“Between the Upper and the Nether Millstone”
Oppositional Gyres, and the Founding of the Irish Nation State
© 2009 Sean M. Donnell
from within a postcolonial discourse is a necessarily problematic endeavor.
From one perspective,
despite these similarities,
Kennedy’s claim to a “junior partnership” for
Much like his Irish homeland, William Butler Yeats presents the
postcolonial critic with a similarly complex image of the Irish artist as an
agent of decolonization. At times,
he and his works not only epitomize the struggles and concerns of other colonial
writers, but they also serve as a touchstone in the postcolonial endeavor.
Seamus Deane succinctly expresses Yeats’s importance to other
radically liberating elements] have been imitated and transcended in the
writings of African, Palestinian, and South American writers who have read Yeats
as a poet whose re-creation of himself and his community provides a model for
their own projects—the giving of a voice and a history to those who have been
deprived of the consciousness of both. (“Introduction”
on many other occasions, the poet seems firmly entrenched within a bourgeois
ideology. In a note to several of
his poems from Responsibilities, for
instance, Yeats derides the rapidly emerging Irish middle-class for its lack of
culture. Commenting on the failure
of the Irish to incorporate the spiritual with the political in their lives,
Yeats speaks bleakly about their prospects of performing this synthesis in the
future. With this depiction of Irish
middle-class intractability, Yeats elucidates his portrayal of
all this we have but a few educated men and the remnants of an old traditional
culture among the poor. Both were
stronger forty years ago, before the rise of our new middle class which made its
first public display during the nine years of the Parnellite split, showing how
base at moments of excitement are minds without culture.
this passage, Yeats bases his advocacy of the upper-class “educated” and of
the lower-class “peasantry” on the supposition that the former possess a
metropolitan refinement while the latter preserve an older cultural tradition.
For Yeats, both the upper and the lower classes exemplify a heritage
ostensibly more valid than any possessed by the middle class.
As Seán Ó Tuama observes, however, the Irish ascendancy culture (which
included the Yeats family), “was traditionally middle-class urban or landed
gentry; inheriting post-reformation ethics, enjoying formal educational and
institutional buttresses, but not very deeply rooted outside its Dublin base”
(220). In this light, Yeats’s
characterizations of the lower-class culture more than likely stem from his naïve
bourgeois understanding of the Irish peasantry.
According to G.J. Watson, “‘the peasantry’ features in Yeats’s
writings almost purely as a literary ideal” (98).
To put it another way, Yeats’s endorsement of lower-class cultural
values only reflects the upper class’s representation
of the Irish peasantry. Hence, in
this passage, Yeats does not actually advocate the lower class; instead, he
merely reifies the upper-class ideology of the Irish bourgeoisie.
Passages like these articulate that central to any examination of Yeats
as an agent of decolonization is the problem of reconciling the seemingly
disparate elements in his life as well as in his works.
Several theorists—most notably Edward W. Said—offer as a possible
solution to these incongruities in Yeats’s works the explanation that Yeats
changes over the course of his artistic career from a poet of Irish nationalism
in his youth into an apolitical artist concerned primarily with aesthetics later
in his life. In “Yeats and
Decolonization,” Said posits:
Yeats, the overlappings he knew existed between his Irish nationalism and the
English cultural heritage that both dominated and empowered him as a writer were
bound to cause an overheated tension, and it is the pressure of this urgently
political and secular tension that one may speculate caused him to try to
resolve it on a “higher,” that is, nonpolitical level.
Yeats as a “national” poet early in his career and/or as merely an
“aesthetic” poet in his later works risks oversimplifying the relationship
between the poet’s nationalist commitments and his aesthetic predilections.
Any thorough postcolonial examination of Yeats must inevitably
acknowledge that his work is always already committed to Irish nationalism as
surely as it is inherently under the scrutiny of a vigorous aesthetic ideology.
These two seemingly disparate elements in Yeats’s work do not exist in
mutually exclusive spheres; rather, they represent commingling spheres of
influence within the poet’s work. The
task of resolving these antithetical elements within the poet’s literary
corpus, however, represents a formidable task indeed for the postcolonial
Perhaps a brief passage from one of Yeats’s early essays might help to
rectify the disparity between Yeats’s nationalist obligations and his fondness
for aestheticism: characterizing Ireland as caught “between the upper and the
nether millstone” (qtd. in Deane, National
44), Yeats argues that the Irish citizenry is threatened by denationalization
from both England and America, and he urges Ireland to unite under the banner of
nationalism. Ironically, what Yeats
fails to realize is that the Irish are caught not merely between the millstones
of denationalizing agents; they are also similarly caught between the millstones
of the Irish Ascendancy’s colonial nationalism and the multiple interests of a
heterogeneous Irish citizenry. While
some form of cultural homogeneity seems a necessary first step in combating a
colonizing force, the circuits of power through which a unified culture operates
merely act as another repressive apparatus for those who are not necessarily
representative of the national ascendancy. Aijaz
Ahmad further delineates the tension between these opposing interests:
ideology of cultural nationalism is based explicitly on [a] singularizing
tendency and lends itself much too easily to parochialism, inverse racism and
indegenist obscurantism, not to speak of the professional petty bourgeoisie’s
penchant for representing its own cultural practices and aspirations, virtually
by embodying them as so many emblems of a unified national culture.
Cultural domination is doubtless a major aspect of imperialist domination
as such, and “culture” is always, therefore, a major site of resistance, but
cultural contradictions within the imperialized formations tend to be so
numerous—sometimes along class lines but also in cross-class configurations,
as in the case of patriarchal cultural forms or the religious modes of social
authorization—that the cultural totality of indigenous culture can hardly be
posited as a unified, transparent site of anti-imperialist resistance.
problem with cultural nationalism in general—and with Yeats’s endorsement of
the Irish Ascendancy’s form of nationalism in particular—is that the
homogenization necessary for cultural unity ultimately serves to reify a
bourgeois ideology established under the aegis of the colonial power that it
should ostensibly be combating. According
to Colin Graham, “it is now arguable . . . that the very idea of nationality
which was used by decolonising peoples to coalesce themselves into a coherent
political force was itself transferred to the colonies by imperialist
ideology” (31). Thus, purging the
remnants of imperial influence from a culture necessitates eventually abandoning
the bourgeois nationalism that initially helped to establish a national
identity. In a sense, the tensions
between the Irish Ascendancy’s bourgeois cultural nationalism and
clearly desires an independent Irish state; however, the idea of a unified Irish
culture also obviously appeals to the poet’s aesthetic sensibilities.
The national unity that Yeats desires for
use a symbol from Yeats’s personal cabalism, the national and the aesthetic
represent for the poet opposing, interpenetrating gyres.
Like other gyres in Yeats’s work, these two move between opposing
expressions: one, a “National” aspect early in the poet’s career,
metamorphoses into an opposing “Aesthetic” phase later in Yeats’s life.
Yet seldom, if ever, does either gyre reach full expression.
In other words, it is unlikely that one will find either national or
aesthetic elements represented in Yeats’s works without finding its
antithetical expression also represented. As
Lloyd asserts, “the political questions raised by Yeats’s later poetry are
inseparable from aesthetic questions, just as, in his earlier writings, a
symbolist aesthetic is inseparable from the politics of cultural nationalism”
(60). Examining Yeats’s literary
corpus in light of these two interpenetrating gyres naturally divides the
poet’s work into three periods: an early period dominated by the National
gyre; a middle period characterized by the tension created as the two gyres
struggle for dominion over one another; and a late period in which the Aesthetic
gyre holds sway over Yeats’s work. Noting
the interpenetration of the national with the aesthetic in these three periods
of Yeats’s work should serve to inform much of the poet’s literary corpus in
light of a postcolonial discourse.
“Early,” “Middle,” and “Late” to describe Yeats’s work should
provide convenient points of demarcation for this study; however, one must
constantly keep in mind that such divisions are not discrete and are inherently
arbitrary. Consequently, they may
possibly act as false signifiers. Yeats’s
early period, for example, continues until the author is in his fifties.
Similarly, the poet’s late period begins little more than a decade
later, when Yeats is in his early sixties. Trying
to delineate these periods into logical, virtually equal intervals creates false
analogies between “early” and “young” as well as between “late” and
“old.” In any case, one must
resist the urge to absolutize Yeats’s body of work into rigidly inflexible
divisions; much like the gyres that create them, the divisions between these
three periods of the poet’s work are permeable and interpenetrating.
These three periods center themselves around the period of political
first to Yeats’s early works, one sees immediately what prompted Said to
declare, “Yeats is very much the same as other poets resisting imperialism”
(“Decolonization” 85). Many of
the works from Yeats’s early period represent the poet’s efforts to forge a
national unity among the Irish. Demonstrating
the expression of his national gyre, these early works epitomize Yeats’s
desire to establish an independent Irish state.
Yet these early works also reveal the expression of Yeats’s aesthetic
gyre in his need to find a Unity of Culture for his people.
validating the characterization of Yeats as a poet of decolonization, many of
his early poems endeavor to describe the geography of his Irish countryside with
a painstaking precision uncommon to other western European countries.
As Ó Tuama asserts in Repossessions,
“It is unlikely . . . that feeling for place (including feeling for
home-place) is found so deeply rooted, and so widely celebrated, in any western
European culture as it is in Irish literature at every level and in every era
from early historic times to the present day” (249).
In postcolonial terms, this celebration of place is a literary
reappropriation of the native’s homeland from the imperial power.
According to Deane, “The naming or renaming of a place, the naming of
renaming of a race, a region, a person, is, like all acts of primordial
nomination, an act of possession” (“Introduction” 18).
Hence, Yeats’s early poems often exhibit what Edouard Glissant
describes in Caribbean Discourse as
“an anthology of landscapes” (160), a native poetics of the land:
land is the other’s possession. The
poetics of the land cannot then be a poetics of thrift, of patient repossession,
of anticipation. It is a poetics of
excess, where all is exhausted immediately. . . .
We know that we must exhaust the rhythms of the land and expose the
landscape to those various kinds of madness they [the colonial agents] have put
in us. (161)
celebrating the Irish countryside in his early poetry, Yeats substantiates not
only a postcolonial ethic; he also reifies an Irish poetic heritage that
predates any of
“The Stolen Child,” one of Yeats’s earliest poems, provides an
excellent example of the artist’s geographical and cultural repossession of
his homeland. The poem itself stems
from Irish folk legend: whenever a young child disappears or dies unexpectedly,
supposedly faeries have stolen the child’s spirit and taken it to faery land.
The “stolen child” motif in itself forms a moment of resistance
because it not only originates from a period predating the English
Yeats immediately demonstrates an intimate knowledge of the land in
“The Stolen Child.” Much of the
poem entails acts of naming and describing the Irish countryside: Sleuth Wood in
the first stanza, Rosses in the second, and Glen-Car in the third.
In a note to “The Stolen Child,” Yeats asserts, “The places
mentioned are round about
Another prevalent theme in Yeats’s early work that distinguishes this
period as dominated by nationalism is the poet’s celebration of violence as a
vehicle for change. Many of the
poems and plays from this early period exhibit a resistance to imperialism
through representations of stylized violence.
Yet even the most direct of these plays and poems do not usually depict
or endorse straightforward violence. Instead,
violence seethes beneath the surface of these works, occurring offstage and
implied as a need for “sacrifice.” Rather
than directly calling for the overthrow of the colonizing forces in Ireland (as
many “political” figures do), Yeats embeds the need for violence in his art,
once again exposing the aesthetic expression even in his most directly
One of Yeats’s earliest plays, Cathleen
Ni Hoolihan, perhaps best illustrates this call for violence couched in
aesthetics. Without a doubt, this
play represents not only Yeats’s boldest attempt at mobilizing the Irish
citizenry against their colonial oppressors, but also perhaps his most effective
one. As Lloyd points out, “[When]
Yeats broods late in life [in “Man and the Echo”] on the probability that [Cathleen
Ni Hoolihan] ‘sent out certain men the English shot,’ this is by no
means an overweening assessment of the extraordinary part his writings played in
the forging in Ireland of a mode of subjectivity apt to find its political and
ethical realization in sacrifice to the nation yet to be” (59).
Contraposing this play’s mobilizing message, however, is the stasis in
which the play takes place. Cathleen
Ni Hoolihan epitomizes the calm before the storm; it is a dormant act
imminently on the verge of becoming action—a potential for future violence,
but not yet a violent act. Cathleen Ni Hoolihan, the symbolic representation of
Examining Yeats’s middle period, one sees that much of the tension in
his work stems from the poet’s struggles between his desires to develop a
personal aesthetic and his sense of duty regarding the creation of an Irish
national identity. In other words,
Yeats’s middle work reflects an increasing tension between the antithetical
gyres of nationalism and aestheticism in the poet’s life.
The desire to reconcile these opposing gyres, to find a literary middle
ground in which these conflicting interests can find mutual expression,
characterizes much of Yeats’s work from his middle period.
According to Kiberd, this middle period of Yeats’s work is
characterized by the poet’s attempts “to dissolve the antinomies of his
thought with a Third or
One motif from Yeats’s middle period literally embodies the poet’s
hope for engendering a
debate about [Leda’s] alleged consent recalls vividly those common clichés to
the effect that the Irish were colonizable because they secretly wished others
to take command of their lives. [“Leda
and the Swan”] might then be read as a study of the calamitous effects of the
original rape of
concludes “Leda” with the question, “Being so caught up,/So mastered by
the brute blood of the air,/Did she put on his knowledge with his power/Before
the indifferent beak could let her drop?” (Poems
214-15). If the swan is the colonial
interloper as Kiberd suggests, this interrogative could have two possible
meanings. First, Yeats could be
asking whether the Irish, after being oppressed for so long, had learned to
become oppressors themselves. In
other words, did
The progeny of Leda’s rape—the Twins, Castor and Pollux, as well as
Helen of Troy and Agamemnon’s wife, Clytaemnestra—suggest that the potential
exists for beneficial as well as harmful elements to come from this forced
union. Disastrous events like the
Trojan War loom at one end of the spectrum, while at the other end one sees the
birth of Greek poetry, of the Western artistic tradition.
As Kiberd notes, “The swan promises an experience bestial as well as
divine, and threatens the abolition of art as well as portending inspiration”
(313). In “Stories of Michael
Robartes and his Friends,” Yeats considers the tensions caused by Leda’s
forced union with the swan (i.e., the internal struggles in
Another important motif for Yeats that similarly suggests his desire to
think that in early Byzantium, maybe never before or since in recorded history,
religious, aesthetic and practical life were one, that architect and artificers
. . . spoke to the multitude and the few alike.
The painter, the mosaic worker, the worker in gold and silver, the
illuminator of sacred books, were almost impersonal, almost perhaps without the
consciousness of individual design, absorbed in their subject-matter and that
the vision of a whole people . . . the work of many that seemed the work of one,
that made building, picture, pattern, metal-work of rail and lamp, seem but a
single image. . . . (Vision 279-80)
“Sailing to Byzantium” and “Byzantium”—the two poems most clearly
identified with this motif—attest not merely to Yeats’s desire for an escape
from his sick and aging corporeal essence, but also for an escape from a society
quickly abandoning the bourgeois Unity of Culture for which Yeats has sought for
years. According to Catherine Belsey,
“the politics [of
Undercutting the Swan and
An increasing aestheticization of and withdrawal from the political
characterize Yeats’s work from his late period.
Fomented by the poet’s failure to consolidate the tensions between his
aesthetic preferences and his national duties, Yeats recedes further into his
personal mythology. Yet, as was
noted earlier, many critics of Yeats—and indeed of Modernism as
well—mistakenly assume that the poet completely abandons any interest in
nationalism. As Fredric Jameson
of the more commonly held stereotypes about the modern has of course in general
been that of its apolitical character, its turn inward and away from the social
materials associated with realism, its increased subjectification and
introspective psychologization, and not least, its aestheticism and its
ideological commitment to the supreme value of a now autonomous Art as such.
this stereotype, Yeats’s comments in his late poetry are rarely entirely
apolitical. Yeats does demonstrate
an increasing aestheticization in his works, but this hardly reveals an
abandonment of the political; rather, it betokens a new method of examining it.
According to Watson, Yeats’s growing adoption of his private aesthetics
does not denote a decrease in the poet’s politics; instead, it expresses a
sign of the poet’s continued commitment to the political and the national:
“[Yeats’s] unremitting assertion of . . . spirituality represents one of
those points in Yeats’s writings where an apparently ‘unpolitical’ point
in fact engages with the poet’s deepest feelings of nationhood” (96).
his late poetry, Yeats reflects an increasing desire to contemplate both
first glance, this play seems to have little in common with any examination of
Irish nationalism, but on closer inspection, several important symbols become
manifest. First, the burnt out
mansion is one of
from retreating into a personal aesthetic in his late works, Yeats uses the
ever-increasing expression of his aesthetic gyre to meditate upon both politics
and nationalism. Yet like his
subjective man, “the man who sees all reflected within himself” (Poems
650), Yeats increasingly filters his insights through his personal experiences.
In the end, the political becomes the personal for the poet.
In “Politics,” the last of his Last
Poems, Yeats wonders whether he can fix his attention to political matters
while he is standing next to a beautiful woman.
Yeats knows that he should be concerned about the imminent threat of war,
yet he only wishes “O that I were young again / and held her in my arms!” (Poems
348). Politics, it seems, must
ultimately give way to aesthetics. Perhaps,
as Yeats suggests in “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” all experience must
begin and end “In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart” (348).
Annotated List of
In Theory: Classes, Nations,
A Short History of Irish
Colonialism, and Literature. ed.
“National Character and National Audience: Races, Crowds and
Readers.” Critical Approaches to Anglo-Irish Literature.
ed. Michael Allen and Angela Wilcox.
“Nationalism: Irony and Commitment.”
Nationalism, Colonialism, and
Literature. ed. Seamus Deane.
“‘Liminal Spaces’: Post-Colonial Theories and Irish Culture.”
The Irish Review 16 (1994):
29-42. Graham discusses the most
recent oeuvres in Postcolonial theory—namely in terms of Ranajit Guha’s
Subaltern Studies Group—arguing that any serious study of Irish
postcolonialism must take into consideration the “contact zones” between
colonizer and colonized.
“Modernism and Imperialism.” Nationalism,
Colonialism, and Literature. ed.
Kiberd, Declan. Inventing
Anomalous States: Irish Writing and
the Post-Colonial Movement.
Ó Tuama, Seán.
Repossessions: Selected essays in
the Irish Literary Heritage.
Said, Edward W.
“Yeats and Decolonization.” Nationalism,
Colonialism, and Literature. ed.
The Rediscovery of
Irish Identity and the Literary
Revival: Synge, Yeats, Joyce and O’Casey.
Changing States: Transformations in
Modern Irish Writing.
Yeats, W. B.
The Autobiography of William
The Collected Works of W. B. Yeats.
vol. 1, ed. Richard J. Finneran.
Eleven Plays of William
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