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.

Burke was a Whig, unquestionably. There is, however, an underlying conservatism to the four that Yeats describes (however inaccurately) as anti-“Whiggery”. Terry Eagleton identifies it more precisely: “[a] nervousness of abstraction underlies the conservative politics of Berkeley, Swift and Burke, leading them to belabour impious rationalists and idle utopianists.”

Or as Yeats says (again from his 1931 introduction to Bishop Berkeley)2:
“Berkeley with his belief in perception, that abstract ideas are mere words, Swift with his love of perfect nature, of the Houyhnhnms, his disbelief in Newton’s system and every sort of machine, Goldsmith and his delight in the particulars of common life that shocked his contemporaries, Burke with his conviction that all States not grown slowly like a forest tree are tyrannies, found in England the opposite that stung their own thought into expression and made it lucid.”

Yeats points the common thread where these four thinkers favour immediate reality and wisdom distilled over generations, over abstraction and theory. These four “enemies of Whiggery”, says Yeats, created Irish thought, a thought that should be reconstructed for the 20th century.

  1. W.B. Yeats (1931) “Bishop Berkeley” in J.M. Hone and M.M. Rossi Bishop Berkeley: His Life, Writings, and Philosophy, London: Faber and Faber
  2. William Butler Yeats (1961) Essays and introductions, London:Macmillan. Online at University of Oxford Text Archive
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