W. B. Yeats: Robartes’ Quarrel with the Dancer

  • Declan Kiberd


Although a reactionary in politics, W. B. Yeats was a radical on questions of sex, for what he sought was nothing less than a revolution in the relations between men and women, a major reform of the educational system to bring this about, and an end to all forms of sexual repression in Ireland. In a speech to the Irish Senate, he complained that it was a universal habit to discourage any enquiry into the emotional relations between men and women. In his poetry, he asserted the right, already won by the scientist, to fearless investigation of the entire contents of the human mind. He claimed that the two most important things in life are sex and death — and, as any man grows older, he comes to realise that they are alternative versions of the same thing. The young Yeats was an impassioned critic of bourgeois domesticity, offering the comment that he had seen more men destroyed by a wife and children than by drink and harlots. Of one failed poet he cuttingly observed that ‘the harlots in his case finished what the virtues began, but it was the virtues and not the harlots which killed his knack of verse.’1 The older Yeats in the Senate was a scathing opponent of censorship, but he never lost his humour and joked that the three monuments in Dublin’s main thoroughfare O’Connell Street were all encouraging — the epic lecher Daniel O’Connell himself surrounded by bullet-scarred angels, Admiral Nelson, whom James Joyce had dubbed ‘the one-handled adulterer’, and finally Charles Stewart Parnell, the Galahad in extremis.


Female Voice Modern Literature Bryn Mawr Beautiful Woman Professional Dancer 
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© Declan Kiberd 1985

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  • Declan Kiberd

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