizes Yeats’ belief that written language belongs to men and women’s duty is to remain obedient and silent, one step on the road to Children, Church and Kitchen.
Yeats’ ideas on eugenics are perhaps his most extreme and irrational views. Adopting the malevolent Fascist ideas about racial superiority and class supremacy, he attacked the “degenerate” working classes and evoked Scottish myths of disabled women and children being buried alive for the common good “lest the whole nation should be injured or corrupted”. Interestingly, these babblings went strangely quiet when his health began to deteriorate and he grew older and frailer. He went on to conclude, with no evidence, that “the caste system has saved Indian intellect” and “the real danger” to civilization “is if there is not a world war” to thin the herd. Whilst Yeats’ earlier flirtation with Fascism can be excused as a combination of aristocratic snobbery, fear of communism and contempt for democracy, his eugenics ideas are particularly discomforting. It is worth noting though that such ideas were the intellectual norm at the time and though repulsive, Yeats had no knowledge of the depths to which eugenics would take mankind. Indeed Winston Churchill summed up the intellectual climate at the time when he proposed in a government White Paper, with little opposition, that “100,000 moral degenerates be sterilized and placed in labour camps to prevent the decline of the British Empire.” Yeats’ eugenics ideas, for example, were the standard intellectual ideas of the time held by many (for example H.G. Wells, Jack London, George Bernard Shaw). This does not make them right; popularity is no excuse for acquiescing in blind ignorance, but it makes them at least that bit easier to understand. Thus Yeats’ beliefs, while immoral and inexcusable, are more a product of ineptitude than genuine hatred. Unfortunately, it was such popular ideas that aided the ascension of the Third Reich and the resulting Final Solution. And ignorance is no defense to history.
Yeats at his most admirable was an eloquent Irish cultural nationalist and a perceptive skeptic of colonialism. His involvement with political republicanism was always tempered by his Protestant Libertarian streak; his distaste for blind militarism and his opposition to the narrow-minded Catholic establishment are always evident in his work. In a cultural sense, he is an undoubted link in the noble dissenting republican lineage from Wolfe Tone and Roger Casement to the Irish poets of today (Tom Paulin, the late John Hewitt, Seamus Heaney) who reject the religion and race swindle and instead pursue a non-sectarian humanist Ireland. Hopefully, this points a direction independent of the yuppie economics and the patriotic sleight of hands that have defined the modern Irish body-politik. His passion for free speech and the right to sexual and artistic expression resulted in his loyal defense of Wilde and Parnell and his courageous defenses of art to rioting mobs at the Abbey Theatre, and are acts that, even without his poetry, should enshrine his place in history and show him to be a character worth investigating. When we look at the dark side of Yeats and his flirtation with Fascism, we should be careful to avoid judging for we look at history with the benefit of hindsight, forgetting that when Yeats spoke of admiring Fascism he knew nothing of the death camps. His views may have been distasteful, imbecilic even, but he died before they would have become disgraceful. While he may have chosen the wrong side at times, at least he was never apathetic. His opinions, however wrong, at least implied that he cared about things enough to formulate an opinion.
Only the hardest of hearts would crucify a man misled and foolish, a product of his environment who delighted in the politically incorrect without knowing that to do so was to support genocide, whose flaw was naivety, but who bore no malice in his soul. Indeed, some day in the future we may be judged ourselves to have collaborated in the insanity of today’s intellectual climate.
When the Irish Free State was established in 1922, Yeats lost the theme that had been his muse politically, but importantly he came to realize that he had always been a poet and never a politician. In 1937 he wrote “I am no Nationalist except in Ireland for passing reasons; State and Nation are the work of intellect and when you consider what comes before and after them they are, as Victor Hugo said of something or other, not worth the blade of grass God gives for the nest of a linnet.” His true inspiration had always been and would become increasingly spiritual and metaphysical questions. He underwent a late renaissance when he questioned his own mortality, his age and the tension between his undimmed passions and his aging body in poems such as “After long silence,” “Among School Children” and “When you are old and full of sleep.” They are marked by their glorious refusal to betray his youth and his passion, which could not be separated from his being even by time, and they mark the point where he blissfully left politics to the gossips and the blackguards and the Machiavellis.
I began this essay determined to attack the man’s character and end it determined to stand in his defense. How can you judge a man who wrote the following lines?
“Think where man’s glory most begins and ends,
And say my glory was I had such friends.”
The point is he lived, he died and he left a lot of stuff behind that benefits humanity and enriches, deepens and heightens the joys of being alive and the question arises what gives us the right to judge him as a person beyond what he left behind when he left this world?
For is it not such contradictions and mistakes, that litter his life, that which makes us human?
Or am I talking shite?
When he died in France, far from the Ireland that was “no place for old men” the Nazis, those whom he had admired years earlier, occupied France and ordered that his body be dug up and thrown into a mass grave. After the war the Irish government requested his remains to be sent home. Eventually, after much diplomatic negotiations and awkward silences they received a coffin. The odds that even one of the bones are his are very, very remote. It is an ironic metaphor, fitting, but also deeply sad, that this aloof figure should rest in a mass grave somewhere in France, and under his favored resting place, beneath the beautiful plateau of his beloved Ben Bulben, beneath the headstone that bears his name, like the dubious relics of saints, lies the bones of unnamed, unidentifiable French workers.
W.H. Auden wrote the greatest elegy for him, which began:
“He disappeared in the dead of winter
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted
And snow disfigured the public statues
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.”
If there is one thing that is left to be said, it is that we could learn from Yeats’ mistakes so we don’t repeat them, so that we don’t run into the arms of tyrannies promising security in these turbulent times. And if we must be nostalgic, let it not be for an imagined past but let us be nostalgic for the future. Of course, you could be of the belief that lives should not necessarily have lessons salvaged from them. In that case, you should read Yeats, you may well find that his poetry has enriched not just the culture of Ireland, but can enrich and intensify your perceptions of the world, above and beyond politics and all the orthodoxies that leave us so divided and unhappy.
And from a poet, perhaps that’s the best we can hope for.