Ancient and Modern Panel
“A noble vernacular?”: Yeats, Hellenism and the Anglo-Irish Nation
Gregory Baker (Catholic University of America)
This paper examines the impact which the Victorian classical tradition had on both the language politics of the Celtic Revival and the early stylistic development of W. B. Yeats. In 1892 Douglas Hyde, translator of Gaelic folklore, insisted that the national prosperity of Ireland depended on the eradication of English in all aspects of the
country’s cultural and political life. The nation’s literature, first and foremost he thought, had to be “de-anglicised” in favor of Irish Gaelic. To W. B. Yeats, however, the Anglophobia of Hyde’s nationalism was untenable. The path to an Irish national literature and to nationhood itself lay, he thought, not in the suppression of English but rather in the cultivation of a hybrid literary idiom, a bilingual idiom that could merge the Gaelic past with the English present in Ireland. By translating and adapting Gaelic folklore, the country’s poets could foster a new hybrid vernacular, a national language infused with
the foreign inflection of Irish Gaelic. And yet, with only a poor knowledge of the Irish language, Yeats himself failed to achieve this in the early poetry of the Celtic Twilight.
His efforts to fuse Irish Gaelic and English together were born, not in translation, but in the appropriation of earlier methods which Shelley, Arnold and Swinburne had used to anglicize and translate the linguistic effect and rhythmic timbre of ancient Greek. By analyzing Yeats’ 1889 poem, The Wanderings of Oisin, this paper explores how the British classical tradition, specifically the interference of Greek, exerted a more profound influence over the earliest creative instantiations of Anglo-Irish which Yeats attempted than any substantive fusion of English and Irish Gaelic.
‘The god is inside the stone’: Statuary and divinity in the later work of W.B. Yeats
Jack Quin (University of York)
In a journal entry of 1929 Yeats wrote, ‘I recall a passage in some Hermetic writer on the increased power that a God feels on getting into a statue’. The entry – written when Yeats was visiting Ezra Pound in Rapallo – corresponds with Pound’s own ideas about Roman sculpture articulated the previous year in ‘Guido Cavalcanti’: ‘The god is inside the stone […] The force is arrested, but there is never any question about its latency, about the force being the essential, and the rest “accidental”’. If Pound suggests that an ethereal spirit or god is latent within sculpture and that the statue itself is superficial and constricting, Yeats writes of the god ‘getting into a statue’ of its likeness, and increasing its earthly power.
This paper will consider the centrality of Yeats’s ideas of sculpture to his later poetry and occult mythography. I will contend that Yeats was already familiar with Hermetic beliefs on the ‘ensouling’ of statues prior to discussions with Pound in Rapallo, and that in his later works the statue functions as an incarnation, or reincarnation, of the figure (mortal or divine) it represents. I will therefore examine both the cross-fertilization and the important distinctions between Yeats and Pound’s ideas of sculpture and ‘sculptural poetics’.
Particular attention will be paid to Yeats’s ‘The Statues’, which charts a movement of sculptural practices from Ancient Greece, to India in the middle ages and finally to Ireland on the cusp of independence. I hope to show that the initial drafts bear a closer and clearer proximity to Yeats’s idiosyncratic history of thought and civilization set out in ‘Dove or Swan’, as the movement from statues in one period to another is more explicitly rendered as the multiple reincarnations of a single deity or mythic figure: from Apollo to Buddha to Cuchulain. This paper will therefore consider the importance Yeats placed upon an immanent ‘theology’, but also the importance of art – and particularly sculpture – in making Yeats’s esoteric spiritual systems seem tangible and immanent.
The Black Swan: W. B. Yeats and the Science of the Unknown
The poet W. B. Yeats lived through a time of paradigmatic change which saw the objective Newtonian world of classical physics and scientific certainty give way to a quantum universe of indeterminacy and relativity, a change reflected in the emergence of the Modernist movement of the early twentieth century. Yeats, in his introduction to The Oxford Book of Modern Science describes this new episteme of scientific knowledge as a form of flux which extends into the mind of Modern poets: “Nature, steel bound or stone built in the nineteenth century, became a flux where man drowned or swam; the moment had come for some poet to cry ‘the flux is in my own mind’” (xxvi). Genuine creativity requires an act of will in the world vision of Yeats, an active personal choice which is more than just mimectic but rather partakes of the creative process of life through the realisation of itself in artistic vision born of mind. The late poetry of W. B. Yeats embodies this vision of universal and personal process and critics such as Daniel Albright have viewed such Modern poetics as an ‘omnipoem’, that is, more a process than a product. The fluidity of A Vision (1925, 37) which underpins much of Yeats’s later poetry understands the universe as interpenetrative and, when viewed through this lens, the two different editions of A Vision (1925, 1937) can be seen to provide for a form of achronicity which allows for these works to represent a form of timely relativity and a form of knowledge as process which extends to the mind of the reader in different times to produce different meanings.
The Tower (1928) has been understood as a formal rendering of A Vision through poetry and as a collective expression of poetic vision which yet allows each poem to elide the polyphonic nature of the volume and stand on its own as a statement. In this way, scalability in scientific terms becomes important for an understanding of the Modern aesthetic and what we choose to observe can be understood to co-create meaning in a parallel to Heisenberg’s Principle of Indeterminacy. Accordingly, this paper will use mathematical understandings of scalability such as Benoit Mandelbrot’s fractal equations alongside more traditional critical approaches by Helen Vendler and Margaret Mills Harper to explore both the materiality of composition and the thematic resonances this produces in the poetry. Close readings of “Leda and the Swan” and “Among School Children” using the manuscript materials serve to illustrate Yeats’s engagement with universal process and these two poems are seen as complementary in theme in their evocation of lives affected by the vicissitudes of fate, “the body swayed to music” through the flux of time. Such an understanding is extended to the different responses to the poems through time by different critics effecting the Modernist aesthetic of artistic vision as an interpenetrative process of indeterminacy and constant change.