Hellenism and the Postcolonial Imagination: Yeats, Cavafy, Walcott

Hellenism and the Postcolonial Imagination: Yeats, Cavafy, Walcott

Hellenism and the Postcolonial Imagination: Yeats, Cavafy, Walcott

Hellenism and the Postcolonial Imagination: Yeats, Cavafy, Walcott

Synopsis

Martin McKinsey is associate professor of English at the University of New Hampshire. He has a PhD in literature from the University of Virginia and an MA in Creative Writing from Syracuse University. His articles on modern poetry have appeared in journals like Ariel, Callaloo, Twentieth Century Literature, and Yale Journal of Criticism. He is also a prize-winning translator from modern Greek.

Excerpt

The poets and ideas that are the subject of this book have appeared in many contexts and been examined from many angles, though they are brought together here in what I hope is a fresh manner. Because of the familiarity of terms like “Hellenism” and “postcolonialism,” and of names like W. B. Yeats and Derek Walcott—and in some quarters, C. P. Cavafy—it may be wise to say a word about my use of these terms and my approach to these poets in advance. Everything else I leave for the more substantial introduction that follows.

To use the word “Hellenism” is to call up many and varied meanings, both inside and outside the academy. My use of it here, however, is very specific. Let’s start with what it does not mean: It does not mean the empirically verifiable fact of ancient Greece, as buried in the soil or surviving on papyrus fragments, the stuff of archeologists and paleographers. Nor does it refer to the continuity of Greekspeaking cultures that have survived in the eastern Mediterranean from ancient times to the present, though this, too, is one of my subjects. As it appears here, “Hellenism” refers to the historically mediated idea of ancient Greece and its culture as cultivated in postEnlightenment Europe during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; and, even more restrictively, to the espousal of the Hellenic ideal and the assertion of Greek exceptionalism by Victorian authors like Matthew Arnold and W. E. Gladstone. The book’s ultimate subject, however, is the reception of this idea by three non-English subjects of the British Empire, whose national identities and personal histories put them at odds with the prevailing narrative of British ascendancy which Victorian Hellenism had served to sponsor.

Each of these poets—one from Ireland, one from Egypt, and one from the West Indies—stands in a different relation to metropolitan British culture and its proprietary vision of ancient Greece. These culturally specific relationships are the central preoccupation of this book. Yet for all the distinctions between them, the three poets share qualities in their angle of vision and creative response to West-

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