States of Desire: Wilde, Yeats, Joyce, and the Irish Experiment

By Vicki Mahaffey | Go to book overview

Three

"Horrible Splendour
of Desire"
The Will of W B. Yeats

At the height of his success, Wilde confused his life with his art, acting as if his deeds were free from real consequences. William Butler Yeats began his career with an attitude similar to the one that derailed Wilde's; to the young Yeats, everything was art. Life was simply a responsibility-laden distraction from the richness of an imagination inflamed by natural beauty. If Wilde worshiped youth, innocence, and even criminality, organizing his preferences as a love of green that was rooted in his identity as a homosexual and an Irishman, Yeats idealized passion, women, and a vision of heterosexual bliss uncomplicated by personal experience. Unlike Wilde, who insisted that his flowers be "green" or young, Yeats paid homage to flowers by personifying them to form an eroticized and divine woman who was also Ireland. Under the influence of the pre-Raphaelites and Tennyson, in the 1890s Yeats initially imagined woman as incarnated lily and rose, alternating between purity and passion, but gradually he dropped the lily and developed the rose into an image as capacious and complex in its symbolism as Wilde's verdancy. Eventually, and much less traumatically than Wilde, Yeats achieved a richer understanding of the life he had deprecated in youth. He came to appreciate the intensity generated by the fact that life is terminal and unrepeatable, and he heeded the ethical imperative to respect the uniqueness and unknowability of others, while experiencing a powerful desire to discover an artistic mode of translating between privacies.

Both Wilde and Yeats used their fantasy of living aesthetically to great advantage : by imaginatively projecting themselves into a world free of consequences, governed only by its own, internally generated, laws (what in chapter 1 I called disciplined play), they were able to learn the principles of constant transformation generated by the movements of desire. Wilde discovered the intellectual exhilaration that comes from a constant reformation of ideas, and Yeats experienced the emotional richness attendant upon a perpetual retranslation of images. Yeats, however, had a whole lifetime to adapt the technical skill he had learned in his youth to an art that acknowledged life's poignant limitations and its insistent possibilities.

Interestingly, Yeats—like Shaw—deeply understood Wilde's Irishness, which

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States of Desire: Wilde, Yeats, Joyce, and the Irish Experiment
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • States of Desire - Wilde, Yeats, Joyce, and the Irish Experiment *
  • Preface *
  • Acknowledgments *
  • Contents *
  • Abbreviations xix
  • One - Introduction Reading and "Irish" Desire 3
  • Two - Wilde's Desire a Study in Green 37
  • Three - "Horrible Splendour of Desire" the Will of W B. Yeats 87
  • Four - Joyful Desire Giacomo Joyce and Finnegans Wake 142
  • Five - Conclusion 210
  • Notes 213
  • Selected Bibliography 253
  • Index 261
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