W.B. Yeats, John Ruskin, and the 'Lidless Eye'

By McCarthy, Bernadette | Irish University Review: a journal of Irish Studies, Autumn-Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

W.B. Yeats, John Ruskin, and the 'Lidless Eye'


McCarthy, Bernadette, Irish University Review: a journal of Irish Studies


In 'W.B. Yeats, John Ruskin, and the "lidless eye"', Bernadette McCarthy traces connections between Yeats's art training, his engagement with John Ruskin's art principles, the poet's developing aesthetic, and his trip to Venice in 1907. Drawing on literary history and formalist poetic analysis, this essay yields insights into one of Yeats's most famous poetic utterances, his 'lidless eye that loves the sun'. It suggests that the origin of Yeats's image, beyond its well-known reference to an eagle, might be in Titian's The Man with the Quilted Sleeve, and Turner's The Departure of Regulus from Rome.

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The world of the visual arts surrounds and permeates the poetic career of William Butler Yeats. (1) He was the son of an artist, the brother of an artist, the father of an artist, and he himself, at one time wanted to be an artist. (2) That Yeats loved the visual arts is beyond question. That he himself trained and practiced as a visual artist is one of the lesser explored aspects of his life. When Yeats, as he put it, 'left art and [took] to literature', he did not abandon visual expression. (3) The look of his world remained as important to the poet as the sound of his word. Alongside stage production, poetic imagery, and poems about paintings, the appearance of his works on the page, and the material manifestations of his writing, would continue to engage Yeats's artistic mind. There is a fluid link between the poet's art training and his visual practice in both physical and verbal media, and this connection is founded on an engagement with John Ruskin's aesthetic. It is apparent in one of Yeats's most famous utterances: his 'lidless eye that loves the sun'. This image bears allusion, beyond the well-known eagle reference, to John Ruskin, J.M.W. Turner, Titian, Yeats's art training in the Dublin colleges, and the poet's first experience of Venice in 1907.

Yeats's art practice begins with his training in the Irish art colleges. From May 1884 until early 1887, the poet trained in the visual arts at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art (DMSA), and at the Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin (RHA). The DMSA art training system was rigorous and, according to Yeats, boring. (4) As an art student, he was captive to the Victorian privileging of realism. DMSA art students were required to spend hours making detailed and exact copies of physical surfaces. In Yeats's view, there was no room for the imagination of the individual student, and he was enraged at being forced into a passive imitation of physical reality. This aesthetic bore little interest to Yeats as he had already become engaged in studies of the occult. Nevertheless, at the DMSA, Yeats's continuous regime of drawing and pastel-painting honed his observational skills. The DMSA also afforded him an opposition against which to rebel. Yeats would reject art principles allied to objectivity and seek out an alternative aesthetic. In this context a first recorded encounter with John Ruskin's aesthetic occurs.

The seriousness with which Yeats sought out an alternative aesthetic is underscored in his frequent visits to the National Gallery in Dublin. He records that he went to the gallery to view, in particular, Turner's Golden Bough. The Golden Bough was one among a number of Turner paintings transferred from the National Gallery in London to the National Gallery in Dublin in 1884. They included Opening of the Walhalla, Richmond Bridge, The Departure of Regulus from Rome, and View of Venice: The Church of the Madonna della Salute. (5) As Yeats viewed Turner's paintings he admired the works of an artist championed by John Ruskin. Ruskin's art methods provided the alternative aesthetic to that promoted by the DMSA, and one that facilitated Yeats's interest in expression of esoteric thought.

According to Ruskin, Turner was 'the only perfect landscape painter whom the world has ever seen'. (6) Ruskin says it was Turner's 'entire transcript of the whole system of nature' that set the artist above the great landscape painters of the nineteenth century.

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