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Yeats and the Fascists
With the precedence of his Romantic forebears in mind, Yeats was ever aware that his poetic abilities might falter as he aged. In particular, Wordsworth's long decline was a chastening example. Yeats read--or had Beckett read to him--the whole of Wordsworth, "for the sake of my conscience." Such penitential mortification--imagine Beckett droning through The White Doe of Rylstone for days on end, like Crapp's Last Tape--must have called to mind the usual early departure of the Romantic muse.
Yeats poetic vigor, though, was long-lived. In light of his anxieties, it's significant that the last poem of Last Poems (1938-1939) is the slight "Politics."
How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics, . . .(1)
Yeats was through and through a political poet, and quite capable of fixing his attention on politics, even on the politics of the U.S.S.R., of Italy, or of Spain.
In 1937, for example, Pablo Neruda organized a writers' conference in Madrid at a time when that city was besieged by Franco's army. "Priceless replies poured in from all over," writes Neruda in his memoirs. "One was from Yeats, Ireland's national poet. [He was] too old to travel to a beleaguered city like Madrid, which was steadily being pounded by bombs, but [he] rallied to the defense of the Spanish Republic."(2) As Conor Cruise O'Brien writes in his influential essay, "Passion and Cunning," "throughout his life as a writer Yeats had abiding, and intensifying, political interests and passions. It is misleading to make him essentially non-political, on the strength of certain disclaimers, refusals and ironies."(3)
The appearance of "Politics" as the capstone of Yeats's poetry is no anomaly. There's even something oracular that adheres to it, since it's spoken, as it were, "from beyond the grave," after the epitaph of "Under Ben Bulben." So, in a position where one might have expected something rather more spiritual, we find instead a short poem, delivered, as are so many of Yeats's stanzas, within a single sentence. It seems an odd last card from a poet who stacked the deck so carefully.
Yet here's a travelled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there's a politician
That has both read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war's alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms.
The martial enthusiasms and anxieties of Europe in the late 1930s were on everyone's mind, traveled or not. That rarity, "a politician / That has both read and thought,"4 hearkens back to the poet's lifelong engagement with the leaders of his "fool-driven land." And, of course, by 1938, Yeats would have recognized, as would have any European, that the news of "war and war's alarms" was indubitably "true."
Time and time again it was "arms" in its military sense that controlled Yeats's life. "Politics" is an invitation to reflect on Yeats's engagement in the public life of Ireland as statesman, dramaturge, theater manager, and would-be aesthetic conscience. Though he could and often did portray himself as a political naïf, Yeats was a quintessential modernist zoon politikon.
The animal's instincts weren't infallible. Yeats has been accused of fascistic tendencies, and more than once of thoroughgoing Fascism.5 The gravamen leads into the labyrinthine passages of Irish politics between the Easter Uprising and the year of Yeats's death, but it is easily followed in outline: Yeats was an exponent of despotism; he allied himself with self-proclaimed Fascists; he favored a program of coerced eugenics;6 and his modernist "rage for order," expressed in his totalizing spiritualist vision, took a particularly nasty turn in the context of practical governance.
The accusations have been made most influentially by Conor Cruise O'Brien. Before discussing O'Brien's essay, however, we'll go back to one that's less well known, published in 1939, within a few months of Yeats's death by Auden in the Partisan Review.7
Auden's essay takes the form of a trial transcript, with the deceased in the dock. The prosecuting attorney speaks first, followed by the attorney for the defense. Without some prior knowledge of Auden's political affinities during the period--limp socialism--the reader wouldn't be able to tell where Auden's sympathies fall. In poetical matters,: Auden's enthusiasm was limited. He wasn't particularly impressed with Yeats's fairies and sprites. But on the topic of politics, Auden's prosecutor and defender agree on the relevant points. First the prosecutor:
The deceased had the feudal mentality. He was prepared to admire the poor just as long as they remained poor and deferential, accepting without protest the burden of maintaining a little Athenian band of literary landowners, who without their toil could not have lasted for five minutes.8
Gentlemen, I need say no more. In the last poem he wrote, the deceased rejected social justice and reason, and prayed for war. Am I mistaken in imagining that somewhat similar sentiments are expressed by a certain foreign political movement which every lover of literature and liberty acknowledges to be the enemy of mankind?9
The defender, pleading that we "judge, not a man, but his work," insists on Yeats's greatness as a poet, but only weakly rebuts the accusations of the prosecutor:
My learned friend has sneered at Irish Nationalism, but he knows as well as I that Nationalism is a necessary stage toward Socialism. He has sneered at the deceased for not taking arms, as if shooting were the only honorable and useful form of social action. Has the Abbey Theatre done nothing for Ireland?10
Indeed the Abbey did much for Ireland, though doubtless not so much as Yeats would have liked. Hazard Adams says Yeats "wanted to raise Irish literature, drama, and history above the melodrama of shameful villain and blameless hero that had captured a literature sunk in the situation of a suppressed nationalism."11 More often than not, though, the Abbey was where Yeats was shaken from his Romantic idyls to confront the philistinism of a public inflamed by clerics, demagogues, and the newspapers. Encounters like the 1907 riots over The Playboy of the Western World moved Yeats to advocate, as he wrote in a letter to Olivia Shakespear, for the "despotic rule of the educated classes."12 Why did Yeats, who early on sat at the feet of William Morris, finally opt for an Ireland ruled in despotism by "a little Athenian band of literary landowners"?
Auden's consternation turns out to have been prescient: the heat of debate over Yeats's politics continues 13 Certainly Yeats wouldn't be the first socialist to decline into Tory old age. We ought to remember that the year of Auden's essay, 1939, western democracies were under siege. Much of Europe had already turned to despotism after failed experiments with liberal-constitutional civil society. And the war in Spain--the "Good Fight"--occupied the consciousness of intellectuals in Europe and America. There were, in those years, certain expectations of public men and women, expectations of commitment to one idea or another, and to insist, as Yeats had insisted, that "the best lack all conviction" was seen by Auden and others as complicity in the sacrifice of democracy.
In the context of Irish nationalism, though, Yeats's politics turn out to be a good bit more complicated than Auden might have thought. This was, after all, a poet who had "rallied to the defense of the Spanish Republic." And Yeats was a Londoner as well as an Irishman: it wasn't until 1922, with his election to the Irish senate, that he took a permanent address in Dublin.14
Yeats was throughout a poet of the Protestant Ascendancy, a poet, as he might have said, of the Great Houses. Auden paints this correctly, but only gets part of the picture, missing Yeats's distress over the dissolution of the Ascendancy. It was Coole, and the Ireland represented by Coole, that Yeats hoped for. And it was the passing of Coole, overwhelmed by the "greasy till" of shopkeepers, the superstition of the people, and the stupidity of the newspapers, that he lamented. What Ireland wanted from Yeats was a founding Irish myth, an endless recapitulation of Cathleen ni Houlihan (largely the work of Lady Gregory); what it got was in the end elegiac and bitter. "Romantic Ireland's dead and gone," Yeats writes in "September 1913"; "It's with O'Leary in the grave." By the year of "Statues" in Last Poems, bitterness had become Yeats's leading motif.
We Irish, born into that ancient sect
But thrown upon this filthy modern tide
And by its formless, spawning, fury wrecked,
Climb to our proper dark, that we may trace
The lineaments of a plummet-measured face.
The "filthy modern tide," a liquefying wash of profit mongers and the aesthetic, religious, and moral values of the Irish people played the ungovernable sea to Yeats's Cuchulain. It was a life-long series of political disappointments--the ignominious fall of Parnell, the disaster at the Post Office, the unrealized dreams of Fenian republicanism--that culminated in Yeats's alliance with the jack boot.
Thirty years after Auden's essay in the Partisan Review, Conor Cruise O'Brien revisited Yeats's politics in a now-famous piece for a Yeats centenary Festschrift. O'Brien's essay, "Passion and Cunning," has probably been more influential than any other in promoting the image of a Yeats irremediably Fascist in private outlook and public pronouncements.
If one drops the assumption about poets always having to be nice in politics, then the puzzle disappears, and we see, I believe, that Yeats the man was as near to being a Fascist as the conditions of his country permitted.15
A bit later on he writes:
It is probably fortunate for his future reputation, and especially his standing with the British Council, that he died in January 1939, before the political momentum of his last years could carry him any farther. . . . 16
And then O'Brien goes over the top.
There is . . . some irony in the thought that there was something in him that would have taken considerable pleasure--though not without a respectful backward glance at Shakespeare--in seeing England occupied by the Nazis, the Royal Family exiled, and the Mother of Parliaments torn down. Meanwhile in Ireland, one would have expected to see him at least a cautious participant, or ornament, in a collaborationist regime. . . .17
O'Brien goes on to accuse Richard Ellmann of trying to pull Yeats from the fire.
. . . thus Dr Ellmann reserves the entrance of Maud Gonne into his narrative for the moment of Parnell's death, although the natural moment to have brought her in would, one might have thought, have been the time at which Yeats first met her and fell in love with her, almost three years before. Keeping her back intensifies the drama but blurs the politics. It helps to perpetuate Yeats's myth of himself as 'a foolish passionate man', whereas the weight of the evidence suggests that he was something much more interesting: a cunning passionate man.18
A "cunning passionate man": O'Brien may be correct in his assumption that Yeats had more political savvy than he admitted. And he's certainly right about the place of politics in Yeats's work. His rise to prominence, after all was with a poem, "Mourn--And Then Onward," that appeared in the last issue of a Parnellite broadsheet just after Parnell's death. The Yeats who could write "The Ghost of Roger Casement," with its bitter denunciation of British imperialism jibes uneasily with the poet who wrote "On being asked for a War Poem" in the 1919 volume The Wild Swans at Coole.
I think it better that in times like these
A poet's mouth be silent, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right; . . .
This doesn't prove, though, as some of Yeats's defenders would have it, that he was "a poet whose political thinking was erratic and mediocre."19 Neither was Yeats the political sharpie that O'Brien suspects. Yeats's politics, crude and even silly in spots, are consistently discernible, and consistently in the service of an Ireland that he saw slipping away from the heirs of the Ascendancy--Robert Gregory, Lady Gregory, Maude Gonne--and falling into the hands of "Base-born products of base beds," as "Under Ben Bulben" has it. The poet's constant nationalist theme was the importance of reference marks of aesthetic freedom and public order. Hazard Adams writes:
Yeats's nationalism was from beginning to end antithetical in the sense of critical opposition to forms of nationalism that tended toward superficiality and suppression. It is this stance of seeking to provide a necessary antithesis rather than any consistency of doctrine or political position that characterized Yeats's career. It is this that kept getting him into political difficulties and caused him to suffer assault from both of the mutually negating sides. It still does....20
Sympathetic critics are keen to argue that Yeats's inattention to the rising business classes and the rural poor (except as they fit into the scheme of the fading "Romantic Ireland") doesn't make him a Fascist--certainly not a Fascist as the word is used today.21 What's the evidence?
The evidence centers around Yeats's promptly-disillusioned affiliation with the Irish Blueshirts, a patently Fascist organization built on the model of the German Brownshirts and the Italian Blackshirts. It was, from the start, an uneasy alliance, and Yeats soon disassociated himself from the movement, but the evidence of his enthusiasm for their program is well documented in letters and pronouncements.22 In late 1933 he writes to Olivia Shakespear:
The great secret is out--a convention of blue-shirts--"National Guards"--have received their new leader with the Fascist salute and the new leader announces reform of Parliament as his business. . . . Italy, Poland, Germany, then perhaps Ireland. Doubtless I shall hate it (though not so much as I hate Irish democracy) but it is September we must not behave like the gay young sparks of May or June.
The organization is for an independent Ireland within the commonwealth. Whether it succeeds or not in abolishing parliamentary government as we know it today, it will certainly bring into discussion all the things I care for.23
At about the same time, Yeats composed three marching songs for the Blueshirts. In a "Commentary" to the songs he notes that "a friend belonging to a political party wherewith I had some loose associations" encouraged him to compose them.24 The association with the Blueshirts was closer than Yeats let on. At least for a time, he imagined himself to be a chief counselor to the leaders of the Blueshirt movement. He was particularly close to D. A. MacManus, gray eminence of the group who was instrumental in the election of General O'Duffy, a former head of police, to the leadership of the Blueshirts. Several times MacManus arranged meetings between O'Duffy and Yeats, during which the poet lectured the thug on the importance of an ordered society.
O'Duffy--who was later expelled from the Blueshirts and formed a splinter group--seems to have put Yeats off almost immediately. It took but a few of these "tutorials" for Yeats to decide that the Blueshirts would never deliver on an Irish Republic ruled by the educated classes.25 While the Blueshirts were bent on preventing an IRA takeover of the government by any means (their abhorrence of the IRA was shared by Yeats), the poet insisted on the ideal of civil order: "In politics I have but one passion and one thought: rancor against all who, except under the most dire necessity, disturb public order. . . ."26
"Pubic order": the phrase exemplifies Yeats's political thinking--not only during the 1930s, but throughout his life. Its importance in the poet's idealization of Irish society is what led him to the association with General O'Duffy, and the profession of ideas cribbed from the full-blown Fascist programs that were taking hold in Europe.
True, "Fascism" in Yeats's personal lexicon meant something different than it would come to mean for a generation that lived through World War II. Where his accuser apprehends "Mussolini" a defender might read "Burke," or even "Swift." The most important relationships of his life in Ireland were with the exponents of the noble Protestant Ascendancy. Here, I believe, is where Cruise O'Brien is wrong, for if Yeats is passionate and cunning, he is far more passionate than cunning, and, when cunning, cunning only in the service of that idealized vision of a "Romantic Ireland," whose continued viability he doubted.
At times Yeats is more the egalitarian than the autocrat:
We can never hope to build up a State where the multitudes will starve in slums that a few men may have great wealth. . . . We should seek to distribute among all enough of leisure and enough of independence to give all their chance of thinking nobly and feeling nobly.27
Yeats's nationalist passion was formed early on, and is not so incommensurable with his early admiration of the William Morris (or of Shelley and Blake) as it might seem. He was, from the start--and to the end--a Fenian nationalist of the school of John O'Leary. It was O'Leary who said, "There are some things a man ought not to do to save his country." (As O'Brien points out, "It was a phrase Yeats was often to repeat."28) "When O'Leary died," Yeats writes, "I could not bring myself to go to his funeral."
Power passed to small shopkeepers, to clerks, to that very class that had seemed to John O'Leary so ready to bend to the power of others, to men who had risen above the traditions of the countryman, without learning those of cultivated life or even educating themselves, and who, because of their poverty, their ignorance, their superstitious piety, are much subject to all kinds of fear.29
It was the same with the death of Parnell: the buoyancy of a rising urban merchant class was lifting with it all the untutored values of rustic Ireland, displacing the nobler aspirations of those who were best qualified to rule, the Anglo-Irish Protestants of the aristocracy and landed gentry. Denis Donoghue notes Yeats's great fear:
[His] recurrent moods, his worry that the next phase of history may not be the antithetical one he prophesied and longed for; it may continue to be the primary culture he partly despises, partly fears, the Christian culture of meekness, the common man, democracy. Great men, out of phase, may be brought low by the common herd."30
Certainly, in the example of Parnell, Yeats had seen the spectacular fall of a great man "brought low by the common herd" (the Nietzschean echo in Donoghue's phrase is apt). With O'Leary's death, and the increasingly remote possibility of an Ireland founded on the values he professed, Yeats's poetry becomes bitter. He may have hoped that the passing of the old era, even through a "blood-dimmed tide," would bring with it a resuscitation of the aristocratic order. But in his incarnation as a public man of letters called to the practice of statehood, even in the mundane business of designing a new coinage (he had left the Senate in 1928), Yeats found little reason to hope.
Yeats was indisputably anti-democratic (he approved of eugenics to preserve the aristocracy). But it's his anger that is the salient feature of the later poetry--anger toward the British, toward the coarsening of the "rich horn" of the Ascendancy, which was being bartered down by a nationalist politics dominated by men like General O'Duffy.
It's this anger, I think, that leads Cruise O'Brien, as it led Auden before him, to an inevitable conclusion. But the same anger is essential to Yeats's late literary productivity. As he wrote in the Autobiographies:
I wrote 'Leda and the Swan' because the editor of a political review asked me for a poem. I thought, 'After the individualist, demagogic movement founded by Hobbes and popularized by the Encyclopaedists and the French Revolution, we have a soil so exhausted that it cannot grow a crop again for centuries'. Then I thought, 'Nothing is now possible but some movement from above preceded by some violent annunciation'. My fancy began to play with Leda and the Swan for metaphor, and I began this poem: but as I wrote, bird and lady took such possession of the scene that all politics went out of it, and my friend tells me that his 'conservative' readers would misunderstand the poem.31
"All politics" did not go out of it: "Leda and the Swan" is saturated with the perning gyres of history and the reversal of historical phases. Yeats's awareness that the poem's reception might be affected by the "conservatism" of its readership (meaning Irish prudishness), highlights the fact that it is "about" politics.
Here again we encounter Yeats's anger over the "exhaustion" of democracy, and his stock vision of violent change.32 But the "annunciation from above," when seen in the light of Yeats's political statements during the 1930s, was, in the Irish context, authentic Fascism.
Ultimately, the best we can say for Yeats is to agree with Grattan Freyer that Yeats "was not ideologically a humanitarian. He believed that violence was an inevitable part of historical change. . . ."34
Later, in the Last Poems of the late 1930s, at the very height of his poetical powers, Yeats was able to reconcile himself, bitterly perhaps--or, in a more Yeatsian vein, coldly--to the passing of all that he cherished in "Romantic Ireland." His hope, dwindling at a time when Europe trembled on the abyss of another Great War, was that "the violent annunciation from above" would usher in the Irish nation..
It's true that Yeats's sometimes deplored Fascism , as in a letter to Ethel Mannin:
Do not try to make a politician of me, even in Ireland I shall never I think be that again--as my sense of reality deepens, and I think it does with age, my horror at the cruelty of governments grows greater, and if I did what you want, I would seem to hold one form of government more responsible than any other, and that would betray my convictions. Communist, Fascist, nationalist, clerical, anticlerical, are all responsible according to the number of their victims.35
The epigraph to "Politics"--taken from Thomas Mann, himself a political exile--is rueful: "In our time the destiny of man presents its meanings in political terms." Not long after Yeats's death the house at Coole Park, which had passed into the hands of the government's Forestry Commission, was torn down at the order of a bureaucrat.
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Adams, Hazard. "Criticism, Politics, and History: The Matter of Yeats." Georgia Review, 24 (1970), pp. 158-82.
Allison, Jonathan A., ed. Yeats's Political Identities: Selected Essays. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1996.
Archibald, Douglas. Yeats. Syracuse, N.Y.: Univ. of Syracuse Press, 1983.
Auden, W. H. "The Public v. the Late Mr William Butler Yeats." In The English Auden. Ed. Edward Mendelson. London: Faber and Faber, 1977, pp. 389-93.
Cairns, Craig. Yeats, Eliot, Pound, and the Politics of Poetry: Richest to the Richest. Pittsburgh, Penn.: Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 1982.
Chadwick, Joseph. "Violence in Yeats's Later Politics and Poetry." English Literary History, 55 (1988), pp. 869-93.
Cullingford, Elizabeth. Yeats, Ireland, and Fascism. New York: New York Univ. Press, 1981.
Donoghue, Denis. "The Political Turn in Criticism." Salmagundi, 81 (1989), pp. 104-22.
Ellmann, Richard. Yeats: The Man and the Masks. New York: W. W. Norton, 1979.
Freyer, Grattan. Yeats and the Anti-Democratic Tradition. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1981.
Krimm, Bernard G. W. B. Yeats and the Emergence of the Irish Free State 1918-1939: Living in the Explosion. Troy, N.Y.: Whitson Publishing Company, 1981.
Lyons, F. S. L. "The Poet as Politician." Rev. of Yeats, Ireland, and Fascism, by Elizabeth Cullingford. Times Literary Supplement, 15 May 1981, p. 550.
O'Brien, Conor Cruise. "Passion and Cunning: An Essay on the Politics of W. B. Yeats." In Passion and Cunning: Essays on Nationalism, Terrorism, and Revolution. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988, pp. 8-61.
O'Connell, Maurice R. Rev. of Yeats, Ireland, and Fascism, by Elizabeth Cullingford. Clio, 13 (1984), pp. 303-05.
Rosenthal, M. L. "The 'Actaeon-Principle': Political Aesthetic of Joyce and the Poets." Southern Review, 23 (1987), pp. 541-56.
Said, Edward W. "Yeats and Decolonization." In Nationalism, Colonialism, and Literature. Ed. Seamus Deane. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1990, pp. 69-95.
Stanfield, Paul Scott. Yeats and Politics in the 1930s. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988.
Steward, Martin. Letter. Times Literary Supplement, 28 August 1992, p. 13.
Yeats, William Butler. The Collected Poems of W. B.Yeats. 2nd ed. Ed. Richard J. Finneran. New York: Scribner Paperback Poetry, 1996.
-----. The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats: Definitive Edition, With the Author's Final Revisions. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1956.
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