Rightest Art #2 05/10/18 The Poetry of William Butler Yeats Oct 5, 2018 23:09:01 GMT Napoleoff (INTP) likes this
Post by Westernman (INTP) on Oct 5, 2018 23:09:01 GMT
Though often felt by those alive today to be in the distant past, there was a time not so long ago when the great artists of the west openly expressed the ideas of the races collective unconscious in service of a traditionalist meta-politic. The political leanings of literary giants of the early 20th century illustrate the relative proximity of such a phenomenon, to the eternal embarrassment of today's reigning liberal regime. As a result we have suffered the sanitisation of many such literary and philosophical figures, perhaps none more so than one William Butler Yeats. Owing to his rather timely demise on the eve of war in 1939, efforts to whitewash Yeats of his more radical views have been relatively successful. Conversely, Yeats's one time student Ezra Pound, living through the 40's, was able to contribute explicitly to the fascist regimes in those years, making his salvation in the eyes of the liberal west nigh on impossible. For the many modern students of literature scattered across the west, Yeats conjures up the image of aloof aristocrat, mystic, patriot and rather infamously, unrequited lover via multiple marriage rejections by his muse Maud Gonne. Yet how many would add far-rightist to this list, would any dare to label him the unthinkable, that which hangs over Pound and Heidegger. Nonetheless, for the Irish, Yeats' ultra-conservative and at times fascistic leanings are more well known than in the rest of the Anglophone world. Multiple times in the 1930's Yeats met with Eoin O'Duffy, leader of the Blueshirts, a fascistic organisation in the image of Mussolini's Blackshirts, to lecture him on the finer points of civilisation. Yet even a superficial familiarity with Yeats's work would have one not exactly flabbergasted by the radical nature of his political involvement. For even a cursory reading of his poetry brings one deep into the world of this aloof artist, a world imbued with the esoteric, symbolism, nationalism, and hierarchical motives.
Hailing from Irish protestant aristocracy, Yeats voiced the worries and hopes of the ascendency in a time of great political upheaval in Irish society. An ardent nationalist, he became known for his collaborations with lady Gregory in the illustrious and avant-garde Abbey theatre. He also made unparalleled contributions to the larger Celtic Revival, and was thusly rewarded for leading the Irish literary renaissance in his 1923 attainment of the Nobel prize for literature. Moreover, Yeats' was infatuated with Irish mythology and sought to drag it back to relevance in the creation of a new national mythos that would undergird the burgeoning of a fledgling Irish nation-state. He sought to amalgamate this quest for the articulation of the ethnic soul with his deeply held mystical beliefs, much of which emanated from his membership of the golden dawn, an elite occult organisation that boasted such members as Aleister Crowley.
Yeats was much disturbed by the spiritual dissolution brought about by modernity and sought to join the ranks of the romantic revolt against it. One tool in his arsenal was the fostering of a religious outlook on life as a buffer against the encroaching materialism he denounced all around him, saying himself;
I had made a new religion, almost an infallible church, out of poetic tradition: a fardel of stories, and of personages, and of emotions, a bundle of images and of masks passed on from generation to generation by poets & painters with some help from philosophers and theologians. I wished for a world where I could discover this tradition perpetually, and not in pictures and in poems only, but in tiles round the chimney-piece and in the hangings that kept out the draught. I had even created a dogma: ‘Because those imaginary people are created out of the deepest instinct of man, to be his measure and his norm, whatever I can imagine those mouths speaking may be the nearest I can go to truth.’ When I listened they seemed always to speak of one thing only: they, their loves, every incident of their lives, were steeped in the supernatural.
We can glean from this passage Yeats's adherence to an ostensible perennialism. Yeats sought out metaphysical organisations and occult symbolism because he believed that symbols had a life and realm of their own and that all artistic expression was dependent upon the artists contact with this 'realm'. In this view, the artist is akin to a psychic journeyman, drawn from an elite vanguard, who endeavours to traverse this otherworldly realm and translate its profound symbolic knowledge through the various mediums of art. Whether one interprets Yeats's rendition of this otherworldly realm as following in a platonic tradition, or in a Jungian fashion via the template of the Archetypes, it is still apt to position Yeats within a perennial cannon. If we take up the latter Jungian lens, then Yeats's occult practices become a ritualised method for extracting primordial ethnic memories from the realm of a collective unconscious. As Yeats himself iterated; "individuality is not as important as our age has imagined.” This sentiment is expressed in his 1938 poem, Under Ben Bulben;
Many times man lives and dies Between his two eternities,
That of race and that of soul,
And ancient Ireland knew it all.
Whether man die in his bed
Or the rifle knock him dead,
A brief parting from those dear
Is the worst man has to fear.
Though grave-diggers’ toil is long,
Sharp their spades, their muscles strong,
They but thrust their buried men
Back in the human mind again.
Here we see Yeats illustrate an immortality of the soul, whereby its ontological status sees its survival past the death of the body. He states that this was intuitively known by the ancient Irish, betraying Yeats's penchant for many pagan themes but also the esoteric. Yeats's fascination with these themes lead to his delving into theosophy and later an initiation into the Golden Dawn. These metaphysical societies maintained an adequate level of elitism and disdain for the blundering masses and rapacious materialism. They provided Yeats with the hierarchical structure that he craved, where he could do his due diligence as the member of a culturally and spiritually elite caste, and act as mediator within the occult that brought esoteric knowledge from an intangible realm to the masses.
This acceptance of innate position in a caste reflects Yeats's yearning for the aristocratic society that he saw dissolving around him. He feared that a slipping away from a traditionally tiered social structure would lead to an inferior and fractured nation. This is reflected in another passage from Under Ben Bulben;
Sing the peasantry, and then
Hard-riding country gentlemen,
The holiness of monks, and after
Porter-drinkers randy laughter;
Sing the lords and ladies gay
That were beaten into the clay
Through seven heroic centuries;
Cast your mind on other days
That we in coming days may be
Still the indomitable Irishry.
Yeats exalts the three tiered divisions of Indo-European society, restoring adoration of those who pray, the monks, those who lead and fight, the 'hard riding' aristocratic men, and those who work, the peasantry. It was through this tripartite symmetry that Yeats sought to mould a new Ireland that was emerging as an independent nation through war with the British. He sought to keep fate with the past through the upkeep of an overarching aristocracy that would act as a bulwark against the bourgeoisie mercantile spirit and the ensuing rule of money over the organic and spiritual rule of the blood. Yeats often had biting critiques for the materialistic middle class of his native country, writing in September 1913;
What need you, being come to sense,
But fumble in a greasy till
And add the halfpence to the pence
And prayer to shivering prayer, until
You have dried the marrow from the bone;
For men were born to pray and save;
Romantic Ireland's dead and gone,
It's with O'Leary in the grave.
Indeed, Yeats relationship with the lower classes was a tumultuous one, often full of oscillating love and fury. For instance, no sooner had Yeats condemned their flippancy in September 1913, when the violent rebellion of Easter 1916 would see a half horrified, half enthused Yeats express a deep admiration for the risings leaders and their fittingly poetic blood sacrifice. Yeats acknowledged the deed, immortalising the executed rebels in his poem Easter 1916, fulfilling his noblesse oblige;
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse--
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
The last line 'A terrible beauty is born' has entered into common parlance as the distillation of an idea whose time has come, albeit through a baptism by fire. Furthermore, it would appear that behind Yeats' utter devotion to the Irish nationalist cause, was a hope of positioning Ireland as a hotbed, a culture dish for a new European renaissance. Yeats wished for Ireland to become a shining example of a people that made its way back to tradition in the face of modern nihilism.
Yet Yeats was not confined to more parochial concerns, for he exhibited a deep concern for the fate of western civilisation writ large. Such anxiety is palpable in the infamous poem The Second Coming from 1919.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre,
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
A darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
The Second Coming, written in the aftermath of the carnage of WWI, announces the monumental ending of a historical cycle and the inauguration of a new paradigm, one distinct from the hegemonic morals that reigned during 'That twenty centuries of stony sleep'. The allusions to the two millennia of Christian civilisation are clear and so too is the symbol of a resurgent beast that will bring an end to its supremacy. Though the beast possesses apocalyptic connotations, it is not certain that Yeats' is entirely averse to it. This inauguration of a new regime can be seen as an eerily prophetic endeavour by Yeats to elucidate the sense of impending doom embedded in the psyche of western man as he stumbles heavily wounded from one apocalyptic European civil war into another.
In evoking the image of the widening Gyre, Yeats implies a mathematical inevitability in the trajectory of the falcon, which is doomed to forge increasingly distant concentric circles away from its Falconer. The falconer signifies the metaphysical grounding for the Faustian western man, denoted by the falcon. This metaphysical anchor is what allows for symmetry and order to take place between the anchor and the free agent of man. Civilisation is analogous to the occurring edifice of the gyre and its coming into being through the interdependent relationship between man and his highest morals. When considered in Nietzschean terms, the falconer is the Christian church which cultivated the highest values of the civilisation and which ultimately derived it's authority from God and the belief of the people therein. With the advent of nihilism and the declaration of God's death seeping into the cracks of public consciousness, Faustian man has entered the latter stage of his voyage which sees him depart fully from the Christian metaphysic that engendered the grace of his initial flight. Yeats' was fully cognisant of the consequences of this development, wherein 'mere anarchy is loosed upon the world'.
However, not all of the Nobel prize winners works were morose apocalyptic visions. Through his cyclical view of time, one much aligned with Spengler, Yeats also envisaged a coming golden age. Take, for example, this excerpt from The King's threshold 1904;
O silver trumpets, be you lifted up
And cry to the great race that is to come.
Long-throated swans upon the waves of time,
Sing loudly, for beyond the wall of the world
That race may hear our music and awake.
This proclamation is one of Yeats's most audacious. One can easily decipher the Nietzschean theme through the heralding of 'the great race that is to come', and the symbolic swans as harbingers of the imminent race of the Overmen. Yeats's faith in the beings of these lines suggests that they possess an otherworldly valour that will cause them to stand differentiated even from all previous forms of Faustian man through his many past epochs. Yeats comforts us with a rallying cry, that through the mists of deprivation and struggle, the west will rejuvenate, birth and inaugurate it's godly prodigy. Yeats calls out beyond time itself to those he feels to be on a far horizon, visitors to come from another realm. These visions of an imminent, worthy iteration of his 'race', illustrate what is inevitable should the perennial values of Tradition be re-exerted upon the west. You may have your pick for what William Butler Yeats foresaw as the vessel for a return of primordial European values, but no one in their right mind could call it liberalism. And one could also have their pick of labels for the man, feudal, nationalist, eccentric, anachronistic, but perhaps above all of these, Yeats was and always shall be, the great bard of the west, the great bard of his race.