Seamus Deane, ‘Yeats and the Idea of Revolution’, from Celtic Revivals (London: Faber & Faber 1985), rep. in Jonathan Allison, ed., Yeats’s Political Identities (Michigan UP 1996), pp.133-44.

Yeats began his career by inventing an Ireland amenable to his imagina­tion. He ended by finding an Ireland recalcitrant to it. His readiness to include the actuality of modern Ireland gave substance to his intricate system of symbols. But in the end the actuality overbore the symbolism, and left his poetry hysterical when he let his feeling run free of the de­mands of form, and diagrammatic when he imposed wilfully formal re­straints upon his feeling. “The Statues” best exemplifies this dilemma. In no other poem did he more eagerly seek an accommodation between his occultist system and his vision of Ireland. The demands of that poem are great and its ambition, especially for ‘We Irish’, almost measureless, but its rhetoric is strained, spoiled by a kind of oratory which arises from convictions that lie outside the poem’s range of reference. I want to discover the sources of such strain. We can find them, I would suggest, by tracing back his ideas of Ireland and of revolution. Where they converge, Yeats’s energy expands; but when the convergence is willed or forced against the grain of actual circumstance or of authentic feeling, then we hear the strident oratory of a man for whom the notion of authority has become effete and has been replaced by an authoritarian technique.

Yeats was, from the beginning, one of that long line of European Romantic writers who combined a revolutionary aesthetic with traditionalist politics. The homeland of that combination was Germany and the authors who most clearly enunciated its implications were Nietzsche and, later, Thomas Mann. We know, of course, that Nietzsche was important to Yeats. In him, and in Blake and Shelley, Yeats found his dominant theme - that of regeneration. Like these three writers, he spoke of it in a now highly familiar idiom - the idiom of release from the manacles forged by the conspiracy between British empirical philosophy and urban industrial capitalism: [133]

Locke sank into a swoon;
The Garden died;
God took the spinning-jenny
Out of his side.

For Yeats the miracles of technology had already lost their aura inside the dreary frames of empiricism.

To support his theme of regeneration, Yeats ransacked the fields of history and magic, and he used his highly eclectic knowledge in these fields to construct a history of philosophy which was also a philosophy of history. Just as Coleridge had emphasized a peculiar concept of En­glishness, so too did Yeats - except that Yeats used the older, Romantic conception of an Englishness that had existed before Locke, Hobbes and Bacon in order to give edge to his own concept of an Irishness that had always been opposed to the empirical tradition.

Berkeley, Swift and Burke composed for Yeats an Irish Ascendency tradition of ‘idealism’ which he then associated with the folk tradition in Ireland, claiming that each refuted science by its apprehension (al­though differently articulated in each case) of mystery and of death. The peasant and the aristocrat, kindred in spirit but not in class, united in the great Romantic battle against the industrial and utilitarian ethic. The energizing principle for Yeats in this late confection of Romantic notions was clearly that Ireland was the only place in Europe in which the aristocratic and peasant element had a fair chance of winning.

Yeats added a certain melodrama to the situation by always invest­ing it with a sense of crisis. Ireland was not only a special country. It was one where the great battle must be won precisely because it had been so totally lost elsewhere. Ireland was, for him, a revolutionary country for the very reason that it was, in the oldest sense, a traditional one. His­tory, viewed as crisis, became politics-the politics of his own day and of his own country. But Irish politics enacted for him the great cultural battle of the era between Romantics and Utilitarians. He enforced this reading time and again. It is therefore very difficult, once we acknowl­edge this fact, to misread the various ‘political’ poems he wrote, even though some commentators have made it look easy. Yeats had no idea or attitude which was not part of the late-Romantic stock-in-trade. He was different in the fervour of his convictions, not in their form. His sense of crisis allowed him to see the archetypal patterns of history emerging out of the complexities of contemporary politics; it exposed for him the intimacies which bonded magic and art together; it gave Ireland’s technological and economic backwardness the benefit of a spiritual glamour [134] which had faded from the rest of Europe, as if it were a vestigial Greece in a sternly Roman world.

So we find in Yeats (as in Joyce) a version of racial history which is married to (or at least gives support to) a theology of art. Of course we have in Joyce’s work that which is importantly absent from Yeats’s middle-class Catholic Ireland. Joyce is one of the greatest and one of the last writers in the bourgeois tradition. Yeats, on the other hand, despite his own middle-class origins, wished to exile himself and his ideal version of society as completely as possible from the bourgeois world. Yet we should be careful when speaking of this wished-for exile. It is the kind of thing which we would properly associate with, say, Baudelaire or with Oscar Wilde. But in Yeats’s case we can be led to believe that his condemnation of the middle classes is the inevitable social extension of his aesthetic. His theory of the imagination, as we have seen, has certain aristocratic, even authoritarian implications. But it would be too bland to infer these from a poem like “September 1913”:

What need you, being come to sense,
But fumble in a greasy till
And add the halfpence to the pence
And prayer to shivering prayer, until
You have dried the marrow from the bone?
For men were born to pray and save:
Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,
It’s with O’Leary in the grave.

Although one could find a dozen other instances of Yeats’s contempt for the middle-class attachment to praying and saving, we must recog­nize that it represents for him something more devastatingly barren than these habits would indicate. In his early essays, gathered together in Ideas of Good and Evil in The Cutting of an Agate, he distinguishes between the ‘three types of men (who) have made beautiful things’ (aristocrats, countrymen and artists) and those others who ‘being always anxious, have come to possess little that is good in itself’. Artists, we are told, are ‘the priesthood of a forgotten faith’ and are opposed to the ‘makers of religions who have established their ceremonies, their form of art, upon fear of death, upon the hope of the father in his child, upon the love of man and woman’. [1] The condescension of tone and the under­graduate hauteur of these essays betray their literary origins. But the basic attitude remains intact in the savage and bitter poems of his last years. Common to the early essays and late poems is the belief that those others, the middle classes, are unredeemable from the things of earth [135] because of their fear of death. More precisely, Yeats believed they had neutralized death as an imaginative and physical reality. This, I believe, is a governing feature of Yeats’s thought and experience. His abhorrence of the neutralization of death in the middle-class consciousness led him towards disciplines and interests in which the notion of death was pre­-eminent and the contemplation of it a crucial activity.

Reincarnation seems to have been the most fervently held of all Yeats’s private beliefs. By virtue of it, death was both contemplated and overcome. Politically, one could say that the revolutionary thrust of his attack on empiricism and its social constellation in the middle classes was constantly parried by his defence of traditional social and religious systems which were, for him, valuable because they were reverential towards the notion of reincarnation. Like Greece, Ireland was for him a holy land because the spirits of the dead were given imaginative housing on every rath and hill. The haunted groves and sacred woods of the earth were made accessible either by folk belief or by art. The artist stood at the crossroads between the aristocrat and the countryman, combining aristocratic form with emotion of multitude. Unlike the bour­geois, he outfaced death and by so doing acknowledged in the world a dimension other than the secular. Ireland became for Yeats the embodi­ment of such beliefs and attitudes.

But Yeats’s world and that of the Romantic movement in general is not really quite so different from its bourgeois counterpart as it would have liked to be. Neither world will yield to the fact of extinction; each preserves, in different ways, belief in the eternity of the world and in the eternity of consciousness. Both are rooted in the fear of death. The opposition between the city of art and the decaying body in “Sailing to Byzantium” cannot be resolved because the city, in order to be supreme, must outface the fact of bodily extinction. And it cannot. The poem is in that respect unresolved, but it is not irresolute. In fact, it is the very resolute nature of Yeats’s honesty and his will to overcome what is unconquerable in experience - its very extinction - which makes the poem a great one. In the end, Yeats’s demand is that art or history rescue consciousness from death; but this is a demand neither art nor history can bear. For although each may be said to embody the principle of eternity, that embodiment is perceptible to an individual who personally by his death contradicts that principle even though, in a representative way, as Homo sapiens, he may be said to confirm an eternal process. It is pre­cisely that gap between personal experience of transience and the convic­tion of an eternal realm, which exercises Yeats to his most magnificent frustrations and contradictions. Can ‘ancestral night’ really, in the words of “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” ‘Deliver from the crime of death and [136] birth’? A play like Purgatory and the whole cycle of Cuchulain plays also remind us of this dispute. In A Vision Yeats said that Cuchulain ‘should (and could) earn deliverance from the wheel of becoming by participa­tion in the higher self, after which he should offer his spiritual history to the world; instead, he condemns himself to a career of violent and mean­ingless action, and this is responsible for the developing tragedy of his life’. [2] Unlike Hamlet, Lear or Ophelia, Cuchulain is not ‘gay’. He does not escape from the wheel of eternal recurrence into the eternal haven of art. He is the man of action whose action is always incomplete because it has not become a thought. Yet if we read “The Death of Cuchulain” or “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” carefully, we would, I suggest, come away puzzled and torn by their contradictions. We would find the whole se­quence of contradictions epitomized in A Vision and in certain passages in Explorations .

We can put the matter simply. Death renders life meaningless unless life achieves a form which death cannot alter. For Yeats, that form is art, phase fifteen of the circle of the moon. Otherwise, life is a recurrent cycle of meaningless action (perhaps the basic Yeatsian view of history). Yeats would therefore seem to be saying that the act of taking thought is, as such, the act of recognizing the meaning of death. But the world cannot (in all logic) contain a consciousness which can realize its own separation from the world. For such a consciousness has obviously something be­yond the world as its horizon and limit. This, for Yeats is the triumph of great art. To realize death is to see life simultaneously in personal and in historical terms; the confluence of these is the aesthetic form. Time loses its rigorous sequentiality and becomes plastic, dramatic. So many famous poems dwell on past moments which are emblems of the future, “Leda and the Swan” being perhaps the most famous. Yeats saw the constant remak­ing of the self as the effort to escape two things - a meaningless recur­rence like that which afflicted Cuchulain, and a meaningless extinction like that which afflicts all men. In the first case we have unsatisfied his­tory; in the second, unsatisfied life. Bringing the two together, conjoining the personal with the historical, gave a man the balance, the equipoise and the immortality of art. The achievement of Yeats here is reminiscent of what Valéry said of Mallarmé: ‘A man who measures himself against himself, and remakes himself according to his lights, seems to me a supe­rior achievement that moves me more than any other. The first effort of humanity is that of changing their disorder into order, and chance into power. That is the true marvel. [3]

So, by contemplating death, by bracketing the personal and the historical, Yeats evolves for us the notion of an art which articulates itself in great, changeless masterpieces but which reaches the point of [137] articulacy through the process of changing, remaking and making of the personality of the artist. It is a true dialectic, by virtue of which the term changelessness finds its meaning in its opposite, change; in which eternal recurrence discovers itself through the concept of eternal fixity; in which the wheel of becoming turns into the phase of being. This is, in nuce, a theory of human freedom realized under the aegis of death. It is the mode of thought which we might more readily, perhaps, associate with Heidegger, all the more so nowadays since such a theory has become associated, in the case of both these men, with a savage politics. Yeats did give substance and support to the philosophy of fascism. It is a fact to which we should afford some further attention.

From Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921) to the end of his life, Yeats’s lament for the loss of his own bodily, especially sexual, powers coincides with his lament for a civilization that was also hurtling towards its own death. The bird of subjective consciousness was being replaced by the beast of mass or objective consciousness. To put this into the idioms which he increasingly came to favour - Ireland and Europe had fallen into the cycle of meaninglessness (usually indicated in Yeats by random violence). The past had its proleptic emblems here, Leda and the Virgin. But the queen of the new dispensation would be impreg­nated by no swan or dove, but by the brutish swineherd. The offspring would be a rough beast indeed. The association of sexuality and violence is not a new one with him, but it once had a more perfumed, Pre­Raphaelite fragrance (as in a poem of 1902, “Adam’s Curse”). But if we think, for contrast, of the ominous silence of “Long-Legged Fly” (1939), we begin to sense the distance between poetry of personal crisis and a poetry which has become saturated with the sense of a public apoca­lypse. Yeats’s personal lament for the decay of his body coinciding with his coming into his imaginative strength, reinforced the antinomies of body and soul, spiritual and material, which had proliferated in his early poetry. They had, by the twenties, become elements in a personal crisis as well as constituent parts of a speculative symbolic system. During and after this decade, the twin issues of sexuality (the personal crisis) and Ireland (the historically unique culture) are cherished by him as sources of value and of feeling. Balancing them, or threatening to overcome them, are the opposing forces of a very Burkean mob and Carlylean democracy.

Sexuality and death, posed against the mob and democracy - surely this almost too easily offers us another instance of the Romantic gift for the interiorizing of values and the apotheosis of solitude in the face of a mass civilization? When Crazy Jane faces the Bishop we also witness biology against theology, outsider against institutional figure, sacred [138] energy against routine force. Yet this folk figure with the aristocratic vocabulary is, like her male counterpart, the Wild Old Wicked Man, a rather one-dimensional creature compared to the personae of some of the great poems like “Among School Children” or “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’” The ballad form of the poems does not consort very happily with their inclination towards sententiousness. We are left hover­ing between a strange metaphysic of sex and a folk mythology. A short piece like “The Lover’s Song” of 1938 might illustrate this:

Bird sighs for the air,
Thought for I know not where,
For the womb the seed sighs.
Now sinks the same rest
On Mind, on nest,
On straining thighs.

No more than Yeats, we still do not know where thought sighs for. It has no natural goal or aspiration like bird or seed. But it is appropriate that the image of sexual exhaustion should be the analogy for a loss of intellectual direction.

Yet a host of poems - the Crazy Jane verses, “The Statues”, “The Municipal Gallery Revisited”, “News for the Delphic Oracle”, “Cuchulain Comforted”, “Under Ben Bulben”, “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”- ­makes it clear that the sexual theme and its relation to death can only be understood in the context of the other theme to which we have recurred - that of Ireland. There is no doubt that Yeats wanted to save Ireland from democracy. He wanted the Irish to remain a people and not become a mob, a people living imaginatively on their local history and stories instead of on the English diet of parliamentary speeches and the gutter press. In his notes to Words upon the Window Pane, he wrote:

The fall of Parnell had freed imagination from practical politics, from agrarian grievance and political enmity, and turned it to imagi­native nationalism, to Gaelic, to the ancient stories, and at last to lyrical poetry and drama.
... What shall occupy our imagination? We must, I think, decide among these three ideas of national life; that of Swift; that of a great Italian of his day; that of modern England. [4]

Clearly, in the end he chose an Irish version of Mazzini’s Italian national­ism. He was always liable to choose Italy, but especially so when the choice was between it and modern England. As for Swift’s spirit, he, [139] Yeats, would incarnate that, thereby bringing about the desired fusion between Ascendency values and a nationalist culture based on the folk. It seems clear too that for him this version of Mazzini led visibly to Mussolini and that Irish nationalism became increasingly transfigured in his imagination by the sacrifice of Easter Week into a movement op­posed to everything that middle-class England, Arnold’s philistines, stood for-Utilitarianism, Statism, the greasy till. Ireland’s recent his­tory was a gesture in defiance of the Lockean-Benthamite tradition. It was what the French Revolution had been for English poets before the invasion of Switzerland or the September massacres.

The men of 1916 had offered their deaths to history. In doing so, they had broken the cycle of eternal recurrence. Their consciousness of themselves became the consciousness of the race. Irish difference, Irish uniqueness, the basis, after all, for the Gaelic-nationalist claim to inde­pendence, had been mediated through death. Yeats’s aesthetic became, then, more and more politicized under the pressure of the crisis which had afflicted his country. It could not but emerge as a conviction that the Irish had a crucial, redemptive role to play in the recovery of European civilization from barbarism. Easter Week made th e Great War look like a mindless, despiritualized carnage. Cuchulain’s (and by extension, Ire­land’s) cycle of recurrence became finally complete in the sacrifice of Pearse. What stalked through the Post Office was a new and specifically Irish version of modern, existential heroism.

But here we see Yeats in desperate straits. He is translating into politics the implications of his aesthetic. He denies, for instance, the bourgeois character of the Irish rebellion in order to preserve it as an aristocratic emblem caught in the tide of bourgeois life. He took the racial element in Irish nationalism, separated it from the class element, and made the former supreme. His version of the Irish past became a rationale for his version of the Irish future. But his apocalyptic sense, always easily ignited anyway, was consumed by the spectacle of the Great War and the Irish struggle of 1916-22. Ireland’s future history was thus projected across the terror of the Second Coming. It is surely an irony of some magnitude that Yeats’s politics should now make him appear an emblem or symptom of the Rough Beast’s arrival rather than its hostile prophet. But this is, in fact, the case. His idea of Revolution is, in the end, no more substantial, politically speaking, than that of D’Annunzio. It was history illuminated by a brilliant temperament. We measure that brilliance by the effulgence of the poetry he produced. Yet at the same time, we realize that his temperament has itself become part of our history and of our understanding of ourselves.

The question that remains is how this temperament can be described. [140] In political terms we need to know if it can seriously and accu­rately be described as fascist. Although we have some important poems after 1929, it is perhaps in his plays that Yeats reveals most fully the effect upon his work of his fully matured political and aesthetic opinions. Yet what do we make of A Full Moon in March (1935) in which the Queen holds the severed head of the Swineherd above her head before they sing their reciprocal songs of ‘desecration and the lover’s night’? If we return to an essay written in 1901, entitled “Magic” and collected in Ideas of Good and Evil, we come across a story that might help to lighten the strange opacity of this play. Yeats tells us there of a vision he had during a séance, in which a medical man, who had just lectured on the dissection of the human body, was discovered. unwrapping a clumsy doll model of the human form, the result of his attempting ‘to make human flesh by chemical means’. But the man sickened as the object took upon itself an evil life, drawing for its energy upon his terror. Finally he had to sever the head of the image from its body, but as he did so he fell back ‘as if he had given himself a mortal wound, for he had filled it with his own life’. [5] He was never completely well again and became accursed among the townsfolk and among his own students.

This is a Frankenstein-like story the significance of which for Yeats lay in the fact that the creator of the chemical body was trying to do by naturalistic means what could only be done imaginatively. The experi­ment therefore had evil results. In A Full Moon in March, however, the story gains its full symbolic growth. Frankenstein, Salomé and Irish folk­tale are combined into the crucial image of an act of decapitation which is also an act of love. Sex and violence produce poetry. Aristocrat and peasant produce, out of a violent fusion, art. This play enacts for us the Yeatsian ideal of the growth of consciousness in Ireland. The Queen’s apathy and the Swineherd’s body are both destroyed. In the wake of that destruction they learn to sing to one another. Ireland had to die before it could be regenerated. Yet in its regeneration it became not a fascist, but a colonial, culture. Like the call to Irish poets in “Under Ben Bulben” the Queen and the Swineherd in this play cry for the famous Unity of Being within a Unity of Culture. They sing the song of the self-cancelling antinomies, of the dialectic in which each positive finds its expression through the negative of the other. In A Full Moon in March the ‘drunken, vainglorious lout’ of the Swineherd is changed utterly. The play is a ritual enactment of Yeats’s version of the Irish revolution.

In this play, as in his poem, he seeks an identity for himself which will also be the identity of his race. The quest for the grail of ‘Irishness’ is not, however, to be confused with the cruder racial theories so pervasive in the Europe and Ireland of the thirties. Yeats had learned the notion of an [141] essential racial ‘signature’ both from his Anglo-Irish mentors and from the English Romantics. National identity is a concept often occasioned by the belief, on the part of the conqueror as much as on the part of the conquered, that there is some identifiable, genetic or cultural ‘difference’ between the two groups. Matthew Arnold, after all, had said this often enough about England and Ireland in his Irish essays. There are more recent examples. V. S. Naipaul writes in An Area of Darkness of how the English left behind in their twentieth-century colonies one of their most enduring inventions - a concept of Englishness. One of its affectations was that ‘of being very English, of knowing nothing at all about India, of eschewing Indian words and customs’. [6] If we substitute Ireland there for India, we can easily recognize the symptoms. The whole Irish revival is a reaction against this attitude, a movement towards the colony and away from the mother-country, a replacement of ‘Englishness’ by ‘Irishness’. Yet we must remember that for Yeats and Synge in particular the Irish maintained their especial quality precisely to the degree that they had remained loyal to those old beliefs and that old eloquence which had formerly characterized the seventeenth-century English. This is the Coleridgean notion of the English community rephrased in an Hibernian idiom. The colony, Ireland, has now become the motherland of historical memory. The actual motherland, England, has become degraded past recognition. We thus discover in Yeats the process of a complex act of colonial repossession, linguistic symptoms of which are to be heard also in Synge’s Preface to The Playboy of the Western World when he says: ‘It is probable that when the Elizabethan dramatist took his ink-horn and sat down to his work he used many phrases that he had just heard, as he sat at dinner, from his mother or his children. In Ireland, those of us who know the people have the same privilege’. ‘Those of us who know the people’­ - a perfect colonial phrase. Yeats considered himself to be one of those too; he wasn’t, in that sense, one of ‘the people’. His so-called fascism is, in fact, an almost pure specimen of the colonialist mentality.

Even the comparison Synge makes with a Merrie England of by­gone days is one that had almost become de rigueur among English Romantics from Blake and Coleridge to William Morris and W. B. Yeats. The call to Englishness has been a persistent one for almost two centuries. We find its contemporary forms in Donald Davie’s espousal of Thomas Hardy; in Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns ; in the poetry of Ted Hughes. When transferred to Ireland, such a search for a national signa­ture becomes colonial, on account of the different histories of the two islands. The greatest flowering of such a search has been Yeats’s poetry.

To describe Yeats’s politics, and to a large extent his achievement, as colonial is not at all to diminish it. His career is, especially in its close, [142] marked by incoherence and by an almost wilful mysticism. Yet his de­mand was always that Ireland should retain its culture by keeping awake its consciousness of metaphysical questions. By doing so it kept its own identity and its links with ancient European culture alive. As always with Yeats, to be traditionalist in the modern world was to be revolutionary. This is not the sort of opinion that we can any longer attribute to an outdated nationalist position. lt is a conviction which has a true revolu­tionary impact when we look at the history of the disappearance from the Western mind of the sense of eternity and of the consciousness of death. It is a history coincident with the history of modern capitalism. The greasy till is, after all, spiritually empty. Theodor Adorno put the issue like this in Negative Dialectics:

What in a highly unideological sense ought to be the most urgent concern of men has vanished. Objectively it has become problemati­cal; subjectively, the social network and the permanently overtax­ing pressure to adjust leaves men neither the time nor the strength to think about it. The questions are not solved, and not even their insolubility is proven. They are forgotten, and any talk of them lulls them so much more deeply to their evil sleep.

It is out of that evil sleep that Yeats saw his Rough Beast arise. He wanted to take Ireland into awareness with him. In its consciousness of death, the culture would become truly alive. To quote Adorno again:

We might be tempted to speculate whether the turn in evolution­ary history that gave the human species its open consciousness and thus its awareness of death - whether this turn does not contradict a continuing animal constitution which prohibits men to bear that con­sciousness. The price to be paid for the possibility to go on living would be a restriction of consciousness, then, a means to shield it from what consciousness is, after all, the consciousness of death. [7]

As against that we remember Yeats’s words:

Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
(’Sailing to Byzantium’)

He was a revolutionary whose wars took place primarily within him­self; and he knew that in the end, struggle as he might, it was a losing battle [143]. Not even art could quite compensate for that. We can close on the poem “The Four Ages of Man” from the 1934 sequence Supernatural Songs:

He with body waged a fight,
But body won; it walks upright.

Then he struggled with the heart;
Innocence and peace depart.

Then he struggled with the mind;
His proud heart he left behind.

Now his wars on God begin;
At stroke of midnight God shall win.

1. Essays and Introductions (London 1961), pp. 251, 203.
2. A Vision (NY 1961), p, 257.
3. A. E. Mackay, The Universal Self.. A Study of Paul Valéry (London 1961), p.43.
4. Explorations, selected by Mrs. W. B. Yeats (London 1962), p.343.
5. Essays and Introductions, p. 32.
6. V. S. Naipaul, An Area of Darkness (London 1964), p. 210.
7. Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (London 1973), p. 30.


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