“In politics I have but one passion and one thought, rancour against all who, except under the most dire necessity, disturb public order, a conviction that public order cannot long persist without the rule of educated and able men,”
– William Butler Yeats
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity
– William Butler Yeats, From “The Second Coming” (1920)
But there are some
That do not care what’s gone, what’s left; The souls in Purgatory that come back to habitations and familiar spots.
Re-live Their transgressions.
– William Butler Yeats, Purgatory
I wrote this article for the Trinity journal, Alumnus, back in 1998. I was then jousting with controversial Irish politician Conor Cruise O-Brien in his Howth residence, about the political implications in Yeats’s later work, by responding to an essay O’Brien wrote in 1965. O’Brien and I were able to mend paths on this perennial debate, as he offered détente by editing a chapter in my Trinity M. Phil. dissertation and guided me through Yeats’ poetry. In return, I struck a light on Yeats’ late play-writing, where I found the rhythm of the gyres beating to the drum of a discursive Anglo-Irish sentiment. I returned to Dublin this past week, and still, no statue of W.B. Yeats was to be seen in her city streets. Dublin is beating to a new drum. Ireland was in the throes of the “Celtic Tiger “in the 1990’s when I lived there last. Now, in 2018, as abortion and same-sex marriage has passed by popular referendum, a half-Indian openly gay Taoiseach rules over a country where immigrants are pouring in to fill jobs. The booming biotechnology sector, policies markedly disavowing Brexit, and an Ireland always looking outwardly over the shoulder of her shores, open-mindedly knocking on other’s doors, now finds a world knocking on her very own doors, seeking her guidance. Enjoy the read. I have decided to leave it intact from its original publication in Europe. Yeats would indeed find all these new developments remarkable, yet romantic Ireland’s dead and gone. It’s with O’Leary in the grave.
A foreign eye is somewhat startled by the absence of William Butler Yeats in the city streets of his native Dublin. There are statues of Joyce off O’Connell Street and his face is commemorated on the ten-pound note. There is a statue of Oscar Wilde in St. Steven’s Green. Beckett and O’Casey are frequently brought to life in the air of nonchalant conversation. Besides a plaque indicating his birthplace in Sandymount, Yeats’s presence is as elusive as his anti-democratic philosophy. Perhaps this is because he was a Protestant Nationalist, belonged to the Unionist class yet backed the formation of the Free State, loved the idea of Ireland but only lived there later in his career, was a pseudo-Fascist as a democratically appointed Senator for six years in the Dail, and was the leading Irish traditionalist who could not even speak Irish. Perhaps this is because Ireland sought to move as far away from its colonial past as possible following the Easter Rising, contrary to Yeats’s call for a return to pre-colonial pastoralism circumscribed by aristocratic elitism. Perhaps his absence is justified because his ideas were defined more by what he was against rather than what he believed. Finally, perhaps the imminent tide of materialism at the foot of the millennium is irreversible and in its trajectory Yeats’s hatred for it is mercilessly washed away. Here I seek to understand and explain Yeats as a necessary but hated public figure. I will suggest that political events were the causal force which shifted his politics, such as the 1916 rebellion and partition in 1922. His theatrical writing motivated nationalist sentiment at times, especially the production of Cathleen-ni-Houlihan. Despite the fact that Irish Nationalism embraces Yeats as a necessary Irish writer, it equally and immediately rejects him as an incompetent political figure.
This essay will present two conventional arguments on Yeats’s political affiliations which explain his bandwagoning – loyalty to different organizations, individuals, and· ideas – during specific phases of his literary and senatorial career (1922-1928). The debate between these opposing viewpoints was jettisoned by Conor Cruise O’Brien in his article, “Passion and Cunning,” originally published in 1965. The first argument is based on the assumption that Yeats was a calculated, consistent, overt, and cunning. Fascist between 1922 and 1938 (MacNeice, 1964, Cruise O’Brien, 1965, and Craig, 1981). The second argument refutes this on the grounds that Yeats’s behavior was less clearly defined. He did not follow a horizontal trajectory, rather, he zig-zagged between people and movements and was more opposed to Liberalism and materialism than he was a supporter of Fascism (Freyer, 1981, Tratner, 1995, and Stanfield, 1988). Yeats’s “antithetical” tradition developed incrementally during his political career. The antithetical dispensation is the historical movement from a “primary phase of history (…) dogmatic, levelling, unifying, feminine, humane, peace its means and ends (…) [to] expressive, hierarchical, multiple, masculine, harsh, surgical.” The antithetical vs. primary tradition clearly reflects a broader picture in differentiating the Protestant and Catholic archaeological lineage in Ireland. This differentiation can be described as follows:
Yeats underwent three phases of political development. The Easter Rising of 1916 wiped away his intransigent romanization of Ireland’s past, and certainly following that event his fleeting, soft-spoken words begin to harden with indignation. Secondly, his decision to enter electoral politics in December 1922 marked his formal willingness to join the masses. His resignation from the Dail in September 1928 equally rejected that reticent willingness to connect himself with the status quo. Thirdly and finally, from 1928 until his death he sought to embrace authoritarian alternatives to democratic Liberalism and materialism. Michael Tratner’s Modernism and Mass Politics (1995) makes an irrefutable and underlying point regarding modernist writers such as Joyce, Eliot, Woolf, and Yeats. He suggests that regardless of their political differences, they were all opposed to Capitalism and individualism. According to the modernists, what capitalism appeared to do was to turn the social body (based on high and folk culture) into an unruly, philistine, and uneducated mob. The essential contradiction between conservative and Socialist modernists was that conservatives believed in a total system of hierarchical control, while the Socialists backed working-class consciousness. Authoritarian writers like Yeats insisted on using biological assumptions to rationalize the racial supremacy of the minority-elite in Europe and to oppose emerging Socialism and Capitalism. This is most evident in On the Boiler, Yeats’s last publication, in 1938. Ironically, all the modernists protected the interests of one class; conservatives defended the sovereignty of the aristocratic elite, while the others were interested in the working-class. All of them agree on downplaying the middle. It is also interesting to note, as Tratner does, that all the modernist writers failed in their objectives to replace status-quo Liberalism.
Yeats often situated himself in binary opposition to other Irish public figures. His political preferences appear to be motivated by opposing other figures whom he sought to challenge in the public setting. One obvious such figure was Eamon de Valera who represented the new, uncharismatic leadership of the Free State according to many Irish writers at the time. Yeats lived and wrote during a period when mass movements replaced nineteenth century Victorian individualism. Mass political parties, mass ideologies, corporatism, and human organizations dominated industrializing countries in Europe at the turn of the twentieth century. Artists sought to fill this void between social movements and pit themselves into the competing nationalisms and ideologies. After 1916 absolutely, no Irish citizen knew who would govern the island. According to Paul Stanfield:
There was a religious conflict: with some notable exceptions, unionists were Protestants, nationalists Catholic. There was a racial conflict: unionists were predominantly the descendants of invaders from the neighboring island, nationalists predominantly of Gaelic stock. There was a class conflict: most unionists (outside of industrialized Ulster) were of the upper class or the higher bourgeoisie, landholders or professionals, usually well-educated, while nationalists, having only in the recent past escaped from the disabilities imposed by the penal laws, were often irregularly or self-educated and belonged to the working class, the peasantry or the lower bourgeoisie.
Yeats was certainly an anomaly in Ireland, arguably having written the play that had sent out certain men to be shot by the English. He belonged to the Protestant caste, although he supported the Anglo-Irish Treaty. His nationalism was not that of the same creed as De Valera, MacDonagh, MacBride, Pearse, and Connolly. Yeats, instead, liked to identify his nationalism in the “people of Burke. the people of Grattan … the people of Swift, the people of Emmet, the people of Parnell.” It is clear that Yeats was unsatisfied with the leadership of the Republican movement, specifically, because he de legitimated working class “philistinism” and Catholic hegemony. He situated himself on the antithetical continuum, while he situated democratic Nationalists on the primary continuum. According to Stanfield, “The best government (…) came from men of an ‘antithetical’ cast of minds, as were, Yeats believed, the men who ruled Ireland in the century before the Act of Union in 1800, that fatal act of submission to a power external to themselves.” Irish independence opened an empty slot for political experimentalism. Yeats was disappointed, even angered, by the insistence to fill that slot with a parliamentary democracy. Instead he remained in firm denial of the status quo (until 1928), and in a 1924 Irish Times interview insisted: “Authoritative government is certainly coming, if for no other reason than that the modern State is so complex that it must find expert government, a government firm enough, tyrannical enough if you will, to spend years in carrying out its plan.”
Comments such as these should not be interpreted in a vacuum. Certainly, Yeats was operating according to one popular line of argument in Europe at the time. Ideational Right-wing authoritarianism was slowly beginning to gain momentum in Italy and Germany in 1924. However, Yeats was not alive to witness the culmination of Fascism in practice, and there is an ongoing debate regarding what he would have thought about this culmination in the early to mid-1940’s. I believe there is ample evidence to suggest that he would have rejected the late logic of Fascism, defending his premonitions of institutional entropy in “The Second Corning” (1920). It has often been stated that Yeats was no lover of hopeless causes (Cruise O’Brien, 1988: 59), and that his affiliations were malleable and self-serving, rather than fixed. Yeats’s belief that classes and epistemes rise and fall, e.g. that history is a non-linear process of rise and fall – a vicissitude see-saw of isms – rather than of progress, was symmetrical with the relationship between antithetical and primary gyres in A Vision. Cycles of violence would follow cycles of peace and vice-versa.
The 1916 rebellion in Dublin certainly changed Yeats’s normative assumptions, which up until then were founded on a peaceful historical pastoralism. Reflecting the direction of Yeats’s poetry and writings, 1916 instilled in the poet a new belief in the inexorability of historical violence. He wrote to his colleague Lady Gregory following the rebellion: “The Dublin tragedy has been a great sorrow and anxiety. I had no idea that any public event could so deeply move me – and I am very despondent about the future. At the moment, I feel that all the work of years has been overturned, all the bringing together of classes, all the freeing of Irish literature and criticism from politics.” He was disappointed in what he saw as a rise of the uncharismatic middle-class and commented on it here: “Ireland has grown sterile because power has passed to men who lack the training which requires a certain amount of wealth to ensure continuity from generation to generation, and to free the mind from other tasks.” Yeats now accepted conflict as a necessary and integral stage in historical processual change. He was not alone in this acceptance. Force and conflict remained paramount in Leftist thought as well in the 1930’s.
Yeats’s years as an appointed Senator (1922-1928) demonstrate his diverse mandates on Irish public life following independence. His Senatorial tenure also suggests that he was not yet prepared to abandon the parliamentary democratic process. Two clear and irrefutable positions characterized Yeats’s Senatorial role. One was his protection of the minority; whether this be artists or Protestants, Yeats proposed that the rights of the minority be protected. For example, in 1925 Yeats joined a heated senatorial debate on the constitutional protection of divorce. He was opposed to any legislation which prohibited divorce, and this was an unpopular position at the time. As a public intellectual figure, the other consistent position which Yeats defended was opposing governmental censorship.
Although he had recently retired from the Senate, in 1928 the Censorship and Publications Bill passed. Yeats decided to oppose this legislation by establishing the Irish Academy of Letters (along with George Bernard Shaw) in 1932. This organization sought to protect the rights of artists and intellectuals against the intervention of the state. It is helpful to point out that Yeats, as co-founder of the Abbey National Theatre, had also defended The Playboy of the Western World in 1907 despite the public’s resentment of the production. In 1913, Dublin was in the throes of anti- labor violence and Yeats wrote a letter to The Irish Worker criticizing police brutality and the “infringements on public liberty.” In this respect, it is impossible to argue that Yeats was a categorical Fascist. Censorship would have been one totalitarian conception which was integral to Fascism, and Yeats’s position on this subject was vehement, consistent, and arguably democratic, even though it is highly unlikely he would have described it in this way. Another interesting aspect of Yeats’s political career was his insistence on improving education in Ireland. He even proposed an increase in expenditures, and subsequently. fought for improving educational infrastructures for secondary education.
However, when Yeats resigned from the Senate in September 1928 – and subsequently exited from electoral politics – he becomes much more hardened, resolute in his Right-wing authoritarianism. While already veering on the heteroscedasticity right-skewed quadrant in 1928, the decade following would only move him farther to the right. He was not, alone. The 1930’s popularized scientific racialism, i.e. eugenics, and opened the floodgates to Fascist social movements to other prominent intellectuals like Pound and W. Lewis. Although Yeats was well-respected as a Senator, he did not find himself suitable for the profession. In 1934 he included a letter in A Vision to his colleague Ezra Pound expressing his own defeat. He wrote:
My Dear Ezra,
Do not be elected to the Senate of your country. I think myself,
after six years, well out of that of mine. Neither you nor I, nor
any other of our excitable profession, can match those old lawyers,
old bankers, old business men, who, because all habit
and memory, have begun to govern the world.
Yeats’s resignation from the Senate prompted a new interest in the continental debates and social movements flourishing in Europe. His antithetical authoritarianism was influenced by his rejection of internal leadership in independent Ireland. However, it was also caused by external dynamics which were shaping the political landscape of Europe and European thought. For example, W.W.I and the rise of Bolshevikian socialism in 1917 re-configured new institutional and competing nationalisms in the balance-of-powers. Sinn Fein was founded on anti-imperialism and discovered a potential alliance with the Soviets during the formation of the Irish Free State. Yeats’s political choice was directed farther to the Right because he sought to undermine nascent Socialism in the USSR and rampant (Capitalist) industrialization in England and Ireland. He searched for a Third Way, and clearly the emerging Fascism in Italy offered him an alternative to both Socialism and Capitalism. What is both fascinating and revealing is that Yeats’s poems between 1928 and 1939 are obsessed with order, power, and passionate violence. It is helpful to compare, for example, the innocence of “The Stolen Child” (1886) or “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” (1890) with the passionate, violent images in “Blood and the Moon” (1928) or “Leda and the Swan” (1924). Possibly due to the seriousness of his role to play following Irish independence, Yeats wrote in the English Spectator: “In politics I have but one passion and one thought, rancour against all who, except under the most dire necessity, disturb public order.” Conor Cruise O’Brien argues, and I would agree, that Yeats’s politics sleep discursively, sometimes awaken overtly, within the poems themselves, enacted through, and by, metaphors. Metaphors such as the Tower, the Gyres, ancient Greece, and his romanization of figures like Parnell, and later Swift, suggest his desperate attempt to hold onto his idea of civilization’s apex. He believed, later in his life, that he was surrounded by civilization’s decline, corresponding to his theosophical ideas in A Vision. “I… think all civilizations equal at their best; every phase return, therefore in some sense every civilization,” he argued. He hoped to destroy the uncharismatic phase of Democracy and Liberalism by accelerating the rise of authoritarianism in any legitimate form.
The Yeats and Fascism debate really begins in 1933. His ephemeral, fleeting alliance with the Blueshirt movement has produced a bipolar split in literary criticism. According to Cruise O’Brien (1965) and Craig (1982) – what I will refer to as Argument A – Yeats associated himself with the Blueshirts with a calculating, decisive, and intentional loyalty to emerging Fascism in Europe. However, recent criticism over the three last decades (Freyer, 1981, Tratner, 1995, and Stanfield, 1988) – Argument B – has discredited the argument that Yeats was a member or an uncompromising follower of that movement. Within this debate, it is particularly important to stress internal causal emphasis on what was happening in Ireland at that time, rather than concentrating on political dynamics in continental Europe. Argument A is far too simplistic because it underemphasizes the internal leadership dynamics which rationalized Yeats’s bandwagoning with the Blueshirts. The movement “originated from the need to protect meetings of Free State supporters from being broken up by the members of the IRA, tacitly condoned by the new government.” Having been somewhat disillusioned by his work as a Senator and having been defeated on the issue of censorship by the passing legislation of the Censorship and Publications Bill of 1928, Yeats was ready to fight back. It is clear through his writings in the early 1930’s (with an emphasis on legitimating an alternative slot for Irish parliamentarism) that he was not just being controversial. This is where Argument A is sustained. I would argue that Yeats was indeed being instrumental by associating himself with the leadership of the new coalition. He wanted to diffuse Italian Fascism-of-a-type into Ireland. In 1933 General O’Duffy became the new leader of the coalition, having been sacked by de Valera as chief of police. This suggests that the Blueshirts were losers on the political front, and behind the authoritarian protocol was a deeply seeded resentment against Sinn Fein in general, and de Valera in particular. The Blueshirts resented de Valera’s election in 1933 and sought formation after the rise of Hitler in 1933. Where it is impossible to define the Blueshirts as Fascist is in their protection of free speech. Instead of organizing into a mass movement which was indicative of emerging authoritarianism in the continent, the Blueshirts were a rather diminutive group, intent on protecting the rights of the disillusioned minority in Ireland. Perhaps the only consistent element of his political practice, Yeats was a stalwart defender of the minority in Ireland; whether this be Protestants, artists, poets, women, or Fascists. In their mutual dislike of de Valera, that “loose-lipped demagogue” who had “torn the land apart” according to Yeats in “Parnell’s Funeral” (1934), O’Duffy and Yeats consolidated their interest in authoritarianism. However, Irish authoritarianism should be distinguished from that of Italian or German, Irish pseudo-Fascism was based on the nationalism of O’Leary, Berkeley, Burke, Swift, and Parnell, exactly the men who Yeats modeled his Anglo-Irish political philosophy after. It was a parochial glamorization of the Ireland dead and gone with O’Leary in the grave, i.e. the Ireland which based itself on isolationism and historical supremacy. When rationalizing the movement, Yeats tended to mention de Valera in relation to it. For example, he wrote to Olivia Shakespeare in 1933: “De Valera has forced political thought to face the most fundamental issues. A Fascist opposition is forming behind the scenes to be ready should some tragic situation develop. I find myself constantly urging the despotic rule of the educated classes as the only end to our troubles.”
Although he wrote marching songs for them, and clearly at one point a sympathizer, there is no evidence to suggest that Yeats was ever a legitimate member of the Blueshirts. Secondly, the movement itself was ephemeral and collapsed in 1934; one year after its inception. When it did collapse Yeats distanced himself from it, and Professor Jeffares in Cruise O’Brien’s “Passion and Cunning” suggests that this demonstrated his love for shifting positions. He argues, “This ironic attitude to the Blueshirts reveals the true Yeats, detached and merely playing with his thoughts, except for the intervals when he wanted to achieve complete directness and accuracy.” The Blueshirts phase, however, is significant in Yeats’s political development as a marker of when he turned towards the final phase of his “anti-democratic” authoritarianism. He did not lessen his position when Irish pseudo-Fascism dissipated in 1934. Instead, his Right-wing beliefs (especially with regards to eugenics and racialism) only hardened. Ironically, so did his theosophical and metaphysical beliefs. It is critical here to not only look at Yeats’s practical politics, but to contextualize his normative and philosophical assumptions, based on Irish nationalism of the eighteenth-century. The philosophers and politicians who mattered mattered most to Yeats were unsurprisingly all Anglo-Irish and Trinity College graduates; Goldsmith, Berkeley, Burke, and especially Swift. In fact, one of his most controversial Senatorial speeches in March 1925 conveyed his absolute rejection of post-independent leadership and his admiration for the eighteenth-century Irish thinkers: He said this during a debate on Catholic legislation prohibiting divorce:
I think it is tragic that within three years of this country gaining its independence, we should be discussing a measure which a minority of this nation considers to be grossly oppressive. I am proud to consider myself a typical man of that minority. We against whom you have done this thing are no petty people: We are one of the great stocks of Europe. we are the people of Burke; we are the people of Grattan; we are the people of Swift, the people of Emmet, the people of Parnell. We have created most of the modem literature of this country. We have created the best of its political intelligence. Yet I do not altogether regret what has happened …. You have defined. our position and given us a popular following. If we have not lost our stamina then your victory will be brief, and your defeat final, and when it comes this nation may be transformed.
The only connection I can make here is through Yeats’s fascination with German romanticism and 19th-century philosophy, particularly in reference to Nietzsche. Yeats was an open admirer of Nietzsche’s works, and read them with passion. In The Will to Power Nietzsche blends the metaphysical (specifically anti-Christian) with the authoritarian. Indeed, he had stated in a letter that he wanted independent Ireland to base “some vital part of its culture on Burke, Swift, and Berkeley.” Berkeley’s writings on perception and metaphysics influenced Yeats’s theosophy in A Vision. In addition, Berkeley was an Irish nationalist who kept a notebook from his student days at Trinity, and in one section paraphrasing the elements of British utilitarianism scribbled next to it. “We Irish do not think so.” Burke fascinated Yeats because he insisted on independence for America, Ireland, and India. This might have been one of Yeats’s ex-post facto justifications for supporting the formation of a Free State. Swift was arguably the most influential for Yeats because he was a writer who insisted on the sovereignty of the aristocracy. Clearly,Yeats hung on to Swift’s ideas, and opposed de Valera’s, because in Ireland positions were so often defined through actors rather than through mere ideas. “In Ireland … where clan loyalties came fresher to mind than in most western countries, there is a tendency to adhere to personalities, rather than policies, and Swift’s personality was a magnetic one.” Yeats even commented, “Swift haunts me; he is always just round the next corner.” Mirroring Yeats’s position on aristocratic hierarchy, “In Swift’s historical writings he found endorsement for his view that the ideal state must be essentially aristocratic, based on a careful balance between the One, the Few, and the Many,’ but with the reality of power shared between the first two.” Researching the assumptions behind great thinkers like Burke, Swift, and Berkeley give critics a valuable prism through which to look at Yeats’s politics, personal ideas, and philosophy. Indeed, Burke bequeathed to Yeats his political positions, Swift his public example, and Berkeley his anti-materialist and Irish nationalist sentiments.
With the rise of new models of colonialism in the world and a new need to protect the dominant colonial class from the threat of miscegenation, the 1930’s brought with it a new model of pseudo-scientific racialism. called eugenics. Among other prominent right-wing intellectuals at the time, such as Ezra Pound, Yeats could use eugenics to rationalize his political sympathies. His deep-seeded values, such as the protection of hereditary aristocracy, parochialism, lineage, the dislike of the middle-class, and the supremacy of the educated elite best correspond with theoretical Fascism. What is interesting to note is that the rise of eugenics also corresponds with the rise of race-related metaphors in Yeats’s writings, even though he dismissed science as the “opium of the suburbs.” I will explore three examples of his racialist ideas in his metaphors. The same year he retired as a Senator in 1928, Yeats wrote one of his most controversial and forthright poems based on race.
Blessed be this place,
More blessed still this tower;
A bloody, arrogant power
Rose out of the race
Uttering, mastering it
It is clear that he was referring to the Anglo-Irish stock which mastered the Irish race. His most overtly racialist comments are embedded in his last publication, On the Boiler. He writes, “Since about 1900 the better stocks have not been replacing their numbers, while the stupider and less healthy have been more than replacing theirs. Unless there is a change in the public mind every rank above the lowest must degenerate, and, as inferior men, push up into its gaps, degenerate more and more quickly.” In the latter part of the book, inside the section entitled “The Statesman’s Holiday,” Yeats writes about decaying blood in Ireland:
I lived among great houses,
Riches drove out rank,
Base drove out the better blood,
And mind and body shrank.
His acceptance of historical conflict fits in with his protection of racial supremacy. He regarded the conflict between nations and ideologies as healthy since the most powerful civilization would ultimately win, and in so doing protect the superior races. Without conflict, there would inevitably be a biological crisis. He argued in On the Boiler: “The danger is that there will be no war, that the skilled will attempt nothing, that the European civilization, like those older civilizations that saw the triumph of their gangrel stocks, will accept decay.” However, according to Yeats, society is not the only institution which should be based on hereditary principles. Government should be organized by race, and this fits into his paradigm of aristocracy. In “A Race Philosophy” he argues: “It must not be forgotten that Race, which has for flower the family and the individual, is wiser than Government, and that it is the source of all initiative. In alignment with eugenics thought of the 1930’s, biological traits also correspond with class structure and formation. Under eugenicist thought, it was widely assumed that the more children the working-class families had in industrializing Europe and America, the more each respective society would degenerate. Yeats alludes to this in On the Boiler. The final stage of his political “maturation” comes in 1938, when he consolidates his authoritarianism and resolutely-rejects any other form of government besides aristocracy. From 1928 through to 1938, due to the strengthening of the Fascist alternative to Communism and Capitalism, Yeats’s movement’ towards Fascist thought becomes irretractable and irreversible. He writes in On the Boiler:
I was six years in the Irish Senate; I am not ignorant of politics elsewhere, and on other grounds I have some right to speak. I say to those that shall rule here: If ever Ireland again seems molten wax, reverse the process of revolution. Do not try to pour Ireland into any political system. Think first how many able men with public minds the country has, how many it can hope to have in the near future, and mould your system upon those men. It does not matter how you get them, but get them. Republics, Kingdoms, Soviets, Corporate States, Parliaments, are trash, as Hugo said of something else ‘not worth one blade of grass that God gives for the nest of the linnet.’ These men, whether six or six thousand, are the core of Ireland are Ireland itself.
In 1938, it would be difficult to defend Yeats or apologize for him, as Cairns Craig (1982) does by insisting that he should not have stepped into the political sphere, and that in politics he was a myopic, silly, and excusable citizen. his is where Argument A is subdivided, since Cruise O’Brien would disagree and insist that Yeats should be held accountable for “trying to create a movement in Ireland which would be overtly Fascist in language; costume, behavior and intent.” This is the crux of the debate on Yeats and Fascism. Does his pseudo-Fascism simply represent a prism through which critics can contextualize 1930’s Europe? Should critics assume that he was being dogmatically unethical in his later writings? Should we read such writings as propaganda or merely an intellectual game he was playing? Should he be held accountable and can critics separate Yeats’s public and private life, or his writing from his politics?
I do not think Yeats was excusable, nor do I think he was. a cunning and inexcusable Fascist. Indeed, there are no noticeable images of Yeats in Dublin city-centre because the Irish do not want to be reminded of his antidemocratic tradition, what he described· as the “Anglo-Irish· solitude,” especially when Ireland and Europe are moving violently away from the past. Rather than who he was, it is more important to question why he was. Rather than what he stood for, I suggest that we ask what he stood against. It is far too conventional and easy for critics (Tratner, 1995) to
suggest that the supremacy of (Neo)- Liberalism at the end of this century has marked Yeats and his modernist colleagues a failure. In fact, Yeats might indeed be correct in asserting that civilizations, like gyres, die each other’s life and live each other’s death. Ideologies; like nationalisms, are never fixed. Instead they are malleable, cyclical, dormant, contradictory, emerging, and dissipating. Indeed, Yeats’s non-linear political assumptions reflected this. He was an experimentalist, and although he certainly opposed Communism and Liberal Democracy, there is no evidence to suggest that he was not also open to alternatives to Fascism.
This essay has attempted to locate the political implications behind Yeats’s self-described “Anglo-Irish solitude.” I chartered three phases during his career; the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, his appointment to the Irish Senate in 1922, and his resignation from electoral politics in 1928. It is evident that each period marked a transition. I emphasized causal internality by describing the internal dynamics between politicians, writers, and social movements during the formative stages in Yeats’s Ireland. I suggested that external dynamics on the continent played a role in Yeats’s thought, but were not as important as what he was responding to internally on the island. I contextualized his relationship with the Blueshirts movement in 1933, with the historical link between Burke, Swift, and Berkeley, and with the rise of eugenics in the 1930’s. Finally, I presented two opposing arguments; one which defined Yeats’s position as a cunning and overt Fascist (Argument A). The other argument suggested that his politics were much more complicated because he acted inconsistently, backed movements and individuals with different agendas, and changed with response to both external and internal factors in Europe (Argument B). I ended by agreeing with Argument B, but also insisted that critics focus on why rather than what Yeats wrote and acted in the way that he did. Like ideas and culture, to paraphrase Herder, Yeats did not remain a fixed historical character. He believed that Ireland was on the decline and sought to insert control into what he saw as disorder. What makes his writing and life much more fascinating and important are his transitions, albeit directed in one authoritarian direction. According to Michael Tratner, “Yeats sought all his life to write a poetry that would express or create a national mind. So, the transition in his works has to be a move from an individualist to a collectivist vision of a nation, from a sense that the individual can hold the essence of the nation within his mind to the sense-that the only-way to create the nation is to disrupt the individual mind.” Indeed, that is the fundamental motivation behind his actions. As an Irish writer, he wished to forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of his race. In politics, he sought to represent that conscience of the Irish race and failed miserably. Despite this failure, however, he remains a necessary historical figure in the invention of Ireland.
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