“Uplift our State”: Yeats, Oedipus, and the Translation of a National Dramatic Form

  • Steven G. Yao


With major achievements of various sorts ranging from the late nineteenth century to almost the middle of the twentieth, William Buder Yeats stands as the first, and in many ways most successful, of the polymath geniuses of Anglo-American Modernism. Poet, playwright, propagandist, philosopher of the occult, and politician, among other things, Yeats also helped to make the Modernist period in English “an age of translations” by producing renderings of both King Oedipus (1928) and Oedipus at Colonus (1934), which to this day remain compelling for their charged diction and powerful, stately rhythms. The ongoing effectiveness of these works, especially that of their language, eloquendy registers the extent to which contemporary aesthetic values remain deeply rooted in the standards and practices first set forth by the Modernists. In addition to such specifically dedicated feats of translation per se, Yeats also explicitly practiced translation as a form of poetic composition, concluding both “A Man Young and Old” and “A Woman Young and Old,” the final sequences from arguably his two finest collections of verse, The Tower (1928) and The Winding Stair and Other Poems (1933), with poetic renderings of choral odes from Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone respectively. Much more than just belated exercises of apprenticeship, as their appearance at the very height of his career alone suggests, these acts of translation of and from the tragedies of Sophocles culminate a more than quarter-century engagement with the practice of translation as a strategy for establishing the terms of an expressly national culture in the face of the hybrid cultural situation of modem Ireland, an engagement that unfolded primarily within the context of Yeats’s attempt to establish an Irish national theater and native dramatic form.


National Culture Literary Production Literary Practice Political Speech Irish People 
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  1. 1.
    From the first Priest’s speech in Yeats’s Sophocles’ King Oedipus: A Version for the Modem Stage, in The Collected Plays of W. B. Yeats (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1934, 1952), p. 304.Google Scholar
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© Steven G. Yao 2002

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  • Steven G. Yao

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