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  • Print publication year: 2010
  • Online publication date: June 2012

4 - Modernism and revolution: rereading Yeats's ‘Easter 1916’


It is a commonplace of literary history to observe that what came to be known as the literary Modernism of the second two decades of the ­twentieth century was a reactive response to the disturbed, war-torn and revolutionary conditions of modernity itself. A familiar text can be cited to indicate how this association between a troubled period and radical aesthetic experiment was established even as the texts of high Modernism were appearing and receiving their earliest assessments. In T. S. Eliot's famous 1923 Dial review of Joyce's Ulysses, which had appeared in 1922, the same year that Eliot himself had published The Waste Land, the poet/critic argued that Joyce had employed a mythical method in his epic novel ‘as a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contem­porary civilization’. He had assumed, wrongly to my mind, that Joyce was reacting to the same conditions of post-war, post-revolutionary ennui and angst that he himself had so hauntingly evoked in The Waste Land in such sections as ‘The Burial of the Dead’, with its montage of déraciné central Europeans in the Hofgarten, or going south in the winter, its desolating love affair conducted to the strains of Wagnerian commentary and its underlying mythic allusiveness. Interestingly, for my purposes in this essay, Eliot in that review also suggests that this mythic method had been first employed by W. B. Yeats, thereby drawing the Irish poet for his own critical purposes (the justification of his own work) within the circle of literary experimentalists who were presumably reacting to the general crisis.

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Eliot, T. S., ‘Ulysses, Order and Myth’, The Dial, 75, 5 (November, 1923), 483
Rainey's, LaurenceModernism: An Anthology (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005)
Townshend's, C.Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion (London: Allen Lane, 2005)
Foster, R., W. B. Yeats: A Life, Vol. II: The Arch-Poet 1915–1939 (Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 54
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Yeats, W. B., Essays and Introductions (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1961), p. 35
Fogarty's, Anne excellent essay ‘Yeats, Ireland and Modernism’, in Davis, A. and Jenkins, L. (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Modernist Poetry (Cambridge University Press, 2007)
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O'Driscoll, R., ‘Yeats On Personality: Three Unpublished Lectures’, Yeats and the Theatre (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1975)
Renan, E., The Poetry of the Celtic Races, Translated, With Introduction and Notes, By William G. Hutchison (Port Washington, NY and London: Kennikat Press, 1896)
Cleary, J., Outrageous Fortune: Capital and Culture in Modern Ireland (Dublin: Field Day Publications, 2007), p. 123