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13 Jun

In Our Time: Yeats and Mysticism

In this episode of In Our Time Melvyn Bragg explores the strange and mystical world of the poet W B Yeats, with Roy Foster (Carroll Professor of Irish History at Oxford University), Warwick Gould (Director of the Institute of English Studies, University of London) and Brenda Maddox (author of George’s Ghosts: A New Life of W B Yeats.

Celtic folklore, the Theosophical society, the Golden Dawn group, seances and a wife who communicated with the spirit world all had a huge effect on the work of this great Irish poet. […]
Yeats the dreamer and the poet was also a mystic, a philosopher and a practitioner of magic. From the occult subcultures of Victorian London to the outlandish folklore of the Irish Peasantry, Yeats’ obsession with the spiritual world infused his poetic mind and even drove him to describe his own religion. Why was the period so alive with spiritualism? And how did the poems reflect the dreams?

13 Jun

Yeats on Swift and Liberty

What was this liberty…served through all his life with so much eloquence? ‘I should think,’ he wrote in the Discourse, ‘that the saying, vox populi, vox dei ought to be understood of the universal bent and current of a people, not of the bare majority of a few representatives, which is often procured by little arts, and great industry and application; wherein those who engage in the pursuits of malice and revenge are much more sedulous than such as would prevent them.’ That vox populi or ‘bent and current,’ or what we even more vaguely call national spirit, was the sole theme of his Drapier Letters; its right to express itself as it would through such men as had won or inherited general consent. I doubt if a mind so contemptuous of average men thought…that it found expression also through individual lives, or asked more for those lives than protection from the most obvious evils.

Yeats on Swift (specifically his favourite tract of Swift’s, the Discourse of the Contests and Dissentions…in Athens and Rome) in Wheels and Butterflies (London, 1934), pp. 23-24

The quote was included in W. B. Yeats, Jonathan Swift, and Liberty, which links Swift and Yeats in their fight for a particular vision of liberty, coupled with elitism:
“He knew that the Irish intellect must continue the fight that Swift had led in Ireland against those perpetuations of seventeenth-century materialism–optimism, faith in utopian schemes, trust in democracy–that lay behind the new pious legislation and hedged about modern life. Outside of Ireland he had been accustomed to the extreme opinions of youth, often outrageous and contrary to his own opinions. But not in Ireland. Therefore Yeats felt mightly obliged to be the Swift of his day and outrage youth itself.”

Yeats’ version of Swift’s epitaph pares the original down to liberty and indignation:

Swift has sailed into his rest;
Savage indignation there
Cannot lacerate his Breast.
Imitate him if you dare,
World-Besotted Traveler; he
Served human liberty.

10 Apr

No Shining Star

A nation is but a host of men united by some God-begotten mood, some hope of liberty or dream of power or beauty or justice or brotherhood, and until that master idea is manifested to us there is no shining star to guide the ship of our destinies. […] We have to do for Ireland—though we hope with less arrogance—what the long and illustrious line of German thinkers, scientists, poets, philosophers, and historians did for Germany, or what the poets and artists of Greece did for the Athenians: and that is, to create national ideals, which will dominate the policy of statesmen, the actions of citizens, the universities, the social organizations, the administration of State departments, and unite in one spirit urban and rural life. Unless this is done Ireland will be like Portugal, or any of the corrupt little penny-dreadful nationalities which so continually disturb the peace of the world with internal revolutions and external brawlings, and we shall only have achieved the mechanism of nationality, but the spirit will have eluded us.

‘AE’ (George William Russell) on the need for a national reflective tradition. He sees in the Ireland of his time the mistaking of feelings for thought and the overdominance of passion in politics. From The National Being (1916)

24 Feb

Wilde on Masks

give him a mask

Original Image: Steve Sawyer/ Flickr

I would say that the more objective a creation appears to be, the more subjective it really is. Shakespeare might have met Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the white streets of London, or seen the serving-men of rival houses bite their thumbs at each other in the open square; but Hamlet came out of his soul, and Romeo out of his passion. […]

[J]ust as it is because he did nothing that he has been able to achieve everything, so it is because he never speaks to us of himself in his plays that his plays reveal him to us absolutely, and show us his true nature and temperament far more completely than do those strange and exquisite sonnets, even, in which he bares to crystal eyes the secret closet of his heart. Yes, the objective form is the most subjective in matter. Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.

From The Critic as Artist by Oscar Wilde.

Image source: Steve Sawyer

09 Nov

Epicurean Creation

The mechanical shock of the atoms being in his view the all-sufficient cause of things, he combats the notion that the constitution of nature has been in any way determined by intelligent design. The inter-action of the atoms throughout infinite time rendered all manner of combinations possible. Of these the fit ones persisted, while the unfit ones disappeared. “

John Tyndall references Lucretius the Epicurean (On The Nature on Things) in his famous Belfast Address (1874) in support of Darwinism and the superior authority of science over religious or non-rationalist explanations.

15 Oct

Educating the Citizen Lord

Lord Edward Fitzgerald (1797)

Lord Edward Fitzgerald in 1796.
Wikimedia, Public Domain

Lord Edward Fitzgerald was born 250 years ago, on the 15th October 1763, in Carton House, Co. Kildare, the fifth son of the Duke of Leinster. From his earliest days, Edward Fitzgerald was a child of the Enlightenment, and educated according to Enlightenment ideals.

One of the most influential thinkers on education in 18th century Ireland was John Locke. The earliest edition of his “Thoughts on Education” (1683) described itself as “Published at the request of several of the nobility of this kingdom”, and was reprinted three times from 1728-1738, and twice in the late 1770s. It provided a model for a gentleman’s education, and helped popularize the ideal of a paternalistic and educated gentry taking responsibility for improving their local area.

For Locke the goal of education was to instil “the Principle of Virtue”, that is the ability to subvert one’s immediate appetites and desires to the dictates of reason. The aim was to create people who obeyed reason over passion. 
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26 Aug

The Dublin Strike

I am a literary man, a lover of ideas, but I have found few people in my life who would sacrifice anything for a principle. Yet in Dublin, when the masters issued that humiliating document, asking men – on penalty of dismissal – to swear never to join a trades union, thousands of men who had no connection with the Irish Transport Workers – many among them personally hostile to that organisation – refused to obey. They would not sign away their freedom, their right to choose their own heroes and their own ideas. Most of these men had no strike fund to fall back on. They had wives and children depending on them. Quietly and grimly they took through hunger the path to the Heavenly City. […] For all their tattered garments, I recognise in these obscure men a majesty of spirit. It is in these workers in the towns and in the men in the cabins in the country that the hope of Ireland lies.

William Russell (AE) puts the General Strike of 1913 firmly in the realm of rights and freedom: to associate, to have one’s own ideas, to follow one’s own ideals.

From ‘The Dublin Strike’ by George Russell. Section I. A Plea for the Workers’, a speech delivered in the Royal Albert Hall, London, 1 November 1913 to an audience of 12,000 persons.
Published by the Irish Worker Press, Liberty Hall, Dublin, 1913. [available on archive.org]

06 Aug

Daniel O’Connell and Free Speech

Daniel O'Connell [The O'Connell Centennial] (c) Library & Archives Canada/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Daniel O’Connell [The O’Connell Centennial]
(c) Library & Archives Canada/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Given his political philosophy, it is not surprising that Daniel O’Connell was a champion of free speech. The history of the eighteenth century in Ireland was a history of speech restricted, with all political writers from Molyneaux and Swift to Wolf Tone facing possible accusations of treason. Religious freedom was still being fought for.

O’Connell’s passion for free speech extended, as it should, to those he disagreed with. Not that he was necessarily entirely polite to them, if the following account by Wendell Phillips (1875) is to be believed:
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01 Aug

William Larminie: From Folklore to Philosophy

Humanities in the West_DrTomDuddy from School of Humanities on Vimeo.

Part of the “Humanities in the West” series of lectures.
Dr Thomas Duddy presents “From Folklore to Philosophy: The Life and Work of William Larminie of Castlebar” (video lecture, 45 minutes)

William Larminie was a poet and folklorist, who was born in Castlebar on 1st August 1849. He graduated from Trinity with a degree in classics and went to work in the India Office of the English civil service in London. He threw up his post in the early 1890s and moved to Bray. He published a volume of folklore and volumes of poetry which displayed his interest in Irish landscape and mythology.

His primary philosophical interest was in Eriugena, who Larminie described in one article as the “Irish Plato”. As well as writing articles, Laraminie translated the bulk of Eriugena’s text from Latin into English, leaving out the sections he thought would be of little interest to the modern reader.

Larminie died in Bray, Co. Wicklow on 19th January, 1900.

29 Jul

The Seven Sages

The First. My great-grandfather spoke to Edmund Burke
In Grattan’s house.
The Second. My great-grandfather shared
A pot-house bench with Oliver Goldsmith once.
The Third. My great-grandfather’s father talked of music,
Drank tar-water with the Bishop of Cloyne.
The Fourth. But mine saw Stella once.
The Fifth. Whence came our thought?
The Sixth. From four great minds that hated Whiggery.
The Fifth. Burke was a Whig.
The Sixth. Whether they knew or not,
Goldsmith and Burke, Swift and the Bishop of Cloyne
All hated Whiggery; but what is Whiggery?
A levelling, rancorous, rational sort of mind
That never looked out of the eye of a saint
Or out of drunkard’s eye.
The Seventh. All’s Whiggery now,
But we old men are massed against the world.
The First. American colonies, Ireland, France and India
Harried, and Burke’s great melody against it.
The Second. Oliver Goldsmith sang what he had seen,
Roads full of beggars, cattle in the fields,
But never saw the trefoil stained with blood,
The avenging leaf those fields raised up against it.
The Fourth. The tomb of Swift wears it away.
The Third. A voice
Soft as the rustle of a reed from Cloyne
That gathers volume; now a thunder-clap.
The Sixth. What schooling had these four?
The Seventh. They walked the roads
Mimicking what they heard, as children mimic;
They understood that wisdom comes of beggary.

Yeats’ poem (published 1933) in praise of Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith, George Berkeley (the Bishop of Cloyne) and Jonathan Swift. All wrote about oppression and dispossession; Berkeley and Swift in the Irish context (The Querist and A Modest Proposal), Goldsmith in the context of the rich evicting the poor in The Deserted Village, and Burke on the widest canvas of all (India, the American colonies and Ireland).

Yeats’ affiliation with the Georgian (protestant, intellectual) past first emerged in “The Tower” (1928) and “Blood and the Moon” (1929). Yeats also makes reference to the 1798 Rising, “the trefoil stained with blood”, which he previously referred to (“Emmet, Fitzgerald, Tone”) in “The Funeral of Parnell” (1932).

It is a little strange to see four men who attended Trinity College Dublin, three of whom (Swift, Berkeley and Burke) were pillars of the Establishment, described as walking the roads and knowing that “wisdom comes of beggary”. However in Yeats’ 1931 introduction to Hone and Rossi’s Bishop Berkeley1 Yeats argued that the Georgian society they all belonged to was one that allowed “solitaries to flourish” – essentially the same premodern society that supported hermit monks, or Indian sages with begging bowls, or literal beggars and wanderers.
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