Yeats’s Political Identities

Allison, Jonathan, ed. Yeats’s Political Identities: Selected Essays. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1996. 352 pp. $44.50.

Reviewed by Marjorie Perloff

Published in ANQ 10, no. 4 (Fall 1997): 53-55.


Conor Cruise O’Brien’s remarkable “Passion and Cunning: An Essay on the Politics of W. B. Yeats” (1965) sets the stage for this excellent collection of essays on the vexed relationship between the poetic and the political in Yeats’s oeuvre. Citing the poet’s letters, Senate speeches, essays, and poems, O’Brien is able to show that from 1922 on Yeats flirted with authoritarian politics and that after 1932, when the De Valera government took power, he became an advocate of the Fascist Blueshirts. Although Yeats’s involvement with the Blueshirts was brief, his turn away from Fascism was not motivated, O’Brien argues, by a change of heart so much as by the recognition that the Fascists would not prevail. Yeats liked to be on the winning side.

O’Brien attributes Yeats’s sympathy for Fascism? to his “profound and tragic intuitive–and intelligent–awareness, in his maturity and old age, of what the First World War had set loose, of what was already moving towards Hitler and the Second World War” (50). In this reading, Yeats’s attitudes are symptomatic of the larger political malaise of entre deux guerres. In “From Democracy to Authority,” Elizabeth Cullingford, who tries to defend Yeats against O’Brien’s severe charges, gives a different twist to this notion of Yeats as representative Irishman. To begin with, she argues, Mussolini’s Fascism in the Italy of the twenties had little in common with its later incarnations, much less with Hitler’s Nazism: “Admiration for Mussolini was widespread among European conservatives, who regarded him as Italy’s deliverer from the menace of Bolshevism” (62). Accordingly, “The disordered state of the post-war world, the collapse of liberalism into chaos and anarchy, and above all the troubles in Ireland, led Yeats into the mistake of emphasizing stability rather than activism in Italy” (63). By the late thirties, Cullingford suggests, Yeats, always the passionate individualist, had turned away from Fascist notions of collectivity; moreover, Yeats was never anti-Semitic and, had he lived, he would surely have been disgusted by Hitler’s actions.

I am not convinced by this argument. There were, after all, plenty of European poets between the wars who were not taken in by Mussolini even if he did create the hierarchical order Yeats longed for and even if he did make the trains run on time. The more important question is not what Yeats believed but why he so believed and how his beliefs enter his poetry. Here the third essay in Allison’s collection, R. F. Foster’s “Protestant Magic: W. B. Yeats and the Spell of History,” published for the first time here, is especially valuable. Foster tries to understand Yeats in terms of his Irish Protestant identity. Marginalized both by the Irish Catholics and the English, Yeats was also marginalized by his economic position, his membership in what Foster calls the “clerical-bourgeois” class of Irish Protestants, “land agents rather than landlords, fallen on poorer times” (93). This “curious subculture” was defined by “a race-memory of elitism” (the vanished aristocracy of the great country houses) and “a predisposition toward seeking refuge in the occult” (102). Foster is particularly good at showing how these strains came together, how Yeats’s occultism was a peculiarly Protestant brand. When Yeats began to strike elaborate poses of aristocratic grandeur, as he did after his marriage and acquisition of Thoor Ballylee, he was compensating for years of alienation as a lower middle-class Irish Protestant in both Catholic Ireland and anti-Irish England.

Did these poses hurt his poetry? Seamus Deane (“Yeats and the Idea of Revolution”) thinks they did. “The Statues,” for example, is spoiled by its “strained rhetoric,” a “kind of oratory which arises from convictions that lie outside the poem’s range of reference” (133). Yeats, Deane argues in his brilliant essay, pits an apocalyptic sexuality and death against the mob and democracy; he strains for a romantic transfiguration that would absolve him from the everyday life around him. And in another outstanding essay excerpted by Allison, David Lloyd, building on the work of Paul de Man, shows that Yeats’s syntactic ambiguities (e.g., “Byzantium’s” “A mouth that has no moisture and no breath / Breathless mouths may summon,” where it isn’t clear which is subject, which object of the verb) arise intentionally “in the vanishing of [the] real referent” (189); the poems in question defy interpretation in their drive toward transcendence, a gnosis outside historical time. To probe the later poems closely is to see that “violence and death” are often “the condition of any act of foundation” (196).

This was a point Harold Bloom made some time ago in his Yeats (1971) and increasingly critics are coming to understand that Yeats’s “difficulty” is of a very special sort, that the rhetorical questions like “What’s water but the generated soul?” in “Coole Park and Ballylee 1931” cannot be answered. But whereas Bloom attributed Yeats’s sometime obscurantism to his occult concerns, the critics in this volume–and Declan Hiberd’s essay “Inventing Irelands” belongs to this group–understand the drive toward allegory, which Lloyd discusses so fully, to be a political question.

How, ask O’Brien and Lloyd, do we account for the special power, the “obsessive, haunting quality” (182) of Yeats’s poetry, given its frequently appalling politics? They never quite get around to answering this question, and Deane never quite explains his own personal fascination with Yeats’s work, and neither do the shorter essays at the back of Allison’s book that try to defend Yeats from charges of authoritarianism. In “What Stalked through the Post Office?”, Augustine Martin takes on Deane at some length, reading “The Statues” as a confrontation of the “filthy modern tide,” to recover the “conjunction of art and heroism,” a “new unity of being” (278). But isn’t this drive toward unity of being precisely the escape from history Deane derides? Again, when in his short “The Modernist under Siege,” Ronald Bush tries to refute Terry Eagleton’s critique of the “‘massive symbolic totalities’” that “mystified [Yeats’s] bourgeois purpose” (328) by showing how the succeeding drafts of Purgatory testify to that play’s increasing complexity and skepticism, he still can’t get around the fact that, in W. J. McCormack’s words, Purgatory illustrates the poet’s “preference for synchronic order at the expense of diachronic logic” (329). Similarly, Hazard Adams’s case for an “antithetical Yeats, one who saw that there are “three sides to every argument” (310) doesn’t get around the arguments raised especially by Foster and Lloyd as to Yeats’s frequent refusal to follow his own dialectic to its conclusion.

My own view is that Yeats doesn’t need the kinds of “defense” Bush, Adams, Martin, and David Krause in his “The De-Yeatsification Cabal” put forward. For O’Brien, Deane, Foster, and Lloyd are themselves devoted Yeatsians; their careful reconsiderations of the “Yeats problem” makes the poet seem all the more subtle and amazing. Indeed, their critiques show that Yeats’s poetry and prose uncannily anticipated the burning issues of the late twentieth century: colonialism, nationalism, the assault on democracy between the wars, the appeal of fascism in times of chaos, the fear of “crowds and power,” the relation of mythologizing schema to political realities. It is Yeats’s enormous range, his actual engagement in the political and cultural life of his day that now strikes us as so remarkable. For how many later poets have been so engaged, so responsive (for better or worse) to their culture? Not all the essays Allison collects are equally well argued, and his Introduction could have been more incisive and better organized. Nevertheless, Yeats’s Political Identities is an important contribution, not only to Yeats studies, but to our revised understanding of the modernist ethos.