Encyclopedia of Literary Modernism

By Paul Poplawski | Go to book overview

Y

Yeats, W. B. (1865–1939)

In an 1883–4 poem unpublished in his lifetime, “The Veiled Voices and the Questions of the Dark,” Yeats meditates upon the anonymity of urban existence as he is whisked through the night in a tram car. Retrospectively, it is an uncharacteristic moment in the early Yeatsian oeuvre, the concerns of which tend to be rural and folkloric rather than metropolitan, its dominant the Celticism he adopted and adapted from Standish O’Grady, George Sigerson, and Douglas Hyde. That said, the poem strikes a typically Yeatsian note in its dismissive response to the modernity personified in the tram’s monadic passengers—a convulsive reaction that will find many targets in Yeats’s work, from Victorian materialism to the ideology of the Irish Free State. Anachronistically embodied in the figure of St. Patrick in The Wanderings of Oisin (1889), against whom the eponymous pagan Fenian is pitted, the “filthy modern tide” will be stridently denounced in “The Statues” (1938), and polemically disparaged in the self-conscious histrionics of the late prose jeremiad On the Boiler (1938).

In this reactionary cast to Yeats’s imagination lies his affinity with a number of early modernists, such as T. S. Eliot and Wyndham Lewis; but he belonged to an older generation than theirs, and the formative influence of the literary movements of the fin de siècle is crucial to his poetics. In his first essay at a collected poems, the 1895 Poems, Yeats grouped a selection of early work drawn from two previous collections—The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems (1889) and The Countess Cathleen and Various Legends and Lyrics (1892)—under the title “Crossways,” his brief preface to the volume arguing that “in them he tried many pathways.” Yeats’s early poetic forays led him not only to Celtic materials, but also to symbolism, as evinced in the occult hermeticism of those poems he chose to include in “The Rose” subdivision of Poems. The volume’s young Irish author, we should recall, was at the heart of English aestheticism at this date, publishing in The Dome, The Savoy, and The Yellow Book: the Celticism of his collection of Irish folklore, The Celtic Twilight (1893), at one with the Decadent pre-occupations and Paterian style of his short stories, The Secret Rose (1897), “The Tables of the Law,” and “Rosa Alchemica” (1897). Yeats’s aestheticism, like his Celticism, was fueled by his antipathy towards aspects of late Victorian Britain, its materialism, utilitarianism, and imperialism. As Terence Brown observes, in Yeats’s mind “aestheticism represented a credible alternative to the meaningless, vulgarizing rhythms of modernity” (58) the sickening progress of the fin de siècle’s tram car. Yeats’s poetic of the 1890s is thus one transitional to modernism—or, more precisely, to that variety of modernism into which late nineteenth-century aestheticism

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