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12 - Yeats and the postcolonial

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 January 2007

Marjorie Howes
Affiliation:
Boston College, Massachusetts
John Kelly
Affiliation:
St John's College, Oxford
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Summary

Any reader of Yeats who begins to investigate the topic of “Yeats and the postcolonial” will quickly encounter a problem: there is very little agreement among scholars about what “postcolonial” means. As a result, the reader will realize that she will have trouble approaching this topic in what might have seemed like an obvious manner: by trying to determine whether or not Yeats is a postcolonial writer or by trying to determine whether or not Ireland is a postcolonial nation. I think this apparent difficulty is a good thing; rather than being an obstacle in the reader's way, it is precisely what makes it useful to explore the relationship between Yeats's writings and postcolonial studies. This exploration may raise more questions than it answers, and the reader may find this frustrating, but if she can adjust her expectations, she will also find that there are varieties of uncertainty that are more illuminating, and even more enjoyable, than certainty. Yeats himself repeatedly emphasized the important and productive nature of such experiences. In 1898, while considering one of his perennial dilemmas, the question of whether the “visions” he saw were reflections of some eternal reality or merely the products of his own mind, he concluded, “To answer is to take sides in the only controversy in which it is greatly worth taking sides, and in the only controversy which may never be decided” (E&I 152). I am not, of course, arguing for the singular importance of postcolonial studies or postcolonial questions for Yeats; as the other essays in this volume attest, there are many controversies about Yeats's works that are worth engaging in. But I think the idea that it is the really interesting questions that are the most difficult to settle, so characteristic of Yeats, indicates a fruitful approach to the topic of this chapter. In what follows I will offer some ideas about how the issues, debates, and uncertainties that animate contemporary postcolonial studies can enrich the experience of reading Yeats.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2006

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