Utopia in Decay: Yeats's Decadent Dystopias

By Lockerd, Martin | Yeats Eliot Review, Fall-Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Utopia in Decay: Yeats's Decadent Dystopias


Lockerd, Martin, Yeats Eliot Review


Not long after Ezra Pound decided to modernize W. B. Yeats, the younger poet famously observed that "Uncle William" was coming along quite nicely. His only lament was that the elder poet was "still dragging some of the reeds of the 'nineties in his hair" (Ellmann 212). Only after his editorial collaboration with Yeats on the collection Responsibilities, which he reviewed with a distinct sense of self-satisfaction for Poetry magazine, could Pound safely announce that Yeats's poems were "no longer romantically Celtic" (qtd. in Brown 212). Despite his self-assurance, however, Pound was overly quick to dismiss the lingering influence of the decadent nineties on Yeats's poetic sensibility.

Perhaps because he was excessively concerned with moving Yeats away from florid expression and towards the stark economy of language that was becoming a staple of modernism, Pound seems to have willfully ignored the decadent motifs that still informed Yeats's imagination well into his career. Though it would be impossible to trace all the residual influences of decadence on Yeats's later work, one decadent motif informed his earliest verses and carried through to one of his most famous later poems.

Continental decadent artists, such as Charles Baudelaire and J. K. Huysmans, cultivated an aesthetic of decay and decline which stood in stark contrast to the utopian visions of many late Victorian "aesthetic" artists, who believed in the undeniable forward progress of human civilization. According to Dennis Denisoff's article "Decadence and Aestheticism," "aesthetic doctrine ... suggests that one's private utopia is at hand, if one would only learn to ignore the domineering bourgeoisie" (32). Aesthetic utopianism, thus defined, is rooted in the thinking of figures like William Morris, who sought to heal the societal ills of his time by promoting a recrudescence of idealized medieval art and modes of production. (1) At its core, this brand of utopianism carries with it the ephemeral promise of a newly defined Aristotelian good life--a life that defies the claims of capitalism, industrialism, and imperial conquest and seeks cultural progress through the creation of beautiful artifice. This uniquely nineteenth century aesthetic utopian desire to create a better world by reforming culture, both actually and imaginatively, was mirrored by the widespread contemporary Irish desire to realize a new national/cultural rebirth. Despite resemblance between aesthetic utopianism and Irish nationalism, however, lofty dreams of revolution were offset in the minds of some of Ireland's more sensitive artists by an inherent distrust of the progressive promises of aesthetic utopianism--a distrust that was itself patently decadent. It has long been a common practice to conflate aestheticism and decadence and view the movements as two sides.of the same coin; (2) however, it is important to remember that the aesthetic utopian vision given voice by thinkers, such as Morris, is contrary to the desires, anxieties, and impulses of the decadent movement. Decadent artists such as Huysmans and Baudelaire, on the continent, and, later, Lionel Johnson and Ernest Dowson, in England, rejected progressive fantasies and idealized notions of beauty in favor of the artistic promises of decay. Their unapologetic rejection of aesthetic utopianism provides a fissure that may very well allow us to challenge traditional narratives of Victorian optimism and come to a more refined understanding of the nature of the decadent dystopian vision--a vision that was both absorbed and transformed by Yeats.

In order to understand the effect of the decadent aesthetic on Yeats's own work I will first isolate and examine the anti-utopian motif in decadent literature. I will then suggest connections between the continental decadent artist Joris-Karl Huysmans and his Irish contemporary by demonstrating their shared rejection of ideal aesthetic utopianism in favor of a more complex and conflicted decadent vision. …

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