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‘Philosophy and Passion’:
W. B. Yeats, Ireland and Europe

R. F. Foster

© R. F. Foster, CC BY 4.0 http://dx.doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0081.03

My title1 comes from one of Yeats’s volumes of autobiography—of which there are such beautiful editions in the Cantwell Collection of the Boole Library. In the passage I have chosen, he is recalling his early ambitions around 1890 for the revival of Irish culture—and, indeed, a distinctively Irish civilization.

I used to tell the few friends to whom I could speak these secret thoughts that I would make the attempt in Ireland but fail, for our civilization, its elements multiplying by division like certain low forms of life, was all-powerful; but in reality I had the wildest hopes. Today I add to that first conviction, to that first desire for unity, this other conviction, long a mere opinion vaguely or intermittently apprehended: Nations, races, and individual men are unified by an image, or bundle of related images, symbolical or evocative of the state of mind which is, of all states of mind not impossible, the most difficult to that man, race, or nation; because only the greatest obstacle that can be contemplated without despair rouses the will to full intensity.

A powerful class by terror, rhetoric, and organized sentimentality may drive their people to war, but the day draws near when they cannot keep them there; and how shall they face the pure nations of the East when the day comes to do it with but equal arms? I had seen Ireland in my own time turn from the bragging rhetoric and gregarious humour of O’Connell’s generation and school, and offer herself to the solitary and proud Parnell as to her anti-self, buskin followed hard on sock, and I had begun to hope, or to half hope, that we might be the first in Europe to seek unity as deliberately as it had been sought by theologian, poet, sculptor, architect from the eleventh to the thirteenth century. Doubtless we must seek it differently, no longer considering it convenient to epitomize all human knowledge, but find it we well might could we first find philosophy and a little passion.2

‘Philosophy and passion’ were the qualities he tried to bring both to creative and political endeavour, and I want to look at how he did this. But first I must point out that the passage above was written in the autumn of 1920. He had first revisited these years of his apprenticeship around 1890 in a draft written in 1917, too frank for publication; but the section called ‘Four Years: 1887–1891’, from which this passage is taken, was written in Oxford in 1920, as events in Ireland worsened. The Black and Tans were terrorizing the countryside around his Tower at Ballylee and the Anglo-Irish war was in full swing. He was writing his early life with this knowledge of contemporary dissolution, and was deliberately placing the thoughts and ambitions of his youth as a prelude to the Irish revolution which he wanted to be a revolution in consciousness too, towards ‘unity of being’. In the late 1880s, ‘philosophy and passion’ were intended to provide the key to a political annunciation. But by the time he was writing in 1920, Ireland was in the throes of guerrilla war while Russia and Europe had been turned upside-down by war and revolution. Yeats wrote his recollections of these years with great excitement. But, he privately admitted, ‘One thing I did not see, the growing murderousness of the world’.3

‘The world’, it should be noted: not just ‘Ireland’. And these reflections of Yeats’s on the roots of the Irish revolution were also inspired by the close attention he had been paying to European history, since the Russian revolutions of 1917, and the upheavals after the Great War ended a year later. Since then, too, Yeats had been assembling his own strange philosophy of history, published in 1925 as A Vision, which tried to interpret the phases of European history and civilization—constantly returning to the idea that around 1920 a new era was dawning. This would be a new era for Europe as well as for Ireland. I want here to try and show how his ideas about the two were connected, and how they relate to his doubts about the efficacy of democracy, and his belief in artistic freedom.

John Stuart Mill said long ago that Ireland was part of Europe, whereas England was isolated in some kind of tributary stream; recent developments in the history and politics of both countries may seem to bear this out. But when Mill wrote this, Ireland was part of a political Union with Britain; that was the historical and cultural reality which Yeats was born into, and in some ways he remained enmeshed in it all his life. Yet he has been enlisted as the voice of liberationist nationalism in the years when Ireland was moving towards independence in the early twentieth century, a process which he himself saw as Ireland assuming its rightful place in Europe. He begins his public and publishing life as a radical nationalist, a member of the revolutionary Fenian brotherhood, preaching the rejection of British domination in political as well as cultural terms; he moves to a stance of disillusionment with conventional nationalism, then emerges once more as the voice of national self-determination when politics radicalize after the 1916 Rising; he takes a leading part in the public life of the independent Irish State from 1922, but this too leads to disillusionment; and the work of his last ten years, in the 1930s, has been closely connected with an interest in fascist politics and the dark pseudo-science of eugenics. By then he had been indicted as the advocate of elite culture in Ireland—in effect, the culture of the colonizer—and this seems to trouble some critics more than his attitude towards reactionary politics in Europe.4

His early career did not prophesy this. 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 that.5 If we are to explore the inheritances of Yeats, then this is one of the longest-established: the marketing of fashionable Irishness. And it is a theme uncomfortably familiar to us today. But it is also a European kind of identity. Celticism has its French dimension, and French literary fashion was vital to the young Yeats—not only the Symbolistes and Ernest Renan, but the lectures of Henri d’Arbois de Jubainville at the Sorbonne (which Maud Gonne translated for him) and occultist Jacobite groups in 1890s Paris. Yeats spent a lot of time in Paris as a young man, and had an uncanny instinct for seeking out the latest thing; he differs greatly from Joyce and Beckett in being a hopeless linguist, but like those other Irish writers, he found what he needed there. (One of the most marvellous passages in his autobiographies concerns his visit to Paul Verlaine, and it should be mandatory reading for anyone who denies that Yeats has a sense of humour.6)

He was well aware of the European and avant-garde implications of Celticism—paralleled in our own day, in France as well as in America, though the concept looks more and more problematic to ethnologists as well as historians. (I refer you to a literary gathering in France in 1996 under the title ‘L’imaginaire irlandais’ where, according to one observer, ‘Parisian intellectuals raved about celtique spirituality while Irish writers objected coarsely on the sidelines’.7) Yeats remained in touch with French literary developments, even after the shift of cultural energy back to Dublin in the early 1900s. This coincided with the period when he determined that Ireland take its part in the European avant-garde. His own work, especially his dramatic work, looked in this direction; and when considering his own London apprenticeship, he used a quintessential European literary image, comparing himself to Lucien coming to Paris in Balzac’s Lost Illusions. I think this receptiveness to European events, ideas and parallels conditions much of his political thought.

But I also 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. This is a central theme of the second and final volume in my biography of the poet. Again, this involved a change of direction. Through the early 1900s, Yeats had in fact been moving away from conventional Irish nationalism. For one thing, Maud Gonne abandoned him; for another, the language of Irish nationalism began to express something alarmingly like a Kulturkampf between Catholic and Protestant (a European echo here too, perhaps); for another, the nationally-minded theatre which Yeats founded, was itself the object of attack from conventional nationalists, particularly when it put on the avant-garde plays of J. M. Synge. Yeats, like Synge, had a strong sense of Ireland’s European identity, and direct experience of Parisian intellectual life. In the Abbey, he invoked Antoine’s Theatre Libre, and Lugné-Poe’s Theatre de l’Oeuvre, Wagner’s Bayreuth, the stage designs of Edward Gordon Craig, and Stanislavsky and the Moscow Art Theatre; while Ibsen and Maeterlinck are deeply influential on the first Abbey generation. Norway, Russia and Germany could provide dramatic models, no less than Celtic myths. The inclination towards European models and the necessity to bring foreign masterpieces into the Irish orbit remained through Yeats’s life.

It is true that by the time of the First World War, Yeats had retreated from his advanced nationalist posture; he supported constitutional Home Rule, but spent most of his time in England. Meanwhile the War was convulsing Irish politics, and radical nationalism was on the rise. He was by then nearly fifty, a member of the establishment, and indeed refused a knighthood in 1915. But I think his European sense helped him avoid what’s called ‘internalised colonisation’ and enabled him to fly by the nets of exclusive national definitions. Certainly the Easter Rising of 1916, and the subsequent radicalisation of Irish political opinion, brought about Yeats’s own repositioning in his relationship with Britain. 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’.8 I have 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.9 Most significantly, he wrote his autobiography—with which I began. And he altered and re-shaped the pattern of his earlier life to fit with the story of his emerging country—changing perspective and even chronology to make the point. His public statements were equally careful. He tailored his speeches in the USA and elsewhere very cautiously; he withheld from publication poems and plays that seemed to take up the rebel cause; he stayed living (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.

It should also be noted that, though he was indeed writing poems and plays which carried a nationalist message, and circulating them in samizdat fashion at this time, he also wrote a strangely bitter poem about his old friend the revolutionary Constance Markiewicz, whom he had first known as a beautiful and aristocratic girl in her family’s great country house, Lissadell. She was now imprisoned for her revolutionary activities, and (as a letter to her sister Eva of 1916 shows) Yeats was deeply struck by the contrast between her past and her present: ‘Your sister & yourself, two beautiful figures among the great trees of Lissadell, are among the dear memories of my youth.10 That memory, as we’ll see, persisted and was built into a great poem eleven years later when both sisters were dead. But the poem he wrote about Markiewicz at the time of her imprisonment in 1918 poem demonstrates an unequivocally contemptuous view of the company she kept. It also indicates the way that, at the end of World War I, he was already doubtful about the new democratic politics.

On a Political Prisoner

She that but little patience knew,

From childhood on, had now so much

A grey gull lost its fear and flew

Down to her cell and there alit,

And there endured her fingers’ touch

And from her fingers ate its bit.

Did she in touching that lone wing

Recall the years before her mind

Became a bitter, an abstract thing.

Her thought some popular enmity:

Blind and leader of the blind

Drinking the foul ditch where they lie?

When long ago I saw her ride

Under Ben Bulben to the meet.

The beauty of her countryside

With all youth’s lonely wildness stirred.

She seemed to have grown clean and sweet

Like any rock-bred, sea-borne bird:

Sea-borne, or balanced on the air

When first it sprang out of the nest

Upon some lofty rock to stare

Upon the cloudy canopy.

While under its storm-beaten breast

Cried out the hollows of the sea. (VP 397)

This poem, written in January 1919, was not published until November 1920, though he read it on an American lecture tour earlier that year. A certain caution in releasing his political poems may be evident here (as, famously, with ‘Easter 1916’). Ambiguity about endorsing extremist republicanism remained, along with his mounting anger at the government’s actions against the insurgents and the Irish population at large. 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 pointing 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’.11 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. (VP 431)

But he also claimed to be ‘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, ‘Avant-garde? My dear boy, he was pure ‘nineties’.). The basic matter of his age might be kept in view.

Yeats was in his fifties when the European world was transformed by the Russian revolution and the upheaval of the old world order in the aftermath of World War I. His own world view often tended to the apocalyptic, and this was such a juncture. It is well known that ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ began as ‘Thoughts on the Present State of the World’; it seems to me, looking at its evolution, that it originated as a poem about the European crisis, and was only later turned into a commentary on Ireland. This might be borne out by other writings around this time, which show similar misgivings: notably an ominous essay called ‘If I Were Four and Twenty’. Written in 1919, it responds directly to the Russian revolution. It should, I think, be directly related to apocalyptic poems like ‘The Second Coming’. In this essay Yeats considers the motor of history, driven either by struggles of individual against individual, or family against family; he reviews the economics of egalitarianism versus traditional hierarchies, and stresses the family unit as the basis of civilization, and the need to privilege it.

Thus in 1919 he was already absorbed by the ideas which would emerge, ominously, in the 1930s. And he wrote at this time to a friend that he had decided ‘the Marxian criterion of values in this age [is] the spear-head of materialism and leads to inevitable murder’.12 He put some of his thoughts about political authority into ‘If I Were Four and Twenty’, where he discussed the primitive idea that ‘ordinary men had no immortality, but obtained it through a magical bond with some priest or king’ (an idea that would recur in his powerful poem about Irish politics, ‘Parnell’s Funeral’).

Perhaps it may be possible in a few years to apportion the values of idleness by a science that traces the connections of thought and by a religion that judges the result. With Christianity came the realization that a man must surrender his particular will to an implacable will, not his, though within his, and perhaps we are restless because we approach a realization that our general will must surrender itself to another will within it, interpreted by certain men, at once economists, patriots and inquisitors. As all realization is through opposites, men coming to believe the subjective opposite of what they do or think, we may be about to accept the most implacable authority the world has known. Do I desire it or dread it, loving as I do the gaming-table of Nature where many are ruined but none is judged, and where all is fortuitous, unforeseen? (Ex 279–80)

These are also the years when he was writing the first version of A Vision, eventually published in 1926. While scholars have struggled with its philosophical and historical schema, not many have noted the implicit political prophecy offered in its final section—written, as it happens, in Mussolini’s Italy. Here, he prophesies the end of an era in 1927. ‘It is as though myth and fact, united until the exhaustion of the Renaissance, have now fallen so far apart that man understands for the first time the rigidity of fact, and calls up, by that very recognition, myth—the Mask—which now but gropes its way out of the mind’s dark but will shortly pursue and terrify’ (CV[A] 212, CW13 175). (This is clearly the rough beast, slouching towards Bethlehem in ‘The Second Coming’.) In another passage, later dropped, he questions the utility of democratic forms of government, faced with anarchic violence. A new era is coming, bringing its ‘stream of irrational force’. All this is closely connected with his revulsion from the Soviet revolution, and his interest in the new Italian politics.

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. He was a firm supporter of the Treaty which established twenty-six counties of Ireland as an autonomous Dominion within the Commonwealth and felt no difficulty about the partition of Northern 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. The Irish Free State would later negotiate its way to the status of a republic, but at the time of the Treaty there were those who believed that Dominion status and an oath of fidelity to the King as head of the Commonwealth was an unpardonable betrayal of the Revolution. A minority of irreconcilable republicans, led by Eamon de Valera, precipitated the brief and brutal Civil War of 1922–23. The forces of the Irish civil war seemed to fulfil many of Yeats’s fears and prophecies. It also inspired one of his great poem-sequences, ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’. This deals with violence, aristocratic descent, and the creation of a new order. The ambivalent and retiring poet/observer comes up against the ruthless clarity of action, and the forces of hatred behind Irish—and world—history.

I have not time to explore it all, but one might look at the opening poem in the sequence, ‘Ancestral Houses’. It begins as a country-house idyll, almost Arcadian in tone, but ends by raising the question of degeneration, and unworthy inheritors—which, again, would resurface in his very late work of the 1930s. The conclusion of ‘Ancestral Houses’ revolves around an uncomfortable question. Are violence, bitterness, and grandeur inseparable? Is the decline and destruction of inherited greatness and achievement not only inevitable, but somehow encoded within the qualities that founded an aristocratic culture in the first place? And if so, can it really be regretted?

Some violent bitter man, some powerful man

Called architect and artist in, that they

Bitter and violent men, might rear in stone

The sweetness that all longed for night and day.

The gentleness none there had ever known;

But when the master’s buried mice can play.

And maybe the great-grandson of that house

For all its bronze and marble, ‘s but a mouse.

O what if gardens where the peacock strays

With delicate feet upon old terraces.

Or else all Juno from an urn displays

Before the indifferent garden deities;

O what if levelled lawns and gravelled ways

Where slippered Contemplation finds his ease

And Childhood a delight for every sense.

But take our greatness with our violence?

What if the glory of escutcheoned doors,

And buildings that a haughtier age designed.

The pacing to and fro on polished floors

Amid great chambers and long galleries, lined

With famous portraits of our ancestors;

What if those things the greatest of mankind

Consider most to magnify, or to bless.

But take our greatness with our bitterness? (VP 418)

Yet he opposed the anti-Treaty forces who sustained the violence and anarchy of revolution in Ireland. 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). But he used occasions like his speech welcoming foreign visitors to Ireland for that occasion to declare gloomy expectations about the dawning post-democratic age, and to draw attention to Mussolini’s Italian experiment, even quoting the Duce’s call to ‘trample upon the decomposing body of the Goddess of Liberty’.

Nonetheless, by the 1920s 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, mounting, for instance, a long-running campaign to have James Joyce recognized as the great Irish genius of his generation, as well as being a great European writer, as great as Tolstoy or Rabelais. If it is true, as Denis Donoghue has said, that Joyce made himself a European to get out from under Yeats’s shadow, we see a nice irony here as Yeats tries to reclaim him for Ireland. He had already tried to interest the writers of the new state in French poets like Péguy and Claudel—whom he had discovered with Maud Gonne’s daughter Iseult in France in 1916–17. We encounter once again that European preoccupation, with a right-wing twist.

For it should be pointed out that this did not make him a political radical. 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—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.

This is hardly new, but perhaps these inclinations have not been sufficiently mapped against his quarrels with the Catholic demos 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.) His ideas about aesthetic models for the new Irish state in the 1920s owe much to current European examples, such as the architecture of the Stockholm City Hall. His scheme for an Irish Academy of Letters, to recognize writers and bind them together into a body that would set standards and preserve intellectual independence, was much influenced by the French Academy. 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. 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.

Yeats wrote this marvellous poem in 1927, after hearing that Constance Markiewicz, his old friend and adversary, had died in the public ward of a poor Dublin hospital, worn out by years of frantic campaigning for republicanism and socialism; her sister Eva, also a committed radical, had died a year before. Like his earlier poem about Markiewicz, Yeats kept it unpublished for two years; but he eventually placed it first in his great 1933 collection, The Winding Stair, so it strikes the keynote for that collection. In fact, it is far more than an elegy for lost friends of his youth: it is an interrogation of the Irish propensity to hatred. It doesn’t begin like that, but with a lovely evocation of a double portrait, like a painting by Sargent or Lavery.

The light of evening, Lissadell,

Great windows open to the south.

Two girls in silk kimonos, both

Beautiful, one a gazelle.

But a raving autumn shears

Blossom from the summer’s wreath;

The older is condemned to death.

Pardoned, drags out lonely years

Conspiring among the ignorant.

I know not what the younger dreams—

Some vague Utopia—and she seems.

When withered old and skeleton-gaunt.

An image of such politics.

Many a time I think to seek

One or the other out and speak

Of that old Georgian mansion, mix

Pictures of the mind, recall

That table and the talk of youth.

Two girls in silk kimonos, both

Beautiful, one a gazelle.

The beauty of the sisters is clearly sacrificed to their opinions as much as to the passing of years. And the second stanza takes this further, opening with a compassionate but despairing invocation to the ghosts of the dead girls, and ending with an enduringly mysterious image, which demands examination.

II

Dear shadows, now you know it all.

All the folly of a fight

With a common wrong or right.

The innocent and the beautiful

Have no enemy but time;

Arise and bid me strike a match

And strike another till time catch;

Should the conflagration climb.

Run till all the sages know.

We the great gazebo built.

They convicted us of guilt;

Bid me strike a match and blow.

October 1927 (VP 475–76)

If the poem simply expressed his wish to burn away the years and restore the girls to the innocence and beauty of their youth, it would be clear enough. But note the last couplet. It is possible to read the ‘we’ as uniting Yeats and the two sisters in the dreams of their youth, building a ‘great gazebo’ of hopes; while ‘they’ are faceless critics, modern Irish philistines, so-called sages. However, I think it means something different. A first draft, cancelled, reads ‘I the great gazebo built | They brought home to me the guilt’.13 The Georgian image of a ‘great gazebo’ suggests the fragile achievement of the eighteenth-century Irish ascendancy which Yeats now took as his own inheritance, and compared modern Ireland with, to the latter’s detriment. So I think the ‘we’ in this couplet, the builders of the gazebo, are Yeats and his Ascendancy ancestors; while ‘they’ are the rebel girls themselves, who denounced the Anglo-Irish world whence they came. It is, therefore, another statement aligning himself with the forces of reaction against revolution. The abstract bitterness he had identified in his earlier poem, ‘On a Political Prisoner’, was now taken further. And I could quote, too, a letter he wrote to Olivia Shakespear at this time. ‘In England you have never met the hatred that is a commonplace here. It lays hold upon our class, I think, more easily than upon the mass of the people—it finds a more complicated & determined conscience to prey upon’.14 I think Constance Markiewicz was in his mind here: the nationalist and socialist hero whom he now placed among the phantoms of hatred, the innumerable harpies with their clanging wings, who haunt the last stanzas of ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’. If this is so, it is a distinctly uncomfortable thought, which would grow in his mind, and in his work—along with his preoccupation with the hatreds arising in contemporary Europe.

From 1930, his political ideas took a more aggressive direction. The long and polemical Introduction to his play The Words Upon the Window Pane is, I think, a barely-coded reply to a book by Daniel Corkery, Synge and Anglo-Irish Literature,15 which had denied the claims of people from Yeats’s background to represent any kind of Irish culture. Yeats responded further to what he privately called ‘Corkery’s troop’ in a striking essay on ‘Ireland 1921–1931’, and his lecture on ‘Modern Ireland’ to American audiences in 1932. These pursue the same theme of glorifying the Irish Georgian Ascendancy. That eighteenth-century civilization, resting firmly on privilege and exclusion though it did, was linked in his mind to successive rises and falls of other civilizations through historical cycles; it also at its Swiftian best stood out against the naive and sentimental liberal democracy which Yeats now identified as the enemy (often under the name ‘Whiggery’). He saw this as quintessentially English, and his ideas about Ireland’s place in the European tradition now took a new turn. Ireland must, as ever, look to Europe, not to England. Georgian Dublin equalled Renaissance Urbino, in valuing style, intellect and aristocratic authority. This assertion makes no sense historically, and it aroused furious reactions in the Irish press, but it was one of Yeats’s sustaining and inspirational inventions.

His idealization of Italy accompanied and influenced his idealization of Georgian Ireland. He had been wintering in Rapallo in the late 1920s, where his chief companion was Ezra Pound: the connection to fascism might seem easily made. But it is clear that Yeats neither shared Pound’s political opinions nor took them very seriously. Nor, apparently, did he take much interest in what was happening in Italy around him, as poets like Montale found when they came on pilgrimages to him. There was a lack of communication not only because of the language difficulty, but also because of Yeats’s ability to construct his own historical reality and determinedly inhabit it.

It was also wonderfully at odds with the ruling ideas of the new Irish Free State. And 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. The Blueshirt movement quickly mustered 30,000 followers; they took an aggressive and paramilitary stance, calling for the overthrow of elections and the ‘assertion of the national will’; their rhetoric would eventually become both xenophobic and anti-Semitic. This happened at a point when Yeats had severed his connection with them. But his unpublished correspondence shows that he was closely in touch with early supporters of the movement like Desmond Fitzgerald, Ernest Blythe and Dermott MacManus. After writing some obscure and banal ‘marching Songs’ for them, he quickly dissociated 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 famers, 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.16 On the other hand the Blueshirts and their leader, General O’Duffy, were now conjuring up the sort of demotic politics he had long ago set himself against.17

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 ensured the free development of the individual and the safeguarding of the cultured classes, unlike Communism, which stood for the elimination of those very social phenomena. He told Thomas MacGreevy that Mussolini ‘represented the rise of the individual man as against what he considered the anti-human party machine’, which seems to get it exactly the wrong way around. And at the height of his Blueshirt interest, he wrote in a notebook: ‘What I think most important is to preserve the dynamic element of fascism, the clear picture of something to be worked for. We have to take everything we legitimately can from our opponents. Perhaps even more from communism than fascism has taken. Fascism is perhaps as much entangled with right-hand Hegelianism as communism is’. Significantly, these reflections were written at a time when he was rewriting A Vision, and contemplating the rise and fall of world systems through historical cycles. His personal encounters with General O’Duffy were hilariously unsuccessful; the General simply did not know what Yeats was talking about, and he never became the movement’s D’Annunzio. Yeats recorded one meeting:

If the IRA attempt to seize power (& MacManus believes they will but I do not) or if the economic war brings chaos, then democratic politics will be discredited in this country & a substitute will have to be found. Talk was on the usual lines: the organized party directed from above, each district dominated by its ablest men, my own principle That every government is a tyranny but by the government of the educated classes & that the state must be hierarchical throughout’. De Valera has described himself to somebody as the autocrat expressing the feeling of the masses. If we must have an autocrat let him express what Swift called ‘the bent & current of a people’, not a momentary majority. I urged the getting of a recent 3-volume description of the Italian system (FitzGerald talks of it) & putting some Italian scholars to make a condensation of it. I urged also that unless a revolutionary crisis rose they must make no intervention. They should prepare themselves by study to act without hesitation should the crisis arise. Then, & then only, their full programme. I talked the ‘historical dialectic’, spoke of it as moving itself by events as the curvature of space was proved (after mathematics had it worked out) by observation during an eclipse (NLI, MS 30,280).

This probably confused O’Duffy sufficiently, but it is clarified by further notes made by Yeats, which emphasise his belief that in a new European order ‘the family and the individual’ must be given priority above governments, that creative individuals and their families deserve privilege in order to create culture and educate their children properly, and that ‘structure and tradition’ must be preserved. This is not much different from the oligarchic and aristocratic ideals he had been drawn to all his life, and discovered in his idea of courtly Italian culture when he first visited the country in 1907. It has very little to do with what Mussolini stood for by 1933. As MacManus later said, ‘Yeats was not a fascist, but he was an authoritarian’.18

Why then did he write ‘Marching Songs’ for the movement, starting in November 1933, when it was already clear that the organisation was far from his own political principles? There is one extremely utilitarian reason: since Augusta Gregory’s death in May 1932 he had written hardly any poetry, and was determined to galvanize his inspiration by any form of excitement possible. One of the very few poems he wrote was, significantly, the first part of ‘Parnell’s Funeral’.

He was also under some pressure from Ernest Blythe, in whose papers some drafts of the ‘Marching Songs’ have surfaced.19 Yeats’s efforts are a response, in fact, to a campaign to find a new ‘National Song’, which the Blueshirts tried to commandeer. They are set to the Irish tune. ‘O’Donnell Abu’, a lilting rhythm which is very hard to fit, and they are at once strident, obscure and bathetic.

Those fanatics all that we do would undo;

Down the fanatic, down the clown;

Down, down, hammer them down,

Down to the tune of O’Donnell Abu. (VP 544)

Yeats knew as much, rewriting them over and over again, and progressively disclaiming the apparent political intention behind them. Lines such as ‘What’s equality?—Muck in the yard’, for instance, rapidly become ‘Troy looked on Helen, it died and adored’ (VP 547vv.). When he printed them, it was with a long explanatory note ‘offer[ing]… these trivial songs and what remains of life’ to any ‘government or party’ which would meet his conditions whilst being sure that ‘no such government or party [exists] today’, and so effectively withdrawing from the contemporary political upheavals.20 Eventually he accompanied the ‘Three Songs to the Same Tune’ with an ironic squib, first called ‘A Vain Hope’, and then ‘Church and State’.21

Here is fresh matter, poet,

Matter for old age meet;

Might of the Church and the State,

Their mobs put under their feet.

O but heart’s wine shall run pure,

Mind’s bread grow sweet.

That were a cowardly song,

Wander in dreams no more;

What if the Church and the State

Are the mob that howls at the door!

Wine shall run thick to the end,

Bread taste sour.

August 1934 (VP 553–54)

By then he had also added a coda, ‘Forty Years Later’, to his great political poem, ‘Parnell’s Funeral’, which (first published in 1932) brought together many of the classical myths and themes which had dominated his imagination since Parnell’s death in 1891. It also crystallized his disillusionment with Irish politics.

The rest I pass, one sentence I unsay.

Had de Valera eaten Parnell’s heart

No loose-lipped demagogue had won the day,

No civil rancour torn the land apart.

Had Cosgrave eaten Parnell’s heart, the land’s

Imagination had been satisfied.

Or lacking that, government in such hands,

O’Higgins its sole statesman had not died.

Had even O’Duffy—but I name no more—

Their school a crowd, his master solitude;

Through Jonathan Swift’s dark grove he passed, and there

Plucked bitter wisdom that enriched his blood. (VP 542–43)

This ‘Coda’ shows that, seen in the light of Parnell’s aristocratic star, de Valera was a demagogue, and other politicians earthbound and uninspiring. True leadership inhabited the world illuminated by Fraser’s Golden Bough and Dante’s Inferno. Swift’s brilliance of intellect was what should rule a nation, but never would. It might still be said that Yeats’s disillusionment with the Blueshirts arose not from the fact that they became fascist, but that their commitment to fascism as he understood it did not go far enough. But one must then add at once that his understanding of fascism was not like anybody else’s.22 We are back with the convulsions he had expected in the early 1890s, when 1891 ushered in a new ‘phase’.

But his fascination with European politics remained, and many of his late poems—such as ‘Lapis Lazuli’, with its references to fleeing refugees and the collapse of elite civilizations, and ‘The Statues’, where the Irish appear as Europeans playing their part in a predestined drama of cultural history—reflect it

When Pearse summoned Cuchulain to his side,

What stalked through the Post Office? What intellect,

What calculation, number, measurement replied?

We Irish, born into that ancient sect

But thrown upon the filthy modern tide

And by its formless spawning fury wrecked,

Climb to our proper dark, that we may trace

The lineaments of a plummet-measured face. (VP 611)

He is certainly looking towards the aesthetic idioms of classical European civilization as traditions which the new Irish may claim; but ‘The Statues’ also disturbingly evokes violence, totalitarianism and eugenics, while the anti-British politics of ‘The Ghost of Roger Casement’ indicate some pleasure in Germany’s re-arming challenge to British military power in the late 1930s. How ominous is this?

Yeats’s private writings and letters indicate his interest in the political aspects of fascism petered out—and he cannot be convicted either of support for the Third Reich, nor of anti-Semitism. His acceptance of the Goethe-Plakette from the Municipal Council of Frankfurt, when it had come under National Socialist domination, has been shown to have had no conscious political motivation; it was specifically for a performance of his ancient play The Countess Cathleen, and in any case the Nazi state subsequently banned Yeats’s work as ‘depressive art’.23 But Yeats’s late writing, reading and correspondence 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. In fact, he used his belief in eugenic control to argue against some of the social policies of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. His very last political manifesto, published as On the Boiler, makes this stark—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.

And yet Yeats in his latter days, even as a ‘smiling public man’, 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 unconscious voice raised in defence of tolerance and inclusivity. On some artistic levels, he had liberated himself just as his country ostensibly underwent the same process. His poems from the mid-thirties interrogate old age, the roots of inspiration, the artistic process, and the gnawing dissatisfactions of sex. Perhaps the greatest of them—’Long-legged Fly’, ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’—concern themselves with the individual impulse of creativity, rather than any collective theorizing. In its first draft the last stanza of ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’ was a bombastic declaration about war, asserting that cannon and thunder were the gods of mankind. If it had been left like that, it would be seen to reflect his thoughts on the contemporary Spanish Civil War, the Italian adventure in Abyssinia, and German rearmament. But Yeats rejected it, and wrote, very late in his life, the substitute ending which we know, bringing artistic inspiration and creativity back to the troubled self:

Those masterful images because complete

Grew in pure mind but out of what began?

A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,

Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,

Old iron, old bones, that raving slut

Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone,

I must lie down where all the ladders start,

In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart. (VP 630)

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 Irish order. His very last poem, was ‘The Black Tower’. It can be traced back to a story and play by Standish O’Grady which Yeats had first encountered in the early 1890s; it portrays a band of disaffected warriors hiding out in a ruined fortress, awaiting the return of a deliverer.24 Yeats’s wife, very pertinently, described it as a political poem.

Yet that is not the full story either. Biographers always find a salient piece of evidence just after their book has gone to press, and I am no exception. A short while ago I went to Cambridge to look at some papers in Churchill College and found there the diary of Yeats’s friend Edith Lyttelton, kept while she was visiting newly-independent Ireland in 1922. She was struck by the intensity of antagonism there, and wrote in a private notebook:

I have often thought of a thing W. B. Yeats said to me many years ago. I was asking how it was that he no longer went in for Revolution, nor drove about in crepe when any big moment came to England, as he did in the streets of Dublin at Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. (This last was a silent question.) He said ‘I have learned to know that nothing great comes out of hatred and bitterness’.25

Thus he contradicted the message of ‘Ancestral Houses’, which I quoted earlier. The tension of this contradiction is sustained through Yeats’s life and work, and gives it much of its power; and it is a tension which reflects his own social and political position, balanced between two worlds, the old and the new: the Ireland he had known under the Union, and the Ireland that had the potential to be a new European country. It is also true that this could take on a disturbingly reactionary colour. But I would like to suggest that Yeats’s troubled and troubling reaction to the modern Irish world should be more closely historicized; and that it represents a pattern of response as well as challenge. Yeats, as his wife once remarked, had an extraordinary sense of how things would look to people afterwards; he spent much of his life constructing exactly how posterity should see things. Even the originally conceived contents of his last book of poems, beginning, not ending, with ‘Under Ben Bulben’, were to convey the sense that he was speaking from beyond the grave. And he was highly conscious, in his last decade, that the ‘ceremony of innocence’ was being well and truly drowned, and would be carried away in an apocalyptic flood of violence—which he dreaded.

One reason for Yeats’s continuing resonance, celebrated in this series of lectures, is that he wrote at the intersection of literature and politics—which in Ireland can mean, as Conor Cruise O’Brien has said, a ‘bloody crossroads’. Yeats made the territory all the more sensitive by thinking aloud on all the forbidden subjects: sex, religion, class, politics. After spending seventeen years writing his biography I remain astonished at his enduring relevance, his refusal to be taken for granted, and his superb disinclination to provide comfortable reassurance. Early in his career he had remarked that the old Irish ‘did not weigh and measure their hatred’ but focused hatred into a pure idea; ‘and from this idealism’, he added, ‘comes, as I think, a certain power of saying and forgetting things, especially a power of saying and forgetting things in politics, which others do not say or forget’.26 It is easy to be discomfited by a great deal of what Yeats says; and almost impossible to forget it.

1 This was delivered as the second lecture in the series, on 3 June 2004. Further information may have been gathered since this article was prepared for publication. If you would like to find out if any further information has been discovered that may help your own research, why not write to the author at Roy.Foster@hertford.ox.ac.uk? Quite apart from anything else, feedback is always welcomed.

2 This is the closing passage of ‘Four Years: 1887–1891’ (Au 194–95). In early versions (as in NLI 30, 536), ‘Four Years’ continues with what is now the opening passage of the next section, Ireland After Parnell’: but Yeats clearly decided that the impact was greater if the section ended on the words ‘philosophy and a little passion’.

3 See Life 2, 180.

4 See e.g. Seamus Deane, ‘Heroic Styles: the tradition of an idea’, in Ireland’s Field Day (London: Hutchinson, 1995), 45–58; reprinted in Claire Connolly (ed.), Theorizing Ireland (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002), 14–26.

5 On the uses of literary Celticism, see Terence Brown (ed.), Celticism (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1996) and Edna Longley, ‘The Politics of Celt and Saxon’, in Poetry and Posterity (Tarset: Bloodaxe, 2000), 52–89.

6 Au 341–42.

7 Longley, op. cit., p. 59.

8 To John Quinn, 23 May 1916, CL InteLex 2960; L 614.

9 “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone” sounds old-fashioned now. It seemed true in 1913, but 1 did not foresee 1916. The late Dublin Rebellion, whatever one can say of its wisdom, will long be remembered for its heroism. ‘They weighed so lightly what they gave’, and gave too in some cases without hope of success. July 1916’. I am grateful to Eamonn Cantwell for pointing out this early salute to the ‘heroism’ of the 1916 Rising, which survived into the 1917 reprinting of that volume, and thereafter disappeared from Yeats’s notes: see VP 820. He also pointed out that Ernest A. Boyd printed the first stanza of ‘Easter, 1916’, in The Irish Commonwealth (March 1919), a year before its first full printing in the New Statesman. Boyd’s article was entitled ‘The Drift of Irish Literature’ (20–28), and the quotation came on p. 24. See also ‘Yeats at War: Poetic Strategies and Political Reconstruction, 1916–1922’, in my The Irish Story: Telling Tales and Making It Up in Ireland (London: Allen Lane, 2001), 58–79.

10 Letter to Eva Gore-Booth, 23 July [1916], CL InteLex 3008.

11 James O’Reilly, ‘Memories of W. B. Yeats and Undergraduate Oxford’, TS, HRHRC. See also Life 2, 188, 703 and ‘Yeats at War’, 75.

12 CL InteLex 3603, to George Russell [? 5 May 1919]: ‘I consider the Markian criterion of value, as in this age the spear-head of materialism & leading to inevitable murder. From that criterion follows the well known phrase “can the bourgois be innocent?”’. See also L 655–56.

13 W. B. Yeats, The Winding Stair (1929) Manuscript Materials, ed. David R. Clark (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1995), 7. See also my Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland 1890–1923 (London: Allen Lane, Penguin Books, 2014), 314.

14 CL InteLex 5023, 7 September [1927], partly quoted in L 728.

15 Cork: Cork University Press, 1931.

16 See Life 2, 470–71.

17 For a detailed treatment see my essay ‘Our Chosen Colour is Blue’, Dublin Review 11 (Summer 2003), 83–106.

18 Dermott MacManus, ‘Notes for the Radio’, W. R. Rogers Collection, HRHRC. See also Life 2, 475 and 744, n. 26.

19 First published in The Spectator, 23 February 1934 as ‘Three Songs to the Same Tune’ and first collected in The King of the Great Clock Tower, Commentaries and Poems (Dublin: Cuala, 1934), 30–38: see VP 543–49.

20 Ibid., 37–38.

21 Ibid., 34–38; see VP 553–54; 835–37.

22 For a more detailed treatment of Yeats and right-wing politics at this time see my essay ‘Fascism’, in David Holdeman and Ben Levitas (eds.), W. B. Yeats in Context (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 213–26.

23 On this incident see K. P. S. Jochum, ‘Yeats and the Goethe-Plakette: An Unpublished Letter and Its Context’, in YA15 Yeats’s Collaborations, 281–87.

24 See Patrick Diskin, ‘O’Grady’s Finn and his Companions: A Source for Yeats’s “The Black Tower”’, Notes & Queries (March 1961), 107–08; NC 409.

25 Chandos Papers, Churchill College, CHAN 1 6/4.

26 E&I 181; the reflection comes from ‘The Celtic Element in Literature’, first published in 1897.