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Yeats, Socialism and Tragedy

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Part of the Macmillan Studies in Anglo-Irish Literature book series

Abstract

In his later years, despite having been when young a follower of William Morris, Yeats disliked both Utopian and Marxian socialism. In the thirties, this dislike placed him as variance with most of his artistic contemporaries. ‘The dominance of the Left in universities and literary London was powerfully sensed and widely accepted at the time; and by the end of the decade the Left was often felt to be in total possession,’ George Watson has written of the thirties, supporting the generalisation with a remarkable 1940 comment by George Orwell: ‘there is now no intelligentsia that is not in some sense “left” ‘.1 Many of Yeats’s friends and fellow-artists had markedly leftist sympathies: Sean O’Casey, Frank O’Connor, Ethel Mannin, Liam O’Flaherty, Constance Markiewicz and of course Madame MacBride and her daughter. Why did Yeats choose to resist the tide? What did he think socialism was, and why did he dislike it so intensely? The answers to those questions are less apparent in Yeats’s scattered remarks on socialism than they are in three decisions he made as an arbiter of the arts: the decision not to produce Sean O’Casey’s The Silver lassie at the Abbey, the decision to exclude Wilfred Owen from the Oxford Book of Modern Verse and the decision in the same anthology to identify the main movement in contemporary poetry not with Auden, Spender and Day-Lewis, but with W. J. Turner, Herbert Read, Dorothy Wellesley and Oliver St John Gogarty.

Keywords

Happy Ending Modern Poetry Utopian Socialism Aerial Bombardment Tragic Hero 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 22.
    Harold J. Laski, Communism (New York: Henry Holt; London: Thornton, Butterworth, 1927) p. 61.Google Scholar
  2. 26.
    David Krause (ed.), The Letters of Sean O’Casey (London: Macmillan, 1975) I, 102–3.Google Scholar
  3. 27.
    The best account of the controversy is that in Robert Hogan, The Experiments of Sean O’Casey (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1960) pp. 184–206.Google Scholar
  4. David Krause, Sean O’Casey: The Man and his Work (New York: Macmillan, rev. edn, 1975) pp. 99–109.Google Scholar
  5. 34.
    Thomas Common (compiler), Nietzsche as Critic, Philosopher, Poet and Prophet: Choice Selections from his Works (London: Grant Richards, 1901) p. 142.Google Scholar
  6. See David Thatcher, Nietzsche in England 1890–1914: The Growth of a Reputation (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1970) p. 172.Google Scholar
  7. Otto Bohlmann, Yeats and Nietzsche (Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble, 1982).Google Scholar
  8. 55.
    Wilfred Owen, Collected Letters, ed. Harold Owen and John Bell (London: Oxford University Press, 1967) p. 131.Google Scholar
  9. 57.
    See Cecil Day-Lewis, A Hope for Poetry (first published 1934; 8th edn, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1947) pp. 3, 15.Google Scholar
  10. Stephen Spender, The Destructive Element (first published 1935; paperback edn, Philadelphia: Albert Saifer, 1953) pp. 130–1.Google Scholar
  11. 58.
    Rickwood’s opinion is quoted in D. E. Savage’s article, Two Prophetic Poems’, Adelphi, 22, no. 1 (1945) p. 32.Google Scholar
  12. see also Samuel Hynes, The Auden Generation: Literature and Politics in England in the 1930s (London: Bodley Head, 1976) pp. 194–6.Google Scholar
  13. 60.
    Robert Wohl, ‘England: Lost Legions of Youth’, in The Generation of 1914 (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1979) pp. 85–121.Google Scholar
  14. Martin Green, Children of the Sun (New York: Basic Books, 1976) pp. 42–8.Google Scholar
  15. 61.
    Edward O’Shea, Yeats as Editor, New Yeats Papers XII (Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1975) p. 71.Google Scholar
  16. 64.
    See, for example, D. E. Savage’s above-cited article, ‘Two Prophetic Poems’, and Jon Silkin’s introduction to The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979) esp. pp. 31–2, 43–4.Google Scholar
  17. 74.
    Edmund Blunden, ‘Memoir’, in The Poems of Wilfred Owen (London: Chatto & Windus, 1931) p. 25.Google Scholar
  18. 80.
    George Mills Harper and Walter Kelly Hood (eds), A Critical Edition of Yeats’s ‘A Vision’ (1925) pp. 186–7.Google Scholar
  19. 84.
    Joseph Cohen, ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats — and Wilfred Owen’, Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 58 (Oct. 1959) 643.Google Scholar
  20. 105.
    In December 1930, two years into the First Five Year Plan, Stalin conferred with a group of Russian philosophers to warn them against ‘both bourgeois “idealist” philosophies and the Trotskyite and Bukharinite perversions of Marxism’ (Adam B. Ulam, Stalin: The Man and his Era (New York: Viking Press, 1973) p. 339). Stalin wished to make clear, among other things, that bourgeois notions of what was practical or feasible did not hold for Marxist societies in general or for the Five Year Plan in particular; hence Yeats’s statement that Stalin had ‘silenced’ the ‘Mechanists’. Stalin’s stance on this point later contributed to the unusual career of Trofim Lysenko, who ‘cleverly exploited Stalin’s predilection for scientists who refused to be intimidated by alleged scientific laws and who, if higher production was at stake, overcame those laws in the spirit of “There is no fortress we Bolsheviks cannot take”‘ (ibid., p. 444).Google Scholar
  21. 115.
    Robin Skelton (ed.), Poetry of the Thirties (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964) pp. 30–1.Google Scholar
  22. 116.
    Humphrey Carpenter, W. H. Auden: A Biography (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1981) p. 113.Google Scholar
  23. 137.
    O. B. M. V., p. xi. Yeats had made rhetorical use of these women as long ago as 1908 in order to upbraid militant Irish nationalists in the Samhain, there too calling up the image of Nero (Exp., p. 239). One wonders if Henry James met one or several of these very women, for in The Princess Casamassima the Princess takes the identical line with the bookbinder Hyacinth Robinson (New York: Charles Scriber’s Sons, 1908) VI, 259.Google Scholar
  24. 138.
    Samuel Hynes, ‘Yeats and the Poets of the Thirties’, in Raymond J. Porter and James D. Brophy (eds), Modern Irish Literature: Essays in Honor of William York Tindall (New York: Iona College Press and Twayne Publishers, 1972) p. 12.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Paul Scott Stanfield 1988

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of NebraskaLincolnUSA

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