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W.B. Yeats and World Literature

The Subject of Poetry


Barry Sheils


Farnham: Ashgate, 2015

Hardcover. x+200 p. ISBN 978-1472425539. £60


Reviewed by Pierre Longuenesse

Université d’Artois



This new book about Yeats’s work aims to show that whereas the poet takes the defence of an Irish national culture and literature, he also claims the international dimension of his writings. He succeeds in doing so by giving to his poetic and dramatic works an international audience, while at the same time being influenced by the cosmopolitan side ruling the world of letters in these first decades of the 20th century. Thus Barry Sheils studies Yeats’s poetic modernity ‘to scrutinise within his writing the relation between the order of poetic expression and the effects of money, trade and globalisation’. In so doing he demonstrates how Yeats is connected to his time, even if he appears to be, as he says himself, one of ‘the last romantics’. The book is divided into five chapters, each of which examines, on an intellectual as economic level, one aspect of this dual ‘movement’ of Yeats towards the world, or the world towards Yeats.

In the first chapter, the author examines how the both imaginary and concrete space ruling Yeats’s writings is situated in between the local and the international. On the one hand, ‘Ireland saved Yeats from the sands of international abstraction’. For instance, the potential influence of French « décadence » is balanced, in his work, by the strength of his cultural ‘nationalism’, which makes his difference with his contemporaries such as Johnson or Symons. On the other hand, his very ‘national’ writing is nourished, formally and thematically, by multiple external sources. For instance, The Song of Wandering Aengus is marked by the Irish aisling form, and also by English tradition rhymes, or by French hexameter or Sonnet patterns. Moreover, Yeats’s vision of the Irish culture is connected to other traditions, such as the Belgian symbolism, or the Northern sagas of Norway (Exploration, 161). This connexion extends to the whole world: when going to the British Museum, Yeats studies Indian Poetry and Tagore thinking with Irish mythology in mind. Thus, ‘Ireland finds itself outside of itself’, and ‘authentic space of the nation is dispersed across the globe’ [63]. In that respect, Shield’s thesis is that Yeats’s Ireland is a modernist construction.

In other words, this duality reveals a political and economic question about Yeats’s work. First, from ‘Oisin’ to ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, Yeats invents an Irish tradition. We know that Ossian is a literary figure constructed by Herder, Goethe, and other writers from the turn of 18th-19th c. The Wanderings of Oisin is actually the second generation of this phenomenon. Yeats’s position is really a unionist one, and economically highly strategic: he is concerned with the worldwide market, as his correspondence with A.H. Bullen shows.

This first chapter opens and closes with a significant allusion to Robert Gregory. Regarded by Yeats as a Nietzschean hero, he is the symbol of Ireland’s martyrdom, more allegory than reality: a ‘lonely lyric voice exiled from the whole drama’. In the second chapter, the author examines the relationship that Yeats maintains with Irish language and culture. He shows how the poet is obsessed by the idea of the People, and catching the real spirit of the Irish Island (What is Popular Poetry, 1901, EI 10). Yeats, preferring the peasant’s imagination to his historical reality, builds an aesthetic ‘primitivism’. In spite of that, for Shields, this folk spirit of his is also a product of the Enlightenment culture. Yeats’s interest for European traditions is not a nostalgic one. B. Sheils disputes S. Deane’s point of view (in Celtic Revivals, or in Strange Country), who sees the Revival as a part of the story of European Romanticism: for him, the Celtism is issued from a conservative posture, born with Burke’s counter-revolutionary position. Sheils agrees with Peter McDonald’s argument (2007), for whom the projected national character of Ireland is more than a means of finessing the philistine tendencies of England. In that sense, Yeats makes a link between the Genius of the Irish People and its relationship to nature. For Sheils and MacDonald, Herder, who inspires romantic folklorism, is not an anti-aufklärung irrationalist thinker. Herder’s essay, On the Origin of Language (1772), denies the divine origin of language, and associates man with the animal (‘while still an animal, man already has language’). He defends the physicality of language, its link with the nervous system, and its non-transcendantal nature. For him the Bible is a profane object, a piece of folk literature.

Nevertheless, the author seems to hesitate in his judgement, since he re-asserts Yeats’s essentialism in his view of folk culture: Yeats never links the People to the history of its social and political oppression, and he has the illusion that the folk culture is self-sufficient and unaffected by the gaze of the folklorist. Moreover, he recalls the fact that the reviews of his books reveal the poet’s political ambiguities. For instance, when he publishes The Celtic Twilight in the 1890s, Yeats writes both in the independentist United Ireland, and the unionist Scots Observer. In 1891, while he represents The United Irishman at the Folklore Congress, The Scots Observer publishes different papers against this congress, besides other texts by Yeats.

In the third chapter, B. Sheils examines Yeats’s relationship with World literature, through his so-called ‘translator’ work. Actually, Yeats speaks only English, but signs an impressive number of translations, from Irish, from Greek (the two Oedipus), from Indian (Tagore’s Gitanjali or the Upanishads); he also comments Fenollosa’s Works on Japanese Noh. We see how much determined Yeats was to make Irish literature a world matter [107]. In a certain way, for him Asia is Irish, since he asks his sisters to publish Tagore and Fenollosa/Pound in Cuala’s Irish literature collection! Yeats builds an objective alliance between non-English literature translated into English! It also allows him to give the local literature a touch of exoticism: the local becomes exotic, and the exotic becomes local, all the more so since his own poetry is influenced by oriental thought this is the case with Sailing to Byzantium and the Upanishad, or The Dialogue of Self and Soul and Zen philosophy. For him ancient traditions are all unified, as he says: ‘I would have Ireland re-create the ancient arts […] as they were understood in India, in Greece and Rome, in every ancient land’. That is why he feels himself so close of Tagore when meeting him in June 1912 with William Rothenstein, or why he translates the Upanishad in 1937 with Shri Purohit Swami, or why he works on Noh thinking of Irish traditions: actually the ‘living voice’ comes from any traditions. It also seems that occult investigations were an instructive model for his practice of translation, since spirits communicate with the living through a medium in different parts of the world! They speak in different tongues understood by the participants.

But at the same time, Yeats’s motivation is different: creating At the Hawk’s Well in London shows a strong spirit of cosmopolitism. Yeats shares with Tagore against Gandhi – a modern internationalist view of the world. Tagore dreams of an India close to America, while Yeats opposes Sparta to Athens : Athens won by its opening to the world.

The last two chapters seem to be more complex to follow. In chapter 4, Sheils leans on ‘biopolitic’ topics, questions of gender and race, or of the relationship, in Yeats’s writing, between animality and humanity. In this regard, he makes a thoughtful and original analysis of Easter 1916, relying on Schiller’s theory of grace and beauty (‘On grace and Dignity’, 1793). Yeats’s ethos is marked by masculine qualities, and his political idealism transforms life into an ‘ethical practice’ (Agamben). Therefore, Easter 1916 reveals how he differs from Maud Gonne’s political involvement and her Irish nationalist activism: when she speaks of the Rising leaders’ tragic dignity, he speaks of a ‘terrible beauty’. Beauty is for Yeats both a sensible and ethical category. The legitimacy of the sacrifice is not due to its political motivation, but to its reception. The rebels’ sacrifice is a kind of gift. Yeats’s poem deals with the question of gift as well as the difficulty of gift giving, or of receiving the rebels’ gift. In that respect, Easter 1916 is a kind of aesthetisation of the political event of the Rising. As to Maud Gonne, for Yeats her beauty relies both to the best virtues of feminine grace and to the fact that she enacts the male politics of self-assertion and dignity. She is in fact an androgyne figure. Sheils also analyses the Crazy Jane cycle, and shows how this new feminine figure is a kind of post-independence secular Cathleen ni Houlihan, with a queer dimension.

Finally, in the last chapter, he examines Yeats’s political positions in old age, and his apparent hate of modernity. The poet’s rejection of politics is obviously the sign of a specific political posture, and age is a device to hide it poetically. Ironically, in spite of Yeats’s submission to Burke’s theories, his position seems to distance itself from the philosopher’s. The latter defends tradition, whereas Yeats assumes to speak of violence, in a very resentful, Nietzschean posture. His impatience in front of the so-called nihilism of modern society, and what he denounces as a movement of degeneration, is the symmetrical obverse of his passion for the old Irish chieftains’ heroism. That nostalgy is probably one source between others of his eugenist positions: ‘In order to protect the qualified life of the nation he recommended its objectification in the form of intelligence tests and selective breeding policies which included the possibility of sterilising the poor and disabled’ [135]. The tragic paradox is that Yeats, with this position, adopts the Victorian point of view of the degenerate Irishman vs the clever English. In that respect, there is a link between this eugenist discourse and a certain orientation of his poetry, from the very beginning of the 1920s: when he re-writes The King’s Threshold, he gives the old poet a kind of ‘fanatic’ attitude, as he prefers death to compromise. This posture is both that of the poet’s claiming his proudness in front of his own finitude, and Robert Gregory’s ‘foreseing his death’.

Sheils regularly alludes to many critical references, which give to his work interesting extensions, from Herder’s thoughts about language or Heidegger’s theory on poetry, to contemporary critics such as Moretti, Ramazani, Nancy & Lacoue-Labarthe, and others. Regarding Ireland both as the core of Europe and the periphery of the world, he develops a clever reflection on this emerging concept of ‘world literature’ that Yeats contributes to incarnate in the first half of the 20th century.


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