Yeats's Politics since 1943: Approaches and Reproaches

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The king answered and said to the Chaldeans, 'The thing is gone from me: if ye will not make known unto me the dream, with the interpretation thereof, ye shall be cut in pieces, and your houses shall be made a dunghill. (Daniel 2.5)

In the Tryal of Persons accused for Crimes against the State, the Method used is much more short and commendable: The Judge, first sends to sound the Disposition of those in Power; after which he can easily hang or save the Criminal, strictly observing all the Forms of Law. (Gulliver's Travels, Book iv, Chapter 5)

Despite the popularity of James Joyce (1882-1941), and the contrary fame of Samuel Beckett (1906-89), few would dispute that W. B. Yeats (1865-1939) remains unchallenged as the dominant figure in Irish culture of the twentieth century and after. Various reasons could be advanced to confirm this unremarkable fact. By a comparison with the other names cited, there is the poet's long residence in Ireland and his direct service to the cause of national independence. Beyond these consolidating facts, one might also note how the term 'dominant' is peculiarly appropriate to Yeats, given his assertive personality both as a writer and as a public figure. There is, however, a psychological or ideological dimension which transcends facticity. Dominance was never an objective for Beckett, and Joyce took a more ironic view of his position in the Irish firmament.

The date of Yeats's death, January 1939, contributed much to the consolidation of his fame. In echoing what he termed John Mitchel's prayer--'Send war in our time, O Lord'--the ageing poet publicly confirmed his passionate desire for conflict, bloody and extensive conflict. Privately, he vacillated. Writing to a journalist friend, as late as 2 October 1938, he admitted a degree of satisfaction with the Munich Agreement: 'My own releif [sic] was immense, even if had given up my beleif [sic] in peace last Monday. It would have been a long war & I should not have lived to see the end of its dark tunnel.' (1) Some disappointment at his inevitable missing the final stages of the conflict is as evident as relief at its postponement.

Within a few months, the Irish Free State which Yeats had assisted into life stood outside the cataclysmic events of the World War. In its isolation, the country looked back to a heritage which provided more consolation than spiritual guidance. Joyce's death in Zurich, prefigured for some in the obscurity of Finnegans Wake, merely confirmed his remoteness from local Irish preoccupations. Meanwhile, Mr Beckett was not leaving Paris or, at least, not leaving it for other than the rigours of a semi-fugitive existence in Roussillon. Mr Yeats, having died a few kilometres further south, lay in a temporary grave awaiting the end of hostilities and an Irish naval corvette to repatriate him.

At home, the short story writer, Sean O'Faolain (1900-91), bravely established a literary journal (The Bell, 1940-54) which also provided an outlet for dissident opinion. He and his successor as editor, Peadar O'Donnell (1893-1986), were assisted by the essayist Hubert Butler (1900-91). (2) All three thought in political terms, to different and non-exclusive degrees. All three might have been termed 'men of the left', though Butler came from a gentry branch of an aristocratic family, and O'Faolain was a Harvard graduate. Alone among them, O'Donnell came of plebeian stock. Yet all three adhered in some way to a republican ideal looking back to the French-inspired United Irishmen of the 1790s. Their principles and problems endured under contemporary pressures--of Catholic nationalism in Ireland, imperial British prestige among the democracies, and the threat of fascism from the European continent.

The posthumous Yeats registered more positively with his fellow-poets. Anglican, Ulster-born and London-based Louis MacNeice (1907-63) published a sympathetic but not uncritical study, The Poetry of W. …