Paradigms of Peripheral Modernity in Lorca and Yeats

By Hart, Stephen | The Modern Language Review, April 2007 | Go to article overview

Paradigms of Peripheral Modernity in Lorca and Yeats


Hart, Stephen, The Modern Language Review


The aim of this essay is to explore the similarities between the work of W. B. Yeats and Federico Garcia Lorca, with particular reference to their fascination with the supernatural, nurtured by their attachment to the land. The ghost functions in their work as a site of post-colonial defiance undermining the economy of the visible and the discourse of the real, and the cultural archive of folk and fairy tales plays an intrinsic though elusive role in that artistic process. Indeed, the incantation of rhyme is used in both Yeats's and Lorca's work as a conduit leading back to the 'Gaelic/gypsy' imaginary.

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In 'Politics', Yeats has a poem in which Spanish politics shrinks to nothing beside the sight of a beautiful young woman:

   How can I, that girl standing there,
   my attention fix
   on Roman or Russian
   or on Spanish politics? (1)

Despite Yeats's injunction not to worry too much about Spanish politics, I shall, in what follows, be asking Yeats to do just this, to worry not necessarily about the Spanish Civil War, which was the burning issue of the day, but rather something deeper and more structurally significant. For there is a similarity between Ireland and Spain in terms of their sense--in the nineteenth and part of the twentieth century--of living a life which appeared to be peripheral to the Western discourse of modernity.

Given that the Irish writer with whom most connections with Lorca have been asserted--J. M. Synge (2)--was greatly admired by Yeats, (3) it is perhaps not surprising that there should be a number of coincidences between the work of Yeats and Lorca. The first is the troubled relationship that each poet had with urban modernity. In Timothy Webb's words, Yeats 'resisted the influence [...] not only of London itself, but of the modern city and the modern world' (p. xxxviii). (4) This despite living in London for many years (Yeats settled in Ireland in 1922 when he became a senator). As Emer Nolan points out:

The modern, in colonial conditions, is associated with 'foreignness', domination and violence; it is in no sense naturalized in the course of a long process of economic and social development. It is precisely in such a situation that the culturally 'old' appears most intensely valuable, and becomes the object of political contestation. (5)

This fact influenced Yeats's relationship with modernism, which was clearly a fraught one. Patricia Coughlan and Alex Davis's book Modernism and Ireland does not have a single essay on Yeats, since his 'aesthetic premises [...] differ consistently' from those of the Modernists. (6) A similar picture of estrangement from the modern emerges when studying Lorca and his work. When in the autumn of 1929 Lorca travelled from Granada to New York, that paradigmatic city of modernity, he got lost on a number of occasions; he could not read the map; he boarded a train travelling in the wrong direction; and having taken a taxi, he then panicked that he was being kidnapped. (7) What is more, he found it impossible to learn English, and finally he wrote a work, Poeta en Nueva York, published after many mishaps in 1940--the manuscript of which has only recently seen the light of day in an auction at Christie's in 2005--which presents New York as an urban nightmare. (8) Another similarity--surely there is a connection between them--was that both Yeats and Lorca were very much absorbed by the orature of their respective countries. (9) Lorca was able to use oral rhythms in his poetry, and was sensitive to folk songs from an early age. Martinez Nadal, for example, has claimed that 'until three years of age he could not speak, but a year after his birth he was following the rhythm of song, and when two years old was already humming popular airs'. (10)

Both poets were also interested in folklore and myth, particularly where these related to a native cultural inheritance. In Yeats this interest is evident in his fascination with the Wanderings of Oisin and with other figures of Irish folklore (of which more below). …

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