English Literature Essays - Canonical Modernist Writers

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Like many of the canonical Modernist writers, the work of W.B. Yeats represents the paradox of a longing for the past and a vision for the future, (Bradbury and McFarlane,1991; Cantor, 1988).

Whether it be the revision of America's political past, in the form of Ezra Pound's John Adams Cantos (Pound, 1986) or T.S. Eliot's revisiting of a Christian theological past in the form of his Ariel poems (Eliot, 1989) Modernism constantly sought to find a future from the traditional past, as Hugh Kenner says of Eliot:

these poems exhaust tradition, or as much of the tradition as laywithin the compass of their author's purpose. (Kenner, 1969: 210)

The traditional,then finds resonance not only in the present but also in the future, however,as Kenner suggest this is seldom a holistic past rather, a selective or even acreated past that utilized and rediscovered voices and images in order tocomment on contemporary issues and problems and suggest avenues of social andaesthetic progression.

This notion, ofrediscovery and circularity, is of course most famously expounded upon in T.S.Eliot's essay Traditional and the Individual Talent (Eliot, 1975) but alsofinds parallels in many foundational Modernist texts, like Spenger's circular TheDecline of the West (Spengler, 1918) or even certain passages in Yeats' ownA Vision (Yeats, 1937):

One must bear in mind that the Christian Ear, like the twothousand years, let us say, that went before it, is an entire wheel, and eachhalf of it an entire wheel, that each half when it comes to its 28thphase reaches the 15th phase of the first phase of the entire era.(Yeats, 1937: 266)

In this essay Iwould like to look at this notion and how it manifests itself in the late workof Yeats with regard to the Protestant Ascendancy and Big House literature. Iwill hope to show that Yeats' rediscovery and use of Ireland's past andhistorical culture represents not a change but a continuum in his work.However, I will also attempt to show that Yeats used this revision for a numberof differing ends; in his early work using Irish folktales and mythologies inorder to create an aesthetic vision of a new Irish voice and, in later life,evoking a more personal past, in the form of his own socio-political heritagein order to create psychological and ontological surety for a poet that was,gradually, losing faith in his own psycho-sexual and socio-literary reality.

As MalcolmBradbury assert in his Modernism: A Guide to European Literature 1890-1930(Bradbury ad McFarlane, 1991), Modernism has always represented the symbiosisof aesthetic and socio-political ideals:

One of the word's (Modernism) associations is with the coming of anew era if high aesthetic self-consciousness and non-representationism, inwhich art turns from realism and humanistic representation towards style,technique and spatial form in pursuit of a deeper penetration of life. (Bradbury,1991: 25)

Therefore in poemssuch as Pound's Hugh Selwyn Mauberly (Pound, 1990) or even Eliot's The WasteLand (Eliot, 1989), Modernist writers sought to combine their aesthetic visionwith their socio-political one and, very often, these two tallied.

In the early workof Yeats this took the form of a deliberate evocation of Irish mythology. Insuch poems as Red Hanrahan's Song about Ireland (Yeats, 1987: 90) and those in the volume TheGreen Helmet and Other Poems (1987: 99-109), the poet evokes an Irelandunified by a shared past, a land that finds homogeneity through appreciation ofits environment. The fairy stories and folk tales that form the basic imagisticlexicon of, for instance, A Faery Song:

Wewho are old, old and gay,

Oso old!

Thousandsof years, thousands of years,

IfI were told.

(Yeats,1987: 43)

Connects Yeatswith Ireland's bardic past, as Morton Irving-Seidin states in his book WilliamButler Yeats: The Poet as Mythmaker 1865-1939 (1962):

The literary traditional of Gaelic Ireland falls into two maincurrents, of which the first includes the bardic stories of the Red BranchTribe of Ulster and the Fenians of Connacht and their successors. (Seidin,1962: 6)

This is mythmakingand myth reinvention on a national scale; not only through his poetry butthrough his many dramas for the Abbey theatre, Yeats attempted to concretize anIrish aesthetic by reinterpreting and reinventing the tales and stories ofIreland's past; a semi-mythological psycho-temporal space that remainedunsullied by the current and recurring political issues.

In poems like Sailingto Byzantium (Yeats, 1987: 217) we see this aesthetic vision devoid of themythologized Ireland, the images and poetic allusions in this poem once againboth evoke and create an artistic past, but this time it is a aristocraticpast; a history, not of the folk tale, but of the landed, leisured, vibrantaesthetic; not of the bard anymore but the drowsy Emperor (Yeats, 1987: 218):

Onceout of nature I shall never take

Mybodily form from any natural thing,

Butsuch as Grecian Goldsmith's make

Ofhammered gold and gold enalling

Tolords ands ladies of Byzantium

Ofwhat is past, or passing, or to come.

(Yeats,1987: 218)

This shift invision, this change from a celebration of the folk and fairy tale to anevocation of the bourgeois arts, of course coincided with the many historicaland literary zeitgeist forming events of the Modernists. The Tower(Yeats, 1987), arguably Yeats' most socio-political volume was published in1928, six years after Eliot's The Waste Land (Eliot, 1989) and Joyce's Ulysses,(Joyce, 1960) and reflects many of the literary and social concerns of thesetwo great canonical texts (Hone, 1962).

By the time ofpublication of his last poems such as Are You Content? (Yeats, 1987: 370) andUnder Ben Bulben (Yeats, 1987: 397-401), Yeats' vision had changed again butthis time, as Majorie Howes states in Yeats' Nations: Gender, Class andIrishness (1996) it took on a more personal, more psycho-social timbre. In Areyou Content?, for instance, Yeats again evokes an Irish past but this time itis a genealogical past rather than socio-political:

Icall on those that call me son,

Grandson,or great-grandson,

Onuncles, aunts, great-uncles or great-aunts

Tojudge what I have done.

(Yeats,1987: 370)

This litany hereof familial ties evokes not merely a history but a particular history, whereas withSailing to Byzantium, history was de-personalized for political exegesis hereYeats becomes the subject of his own work, not only calling on his forebearsbut asking them for judgment:

HaveI, that put it into words,

Spoiltwhat old loins have sent?

Eyesspiritualised by death can judge,

Icannot, but I am not content.

(Yeats,1987: 370)

Spurred on,perhaps, by his reading of theosophy and the Blavatsky circle (Ellman, 1948;Hall and Steimann, 1950) Yeats' poetical voice here concerns itself with hisown personal heritage and the extent that he is a product of that which hasgone before, in both a genetic and psychological sense. This represents, Ithink, not only a continuum of thought in that Yeats still looks to the pastfor inspiration and guidance, but also a shift in that he also, in this period,looks to history in order to palliate concerns and problems he feels concernhimself rather his nation.

This, I think, hasobvious resonance with the notion of Big House writing in Ireland, thepsycho-social construction of an Anglo-Irish history that finds examples inMarie Edgeworth's Castle Rackrent, (Edgeworth: 1800) to thecontemporary fictions of Jennifer Johnson and John Banville (Corcoran, 1997:32). Neil Corcoran makes the link between Yeats ands Big House literature inhis book After Yeats and Joyce: Reading Modern Literature (Yeats, 1997):

(The literature of the Irish 'Big House' is a)significantsub-genre in Irish writing, it is predominantly a novelistic tradition.However, one of its most important manifestations in the modern period is, towhich other texts make reference, is the poetry of Yeats. He engages themes,motifs or images drawn from the Big House throughout his career (Corcoran,1997: 32)

We can see howthis is most certainly the case. As Howes (1996) points out, however, it wasduring the middle and later years of his career that Yeats began to rely moreand more upon Anglo Irish imagery and reference rather than the kinds ofunivocal Irish myth we have been looking at with reference to his very earlywork:

Yeats' Big House poems connect the laudable aspects ofAnglo-Irishness with integrity in public life, strong political leadership anda vigorous cultural position. (Howes, 1996: 118)

This situationcould only have arisen out of the poet's own psychology, finding in his socialheritage that which he failed to find for the larger aesthetic past of hiscountry. In Under Ben Bulben, Yeats provides what is, perhaps, the mostconcrete example of this. The poem opens with the kind of bardic evocation thatwe saw in the early poem Red Hanarahan's Song about Ireland:

Swearby what sages spoke

Roundthe Mareotic Lake

Thatthe witch of Atlas knew,

Spokeand set the cocks a-crow

(Yeats,1997: 397)

Here however,Yeats links two traditions: that of the Irish landscape through the image of BenBulben, the famous peak in Yeats' home country Sligo and the contemplative LakeMareotic of Egypt. Each of these images is both aesthetic and personal(Rosenthal, 1997: 344), they refer not only to a universal human history but toYeats' own brand of liminal Irishness, constantly, as we have seen, fusing theByzantine with the Fenian; each, in their way attempting to address what hecalls That pale, long visaged company/That air in immortality (Yeats, 1997:398).

This evocation ofthe twin notions of Egypt and Ireland is a constant one throughout the poem.The fourth verse progresses the historical symbiosis by making mention of theSistine Chapel roof (Yeats, 1987: 399) and the Edenic fall from grace.

This last point isvital to an understanding of the degree to which personal psychology hadinfluenced Yeats' social sense during the middle and latter periods of hislife. For Yeats, the concept of a univocal Ireland as exemplified by thesymbolic use of the shared socio-literary tales and myths in his early work hadgiven way, in the latter work, to a belief in the necessity for a leisured,aristocratic class that would, through social status and wealth, be free topursue artistic and philosophic aims, as Howes asserts:

for the most part he based his ideal aristocracy firmly in amaterial one; his works insist again and again that such virtues flourish mostreadily under the conditions provided by wealth, privilege and leisure. Infact, his determination to base his ideal aristocracy in a material one was oneof the driving forces behind his selective constructions of Anglo-Irishculture and history. (Howes, 1996: 107)

We can see, thenthat for Yeats especially in his later poems, the motif of Egypt and Greece, forinstance as used in Under Ben Bulben, represented a similar socio-economicposition as the Ascendancy in Ireland; the proliferation of a landed, wealthyelite who were free to engage in art and literature.

In Under Ben Bulben,we are left under no illusions as to the personal element of this vision:

Underbare Ben Bulben's head

InDrumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid.

Anancestor was rector there

Longyears ago, a church stands near,

Bythe road an ancient cross.

(Yeats,1987: 400)

Here we have avortex of late Yeatsian image use; we see the evocation of a personal past,twinning the Yeats lineage with Big House history, we note that this is concretizedby the use of the protestant church with its simple cross that is, itself,linked to an ancient past and we also, in the following lines, hear thepsychosocial voice of a poet coming towards the end of his life, challengingtime and God; evoking the past again, but this time in order to stave off deathrather than create a future:

Nomarble, no conventional phrase;

Onlimestone quarried near the spot

Byhis command these words are cut:

Casta cold eye

Onlife, death.

Horseman,pass by!

(Yeats,1987: 401)

Yeats, then, sawin notions of the Irish Ascendancy and the Big House era a similarsocio-economic position as Egypt and Byzantium, the surety of society createdby a leisured aristocracy. The notion that Georges Bataille characterizes as afounding precept of fascism, a political philosophy that is constantly twinnedwith Modernism and Modernist thinkers:

Production is the basis of a social homogeneity. Homogenous societyis productive society, namely, useful society. Every useless element isexcluded, not from all society, but from the homogenous part. (Bataille, 1999:138)

As Richard Ellmannpoints out in his biography Yeats: The Man and Masks (Ellmann, 1942),towards the end of his life, Yeats found it more and more to difficult to cometo even closer grips with reality (Ellmann, 1948: 273), his poems reveal amore personal content, fusing concerns about death, old age and sexual declinewith images of the Irish landscape and historicism. For Yeats, as we have seen,the evocation of the Big House represented a return to a time, historically butincreasingly psychologically, when creativity and potency where at theirheight, albeit perhaps phantasmatically. Like Christian theology for Eliot orConfucian China for Pound, the era of Anglo-Irish domination and control of theProtestant landlords for Yeats represented both a golden age and a key for thefuture; both an exemplar for social and aesthetic life and a private space intowhich to retreat.

This, as manycommentators have pointed out is a constant throughout his work but gainsparticular resonance and importance in his last poems where this space becomesever more important, both in a literary and a psychological sense.


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