‘We Irish’ in Europe: Yeats, Berkeley and Joseph Hone, by WJ McCormack, University College Dublin Press, 211 pp, €50, ISBN: 978-1906359430
Yeats and Violence, by Michael Wood, Oxford University Press, 156 pp, £18.99, ISBN: 978-0199557660
WJ McCormack begins his book on Yeats and Joseph Hone rather strangely by declaring that he doesn’t think the subject is very interesting and hasn’t done with it what he would like to have done: “This is not a biography of Joseph Maunsell Hone (1882-1959), publisher, translator, political intellectual and biographer. Frankly, I wish it were.” The lives of Hone and others whom he regards as mere satellites of Yeats “provide more cover than illumination, reflect upon their own broken or sterile condition and not upon the eminence they surround”. And then, in what appears to me to be a contradiction: “When biographers address these and other figures, Yeats also will be better known.” McCormack, however, is not such a biographer so he has “tried to concentrate on what must surely be the central theme of his relationship with Yeats – politics”.
It would be a worthwhile venture. Hone, author and co-author of biographies of Yeats, Berkeley, Swift and George Moore, as well as of numerous articles on philosophy and politics, is an interesting man in his own right. He was also cousin to the painter and stained glass artist Evie Hone, one of the first postwar non-representational painters in the British Isles and friend of Ben and Winifred Nicholson. Evie converted to Catholicism and scattered beautiful, plummet-measured faces throughout churches the length and breadth of the country. Joseph Hone and Yeats (and Oliver St John Gogarty and Joyce and Beckett and Francis Stuart and many other of the best known names in Irish literature) were in revolt against the culture of the independent Ireland that was developing around them. Evie Hone, with her ideal of disinterested service, makes an interesting contrast.
But I share McCormack’s view that he hasn’t realised the full interest of the project he has undertaken. In Isaiah Berlin’s parable of the fox and the hedgehog the fox sees many things while the hedgehog sees only one big thing. In relation to the politics of Yeats and his friends, McCormack is a hedgehog ‑ he sees only one big thing, which is fascism. And in relation to fascism itself he sees only one big thing: fascism is wicked. That is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know ‑ at least with regard to fascism. Once the presence of fascism has been established all has been said that needs to be said.
To take an example: he provides a useful bibliography of Hone’s writings. Hone wrote a large number of articles through the 1920s, many of them published in the Irish Statesman and the Dublin Magazine. As McCormack points out, they include a number of pieces sympathetic to fascist Italy, with a particular emphasis on Giovanni Gentile, “the philosopher of Fascism”, a minister in Mussolini’s government. We know that Gentile counted Berkeley among his major philosophical influences. We know, not least because Hone tells us, that Yeats was interested in Gentile. One would therefore expect a book subtitled “Yeats, Berkeley and Joseph Hone” to discuss Hone’s articles on Gentile. But having registered their existence McCormack has said all he thinks needs to be said. He gives no account of them, of how they might relate to Yeats or indeed to the very interesting political and intellectual adventure of the journals they were published in.
Nor does he tell us much about the obvious key texts for any discussion of Yeats, Berkeley and Joseph Hone ‑ Hone’s biographies of Yeats (1943) and of Berkeley (1932), though the Yeats biography in particular is a key source for information as to his fascist sympathies. McCormack’s previous book, Blood Kindred, turns on three key pieces of evidence for Yeats’s sympathetic interest in fascism and, in particular, in German national socialism. In 1934, he accepted a plaquette ‑ a metal engraving, awarded annually in honour of Goethe ‑ from the municipality of Frankfurt, newly fallen into Nazi hands. In the following year he refused to support the campaign to nominate the German pacifist Carl von Ossietszky, a prisoner in a Nazi jail, for the Nobel peace prize; and finally, in 1938, he spoke in praise of a piece of Nazi legislation which McCormack represents as part of the anti-Jewish Nuremberg Laws. As McCormack remarks, none of these pieces of evidence are mentioned in the standard Yeats biographies of Richard Ellman or A Norman Jeffares, though two of them (but not the Goethe plaquette) can be found in some detail in the recent massive biography by Roy Foster. All three are to be found in Hone, the very first of the major Yeats biographies, together with further material which would seem to support the case McCormack wants to make but which he doesn’t use.
For example, Hone quotes General Sir Ian Hamilton, a relative of Lady Gregory’s:
It was during a two-hours’ talk with Adolf Hitler in 1938, and as Sir Ian listened to that eager, nervy voice running up and down the gamut of the emotional scales ‑ laughter, sorrow, pity ‑ the thought kept rising at the back of his head like a question mark, “Where ever have I heard someone speak like this?” Then, suddenly, as Hitler spoke of his nightingales, the mirror of memory flashed and there he was again listening to his old friend Yeats.
Of course McCormack could say that Yeats is hardly responsible for the subjective impressions of Sir Ian Hamilton but the fact that Yeats’s close friend could recount such a tale with relish indicates at least that things could be said and thought in Ireland in 1943 which couldn’t be said thereafter. Most of Hone’s book was after all written at a time when it was reasonable to think that the war would be won by Hitler.
McCormack does quote Hone on Yeats’s support for Nazi legislation, a subject to which we will return, and the “great number of popular books on Hitler’s Germany” which Yeats had read. The same paragraph in Hone’s book also details Yeats’s enthusiasm for forthcoming war “with the victory of the skilful, riding their machines as did the feudal knights their armoured horses”, and for eugenics and “the necessity of the unification of the State under a small aristocratic order which would prevent the materially and spiritually uncreative families or individuals from prevailing over the creative”. And the following paragraph begins by evoking a “race philosophy”; which “appears to have been in his thoughts for some time, to judge from some pages among his papers probably dated 1926 in which he depicts society as the struggle of the family and the individual” (he is probably referring to an unpublished text headed A Race Philosophy which is now usually dated about 1933).
Then there is this, which could provide the structure for a very interesting study of Yeats’s philosophical researches in the 1920s:
My memory goes back to a morning in Rome spent in searching the book-shops with Mrs Yeats for works dealing with the spiritual antecedents of the Fascist revolution, an event which Yeats considered (justly as events have shown) as at least equal in importance to the proletarian conquest of Russia. Having attended the lectures given in London by Douglas Ainslie on Croce’s Estetica, he already knew something of the new original thought of Italy. In 1924 he read and annotated Croce’s Philosophy of Vico and now some phrase used by me about Gentile had caught his ear and one of the books he wanted was La Riforma dell’Educazione, a work which ensured for that metaphysician the post of Minister of Education in one of Mussolini’s early cabinets. As he could not read Italian, his wife made summaries for him of this and other examples of Fascist literature. A little later, through Wildon Carr’s translation, he acquainted himself with, and admired for its concentrated logic (its “intensity of thought which is beauty”) Gentile’s Teoria generale dello Spirito come Atto puro. Thus his philosophic as opposed to his occult background was formed by the modern Italians, with a foundation of Plato and Plotinus, Boehme and Swedenborg. He read Croce’s Philosophy of the Practical (annotated) in 1926 and in the same year his Hegel; Bergson’s Matter and Memory and Creative Evolution in 1927; McTaggart’s Study in Hegelian Cosmology in 1928; Kant’s Prolegomena in 1929; and, much later, Husserl’s Ideas.
So what does McCormack offer that we don’t already have from the very first of the important Yeats biographies? Principally, I think, as in Blood Kindred, added moral indignation. The general tendency of both Blood Kindred and ‘We Irish’ is to present Yeats as a morally and intellectually worthless person. And yet, in Blood Kindred, McCormack, himself a poet, also gives, in passing as it were, his opinion that “Yeats is probably the greatest poet in the English language since John Milton, and certainly the greatest since Wordsworth”. And he characterises Per Amica Silentia Lunae as “that wonderful collection of poetry, philosophical prose and personal correspondence”. Whatever about “the greatest poet since” ‑ a phrase that conveys no meaning to my mind ‑ he is right about Per Amica, but coming in the middle of hundreds of pages of almost unrelenting contempt, this sudden burst of admiration surely requires some explanation.
The most serious charge McCormack brings is that Yeats actually expressed support for the Nuremberg laws. He bases his accusation on the passage in Hone’s book we have already mentioned, and on an interview Yeats gave in 1938 for the Irish Independent in the context of a controversy surrounding his play Purgatory.
The passage in Hone’s book reads as follows:
He had read a great number of popular books on Hitler’s Germany and someone told him ‑ he repeated it with great satisfaction ‑ that there was “a new law in that country whereby ancient and impoverished families could recover their hereditary properties”.
He goes on, as we have seen, to talk of his interest in eugenics, which also comes up in the Irish Independent interview:
In my play, a spirit suffers because of its share, when alive, in the destruction of an honoured house; that destruction is taking place all over Ireland to-day. Sometimes it is the result of poverty, but more often because a new individualistic generation has lost interest in the ancient sanctities.
I know of old houses, old pictures, old furniture that have been sold without apparent regret. In some few cases a house has been destroyed by a mésalliance. I have founded my play on this exceptional case, partly because of my interest in certain problems of eugenics, partly because it enables me to depict more vividly than would otherwise be possible the tragedy of the house.
In Germany there is special legislation to enable old families to go on living where their fathers lived. The problem is not Irish but European, though it is perhaps more acute here than elsewhere.
A third example, which McCormack doesn’t give, can be found in Arland Ussher’s book Three Great Irishmen: Shaw, Yeats and Joyce. Ussher is best known as the translator of the Gaelic poem The Midnight Court, which was published in 1926 with an introduction by Yeats. McCormack gives us some tantalising glimpses of a correspondence between Ussher and Hone after the war in which Ussher is trying to persuade a recalcitrant Hone that the Nazis were indeed as bad as British propaganda said they were.
In a footnote Ussher attributes the quotation from Yeats to the painter Cecil Salkeld:
“I am told there is a law in Germany,” he remarked in 1935, “by which noblemen can be given back their hereditary castles” ‑ and that was all he knew about the obscene demagogy which priced Einstein’s head like a criminal. Nor, I think, did he realise ‑ or care to realise ‑ the extent to which the less savoury elements of the magical tradition had contributed to that witch-broth.
The first embarrassingly obvious comment to make is that Yeats’s remarks are not directed against Jews, as one might expect if one is told that he had spoken in favour of the Nuremberg laws. The issue is clearly the break-up of the “great house”, a theme that had become obsessive in Yeats’s mind since the death of Lady Gregory in 1932 and the break-up of her estate at Coole Park (a break-up that could be attributed to a mésalliance, albeit unlike the one in Purgatory. The heir was the wife of Lady Gregory’s son Robert, killed in the war. She was Welsh and not aristocratically inclined and had no interest in maintaining the Irish property.)
Both Foster and McCormack say with apparent confidence that the Nazi legislation Yeats has in mind is the Hereditary Farm Law of September 1933. If they are right then it seems Yeats misunderstood it, or it had been badly explained to him. Where Yeats is talking about the landed aristocracy, the Hereditary Farm Law talks about “peasants” (it seems to be only in British culture that the word “peasant” is a term of abuse). The aim of the law is stated to be “to preserve the peasantry through the ancient German method of inheritance as the blood source of the German people ...”
Attempts will be made to assure a healthy partition of the large landed estates because the existence of many prosperous small and medium-sized farms, distributed as equally as possible over the entire country, offers the best guarantee for a vigorous people and state ... The exact amount of land is to be regarded as a soil subsistence necessary to feed and clothe a family independently of market conditions and the general economy and to maintain the economic life of the farm ... The peasant must be an honourable man. He must be able to work his farm in an orderly fashion.
We may wonder if this really is the legislation Yeats had in mind. Both Hone and Cecil Salkeld remember Yeats as talking about legislation which restores their estates to families who have lost them, arousing the suspicion that it could concern property that had passed into Jewish ownership. The perhaps more reliable Irish Independent article does not carry that implication. But in all cases, the issue seems to be “ancient ... families” or “noblemen”, not to mention Ussher’s “castles”. I do not know if there was Nazi legislation that corresponds to Yeats’s hopes but I do not have the impression that preservation of the German aristocracy was high on Hitler’s list of priorities.
Even if Yeats is referring to the Hereditary Farm Law, however, its link to the Nuremberg Laws is tenuous. There is a link in that it was part of a process by which transfer of property was subject to judicial oversight in the Nazi state and that facilitated the denial of property and other rights to Jews. But it is obvious that this is not what Yeats was endorsing. Contrary to the impression given by McCormack, there is no evidence that Yeats supported anti-Semitic legislation. On the other hand, I know of no evidence that he ever specifically condemned anti-Semitic legislation, even though it was clearly one of the great issues of the day and much agitated in the circles in which he moved. Yeats included among his friends the very anti-Semitic Ezra Pound, Percy Wyndham Lewis and Oliver St John Gogarty. On the one hand it seems significant that he never seems to have challenged their anti-Semitism. On the other hand, it also seems significant that McCormack, who has obviously searched hard for expressions of anti-Semitic feeling, has found so little. I think we can say this was an issue that didn’t interest Yeats. It is scarcely to his credit: he does not seem to have cared either way ‑ whether Jews were persecuted or whether they weren’t.
But how does the eighteenth century philosopher George Berkeley stand in relation to this theme of the development of a distinctly fascist philosophy? The core of McCormack’s argument seems to be that: “[t]he Berkeley available to Yeats in 1927 was not the model of 1733 (or earlier); it was the complex of Berkeleyan text-in-interpretation advanced by Croce, Gentile, Papini, Rossi and Hone.” Benedetto Croce, Gentile and Giovanni Papini had all written on Berkeley. Gentile and Papini were closely identified with fascism though the older, more dignified, Croce kept his distance. McCormack points out that there was in addition Giovanni Amendola, who had translated and commented on Berkeley, who was murdered by a group of fascists in 1926 and who is not mentioned either by Hone or Yeats. He also points to a left-wing literature on Berkeley, notably by Antonio Gramsci, Nikolai Bukharin and Lenin. Lenin and Bukharin are hostile while Gramsci, though he was writing in a fascist prison and his thoughts were not published until much later, is more nuanced. Rather strangely in the case of Lenin, McCormack refers to his Philosophical Notebooks. The somewhat misnamed Philosophical Notebooks ‑ volume 38 of Lenin’s collected works ‑ consist largely of marginal notes to books by other people. The passage McCormack quotes is actually a quote from V Shulyatikov’s The Justification of Capitalism in West-European Philosophy (From Descartes to E. Mach), published in Moscow in 1908. Lenin’s contribution in the Notebooks was to add the word “True?” in the margin. The more obvious Lenin reference to Berkeley would have been Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, his most ambitious and influential philosophical work, which starts with a polemic against Berkeley. At least it is a polemic against a tendency within Bolshevism at the time which, while proclaiming itself to be materialist, was trying to take account of the obvious fact that “matter” can only be known and studied as a phenomenon of mind. Lenin is out to discredit them by arguing that this is pure “Idealism” as taught by Berkeley.
Interestingly enough, Yeats was aware of this controversy. In the introduction to his play The Resurrection he says: "In 1894 Gorky and Lunacharsky tried to correct the philosophy of Marxian Socialism by the best German philosophy of their time, founding schools at Capri and Bologna for the purpose, but Lenin founded a rival school at Paris and brought Marxian socialism back to orthodoxy: 'we remain materialist, anything else would lead to religion'."
The dates are quite wrong ‑ the school in Capri and the confrontation with Lenin followed the 1905 Russian revolution ‑ but the mere fact that Yeats was aware of it at all is, surely, interesting. Nor is this instance of interest in the intellectual life of Soviet Communism entirely unique in Yeats’s writings. In his introduction to The Holy Mountain, a book translated by his friend and collaborator Shri Purohit Swami, he says:
The Spirit, the Self that is in all selves, the pure mirror, is the source of intelligence, but Matter is the source of all energy, all creative power, all that separates one thing from another, not Matter as understood by Hobbes and his Mechanists, Matter as understood in Russia, where the Government has silenced the mechanist, but interpreted with profound logic almost what Schopenhauer understood by will.
A similar remark on “the recognised communist philosophy” can be found in the introduction to the Oxford Book of Modern Verse.
Eccentric as this may seem, I think it has its source in the argument of “The ‘general Line’ of Soviet Philosophy” in The End of our Time by the Russian Christian philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev. Like Yeats, Berdyaev argued in the 1930s that Europe was facing a new age of barbarism. Also like Yeats he seems to have been as much excited as repelled by the prospect. Like Yeats he had a lively sympathy for the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche. Both men understood Nietzsche as trying to preserve a sense of the depth of human experience in the face of the collapse of religious belief. Both seem to have believed that the new age of barbarism would bring in its wake a new possibility of religious belief. In Berdyaev’s case it was a rather unorthodox variant of Christianity; in Yeats’s case, as we shall see shortly, something more resembling a Hindu belief in cycles of reincarnation.
The Soviet philosophical debates Berdyaev is discussing were, as Berdyaev understood very well, part of the campaign against Nikolai Bukharin, who was opposing the current policy of collectivisation of agriculture. If Yeats endorsing Nazi legislation (which may or may not have existed) on the preservation of ancestral homes can be interpreted as Yeats endorsing the Nuremberg laws, then Yeats supporting “the recognised communist philosophy” can surely be interpreted as Yeats endorsing the ‑ at the time considerably more bloody ‑ liquidation of the kulaks.
But to return to Berkeley. Yeats’s interest in Berkeley developed in the 1920s in the context of his appointment to the Irish senate, where he saw himself as a spokesman for the old Protestant ‑ previously largely Unionist ‑ ascendancy caste. In this context he built up a mythological history of the Protestant ascendancy which bore as much resemblance to the original as his accounts of the Irish peasantry written in the late nineteenth century bore to the reality of the life of the rural poor. It centred on the four great personalities of Berkeley, Swift, Burke and Goldsmith, chosen presumably because they were figures of international stature and could therefore be raised to the status of universal symbols ‑ Berkeley symbolic of the primacy of consciousness over “matter”; Swift symbolic of old aristocratic hatred of the rise of a utilitarian (“Whiggish”) culture; Burke symbolic of political society as a growing tree, with all its parts organically related in space and time; Goldsmith ‑ well, Goldsmith, as Donald Torchiana shows in his classic study Yeats and Georgian Ireland, is rather hanging on by his fingertips, but Yeats needed a poet. With the best will in the world he couldn’t really rate Swift as a poet and Henry Brooke was too obscure. Let’s just say Goldsmith symbolised the poet who liked mixing with the common people (so long as they knew their place).
Yeats presents Berkeley as the founder of a school of Irish philosophy sharply distinguished from the English school founded by John Locke. Locke’s philosophy was based on the distinction between primary qualities of matter ‑ those that could be said to have an objective existence in the world outside consciousness ‑ and secondary qualities such as colour or sound, which are entirely phenomena of consciousness. Berkeley argued that the distinction was spurious and that the whiteness of the wall was as “real” as its solidity or its measurable proportions ‑ both were real phenomena of consciousness. This “idealism” ‑ the view that the primary reality is in consciousness not in matter ‑ is fundamental to Yeats’s world view, though Berkeley was not the source of it.
In his poem “The Seven Sages”, where his view of these great representative Anglo-Irish figures is outlined, he says of Berkeley:
And God-appointed Berkeley that proved all things a dream
That this pragmatical, preposterous pig of a world, its farrow that so solid seem,
Must vanish on the instant if the mind but change its theme.
But behind this idea that reality is determined by perception lies not so much Berkeley as William Blake, who says in his poem “The Mental Traveller” (very much in Yeats’s mind when he was writing A Vision):
The Guests are scattered through the land
For the Eye altering alters all
The senses roll themselves in fear
And the flat Earth becomes a ball.
Blake, not Berkeley, is also the source of Yeats’s opposition to Locke. Blake inveighed throughout his life against Locke and Isaac Newton as the representative figures of what we might call a “mechanical materialist” philosophy. This is not irrelevant to Yeats’s sympathetic interest in fascism. In an oft-quoted letter of 1933, Yeats says that “Europe belongs to Dante and the witches’ sabbath not to Newton”. Without quite identifying Dante with Mussolini’s Italy we might think that the “witches’ Sabbath” is a reference to the rise of Hitler. It isn’t good. But it’s better than Newton.
McCormack has suggested that Yeats’s view of Berkeley was moulded by Hone and the Italian fascists, but the book by Hone and his Italian friend MM Rossi appears if anything as a severe critique of the version of Berkeley presented by Yeats.
Their approach is perfectly sympathetic but they regard Berkeley as a rather amateur philosopher, one who started off with a striking idea but was never able to develop it properly. Philosophy was not a continual activity with Berkeley. When he returns to it from time to time he maintains the initial proposition that there is no external material reality existing independent of consciousness but he draws different conclusions. Thus in the earliest and best known texts he was a strict nominalist and empiricist, insisting that the world is exactly as it appears to be and that there is no hidden substance inaccessible to the senses. The young Berkeley founded a small philosophical society in Trinity College. Yeats presented this as a secret society aiming to develop a distinctively Irish philosophy in opposition to Locke but Hone and Rossi call it “a Lockean club ...”. They say “his [Berkeley’s] references to Locke are uniformly polite in contrast to his references to Descartes and the new French rationalism. Locke is always a ‘great man’ ... Berkeley is only a revised Locke. The saying may be artless but it is at bottom sound.”
Thereafter, they argue that Berkeley’s thinking accumulates contradictions. The entry of God, for example, far from saving the system since it provides someone to perceive the tree in the quad, actually ruins it. Berkeley, they say, had argued that mind actively creates the reality it perceives, but if the mind is simply perceiving ideas that are only actively produced in the mind of God then we’re back to the human mind as a passive observer of a reality external to itself. In his last major work, Siris, Berkeley appears as a full-blown Platonist. Where he had begun by insisting that reality is nothing other than our experience of it and had inveighed against any sort of abstract idea, now he has it in classic Platonist mode that our experience is only a shadow of a non-sensual reality that can only be grasped intellectually. But the passage from the first position to the last is not the development of a coherent argument.
I am not here advancing any opinion as to whether or not Hone or Rossi are right. The still highly regarded Berkeley and Malebranche, published a couple of years later by Professor Luce of Trinity College Dublin, takes issue with them and argues that there is a logical coherence running through Berkeley’s successive writings on philosophy. The main point I want to make is that Hone and Rossi’s conclusions were not calculated to be very pleasing to Yeats. Donald Torchiana quotes a letter he received from Rossi which refers to “the views [on Berkeley] Yeats accepted from me”. But Yeats, as he himself says, wrote his introduction to Hone’s biography of Berkeley before reading Rossi’s contribution, and he discussed Berkeley with Sturge Moore in the 1920s before he had even met Rossi. I see Rossi’s comment to Torchiana as meaning that in some way yet to be determined he persuaded Yeats to change his already well established views. Perhaps he might even have persuaded him that “Berkeley is only a revised Locke ...”
Berkeley’s view that the world as we experience it is a phenomenon of consciousness, not of an external matter perceived by consciousness, presupposes something like what Yeats calls a “universal mind” common to all conscious beings. Yeats already had this idea through his involvement with Blake and esoteric philosophy. It was highly problematical for Berkeley himself, at least so long as he remained attached to the empiricist intellectual tradition of Locke, and this may be said to account for the inconsistencies noted by Hone and Rossi. To say that we participate in a universal mind which is in a constant process of creating the world brings us very close to pantheism, which of course Berkeley is at all costs anxious to avoid.
Berkeley’s empirical idealism, supposedly a defence against all scepticism, ends up in the total scepticism of David Hume. But the idea of a universal mind or spirit is developed in German romantic philosophy, eventually becoming the dialectic of Hegel, by which the processes of human reasoning become the structuring principles of the process of human (and “natural”) history. Then Marx turns Hegel on his head and proclaims these essentially mental structures to be the structuring principles of an external historical process that functions independent of mind. Hegel has already presented the system as operating independently of humanity and in some sense confronting humanity as something alien to it. Gentile, if I’ve understood aright, (I’ve made no independent study of it) tries to present it as still a uniquely human process.
Yeats expresses powerfully what this process meant to him in the first paragraph of his introduction to Hone and Rossi’s book:
Imagination, whether in literature, painting or sculpture, sank after the death of Shakespeare; supreme intensity had passed to another faculty; it was as though Shakespeare, Dante, Michelangelo, had been reborn with all their old sublimity, their old vastness of conception, but speaking a harsh, almost unintelligible language. Two or three generations hence, when men accept the inventions of science as a commonplace and understand that it is limited by its method to appearance, no educated man will doubt that the movement of philosophy from Spinoza to Hegel is the greatest of all works of the intellect.
Once Yeats had worked out his own general world view in the 1925 version of A Vision, he plunged into the study of European idealism that Hone summarised in the passage we have already quoted on Croce, Gentile, Hegel etc. He also renewed the interest he had already had in his early theosophical days in the idealist philosophy of India, collaborating with the Indian writer Shri Purohit Swami on a translation of the Ten Principal Upanishads. This increasing interest in European and Indian idealist philosophy ‑ somewhat bizarrely on the face of it ‑ accompanied an increasing fascination with the idea of political violence.
A possible connection between idealism and violence is suggested in McCormack’s Blood Kindred in the form of the Bhagavad-Gita. In the Bhagavad-Gita, the god Krishna urges the hero Arjuna to do what he has to do (in this case wage murderous war against an army made up of his relatives and friends) with a light heart, indifferent as to whether he succeeds or fails. And this ‑ an in my view rather desperate and unconvincing effort to face the approaching horror of the Second World War in a spirit of lightness of heart ‑ is a major theme of the Last Poems, most obviously in “The Gyres”, “Lapis Lazuli” and “Under Ben Bulben”. It also helps us to understand his decision to exclude the war poets from the Oxford Book of Modern Verse. They did not have the attitude that had to be assumed in the face of the oncoming war.
One might have expected to find a thorough study of this issue in Michael Wood’s book Yeats and Violence, but though he does evoke Yeats’s “late enthusiasm for conflict” (quoting Blood Kindred as his source) the book is in fact a study of one particular poem – “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” ‑ a poem which could be described as among the most politically correct of Yeats’s major works. Indeed it could almost be described as an anti-war poem. Woods points out that, despite the title, it was written in 1921 and refers to events in 1920. The events in 1920 were to do with the actions of the auxiliary police ‑ the “Black and Tans” ‑ during the Irish War of Independence, but the evocation of 1919 helps to raise it into a general complaint against the violence of the age, thus embracing the First World War and its aftermath. It is as if a disgust Yeats had been suppressing in the previous period ‑ resolutely refusing to notice the war ‑ is suddenly unleashed by the comparatively minor incidents of the “Tan war”. One of the themes of the poem is how “we” (whoever “we” are ‑ I think it is the poets of Yeats’s generation) had imagined that the days of major warfare were at an end but all the time this worst of horrors was in preparation.
The contrast is rather startling between “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” and “The Gyres”. From the first:
Now days are dragon-ridden, the nightmare
Rides upon sleep ...
The night can sweat with terror as before
We pieced our thoughts into philosophy ...
And from the second:
What matter though numb nightmare ride on top,
And blood and mire the sensitive body stain?
What matter? Out of cavern comes a voice,
And all it knows is that one word ‘Rejoice!’
There is an evolution there that could make a book called Yeats and Violence into something interesting. Michael Wood’s book, however, I read as a rambling, discursive foray into some aspects of Irish history by a writer who doesn’t know much about it. I find myself also disagreeing with some of his interpretations, though perhaps this is a tribute to the multiplicity of understandings of Yeats’s poems that are possible. For example, are the mockers of Section V of “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” not an echo of Nietzsche’s last men – “the most contemptible man ‑ the man who can no longer despise himself ... They are clever and know everything that has ever happened and so there is no end to their mockery”?
But I want to finish with a discussion of the meaning of the swan in section III of the poem. The swan, representative of the solitary soul, is about to act, its wings are “half spread for flight, / The breast thrust out in pride”. But when it actually launches itself “into the desolate heaven: / That image can bring wildness, bring a rage / To end all things, ...”
Perhaps I can best illustrate my dislike of Wood’s book by quoting something of what he has to say about this and leaving the reader to judge. It is an entry into a world that is alien to me:
The sounds of the gong fade; the swan leaps into the desolate heaven. Or rather, the swan has leaped, disappeared into grammar as well as the unwelcoming sky ‑ as the hero of Conrad’s Lord Jim is at one point to jump from the Patna, and then has jumped. “She was going down,” Jim says. And then, “I had jumped ... It seems.” Clearly the swan’s leap is at the heart of the poem, and equally clearly the poem seeks both to register this deed and to ignore it ...
The image that was satisfactory as long as the bird or the soul was poised for flight inspires rage when the creature has flown. Does it matter where the creature has gone? Of course. Who knows what will happen to it in that desolate heaven? It certainly won’t be playing, and probably won’t be riding the winds. And why is heaven so desolate? Where are the multitudinous inhabitants of the Great Year? But the poem also creates the nagging suspicion that other leaps were not likely to afford any great spiritual improvement ‑ that a leap into worldly success where the swan wins the Nobel Prize, for example, as Yeats did two years after he wrote this poem, wouldn’t really alter things for the soul ...
Et cetera. Leaving aside the peculiarities of this manner of writing, I think Wood has missed the crucial point. The swan attached to the water is attached to “a troubled mirror” which shows it “an image of its state”. We may remember the passage quoted earlier from the introduction to The Holy Mountain: “The Spirit, the Self that is in all selves, the pure mirror ...”. “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” is written at much the same time as the play Calvary, which is dominated by the image of a heron staring at its own reflection in the water. I read the water in both these cases as an image of the “universal mind” we have already encountered in our reflections on Berkeley. It is the source of all poetic images and also the source of all the gods, who are reflections of the human mind (not any one particular human mind).
The swan in touch with its image in the water is the solitary soul at ease with humanity (at its deepest level, the level of its dreams and of its gods). The horror of the war has however put Yeats ill at ease with humanity, suggesting the image of the swan at flight, battling with something alien to itself, an image that may correspond to the old Christian ascetic view of a battle with angels and demons to reach union with a God who stands in opposition to the gods, the human values of the passions, of wealth, love, war ‑ of everything Yeats loves, everything that makes up the worth of poetry as Yeats understands it.
What happens subsequently is that Yeats becomes personally involved in a politics of conflict and execution and comes to terms with war and murder as normal parts of the eternal human round. He had tried to ignore the First World War. He saw it as something that was, as Blake said of parliament, other than human life. Now, through the system he works out in A Vision, his active involvement in politics, his interest in European idealist and Indian philosophy, he comes to accept violence and war as integral to human life. And so the swan is reunited with its image and Yeats comes down once again on the side of “paganism” ‑ the gods, product of a transcendental mind that remains entirely human (hence, we might say, his interest in Gentile). Or of a Hinduism which is content to continue for a while longer along the wheel of reincarnation, accepting everything that happens including a possible plunge into a new dark age, characterised in the Stories of Michael Robartes and His Friends (1931) as an “age of freedom, fiction, evil, kindred, art, aristocracy, particularity, war”. It is expressed astonishingly in “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 knocks 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.
Read responses to this essay: http://www.drb.ie/book_news/11-03-21/WJ_Mc_Cormack_and_Peter_Brooke_An_Exchange.aspx
Peter Brooke is the author of Ulster Presbyterianism, The Historical Perspective, 1610-1970, Athol Books, Belfast, and of an account of the life and thought of the French Cubist painter Albert Gleizes, For and Against the Twentieth Century, Yale University Press, London and New Haven.