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One traditional solution to the problem of how modernist poetry began is to tell the story of a transition between Yeats’s early masterpieces and Eliot’s The Waste Land. This is a story which usually centres upon the rise of free verse and a growing urgency to represent the modern world. More recently, critics have looked to tell stories about neglected poets, in which less obviously experimental works are found nevertheless to represent that same modern world. Both approaches involve tracing continuities and ruptures, often with reference to the unprecedented ruptures and rapid developments which characterised life in Britain in the first two decades of the century. This chapter shifts the emphasis from deciding how poetry somehow made a miraculous leap from the fin de siècle to high modernism, to exploring how the poetic forms of diverse poets working at this time refract the very conception and experience of transition, and especially the experience of transition when no certain beginning or end is in sight. The aim here is thus to resist the logic of literary history’s usual narratives, and to show that the poems of this period do so too at the level of poetic technique.
This chapter charts the transition, in British literature of the early twentieth century, from the Decadence associated with Wilde and his generation to the modernism associated with Eliot and his generation. If criticism has readily acknowledged that London, as the locus of an emergent modernist sensibility, was bound up in geographically extended networks of transatlantic and European literary practice, the story of historical transition from Decadence to modernism has been less often told. With particular reference to the poetries of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, the chapter shows how the aesthetics of Decadence were reconfigured and repurposed by modernist writers, before turning in a brief coda to the counter-example of W. B. Yeats, for whom questions of Decadence and modernism were bound up with the national politics of a changing Ireland.
Chapter 2 surveys some different ways in which Asia features in the Irish literary imagination from Lafcadio Hearn and W. B. Yeats to the present. Ronan Sheehan’s Foley’s Asia, dealing with a celebrated nineteenth-century Irish sculptor of imperial monuments, and Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times, set in Hong Kong against the backdrop of a ‘rising China’, are its contemporary examples. In early twentieth-century writing, Asia represented an exotic non-modern alternative to Western modernity. Later, it served as a backdrop to the fall of the British Empire. More recently, it suggests a strange new hyper-modernity with which the West will have to catch up. In all versions, Asia is conceived somewhere between the exotic and apocalyptic, a world at once tantalizing and threatening.
Although he is usually thought of as a poet who wrote for the theatre, W. B. Yeats was a theatre practitioner for almost fifty years, and was closely involved in every aspect of producing his plays. As a consummate theorist of the theatre, he thus produced theories relating to theatre space, the use of colour, and an understanding of the uncanny power of objects that prefigures later phenomenological thinking on the same subject. He formulates these precepts early in the 1900s, laying down principles for the use of colour, for instance (two main colours and an accent only), but by the time of his more mature work, he is using objects – such as the severed heads that appear in his later plays – in a way that develops his own thinking on the relation between thought and matter. Indeed, a consideration of Yeats’s understanding of the physical elements of performance shows him to be someone who thinks through the medium of theatre, to borrow a concept from Alain Badiou; using the nature of performance as a means of thought.
W. B. Yeats began writing about the theatre in the mid-1890s, after a trip to Paris where he first saw French symbolist theatre. From the time that the Irish Literary Theatre (later the Abbey) began producing his plays in the early 1900s, Yeats was regularly, and vigorously writing about theatre, with key essays appearing in the little magazines Samhain and Beltaine. From about 1910 onwards, his writing about theatre becomes more meditative, more concerned with his occult interests, and for a period focused on his interest in Japanese Nō theatre. Collectively, Yeats’s fugitive writings for the theatre constitutes an organum for the theatre, which is consistent across more than forty years, and which stands among the most significant contributions to modernist reconceptualisations of theatre.
As with his theorisation of theatre space, W. B. Yeats developed a complex theorisation of bodies, masks, and voices in performance. Like other aspects of his performance theory, these grew out of his own production experience, in which he could be said to have workshopped his theories. By the middle of the second decade of the twentieth century, he was writing his Plays for Dancers, in which the moving body is put in dialogue with the spoken word in ways that challenge our view of Yeats as a poet who wrote for the theatre. Likewise, his use of voices – particularly disembodied voices – in his theatre shows a thinking through of the phenomenology of the voice. However, it is in relation to the mask, which he theorises with such complexity in works such as A Vision, that we most clearly see Yeats as someone who thinks through theatre, to borrow a concept from Alain Badiou; using the nature of performance as a means of thought.
W. B. Yeats began work on his theory of theatre in the early 1900s in his writings for the Irish Literary Theatre and the Abbey, and these included a series of precepts for dramaturgy that encompassed character, action, and language. For Yeats, dramatic character was not simply a mimetic representation of a personality; instead, it was a set of human possibilities defined by an action. Yeats would ultimately relate this theory to his wider understanding of personality and action developed in his poetry, and in writings such as A Vision. Likewise, his theories of the language appropriate to drama, and the techniques that should be used to capture the quality of speech, are closely related to his own development as a poet. Indeed, there is an argument to be made that all of his poetry from about 1900 onwards is theatrical, in the sense that it implies a voice. Collectively, Yeats’s writings on theory constitute a coherent treatise on dramatic construction.
This overview of W. B. Yeats’s writings for the theatre begins with his earliest juvenilia, the verse dramas published in the late 1880s, and moves through his best-known work with the Irish Literary Theatre (later the Abbey) in the early twentieth century through to his Nō plays and finally to his last plays, drawing on the techniques of genetic literary criticism to explore the drafts and multiple editions of these works. It also explores, for the first time, several of Yeats’s early unpublished plays in the context of his wider dramatic output.
Throughout his life, W. B. Yeats used the terms ‘tragedy’ and ‘comedy’ in relation to the theatre. However, it is clear that his understanding of these terms did not derive from Aristotle. He also frequently mentions Nietzsche, and particularly Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy; however, he uses Nietzsche’s theory of tragedy in an unique and distinctive way. For Yeats, tragic theatre was what he referred to as 'subjective', a term he develops in his occult and philosophical works, particularly A Vision, and which he relates to vision, thought, and the individual. 'Comedy', by contrast, is what Yeats considers to be 'objective', concerned with the material world and its manifestations, including the body, and rationality. Based on this opposition, Yeats lays the foundations for a theory of theatre that is distinctive, and which shapes his own theatrical practice.
W. B. Yeats began with the view that the theatre should offend what he called 'the regular theatre goer', but during his time with the Irish Literary Theatre (later the Abbey), he came to understand that the energy and bank of imagery that an audience brought to the theatre could constitute the life of the performance. He thus came to understand the audience as both the origin and the destination of performance. For Yeats, the audience were the origin of the performance, in that they shared and produced the collective pool of images from which his theatre drew. At the same time, he also understood the theatre in magical terms akin to those of the writings of Artaud, in which precisely chosen actions and words had the power to influence a much wider population. This understanding of theatre developed originally in the context of his engagement with Irish nationalism in the early 1900s, but continued throughout his life, ultimately producing an understanding of the spectator that stands with the writings of Artaud in its originality and radicalism.
For W. B. Yeats, the theatre was not the distraction that his critics have so often considered it to be, but the means through which he thought most intensely and originally. To understand his theatre is to understand it as a form of thought, much as Alain Badiou argues is possible with theatre in putting it forward as a reason why theatre persists. For Yeats, the understanding of embodied thought, of the relationship between self and other, and self and the possibility of being other, was worked out in performance. The result was not simply a body of dramatic writing, but a hitherto overlooked body of dramatic theory that locates thinking at the moment of intense experience.
W. B. Yeats is recognised globally as one of the most significant poets of the past century. And yet, in his Nobel address, he singled out his work in the theatre as his main accomplishment. Yeats on Theatre restores Yeats not only a playwright, but as a writer and thinker who, over forty years, produced a body of theory covering all aspects of theatre, including the possibilities of performance space, the role of the audience and the nature of tragedy. When read as whole, in conjunction with his plays, letters, and extensive manuscript materials, Yeats's theatre writings emerge as a radical, cohesive, theatrical aesthetic, at odds with – and in advance of – the theatre of his time. Ultimately, the Yeats who takes shape in Yeats on Theatre is an artist who thinks through theatre, providing us with an urgently needed reassertion of the value of theatre as embodied thought.
Some critics polarize Joyce and Yeats by invoking the Irish Literary Revival. This practice, which can seem unduly based on sectarian divisions, the politics of post-1916 Ireland, and the retrospective formulation of ‘Modernism’, fails to address adequately Yeats’s and Joyce’s common origins in the Aesthetic and Symbolist ethos of the 1890s, their common dedication to ‘the religion of art’. Yeats’s profound influence on Joyce attaches Joyce to the Revival, as does the struggle between different brands of cultural nationalism as represented by Joyce in Stephen Hero and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Walter Pater was fundamentally important to the aesthetics of both Yeats and Joyce; the Paterian ‘epiphany’ as a symbolic structure bridges their poetry and prose; and Charles Stewart Parnell, who can assume qualities of Pater’s ‘artist-hero’, complements Pater in his importance to both: to their dialectics between art and history. The chapter ends with a discussion of some startling thematic overlaps c. 1914 between Yeats’s Responsibilities and Joyce’s Portrait.
This chapter explores how the work of three of the ‘major’ modernist authors – T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and W. B. Yeats – might be considered to be invested in the ‘Decadent’ sensibility. The chapter begins by tracing the emergence of this Decadent sensibility in the late age of revolutionary romanticism, and in particular in Shelley’s claim that ‘Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World.’ If poets are, in 1821, legislators, it suggests they are no longer revolutionaries. Post-romantic poetry is then written in an age of failed, exhausted revolution and is often characterized by reactionary, backward-looking politics. In this narrative late modernism marks the culmination of this increasingly dispirited view of the world, so that Eliot, by the 1930s, invests in absolutist authority rather than in poetic possibility. As the chapter suggests, this view of the failure of poetic possibility was one which with the Decadent writers of the 1890s began to grapple. Try as they might, modernist authors found themselves caught in a Decadent paradox in which poetry could no longer transform the world, and so they turned to totalizing, even totalitarian politics.
The failure of the 1848 revolt scattered Young Ireland leaders across the globe. Whether transported or in exile, they carried on their campaign in the only way they could – through their writings. Taking their lead from the Nation, many founded newspapers and wrote history, memoir and ballad. Foremost among them were Michael Doheny, Thomas D’Arcy McGee and John Mitchel. Mitchel’s Jail Journal and The Last Conquest of Ireland (Perhaps) were strongly influenced by being composed in prison and in exile. The former became a seminal text for generations of Irish nationalists, who saw it as an eloquent and fervent denunciation of the cruelty and hypocrisy of the British Empire. Exile also provided the perspective to write on the Great Famine of 1845–1848, a catastrophe so great that it rendered most nationalist writers mute with shame and bewilderment. Mitchel. though, chose to deal with it not as an isolated and unprecedented disaster, but, in historical context, as the latest and most ruthless of England’s attempts to crush Irish resistance once and for all. His interpretation of the Famine as a deliberate act of genocide became the accepted view of many nationalists, in Ireland and abroad. The same period was covered in less vitriolic style by Mitchel’s erstwhile colleague Charles Gavan Duffy who put his main emphasis on the political failings and flaws of Daniel O’Connell and the idealistic self-sacrificing patriotism of the Young Irelanders. The apparent moderation of Duffy’s writings and the caution and compromises of his later political career led many younger nationalists to identify with the more rebellious Mitchel. Chief among these was John O’Leary, whose noble character and unflinching idealism made him one of the most influential of the Fenians. It was O’Leary who introduced the young W. B. Yeats to the writings of Young Ireland, and though the mature Yeats later dismissed much of their work as shallow and chauvinistic, he continued to acknowledge its enduring capacity to move and inspire.
This chapter describes the influence of the Gaelic Revival on the creation of a Protestant nationalist counterculture during the first decade of the twentieth century. It discusses the manner in which cultural activism, by means of literature, the theatre, and learning the Irish language, tended to radicalise Protestants, and led them to convert to nationalism. It charts the development of a largely Dublin-based network of Protestant activists, whose development towards nationalism was largely actuated by means of immersion in the Abbey Theatre, the Gaelic League and various literary societies. Irish nationalist opposition to the Second Boer War, which radicalised some Protestant Gaelic Leaguers, is discussed. This chapter describes the attitude of two prominent Catholic newspaper editors, Arthur Griffith and D. P. Moran, towards Protestant nationalists, with Griffith seeking to incorporate Protestants into the nationalist movement, and Moran seeking their exclusion. The final section analyses Protestant Gaelic Leaguers’ attempts to form their own associational culture, which led to tensions within the movement. Ultimately, this chapter shows how Protestant involvement in the Gaelic League sometimes led to conversion to nationalism, but could cause unease among other Protestants, who sought an apolitical organisation.
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