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Brian Arkins, The Thought of W. B. Yeats (Bern: Peter Lang, 2010), ISBN 978-3-03911939-4, pp. xi + 192; J. P. Mahaffy, Rambles & Studies in Greece, with an Introduction and Commentary by Brian Arkins (Ulster Editions and Monographs 17; Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 2012), ISBN 978-0-86140-430-8, pp. 29 + 241

Michael Edwards

© Michael Edwards, CC BY 4.0

I begin with a statement of disinterest. I have known Brian Arkins for over a decade, primarily in my former role as ‘Extern’ (as they are known in Ireland) to the Classics Department at NUI Galway. I have also enjoyed his company over more than the odd tipple, Arkins being not only a great raconteur, but an expert in literature both classical (he was the Honorary President of the Classical Association of Ireland in 2005) and Irish of all kinds (critical studies of Desmond Egan and James Liddy, as well as various studies of the influence of classical literature on Irish writers such as Joyce and Yeats). I come to Yeats as a complete amateur—Mahaffy I am more familiar with as a professional classicist. I should add that I have no axe to grind with Mahaffy, the one-time opponent of Sir Richard Jebb, to whose Selections from the Attic Orators I myself contributed part of a new introduction in 2005.

I read The Thought of W.B. Yeats with a deep desire to learn more about the great man, and I was not disappointed. The book essentially falls into two parts. In the first, by means of a series of penetrating essays through which (as even the most inexperienced reader of Yeats such as myself would expect) runs the theme of antinomies. Arkins explores Yeats’s thought on a variety of topics, beginning with opposites themselves (‘All Things Doubled: The Theme of Opposites in Yeats’) and moving on to ‘Yeats and Religion’, ‘Yeats and Sex’ and ‘Yeats and Politics’. For me, the chapter on sex was perhaps the most interesting and informative, not (I aver) through prurience, but because this is an area of study in which Arkins excels, having published extensively on Latin love poetry, including Propertius and Catullus (see, for example, his 1982 book Sexuality in Catullus). In the second part, Arkins takes A Vision as his starting-point for an assessment of Yeats’s views on history and human character (‘Apocalypse: Yeats’s A Vision’), surveys Yeats’s use of classical literature. ‘Further Greek Themes in Yeats’ builds on Arkins’ 1990 Builders of My Soul: Greek and Roman Themes in Yeats: this new the chapter does not in fact confine itself to Greek, but covers Latin as well. It analyses in detail four important features of Yeats’s style, the use of embedded sentences, questions and ‘the’ and ‘that’, and the combination of two nouns. Again as a classicist, I found the analyses of Yeats’s renderings of Sophocles and his attitude to Latin literature (his use of Lucretius, Catullus, Virgil and Propertius, balanced by his rejection of Latin in On the Boiler) of particular interest, while as a student of grammar and rhetoric I was absorbed by the chapter on Yeats’s style, ‘Passionate Syntax: Style in the Poetry of Yeats’.

My criticisms of The Thought of W.B. Yeats are not so much directed at the content. I would not presume to challenge Arkins on Yeats, but perhaps an explanation of the terms ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ epic on p. 104 would help to strengthen his point there. As Arkins knows, the genuineness of the ending of King Oedipus is debated, the clue being in ‘[t]he seven lines of rather clumsy Greek’, p. (120).

But the proof-reading! Or rather the lack of it. I found myself correcting far too many typographical errors—a distraction serious enough to give pause for thought when one reads, e.g.

‘Yeats’s religious Weltanschauung involved belief in a transcendent reality, the immorality of the soul and reincarnation’ (p. 9).

Further, the book would certainly have benefited from closer editing. I note, for example, that Dryden’s name does not appear in the Index; had it been, an attentive editor might have realised that the lines of his translation of Lucretius quoted on p. 135 have already been quoted on p. 52—and, worse still—so have Yeats’s quoted words to John Sparrow. Mind you, the prize must go to the opening four lines of ‘Politics’, which appear on pp. 8, 67 and 161 without cross-reference.

Those niggles aside, The Thought of W.B. Yeats, while by no means easy reading, will offer something of interest to a range of audiences, including professional Yeats scholars.

Mahaffy’s Rambles have served a similar function since the first edition of 1876. Of course, many sites are now very different from what he saw, and 138 years of scholarship have given rise to challenges to many of his confident assertions (born of Mahaffy’s tremendous scholarship, I hasten to add)—is the site of the Battle of Marathon ‘absolutely fixed by the great mound’, the Soros that is the burial place of the Athenian fallen (p. 80)? And a great deal of money and Elgin-inspired national pride has gone into the construction and layout of the still new Acropolis Museum, whereas for a doleful Mahaffy ‘[n]othing is more melancholy and more disappointing than the first view of the Athenian museums’ (p. 28).

Only the scholarly pedant or the completely unromantic, however, could fail to be enraptured by Mahaffy’s tales of life, ancient and (for him) modern. Arkins’s edition again draws on his long experience and deep knowledge of matters both classical and Irish. With an excellent introduction to ‘Mahaffy: Classicist and Philhellene’ that sets the work in its context, and copious notes in 51 pages of learned and perceptive commentary (at random, p. 215: ‘Mahaffy at his most colonial’…; ‘the beehive tombs of Orchomenus that were discovered by Schliemann—Mahaffy’s ‘treasure-houses’—are unlikely to have any connection with the prehistoric Minyans’), this volume is both a welcome new edition of a classic work of scholarship, and a significant contribution to the study of ancient Greece and its reception in the nineteenth century.