“Between the Upper and the Nether Millstone”

W.B. Yeats, Oppositional Gyres, and the Founding of the Irish Nation State


© 2009 Sean M. Donnell


        Theorizing about Ireland from within a postcolonial discourse is a necessarily problematic endeavor.  From one perspective, Ireland ’s history for most of the twentieth century has been inherently characteristic of numerous other emergent colonial nations.  Through the indigenous culture’s experiences with linguistic and ideological oppression at the hands of an outside colonizing agency, Ireland resembles countless colonial states that have undergone similar subjugation.  The virtual eradication of the native Irish language prior to the nineteenth century and the practically complete sublimation of Irish literature to the British canon for most of the twentieth century parallel similar events in many African and Caribbean colonial states.  Moreover, the resultant rise in Ireland ’s sense of national identity as a moment of resistance to the British Empire has served as an exemplar for several other colonial nation states.  As David Lloyd asserts, “For the theory and practice of decolonization . . . Ireland is, to a sometimes distressing extent, more exemplary than anomalous” (7).

            Yet despite these similarities, Ireland fits none too nicely into its role as the subaltern.  First, as Liam Kennedy notes, the Irish enjoy many privileges more common to other European countries than to colonial nations: longer life expectancies, lower infant mortality and adult illiteracy rates, even a relatively high Gross National Product (112).  Second, Ireland ’s traditionally “colonial” experience occurs much earlier in the twentieth century than that of other neo-colonial nations.  Third, Ireland is geographically much closer to the oppressive colonial nation state than other colonies.  Finally, the Irish citizenry appear in some respects more complicitous in operating the oppressive mechanisms of the colonial enterprise than other colonized nations.  According to Kennedy, “Members of the Irish gentry and middle classes participated willingly in the administration of the imperial system world-wide.  Thousands of Irish officers manned its defences.  Ireland , in effect, was a junior partner in that vast exploitative enterprise known as the British Empire ” (115). 

            While Kennedy’s claim to a “junior partnership” for Ireland elides the fact that the bourgeoisie in more than a few colonial states have been, to a greater or lesser extent, involved in administrating the colonial enterprise, this charge is not completely without its merits.  From this viewpoint, it becomes increasingly problematic to characterize Ireland as simply a “colony.”  Ultimately, Ireland does represent the emergent colonial nation; however, it must also simultaneously reflect the complex image of a heterogeneous people complicit to varying degrees with the colonial enterprise.  Because of the country’s singular amalgamation of colonizer and colonized, of the oppressed who are simultaneously a part of the oppressive apparatus, Ireland occupies a unique position among colonial nation states. 

            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 neo-colonial writers:  

[Yeats’s 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” 5-6)

Yet 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 class-consciousness:

Against 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.  (Poems 596)

In 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:

For 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.  (80) 

Yet describing 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 critic.

            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:

The 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.  (8)

The innate 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 Ireland ’s attempts to purge the final remnants of its colonialism become internalized for Yeats, trapping the poet, so to speak, between the upper and the nether millstone.

            Yeats 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 Ireland is that cultural representation of the “Unity of Being” for which the poet has been striving in his personal life.  This cultural aesthetic, or “Unity of Culture,” represents an attempt to define a homogeneous Ireland structured in opposition to an oppressive English regime.  As Deane insists, “The idea of Ireland was a moulding element in the reading and writing of the Revival writers; it helped to bring their thoughts to the point where they could be hammered into unity, the unity of stylistic assurance” (History 162).  As much as the idea of a united Ireland demonstrates Yeats’s nationalist desires, it also reveals what Said terms as his “English cultural heritage” in that the Unity of Culture is, in the end, an extension of the aesthetic Unity of Being.  To put it another way, because Yeats bases his desire for a unified Ireland upon a Unity of Culture, the inherent aesthetic ideals founding this concept always already interpenetrate Yeats’s nationalist ideologies.  In a similar vein, Yeats’s later poetry, often considered as grounded solely in aesthetics, demonstrate a desire to use these aesthetic ideals to comment upon the Irish nation state.  Hence, one rarely finds the national without the aesthetic in Yeats’s work.

            To 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.

            Using “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 unrest in Ireland roughly between the years of 1915 and 1925, when the Irish folk busied themselves with the creation of a modern Irish nation state.

            Moving 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. 

            Clearly 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:

The 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)

By 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 England ’s colonizing influences.  According to Declan Kiberd, emphasizing locality aligns the Irish artist “with the Gaelic bardic tradition of dinnsheanchas (knowledge of the lore of places)” (107). 

            “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 conservatorship of Ireland , but it also delineates a space in which one can escape the oppressive realities of a colonizing agent.  The faeries take children and transform them into spirit so that they may enter the land of the Tuatha de Danaan, the Faery realm.  Consequently, being stolen by faeries means escaping into a realm beyond the purview of the colonizer: “Come away, O human Child!/To the waters and the wild/With a faery, hand in hand,/For the world’s more full of weeping than you can/understand” (Yeats, Poems 18).  The spiritual theft of the child creates the potential for a future position outside the structure of an oppressive foreign power.  Moreover, this position to be occupied is an infinitely Irish space, for it is created wholly from Irish fable.  Noting the connection between Irish folk tales and politics in the work of Yeats, Deane asserts, “From the beginning . . . there was an intimate connection between [Yeats’s] political vision of Ireland and occultism.  The ‘ kingdom of Faery ’ was, in his view, a natural part of the old civilization which English Puritanism and its Irish middle-class Catholic descendant had destroyed” (History 142).

            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 Sligo .  Further Rosses is a very noted locality.  There is here a little point of rocks where, if anyone falls asleep, there is danger of their waking silly, the fairies having carried off their souls” (Poems 619).  By describing the local geography of his childhood home in this poem, Yeats reaffirms his celebration of not only physical geography, but cultural as well.

            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 nationalist works. 

            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 Ireland , appears as an old woman looking for men to help her reclaim the four green fields that she has lost, to put the strangers out of her house.  Claiming that those who would serve her must be willing to sacrifice their lives, the old woman claims, “for all that they will think they are well paid” (229).  Obviously, this is a thinly veiled metaphor for rising up against the English in Ireland —one that was particularly effective in mobilizing the Irish.  Yet the lack of even performative violence in the play shows the aestheticization of Yeats’s particular celebration of violence.  

            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 Middle Way .  The major task facing his newly-independent nation was the reconciliation of disparate, once warring, factions, and the assignment of a new, expanded meaning to the phrase “Anglo-Irish.”  In similar fashion, Yeats tried to solve the gap in modern democracies between the One and the Many” (451).  Yeats understood intimately the tensions in his country between the cultural nationalism he sought and the diverse concerns of a heterogeneous Irish people, but he still hoped to find a way to accommodate all the concerns of these diametrical opposites.  In his Autobiography, Yeats declares, “a nation in tumult must needs pass to and fro between mechanical opposites, but one hopes always that those opposites may acquire sex and engender” (239).

            One motif from Yeats’s middle period literally embodies the poet’s hope for engendering a Middle Way .  In poems like “Leda and the Swan” and in short fiction like “Stories of Michael Robartes and his Friends,” Yeats develops a Swan motif that encompasses the bulk of the poet’s hopes and fears for the new Irish nation state.  In “Leda,” Yeats draws on the Greek myth of Leda and her rape by Zeus in the form of a swan to weave an intricate tapestry of colonial rape and its ramifications for the new Irish nation.  Kiberd notes regarding this interpretation:

The 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 Ireland and of the equally precipitate British withdrawal.  (315)

Yeats 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 Ireland learn to rape from the colonial rapist?  From this perspective, the knowledge that the swan has to impart is something to be feared.  Second, Yeats could be asking whether the Irish learned anything of England ’s national governance.  When Yeats wrote “Leda” in 1923, the British imperial system was still among the largest and most effective in the world.  If, as Said says, Yeats’s “English cultural heritage” both dominates and empowers him as an artist, perhaps the poet hopes that Ireland will become empowered as England is.  The fact that Leda might learn something before the indifferent beak could let her go implies that Leda might take something from the colonizing rapist before he can prevent her.  In this case, perhaps the knowledge imparted by the colonial rapist is not necessarily negative.  More than likely, the significance of “Leda’s” final interrogative is that it connotes the potential for encompassing both the negative and the positive aspects of Yeats’s question.  Leda’s offspring from this forced union delineate both potentialities.

            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 Ireland fomented by England ’s colonial presence) and the possible resolution of these tensions.  In the story, Michael Robartes (one of Yeats’s oldest and most beloved alter egos) has found the mythic “lost egg” of Leda.  In itself, this is a portentous discovery.  The history of Leda’s children from the first two eggs is intimately bound up in the history of Western civilization—a history of dialectics, of theses and antitheses.  Hence, the discovery of a third egg betokens a rupture in this Western dialectic, a chance to escape the murderous dualisms that have plagued the history of the West for so many centuries.  More importantly, Leda’s third egg represent Yeats’s attempt to reconcile not only the antithetical gyres of nationalism and aestheticism in his life, but also the tension created between a bourgeois cultural nationalism and a heterogeneous Irish society. 

            Another important motif for Yeats that similarly suggests his desire to find a Third Way between these antithetical elements in his life is the Byzantium motif.  For Yeats, Byzantium exemplifies the ideal community: one that has resolved all culturally oppositional elements.  According to Lloyd, “ Byzantium represented for Yeats a culture which had achieved ‘Unity of Being’” (61).  In A Vision, Yeats identifies Byzantium during the rule of Justinian with the fifteenth phase of his Great Wheel; it is “a phase of complete beauty. . . .  Thought and will are indistinguishable, effort and attainment are indistinguishable . . . all thought has become image” (135-36).  Byzantium represents the ultimate society for Yeats; the national and the aesthetic have melded into one:

I 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)

Consequently, “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 Byzantium ] would have appealed to Yeats as the spokesman of a decaying aristocracy” (7).  The Byzantium motif allows Yeats to retreat into a space where art and artificer are one, resolving his struggle to incorporate the disparate elements of his nationalism with his aestheticism.  As Yeats concludes in A Vision, “I think if I could be given a month of Antiquity and leave to spend it where I chose, I would spend it in Byzantium a little before Justinian opened St. Sophia and closed the Academy of Plato” (279). 

            Undercutting the Swan and Byzantium motifs, however, are Yeats’s own imperial imaginings of a purely aestheticized representation of the Orient.  In “Stories,” Robartes claims that he bought Leda’s third egg from “an old man in a green turban in Arabia, or Persia , or India ” (Vision 51).  Robartes’s failure to remember precisely where he purchased the egg underscores the fact that for much of the West, the Orient is represented as an amorphous and exoticized land.  Its people and lands were not as important as their representation in Western culture.  According to Said, “‘the Arab’ or ‘Arabs’ have an aura of . . . collective self-consistency such as to wipe out any traces of individual Arabs with narratable life histories. . . . [and] Yeats’s visions of Byzantium . . . [are] associated with Arab perdurability, as if the Arab had not been subject to the ordinary processes of history” (Orientalism 229-30).  Similarly, Yeats’s understandings of Byzantium devolve from “W.G. Holmes’s book, The Age of Justinian and Theodora” (Belsey 90), a sort of “guide book” representing an Orientalized portrait of Byzantium .  So Yeats bases and portrays his images of Byzantium on an exoticized representation of the Orient.  In this vein, Yeats appears more closely aligned with the colonizer than with any agency of decolonization.  Hence, while even trying to escape the tensions between the opposing gyres of nationalism and aestheticism in his life, Yeats ultimately reifies them through his imperially constructed representations of the Orient.  In the end, his efforts to reconcile these antithetical gyres, like his attempts to forge a Unity of Culture, remain unresolved.

            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 notes:

One 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.  (45)

Contrary to 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). 

            In his late poetry, Yeats reflects an increasing desire to contemplate both Ireland ’s and his own nationalism.  One of Yeats’s most poignant—yet ironically, least determined—examinations of the Irish nation in the wake of imperialism is Yeats’s late play, Purgatory.  In this play, an old peddler and his son pass by a burnt out Irish manor with a barren tree in front of it.  As they pass, the old man realizes that this was the house in which he was born.  Soon after, the peddler begins to see visions of his father and mother on the fateful night of their first union.  Hoping to end the cycle of destruction that began with his father’s marriage to his mother, the old peddler kills his son using the same knife that he used to stab his father to death.  The play ends with the peddler’s prayer for his mother’s release.  Seeing that killing his son has done nothing to end the cycle of his mother’s dreams, the old man pleads, “O God, / Release my mother’s soul from its dream! / Mankind can do no more.  Appease / The misery of the living and the remorse of the dead” (Plays 206). 

            At 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 Ireland ’s Great Houses, a leftover of the British imperial system.  This house acts as a symbol of the fallen Irish Ascendancy.  Much like the manor in the play, by the time Yeats wrote Purgatory in 1939, the Ascendancy culture had fallen into a state of disrepair—largely at the hands of the emergent Irish national culture that no longer found a need for the Ascendancy.  Similarly, the peddler’s mother is also attached to the ascendancy.  Her death in giving birth to her son mirrors the dissolution of the ascendancy after their initial involvement in the creation of an Irish national identity.  The tree, often used as a symbol for Ireland in Yeats’s early works, perhaps reflects how the poet feels about the current state of Ireland ’s national culture.  The old peddler is most probably Yeats himself.  Considering Yeats’s involvement in establishing the new Irish nation state—he sat on his country’s senate for six years, after all—the fact that he might choose to characterize himself as a peddler strikes a distressing chord.  And since the peddler’s son most likely represents Ireland ’s new national culture, that Yeats would choose to depict them as bastard children speaks volumes about his opinion of Ireland ’s new government.  In this light, the peddler killing his “bastard” son suggests that Yeats has found the aftermath of the Irish nation’s establishment quite distasteful. 

            Far 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 Works Consulted

Ahmad, Aijaz.  In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures.  London : Verso, 1992.  Ahmad reflects on the progression of Marxist and postcolonial theory since the beginning of the twentieth century.  This work scrutinizes the largest literary figures and theorists of this century, creating an insightful critique of modern literary studies.

Belsey, Catherine.  “Mobilizing Byzantium .”  Critical Approaches to Anglo-Irish Literature.  ed. Michael Allen and Angela Wilcox.  Totowa , N.J. : Barnes & Noble, 1989.  This essay examines Yeats’s “ Byzantium ” motif from a primarily Post-structuralist perspective, arguing that change and stasis contrapose one another in this motif.

Deane, Seamus.  A Short History of Irish Literature.  London : Hutchinson , 1986.  In this text, Deane chronicles the history of Irish literature from its Gaelic roots in the fifth century through the 1980s, devoting nearly one third of the survey to twentieth century Irish literature.

---.  “Introduction.”  Nationalism, Colonialism, and Literature.  ed. Seamus Deane.  Minneapolis : U of Minnesota P, 1990.  This introduction identifies the concerns of the Field Day project and gives a brief overview of Irish-English cultural history.  Deane problematizes nationalism as something both necessary and to be scrutinized. 

---.  “National Character and National Audience: Races, Crowds and Readers.”   Critical Approaches to Anglo-Irish Literature.  ed. Michael Allen and Angela Wilcox.  Totowa , N.J. : Barnes & Noble, 1989.  This essay historically situates and examines the evolution of Yeats’s nationalistic ideology.

Eagleton, Terry.  “Nationalism: Irony and Commitment.”  Nationalism, Colonialism, and Literature.  ed. Seamus Deane.  Minneapolis : U of Minnesota P, 1990.  In this essay, Eagleton argues that a binary opposition exists within nationalism that can be deconstructed to show the problematic nature of a national culture.

Glissant, Edouard.  Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays.  tr. Michael Dash.  Charlottesville , VA : UP of Virginia , 1992.  This collection of essays examines the postcolonial condition on the author’s home island of Martinique .  Glissant examines history, language, and geography in terms of the postcolonial conditions of his homeland.  He examines the idea of a Caribbean identity as well. 

Graham, Colin.  “‘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. 

Jameson, Fredric.  “Modernism and Imperialism.”  Nationalism, Colonialism, and Literature.  ed. Seamus Deane.  Minneapolis : U of Minnesota P, 1990.  In this essay, Jameson comments on how imperialism did not designate the same meaning as it holds today.  He notes that imperialism was mainly considered between two colonial powers, not between colonizer and colonized.

Kennedy, Liam.  “Modern Ireland : Post-Colonial Society or Post-Colonial Pretensions?”  The Irish Review 13 (1992-93): 107-121.  Kennedy argues that Ireland has less in common with emergent colonial nation that many postcolonial critics believe.  He relies mainly on sociological comparisons between “third world” countries and Ireland .
Kiberd, Declan.  Inventing Ireland : The Literature of the Modern Nation. Cambridge , MA : Harvard UP, 1995.  Kiberd creates an expansive examination of the modern Irish Nation State through this century’s most illustrious Irish literary figures.  This work covers everything from the birth of Irish Theater to Irish feminist authors.

Lloyd, David.  Anomalous States: Irish Writing and the Post-Colonial Movement.  Durham , NC : Duke Up, 1993.  In this collection of essays, Lloyd examines the literature of several Irish authors (Seamus Heaney, Samuel Beckett, W. B. Yeats) from a postcolonial perspective.  He notes how each of these essays contains a dualism because of the need for Irish intellectuals to tailor their work according to the tastes of the metropolis.

Ó Tuama, Seán.  Repossessions: Selected essays in the Irish Literary Heritage.  Cork : Cork UP, 1995.  In this collection of essays, Ó Tuama details the development of (mainly) Irish poetry (written in Irish) from the thirteenth century until the present.  The author also considers some issues regarding Irish nationalism and politics.

Said, Edward W.  Orientalism.  New York : Vintage Books, 1979.  This is Said’s important work on how the Near East has been traditionally represented as an exotic Other by the West. 

---.  “Yeats and Decolonization.”  Nationalism, Colonialism, and Literature.  ed. Seamus Deane.  Minneapolis : U of Minnesota P, 1990.  In this essay, Said argues that Yeats is a national poet.  Giving a general overview of colonial history, Said attempts to situate Yeats as a poet advocating cultural nationalism.  Later, the author compares some of Yeats’s poetry to that of other national poets. 

Sheehy, Jeanne.  The Rediscovery of Ireland ’s Past: The Celtic Revival 1830-1930.  London : Thames and Hudson , 1980.  This is an illustrated history of the Celtic Revival in Ireland .  It examines this movement primarily from an art history perspective. 

Watson, G.J.  Irish Identity and the Literary Revival: Synge, Yeats, Joyce and O’Casey.  Washington D.C. : Catholic U of America P, 1979.  Watson details the contributions made to the Irish literary revival by four influential Irish authors.  This work represents an early attempt to situate authors considered “British” in an Irish framework. 

Welch, Robert.  Changing States: Transformations in Modern Irish Writing.  London : Routledge, 1993.  This treatise chronicles the development of Irish writing in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  It comprises several chapters on both major and minor Irish authors.  It examines the deeply divided nature of the Irish people.

Yeats, W. B.  The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats.  New York : Macmillan Publishing Company, 1963.  A collection of autobiographical memoirs—some very well organized, some merely sketches—that cover the author’s life from childhood to his acceptance of the Nobel Prize in Sweden a few years before his death.

---.  The Collected Works of W. B. Yeats. vol. 1, ed. Richard J. Finneran.  New York : Macmillan, 1983.  A chronological collection of the author’s poetry separated into the following categories: “Lyrical,” “Narrative and Dramatic,” and “Other Poems.”  This collection spans the poet’s professional career from the publication of his first collection in 1889 until his death in 1939.  “Other Poems” consist of poems that were generally not published in a collection during Yeats’s lifetime.

---.  Eleven Plays of William Butler Yeats.  ed. A. Norman Jeffares.  New York : Collier Books, 1964.  This is a collection of eleven plays by Yeats.  These plays include some of his earliest work (“Cathleen Ni Hoolihan,” 1902) and some of his latest (“The Death of Cuchulain,” 1939).  As a collection, it demonstrates the poet’s power as a playwright as well as a verse-maker.

---.  A Vision.  New York : Collier Books, 1937.  This work is a treatise on the author’s personal beliefs about existence.  Beginning with a letter to Ezra Pound and a short story about Michael Robartes and Owen Aherne, A Vision examines Yeats’s beliefs in the cyclical nature of time as an extension of the twenty-eight phases of the moon.



Top of Page

Return to Materials