In Gaelic literature we have something that the English-speaking countries have never possessed – a great folk literature. We have in Berkeley and in Burke a philosophy on which it is possible to base the whole life of a nation. That, too, is something which England, great as she is in modern scientific thought and every kind of literature, has not, I think. The modern Irish intellect was born more than two hundred years ago when Berkeley defined in three or four sentences the mechanical philosophy of Newton, Locke, and Hobbes, the philosophy of England in his day, and I think of English up to our day, and wrote after each, “We Irish do not hold with this”, or some like sentence. Feed the immature imagination upon that old folk life, and the mature intellect upon Berkeley and the great modern idealist philosophy created by his influence, upon Burke who restored to political thought its sense of history, and Ireland is reborn, potent, armed and wise. Berkeley proved that the world was a vision, and Burke that the State was a tree, no mechanism to be pulled in pieces and put up again, but an oak tree that had grown through centuries.
Speech to Irish Literary Society, 30 Nov. 1925; in The senate speeches of W. B. Yeats, Donald R. Pearce (eds), p.171-72.
A forerunner to his celebration of the 18th century philosophers in his poetry. This outlines the intellectual tradition he wished to resuscitate, which would feed the Irish intellect as the old Gaelic tales would feed the Irish imagination.
The intellect of Ireland is irreligious. I doubt if one could select from any Irish writer of the last two hundred years until the present generation a solitary sentence that might be included in a reputable anthology of religious thought. Ireland has produced but two men of religious genius: Johannes Scotus Erigena who lived a long time ago, and Bishop Berkeley who kept his Plato by his Bible; and its moral system, being founded upon habit, not intellectual conviction, has shown of late that it cannot resist the onset of modern life. We are quick to hate and slow to love; and we have never lacked a Press to excite the most evil passions. To some extent Ireland but shows in an acute form the European problem, and must seek a remedy where the best minds of Europe seek it — in audacity of speculation and creation.
William Butler Yeats, The Need for Audacity of Thought p 201 of The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats Vol X: Later Articles and Reviews. (First published in Dial, LXXX, Feb 1926)
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?
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.
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.
Continue reading “The Seven Sages”
The 13th of June is Yeats Day, the anniversary of Yeats’ birth. Best known as a poet, Yeats had philosophic interests. He admired idealism, and was well known for reading neoPlatonists such as Plotinus. In his essay Bishop Berkeley, he extols the imagination that underlay philosophy from Spinoza to Hegel.
Yeats was not a pure idealist (a term that to him evoked Kant, rather than Berkeley who was “idealist and realist alike”.) Yeats also rejected “the new naturalism that leaves man helpless before the contents of his own mind”, quoting Nietzsche’s Zarathustra “Am I a barrel of memories to give you my reasons?” (Bishop Berkeley).
As mentioned previously, Yeats and Wilde knew each other and Wilde made a strong impression on Yeats. In The Parting of the Veil (1922) Yeats tells of Wilde’s attempts to copy (wear a mask) opposite to the natural self or the natural world.
By 1918 in Arnica Silentia Lunare Yeats has developed his view and says,
The other self, the anti-self or the antithetical self, as one may choose to name it, comes but to those who are no longer deceived, whose passion is reality.
Tomorrow is Yeats Day, marking the birth of William Butler Yeats (13th June 1865). (Thanks to Annie West for permission to use the picture above. Her website, chock full of pictures of the incidents of his life Yeats would prefer to forget, is here).
Yeats Day is relevant to this blog because William Butler Yeats had philosophic interests (and is listed in DIP), which went beyond his habit of reading Plotinus to dutchesses. He developed a philosophic system regarding the self and anti-self, and these reflections on the self have parallels to Wilde’s thought (hence the picture above). The occasions Yeats met Wilde made a strong impression on him.
Continue reading “Wilde About Yeats”