Older Masters: Essays and Reflections on English and American Literature

By Donald Davie | Go to book overview

10
Yeats, Berkeley and Romanticism

'Romanticism', of course, is by this time quite unmanageable. By itself it gets us nowhere. When a reviewer of Yeats's Collected Poems (in Adelphi, November 1950) sees the volume as striking a blow for 'the franker, simpler, more intelligible, and often, even to the end, romantic ways of poetry,' there is no way of rebutting him: since, among the unmanageably many meanings that have been given to 'romantic' and 'romanticism', there is doubtless one that does indeed relate it to frankness and simplicity. And I have no doubt that there are other meanings of 'romantic' in terms of which one could quite properly regard all Yeats's poetry, first and last, as romantic. On the other hand I shall argue that there is another sense of 'romantic', by which Yeats can be seen, in the 1920s, to break quite deliberately with the romanticism of his youth. This again is not disputed; no one is likely to deny that in one sense Among School Children is a less romantic poem than The Lake Isle of Innisfree. But I shall argue that this change in the poet goes deep; that the obvious and commonly recognized change in style testifies to a far-reaching and permanent change in a philosophic attitude. And this, I think, is less generally acknowledged.

There is obviously a connection here — or at least the possibility of a connection — with Yeats's interest, at the time he wrote 'Among School Children', in the thought of Berkeley. For Berkeley too, until twenty or thirty years ago, was regarded as a proto-Romantic philosopher, one of the fathers of subjective idealism; and Yeats became interested in him at just about the time when Berkeleyans began to challenge this reading of him, and to take seriously his own claim to be a philosopher of common sense. I shall argue, to buttress my claim for an anti-Romantic Yeats, that the poet's enthusiasm for the philosopher was not just a trailing of his Anglo-Irish coat (such as we find, for instance, in the Berkeleyan stanza of Blood and the Moon), but that it came out of a real grasp of Berkeley's significance as something other than what Coleridge, for instance, supposed.

The romanticism, then, that I am talking about, is the romanticism that Yeats explicitly discards in the last stanza of Among School Children:

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