Belief and Unbelief: Nationalist Doubt in W.B. Yeats's the Celtic Twilight

By O'Malley, Seamus | Irish University Review: a journal of Irish Studies, Spring-Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Belief and Unbelief: Nationalist Doubt in W.B. Yeats's the Celtic Twilight


O'Malley, Seamus, Irish University Review: a journal of Irish Studies


The Celtic Twilight (1893) has the unique status amongst Yeats's works of being often referenced but rarely analyzed. Many critics use it as a brief starting point for their arguments about literary craft, Yeats's life, gender issues, or nationalism. Most dismiss its literary value: Richard Ellmann described its style as 'the awkwardness of excessive simplicity', and concludes that 'this is not good writing, but can be defended as good discipline'. (1) Edward Hirsch contends that it 'is not wholly successful either as a folklore collection or as a work of imaginative fiction. Yet the book plays an important part in Yeats's development'. (2) Even Kathleen Raine, despite her generally positive introduction to the 1981 publication of the volume, believes that it 'does not show him to be particularly gifted as a collector of folklore' but that it 'marks an important development [...] as a poet'. (3) To his fellow modernists, the title became a term of abuse, synonymous with shallow vagueness: Robert McAlmon found Yeats's poetry 'too Irish twilighty' and T.S. Eliot remarked that '[t]he Yeats of the Celtic twilight' wrote in 'a phase of confusion' in which his work showed a 'lack of complete emotional expression'. (4)

Dismissal of The Celtic Twilight is part of a larger tendency to disregard his entire output from the decade, and Hirsch points out that this process began with Yeats himself. Towards the end of his life the poet referred to his early volume as 'a bit of ornamental trivial needlework sewn on a prophetic fury got by Blake and Boeheme'. (5) Stephen Regan summarizes the critical consensus: 'it is commonly accepted that the 1890s were essentially a time of transition for Yeats, a dabbling with the palette in preparation for the big canvases to come'. (6)

Two qualities of The Celtic Twilight make it recalcitrant to close analyses and amenable to cursory overviews. The volume features a frustrating sense of ambiguity that must have warded off many critical attempts. The tone of most of the stories is quiet and melancholy, and may stem from the text's treatment of the supernatural: the narrator veers between the belief of a West Irish native and the scepticism of an intruding folk chronicler. (The qualifications made in the 1902 and 1924 revisions only further add to this tension). Secondly, the volume contains a diverse array of material that makes it difficult to summarize and critique: it begins with a small untitled poem, and is then followed by the poem, 'The Host'. Yeats's two prefaces from 1883 and 1902 follow, and then the forty-four tales begin. The poem 'Into the Twilight' concludes the volume. The two titled poems appear in many anthologies and thus receive some attention. When the stories are analyzed they are not looked at in relation to the collection as a whole, so the volume itself usually eludes scrutiny.

New Critics generally ignored it, unable to find the structural complexities that mark Yeats's later poetry. Feminist critics have found some tales useful for a discussion of gender in both ancient and modern Ireland, but rarely look at them in relation to the entire volume. (7) Post-colonial criticism has generated some excellent scholarship on the relationship between nationalism and the founding of the Irish state in Yeats's works. But in these instances critics rarely look at The Celtic Twilight, and sometimes use it merely as a touchstone for his early development. They lump it together with his other writings from the 1890s, works which, these critics argue, attempted to establish a sense of Irish place and identity. (8) Many critics then contrast it with his disillusioned middle period and his later, post-war work in which he frets over his initial forays into Irish essentialism. Through a closer look at The Celtic Twilight in this essay, I want to argue that these later concerns are present in the text in the very ambiguities and doubts that make it such an easy work to gloss over. …

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