The Failure of W.B. Yeats: Aesthetics, Unity of Being, and the Tragedy of Minority Culture

The Installation of the Maestà

It was June in the year 1311 when the people of Siena walked in a great procession bearing Duccio's Maestà—his altarpiece depicting the Virgin Mary in the glorious golden Italo-Byzantine style—to the cathedral that would become its home. It was a momentous occasion for the entire city: Duccio's painting was to replace the fabled "Madonna of the Large Eyes," to which the Sienese had appealed a half-century earlier, when the fate of their soldiers hung in the balance in the war with Siena's bitter rivals, the Florentines. The Madonna, it was said, had worked miracles that assured the Sienese victory, and it was the intercession of Mary on behalf of Siena in that battle that led the Sienese to make her their patron saint. Now they wished to commemorate her in a suitably grand sacred image. The event involved the entire city, from the highest grandees to the lowest beggars. One contemporary describes the procession of the Maestà this way:

And on that day when it was brought into the cathedral, all workshops remained closed, and the bishop commanded a great host of devoted priests and monks to file past in solemn procession. This was accompanied by all the high officers of the Commune and by all the people; all honorable citizens of Siena surrounded said panel with candles held in their hands, and women and children followed humbly behind. They accompanied the panel amidst the glorious pealing of bells after a solemn procession on the Piazza del Campo into the very cathedral; and all this out of reverence for the costly panel… The poor received many alms, and we prayed to the Holy Mother of God, our patron saint, that she might in her infinite mercy preserve this our city of Siena from every misfortune, traitor or enemy. (Satkowski and Maginnis, 273)

The occasion of the installation of the Maestà was an aesthetic event, of course, but it was a religious event too. It was also a civic event, connected to the city's military past and to its prestige in the future. And, as the distribution of alms indicates, it was also an economic event, an opportunity to redistribute wealth so as to maintain the social fabric, legitimate the civic rulers, and perform the religious duty of charity. We could not be further from the way artworks are unveiled in our own time, in the pristine white cube of the gallery space, where artists and art-lovers have gathered for an event far more specialized, and far narrower in appeal and intention, than the Sienese procession of the Maestà.

William Butler Yeats, that most vacillating and self-reinventive of poets, imagined many different roles for art in society—but if there is one dream he dreams most passionately, it is one along the lines of the installation of Duccio's Maestà. That is, he yearned for a world where art was integrated into the culture at large, and where all social institutions were woven into each other, in the manner of medieval Sienese society. But why would he have this dream? The short answer is that he had seen the limits of aesthetic autonomy—of art for its own sake—and felt pinched by the boundaries of the self-exiled minority culture in which so many poets of the fin de siècle lived. Having helped found that bastion of the aesthetes, the Rhymer's Club, he grew disillusioned with the small scope of interests expressed in the group's meetings at the Cheshire Cheese pub, and even more disillusioned at the limited public impact of the group.

L'art pour l'art at the Cheshire Cheese

It is a critical commonplace, and not entirely untrue, to describe Yeats as a founder of the Rhymers' Club, but to make this claim is to give a slightly misleading sense of Yeats as a young aesthete. In truth, neither Yeats nor the club, in its early stages, was devoted entirely to l'art pour l'art. The young Yeats certainly had taken some strong positions as an aesthete: for example, in a letter to his friend Frederick Gregg, possibly written as early as 1887, Yeats maintained that "in literature nothing that is not beautiful has any right to exist" — a line that may as well have come from that ur-text of aestheticism, Théophile Gautier's preface to Mademoiselle de Maupin (Letters 31). And in 1886, in his first published review, he attacked the Arnoldian notion of poetry as a criticism of life, writing "great poetry does not teach us anything" (Uncollected Prose I, 84). But Yeats had also devoted a great deal of time to political fields where no true aesthete would tread. He'd debated Irish politics with the lawyers, writers, and politicians of Dublin's Contemporary Club, and he had turned to Irish nationalist circles to drum up the necessary 150 or so pre-publication subscriptions to get his 1889 book The Wanderings of Oisin into print. When Yeats first sat down with the Rhymers, he was by no measure a full convert to the cause of aesthetic autonomy.

The question of the founding of the Rhymers' Club does not yield a simple answer, since the club kept no official membership list, nor did it formally declare its debut. The earliest mention of a protean form of the club comes in an 1890 letter of Ernest Rhys, who refers to a meeting of the "Rhymester's Club" featuring the Scottish poet John Davidson, the 25 year old "Willie Yeats," the Irish poet T.W. Rolleston, the painter John Trivett Nettleship, "the old Irish rebel" John O'Leary, and "two or three others less notable" (Rhys, Unpublished letter to E.C. Stedman, 9 July 1890). This is certainly not the Rhymer's Club as we have come to know it: the group has a heavily Celtic cast, and rather than a collection of aesthetes we have Rolleston and John O'Leary, Irish nationalists both, and we have John Davidson, whose robust verse tended toward the sort of overt philosophizing aesthetes disdained.

Only later did the club take on a strongly aesthetic coloration, with the addition of a group of poets — notably Ernest Dowson, Lionel Johnson, and Victor Plarr — who had been influenced by Walter Pater at Oxford. With the arrival of the Oxford contingent, the club's center of gravity began to shift toward aestheticism, and there was much praise for the kind of poetry Dowson described as "beautiful and obscure versicles in the latest manner of French Symbolism" (Letters of Ernest Dowson, 183). Even so, the constituents of the club remained far from homogenous, and a clash between the newly dominant aesthetes and those whose inclinations ran in different directions became inevitable. Matters came to a head in April of 1891, when John Davidson attempted something like a coup. In Yeats' version of events, Davidson had long been frustrated with the aesthetes of the club, describing them as "lacking in blood and guts," so he attempted to "supply the deficiency by the addition of four Scotsmen," whom Davidson brought, unannounced, to a meeting. Their contributions were decidedly not the work of aesthetes: "one read a poem upon the Life-boat…another described how, when gold-digging in Australia, he had fought and knocked down another miner for doubting the rotundity of the earth; while of the remainder," writes Yeats, "I can remember nothing except that they excelled in argumentation" (Autobiographies 245).

It is in the conflict between the Oxford aesthetes and Davidson's Scotsmen that we see Yeats take sides, and he doesn't just choose the aesthetes: he rides to their rescue. When Davidson insisted that his countrymen be elected to club membership, the appalled Oxonians let fall their standard and (in Yeats' words) "through that complacency of good manners whereby educated Englishmen so often surprise me, obeyed, though secretly resolving never to meet again." It was only through the exercise of his considerable organizational genius that Yeats was able to save the club and make it safe for aestheticism: "it cost me seven hours' work to get another meeting," he writes, "and vote the Scotsmen out" (Autobiographies 245). Accounts of the Davidson affair vary (see Gardner 72-78), but the point of Yeats' presentation of events is clear: sides had been taken and allegiances made clear, and Yeats had sided with Walter Pater's old acolytes: it was the London triumph of l'art pour l'art.

By 1893 Yeats' enthusiasm for aesthetic autonomy was finding clear expression in his prose writings. In July of that year, for example, Yeats' essay "A Bundle of Poets" appeared in The Speaker. The essay, an omnibus review of several books, was very much the product of the Rhymers' milieu: the longest part was devoted to discussing The Poems of Arthur Henry Hallam, Together with his Essay on the Lyrical Poetry of Alfred Tennyson, a volume published by Elkin Matthews and John Lane, whose Bodley Head was, in essence, the house press of the Rhymers Club. Hallam's criticism, says Yeats, is "of the best and rarest sort," and gives "the first principles of a school" — the aesthetic movement — which has been "the least philosophically articulate" of movements, relying on instinct, impression, and image rather than discursive prose to express itself. The school, which "made beauty the beginning and end of all things in art," begins with Keats, comes down through the lyrical side of Tennyson, and implicitly lives on in the work of the Rhymers. Not only is Yeats seeking a usable past for the aesthetes of the 1890s: he is also making a defense of minority culture. Noting of the aesthetes that "any who adopt their principles [will] share their unpopularity" Yeats sympathetically quotes Hallam's question "how should they be popular whose senses told them a richer and ampler tale than most men could understand; and who constantly expressed, because they constantly felt, sentiments of exquisite pleasure or pain which most men were not permitted to experience?" (81).

The Daunting Seriousness With Which Literature is Taken by Subject Peoples

Yeats continued to write on behalf of aesthetic ideals throughout the early 1890s. But when he wrote for a specifically Irish audience, he often struck a different note, acknowledging a political role for literature. Less than six months after siding with the Oxonian aesthetes over Davidson's Scots, for example, Yeats reviewed a collection of Oscar Wilde's writing for United Ireland, and found beneath Wilde's aesthetic mask a full-blooded Irish nationalist. "I see in his life and works," wrote Yeats, "an extravagant Celtic crusade against Anglo-Saxon stupidity…. He peppers John Bull with his pea-shooter of wit" (Uncollected Prose I, 203-4).

How can Yeats advocate aestheticism in England while praising even such a committed aesthete as Wilde to the Irish as a figure of politically engaged writing? Yeats avoids mere hypocrisy by advocating a theory of history that allows different functions for literature in nations at varying phases of development. The argument occurs in a number of his United Ireland essays of the early nineties, notably in "Nationality and Literature" and "Hopes and Fears for Irish Literature." In the latter, Yeats tells his Irish audience "in England among the best minds art and poetry are becoming every day more entirely ends in themselves," and that English poetry increasingly "has nothing to do with thought, nothing to do with life" and therefore "has ceased to be the handmaid of humanity." While there is much to be said in favor of the formal perfections of such poetry, the aesthetic ideal, says Yeats, is nevertheless "a terrible queen" (Uncollected Prose I, 248). Service to her may bring one closer to the ideal realm of "things eternal," but to reach this exalted otherworldly realm a poet must "renounce his place amid the things of time (250). By contrast, Irish poets tend to suffer from a "dire carelessness" in composition, but this is a matter of priorities: unlike the English, says Yeats, "we seek effectiveness rather than depth" (249-50). The difference between the two national literatures comes from what Yeats imagines to be different stages of historical development, with a young Ireland set against a doddering England whose aestheticism is a sign of senescence. Looking at English aesthetic poetry, Yeats tells us:

It is not possible to call a literature produced in this way the literature of energy and youth. The age which has produced it is getting old and feeble, and sits in the chimney-corner carving all manner of curious and even beautiful things upon the staff that can no longer guide its steps. Here in Ireland we are living in a young age… which has only just begun to make its literature. It was only yesterday that it cut from the green hillside the staff which is to help its steps upon the long road. (249)

This view allows Yeats to maintain loyalty to Irish nationalist writing while also being an advocate, in other contexts, for aestheticism. It is dubious as history, of course: one should view with skepticism both the anthropomorphizing of history and the idea of a universally applicable cycle of social aging. But the underlying notion that different social conditions create different functions for literature remains valid. As the critic Declan Kiberd puts it in his study Inventing Ireland,

A writer in a free state works with the easy assurance that literature is but one of the social institutions to project the values which the nation admires, others being the law, the government, the army, and so on. A writer in a colony knows that these values can be fully embodied only in the written word: hence the daunting seriousness with which literature is taken by subject peoples. This almost prophetic role of the artist is often linked to "underdeveloped" societies. (118)

In this view, the public engagement Yeats sees as so important to Irish literature is less a function of the nation's youth than it is of the nation's colonized status. This presents a more convincing explanation of why English poets held a diminished public role and turned to aestheticism, while many Irish poets clung to the idea of social influence.

Yeats, caught between public and aesthetic paradigms for poetry, justified each as relevant to its own cultural climate. Moreover, he ends his essay by proposing a synthesis of nationalist and aesthetic virtues, proposing that the Irish take their traditional legends, treat them with the care of aesthetes, and present them to all of Europe, delivering "that new great utterance for which the world is waiting" (250).

The Druid and the Rose

Three poems from Yeats' 1892 book The Countess Kathleen, "Fergus and the Druid," "To the Rose Upon the Rood of Time," and "To Ireland in the Coming Times," offer variations on the theme of vacillation between love of the ordinary world and love of a visionary or poetic retreat from that world. The conflict is most explicit in "Fergus and the Druid," where a figure of autonomous imagination, the druid, converses with a figure of who exercises worldly power. Fergus begins by remarking on the infinitely changing nature of the shape-shifting druid's existence. The druid asks "What would you, king of the proud Red Branch kings?" and Fergus replies, saying that he feels trapped as king, feeling always the weight of the crown upon his head. He yearns for the freedom and "dreaming wisdom" of the druid, but the druid discourages him, telling Fergus of the costs of turning from the ordinary world to the world of visionary experience: "Look on my thin grey hair and hollow cheeks /And on these hands that may not lift the sword,/ This body trembling like a wind-blown reed." What is more, he adds, "No woman's loved me, no man sought my help." For all of his dreaming and autonomy, the druid is a socially marginal figure of weakness, poverty, and effective impotence — and he is a man of no help to those in need. The man of visionary autonomy may well live free of the oppressive duty of the man of action's life, but at a terrible cost. Fergus soon learns the price first hand: when he opens the druid's "little bag of dreams" and experiences the druid's visionary powers, he finds his experience curiously empty:

I see my life go drifting like a river
From change to change; I have been many things—
A green drop in the surge, a gleam of light
Upon a sword, a fir-tree on a hill,
An old slave grinding at a heavy quern,
A king sitting upon a chair of gold—
And all these things were wonderful and great;
But now I have grown nothing, knowing all.
Ah! Druid, Druid, how great webs of sorrow
Lay hidden in the small slate-coloured thing!

It is significant that Fergus experiences not one extended vision, but a series of brief, beautiful ones, without narrative development or moral content. The poem, after all, has its genesis in a point of Yeats' career when he was consorting with, and sometimes propagandizing on behalf of, a group whose aesthetics tended toward exquisite moments and brief impressions. Given this context, we can read the stanza as a statement on the aestheticism of the 1890s. But what kind of statement is it? Certainly the dominant note sounded is critical: imaginative experiences of the sort Fergus has are sterile ("I have grown nothing, knowing all") and lead to isolation and sorrow. But this critical note does not entirely drown out another note, one that acknowledges the allure of the aesthetic. The line "And all these things were wonderful and great" offers, albeit briefly, a positive vision of the otherworldly in a poem otherwise skeptical of the turn away from the everyday. Here, once again, Yeats shows ambivalence toward aestheticism.

"To the Rose Upon the Rood of Time" is perhaps Yeats' most Symbolist poem, drawing upon the subtle evocativeness of the French aesthetes' techniques in the presentation of its central figure, the rose. But even this poem shows Yeats' ambivalence about aestheticism. While Yeats had used rose imagery in his poems from very early on, it is only in 1891, after his association with the Paterian aesthetes of the Rhymers' Club, (and, one should add, his association with the symbol-obsessed theosophists of the Golden Dawn) that the rose begins to take on the complex connotations characteristic of the Symbolist movement and its English imitators. Those connotations include, but are not limited to, spiritual beauty, the ideal, and the eternal. When the cross, or rood, is added to the rose, the symbol takes on the aspect of a mystical marriage of the masculine and feminine principles that results in a purer form. In this, the rose on the cross is a symbol much like the alchemical fusion of gold and silver in "The Man Who Dreamed of Faeryland" (see Jeffares 21-24 for a fuller discussion of the symbol). The holiness and remoteness of the rose is emphasized by the nature of the speaker's address to it at the beginning of the first of the poem's two stanzas, an address which is prayer-like and beseeching: "Red rose, proud Rose, sad Rose of all my days!/Come sit near me while I sing the ancient ways". The arrival of the rose would take the speaker away from the quotidian: in the presence of the rose he would be "no more blinded by man's fate" and replace his obsession with "poor foolish things that live a day" with a vision of "Eternal beauty".

In the poem's second stanza the speaker seems almost to be drifting off into a trance, so enraptured is he with the rose as he utters "Come near, come near, come near" — but he stops himself suddenly, saying "Ah, leave me still/A little space for the rose-breath to fill!/ Lest I no more hear common things that crave/…and heavy mortal hopes that toil…" The symbol of eternal beauty is in danger of destroying the speaker's ties to the quotidian world of common things, things with needs and hopes to which he might attend. The conflict involves a drift into pleasure set against an ordinary world with its duties and moral urgencies. There's more, though, in that Yeats' poem opposes the quotidian world not only with chants and pleasures, but with something much more specifically associated with poetic aestheticism: a rather cryptic, intensely personal symbol of an ideal and otherworldly beauty. The poem's criticism of ideal beauty for being cut off from ordinary life, then, is also a criticism of aestheticism—and when we read that intimacy with the rose might cause the speaker to "chant a tongue men do not know" we may take the phrase as relevant to the obscurity of aestheticism, in both senses of the word "obscurity". The poem certainly expresses a love of ideal beauty, but it also expresses an anxiety about aesthetic poetry's status as minority culture. The poem is about many things, among them the conditions of its own production, conditions that give Yeats pause.

Apologia Pro Lyra Sua

The poem that closes The Countess Kathleen, "To Ireland in the Coming Times," seeks to resolve the contradiction between the aesthetic and the ideal, on the one hand, and the quotidian and the political, on the other. The poem is an apologia addressing the reader directly and striking a defensive note:

Know, that I would accounted be
True brother of a company
That sang, to sweeten Ireland's wrong,
Ballad and story, rann and song;
Nor be I any less of them,
Because the red-rose-bordered hem
Of her, whose history began
Before God made the angelic clan,
Trails all about the written page.

Yeats had been anxious about the status of Irish poets not belonging to the Young Ireland movement, whose writers had contributed to the Irish rebellion of 1848. Indeed, mere months before "To Ireland in the Coming Times" appeared in print, he had written that "the alliance of politics and literature that marked the ‘48 movement resulted in so great a popularity for the poets and prose writers who taught the doctrine of nationality" that "writers who have come afterward, lacking the great wind of politics to fill their sails, have lived and wrought almost forgotten of the nation" (Uncollected Prose, I, 215-216). In the opening lines of the poem he asserts that his commitment to the obscure, otherworldly, idealizing symbolism of the rose is not incompatible with membership in the brotherhood of politically committed Irish poet-patriots. But how to justify this assertion? The answer comes in the remainder of the stanza:

When Time began to rant and rage
The measure of her flying feet
Made Ireland's heart begin to beat;
And Time bade all his candles flare
To light a measure here and there;
And may the thoughts of Ireland brood
Upon a measured quietude.

"Measure" and "feet" are the key words here, since they pertain to prosody. If time, or history, has given Ireland cause for passionate outrage, that outrage is both regularized to something like dance and illuminated by measure and feet—that is, by a formal quality of poetry. This is poetry, Yeats asserts, that affects the nation, but not in the way Young Ireland's propagandistic writing did. Rather, the poetry's very complexity and foregrounding of formal, aesthetic elements allow it to temper the unquiet passions in ways beneficial to the national cause.

The second stanza furthers this line of argument: "Nor may I less be counted one/ With Davis, Mangan, Ferguson," writes Yeats, " Because, to him who ponders well,/My rhymes more than their rhyming tell," turning us toward the revelations available in the eternal or ideal realm,"Where only body's laid asleep." Here Yeats aligns himself with nationalist literary figures, denying that his interest in obscure symbolism and theosophical arcana exclude him from this group. The defensiveness is explicit, and appropriately so: Yeats knew that his "passion for the symbolism of the mystical rose" had "saddened [his] friends" in the nationalist movement, and wrote to assuage their concerns (Early Articles and Reviews 431). He hastens to say that he, too, feels the passions of the nationalist—but he has transmuted them, by virtue of his turning away from the quotidian to the ideal:

For the elemental creatures go
About my table to and fro,
That hurry from unmeasured mind
To rant and rage in flood and wind;
Yet he who treads in measured ways
May surely barter gaze for gaze.
Man ever journeys on with them
After the red-rose-bordered hem.
Ah, faeries, dancing under the moon,
A Druid land, a Druid tune!

Dreamy, unworldly idealism isn't just an eschewing of the ordinary. For the Yeats of this poem, it is a way to transform mere ranting and raging into something more important: a reconnection of Ireland to its ideal self, "A Druid land" connected to ancient lore.

Yeats yearned to forge all of his impulses into a coherent whole, and he seems to have found a solution to the problem. The Rhymers' Club aesthetic—with its emphasis on form, on French-influenced Symbolist aesthetics, and on ideals separate from the quotidian—is present here. So, also, are his theosophical preoccupations and his nationalist politics. The genius of the poem lies in the fusing of these apparently disparate concerns together: to believe in the ideal realm, in poetic formalism, and in theosophical notions is to help rescue Ireland from dark passions and restore it to an ancient ideal of itself, a land both spiritual and specifically Celtic. Yeats gets to be aesthete, theosophist, and nationalist all at once. He needn't compromise the autonomy of his visionary poetics in order to have the kind of public concern he wished to have. There is one unsolved problem, however: the problem of audience and actual effect.

Yeats is unwilling to meet the Irish reading public on its own terms and at its own level, as did the popular nationalist poets of 1848. The poem itself acknowledges this problem, first when it refers to the appropriate reader of the poetry of The Countess Kathleen as one "who ponders well," and then again, in the closing lines of the poem, where he looks to future readers, rather than those of the present, as an audience to whom his poems may be important and meaningful:

I cast my heart into my rhymes,
That you, in the dim coming times,
May know how my heart went with them
After the red-rose-bordered hem.

This provides a defense against those nationalist friends of Yeats who were sorrowed by his absorption in remote symbolism: should they point out the minimal impact of his poems upon the actual political state of Ireland, he can, in a gesture as old as Shelley's "A Defense of Poetry," point toward a future influence as a poetic legislator, acknowledged or otherwise. It is less a rational argument for the political efficacy of difficult poetry than it is an assertion that Yeats hopes to see justified in time. It is also a portent of Yeats' coming disillusion with the Rhymers' Club and with aesthetic autonomy in poetry.

The Tragedy of the Rhymers

What portion in the world can the artist have
Who has awakened from the common dream
But dissipation and despair

Those lines from Yeats' "Ego Dominus Tuus" first appeared in Poetry in 1917, but it is clear that Yeats refers to the Rhymers' Club of the 1890s, and not just from the description of dissolution. A few years after the poem appeared Yeats quoted these lines twice in The Trembling of the Veil, once just before his treatment of the tragic end of the Rhymers, and once during that treatment, when explaining the dissipation of Ernest Dowson and Lionel Johnson. The lines are the perfect summary of Yeats' understanding of the end of the Rhymers: there can be no harmonious life for those in the minority culture of aestheticism. Set apart from the "common dream" of mainstream culture, they cannot attain the condition Yeats called Unity of Being, and can only live imbalanced and self-destructive lives.

The end of Yeats' association with the Rhymers' Club came about for a number reasons, not the least of which was the gradual dissolution of the club itself. Many forces contributed to the decline of the club, including the hatred of those who had not awakened from the common dream of majority culture. Following Oscar Wilde's trials in 1895, public opinion turned against the aesthetes, and an angry mob stoned the offices of John Lane, who published many of the Rhymers. The vilification of those associated with Wilde and The Yellow Book in the popular press was so intense that Yeats said he and his friends began to feel unwelcome in public. What is more, a split between John Lane and Elkin Matthews (who together ran the Bodley Head and had published the anthologies of the club) forced the Rhymers to choose between Lane and Matthews as publishers, creating enormous friction. Adding to this discouraging atmosphere was the banning of the sale of some of the aesthete's publications at railway stalls, a development that made the aesthetes feel their embattled status keenly. Combined with the scandal of the Wilde affair, this made the adherents of minority culture feel less like the inhabitants of an alternative cultural space than the persecuted enemies of the cultural majority: hardly propitious circumstances for the continuation of the club, which continued to meet sporadically into 1896, but less often and with less conviviality.

We see the sense of persecution clearly in "Verlaine in 1894," an essay that appeared in the April 1896 issue of the Savoy (a journal which would close down in six months' time due to the hostility of the booksellers). The essay, a short memoir of Yeats' visit to Verlaine in his grubby Paris quarters, was occasioned by Verlaine's death in January of 1896. The passing of one of the English aesthete's idols gives the essay its elegiac tone, but it is more than Verlaine that is passing. We see, too, Yeats removing himself from his rarely-untroubled commitment to aestheticism:

To remember him is to understand the futility of writing and thinking, as we commonly do, as if the ideal world were the perfection of ours… and of missing the wisdom of the Hebrew saying ‘He who sees Jehovah dies.' The ideal world, when it opens its fountains, dissolves by its mysterious excitement in this man sanity, which is but the art of understanding the mechanical world, and in this man morality, which is but the art of living there with comfort; and seeing this we grow angry and… bring perhaps our frankincense and myrrh in secret, lest a little truth madden the world. (Uncollected Prose I, 399)

There is a wistful quality to the passage, which appeared in a journal read by the aesthetes at a time when their enterprise was entering a terminal crisis. The pursuit of the ideal torments; and what is more, the world rejects those who pursue it to such an extent that their pursuits and beliefs must survive underground, if at all.

For Yeats, the social marginalization of many of the Rhymers was central to their personal and collective dissolution. Reminiscing in the early 1920s, Yeats elaborates the points made in the essay on Verlaine. Noting that the Rhymers "broke up in tragedy," he recalls how almost all of them were, unlike the great Victorian poets, poor, and averse to money-making that would take them away from the pursuit of pure poetry; he remembers, too, that most had refused to participate in domestic life. There were exceptions: the group encompassed both men of means and men of family. Recognizing these exceptions Yeats wondered if it weren't aesthetic autonomy and minority culture that were to blame, the practice of writing that had "no relation to any public interest" creating a vortex of "unstable men" (Autobiographies 233). Aestheticism—specifically the influence of Pater—seemed to Yeats to have "caused the disaster of [his] friends" (235).

What, though, is the exact nature of their suffering? Certainly poverty and the public's indifference and hostility contribute to the troubles of the aesthetes, but for Yeats there is something else, something more profound and less circumstantial: it was impossible for men living as the Rhymers lived to attain Unity of Being, and without this their lives could only be fragmentary and disharmonious.

While Yeats' articulation of the idea of Unity of Being was often hazy, his exemplification was striking. Consider the contrast he draws in his interpretations of two paintings in the Dublin National Gallery: an early seventeenth century portrait of an Italian gentleman by Bernardo Strozzi and John Singer Sargent's portrait of President Woodrow Wilson. Yeats offers Strozzi's gentleman as an example of a man with Unity of Being, and President Wilson as a man lacking that quality.

Whatever thought broods in the dark eyes of that Venetian gentleman has drawn its life from his whole body… and should that thought be changed, his pose would change, his very cloak would rustle, for his whole body thinks. President Wilson lives only in the eyes, which are steady and intent; the flesh about the mouth is dead, and the hands are dead, and the clothes suggest no movement of his body, nor any movement but that of the valet, who has brushed and folded all in mechanical routine. (Autobiographies 227-228)

Yeats' method of criticism here is Paterian, more concerned with impressions than with accuracy to the subject. But the impression is telling with regard to Yeats' ideas, if not to the paintings or their subjects. His notion of Unity of Being here clearly requires a kind of organic connection of all elements of the inner self, as well as the somatic self. But there's also something social or even historical at play. Wilson, after all, has given over his physical presentation to his valet, who works not from passion but from "mechanical routine." Wilson is a figure for modernity, for the world of specialization and routinization. One might just imagine Strozzi's gentleman fighting a physical duel to settle a moral or intellectual disagreement. One cannot imagine the same for Wilson: he is a specialist in the intellect— indeed he lives in his intellect alone, dissociating it from the rest of his being, which is cared for by another kind of specialist. Since the seventeenth century, Yeats tells us, great men have "become professional and abstract" (228), and his Wilson seems to be just such a figure, the product of "a much divided civilization" (230).

The social and historical dimensions of Unity of Being are even more explicit in another passage, where Yeats offers a date for the zenith of Unity of Being in Western civilization:

Somewhere about 1450, though later in some parts of Europe by a hundred years or so, and in some earlier, men attained to personality in great numbers, ‘Unity of Being,' and became like ‘a perfectly proportioned human body,' and as men so fashioned held places of power, their nations had it too, prince and ploughman sharing that thought and feeling. (Autobiographies 227)

There is a social unity, a unity of idea and ideology, that comes with the rise of Unity of Being, and in a time of deep social and cultural division, Unity of Being becomes increasingly difficult to attain. For Yeats, a time when those committed to the life of the imagination find themselves cut off from the majority is a time when the very subjectivity of those imaginative people will become disrupted. If Unity of Being was to be restored, changes must come about not merely in individuals, but in the very nature of society. The sad fate of the tragic generation of the Rhymers could be avoided only if poetry were re-integrated with the broader society, without becoming subordinate to it, which would be mere capitulation.

Ireland, where colonial conditions kept poetry relatively prominent in the cultural conscience, offered a more promising milieu than did England for taking poetry out of aesthetic isolation, and it was there that Yeats dreamed up one of his most elaborate, and most unlikely, schemes for the reintegration of the imagination and society.

The Castle and the Lady

For Yeats, 1896 was a year of transformation: it was the year of the last meetings of the Rhymers, the year he first saw the abandoned castle on Lough Key that was to mean so much to him, and the year he met his great patron and collaborator Lady Augusta Gregory. In the Rhymers Yeats had seen a crisis of aesthetic autonomy and minority culture; with the castle and Lady Gregory Yeats saw, or thought he saw, the possibility of integrating the aesthetic, the religious, and the political; and the possibility of bridging the gap between the poet and the great public. With collaboration and support at various points from Maud Gonne, George Pollexfen, William Sharp, George Russell, Lady Gregory, and others, Yeats developed plans for a quasi-Masonic Order of Celtic Mysteries, to be based at the castle on Lough Key. It would have a complex series of rites and would propagate symbols based on druidic tradition and theosophical lore. These images would help to unite the energies of an Irish cultural elite, and would inform the plays of a new Irish theater, which in turn would unite the Irish as a culture and as a nation, and eventually have global cultural significance.

The forces making this seem feasible were of two kinds. Firstly, there were Yeats' inner compulsions. His deep and longstanding commitment to the ideal of the united personality and to Unity of Being gave him a powerful motive to seek a way to fuse his theosophical, nationalistic, and imaginative commitments. Moreover, the tragic fates of the Rhymers led him to believe that the integration of imaginative life with the social whole was a matter of great urgency. Secondly, material backing was available for Yeats' schemes. Some of this came from well-heeled supporters of theosophy, some from aristocrats like Lady Gregory.

The ambition of Yeats' schemes was enormous, and the probability of success virtually nil, but his inner need for the schemes to succeed, combined with the social need for some members of the gentry to support projects that promised to transcend the Protestant-Catholic divide, motivated Yeats and his collaborators strongly enough to keep the dream alive until 1902, when it was finally abandoned. What Yeats created over six years of effort was his most ambitious effort to unify his actions and his culture, and to rescue poetic activity from the isolation of minority culture while retaining the autonomy of the imagination. It was his most elaborate imaginary solution to the real problems of social fragmentation and the sidelining of autonomous art in mass culture.

Yeats' idea of the Order of Celtic Mysteries involved the creation of a sense of Irish identity beyond sectarian division via the conscription of druidic and folkloric imagery. The Lía Fail, or stone of destiny; the Cauldron of Dagda; the Sword of Nuada, and the Spear of Lug feature prominently in his drafts of rites for the order, and they were to be the sole source of ornaments for the castle. Meditation on these symbols and initiation into the order were meant to bring the cultural leadership of Ireland into contact with what Yeats called, in an unpublished draft of Per Amica Silentia Luna, "an Eleusinian Rite, which would bind into a common symbolism, a common meditation, a school of poets and men of letters, so that poetry and drama would find the religious weight they have lacked since the middle ages perhaps since ancient Greece" (see Ellmann, The Identity of Yeats 305). Religion and art would be one, and together they would also form a politics. Maud Gonne joined Yeats in enthusing over the possibilities. "The land of Ireland, we both felt, was powerfully alive and invisibly peopled," she wrote in a memoir of her time with Yeats at Lough Key; "if only we could make contact with the hidden forces of the land it would give us strength for the freeing of Ireland" (Gwynn 22-23). As it happened, Gonne was among the first to lose enthusiasm for the project: she became dubious of the Masonic feel of the enterprise, which she associated with British imperialism, came to see the castle's most useful role as a potential hospital for Irish soldiers, and by 1898 had withdrawn her active support (see Flannery 64). But for Yeats, a project that could, at least theoretically, bring both his nation and his disparate personal commitments into unity was too powerful a prospect to abandon lightly. Indeed, the notion of unity runs throughout the documents associated with the Order of Celtic Mysteries: in one draft, the climax of the rite comes with the statement "the incarnate is many, the disincarnate one; all flames are in the flame" (Moore 75).

It is important to note that Yeats did not envision a subordination of the aesthetic to the religious and the political: this was not to be art at the service of larger ideals, but a truly free art fused into one with religion and politics. In practical terms, this meant arriving at the symbols for the rite via the free play of the unfettered imagination, rather than through any calculation regarding how those symbols might illustrate or propagandize for religious or political concepts. Working with the occult thinker MacGregor Mathers, Yeats sought to arrive at his symbols by "letting the will move of itself" in order that the symbols remain "pure," rather than subordinate to a preordained message (see Moore 62-3). In theoretical terms, it meant both a return to a historical stage imagined as predating the splitting of the aesthetic from the religious function, and an embodying, in either religion or the aesthetic, of a trans-historical search for transcendence. As Yeats put it in his 1901 essay, "Ireland and the Arts," "in the very early days the arts… were almost inseparable from religion, going side by side into all life… I would have Ireland recreate the ancient arts," because "there is only one perfection and one search for perfection, and sometimes it has taken the form of the religious life, and sometimes of the artistic life" (Essays and Introductions 204). In either case, the aesthetic is not the handmaiden for something else: it remains autonomous while uniting with other forces.

While the Order of Celtic Mysteries was meant to foster a set of unifying symbols, it could directly serve only a cultural elite. In order to reach the broader public, Yeats turned to the theater, which would subtly present the symbolism of the order to the public, forging them into a politically and spiritually united nation. "Victor Hugo has said that in the theater the mob became a people," wrote Yeats, in an essay published after the 1899 announcement of plans for the Irish Literary Theater, continuing by declaring "I have some hope that, if we have enough success to go on from year to year, we may help to bring a little ideal thought into the common thought of our times," since his playwrights "have labored to be citizens…of that ancient and eternal Ireland"… And they have "never doubted that all things are shadows of spiritual things" (Uncollected Prose II, 141-2). As Marjorie Howes has noted, the statement about the mob was "one of Yeats' favorite misquotations," repeated in print in 1902 and 1934 (71-2). It is unlikely that the exact source of the misquotation can be determined, but it is also unimportant in the present context: what's significant is that Yeats hoped, via symbolic drama, to unite an entire people in a shared sense of Irishness and a shared sense of the spiritual. It is no accident that Yeats' plays of the 1890s—The Countess Cathleen, The Shadowy Waters, The Land of Heart's Desire— and his 1902 play The Hour-Glass all draw on symbolism from the Order of Celtic Mysteries.

While Yeats' dramatic works from this period had some critical success, their popularity was limited. As James W. Flannery puts it, "a drawing-room audience is what Yeats ended up with… due to the incompatibility of his idealistic vision with the reality of the contemporary theater in England and Ireland" (100), a reality too commercial, too unliterary, too far removed from his symbols, and too unsympathetic to his methods, for him to succeed broadly. After 1902 Yeats' work on the rites for the Order of Celtic Mysteries ceased, and his dramatic works began to take different form.

The Poet as Revolutionary Conservative

The arts have failed; fewer people are interested in them every generation. The mere business of living, of making money, of amusing oneself, occupies people more and more, and makes them less and less capable of the difficult art of appreciation…. We who care deeply for the arts find ourselves the priesthood of an almost forgotten faith… (Essays and Introductions 203)

So wrote Yeats in 1901, as his faith in the Order and the symbolic theater began to fade. The nature of his fears is clear enough: the commercial world, and the mass culture of amusement it supports, has no place for the arts. He'd seen the aesthetes of the Rhymers' Club try to turn away from the world of commercial culture, and he'd seen their fate. Unwilling to subordinate his imagination to English mass culture's norms, and equally unwilling to make his verse simple enough to serve as an instrument of Irish nationalist propaganda, Yeats imagined a renovation of the world via the imagination. One effect of the renovation would be to give the arts a home in the world. In seeking such a home, Yeats is far from alone: Coleridge's clerisy and Matthew Arnold's cultured minority were also meant to provide a home, and a social role, for the contemplation of aesthetic creations. Where Yeats differs from his predecessors, though, is in the desperation of his situation. Coleridge was able to envision an alliance between the old landed class and the clerisy, since the effect of the clerisy would be to adapt old institutions to new times: in political terms, this was a kind of reformist conservatism. Arnold saw a socially mediating function for his intellectuals, making him a classical liberal.

Both the Coleridgean and Arnoldian ideas eventually came to a kind of fruition, contributing to the twentieth-century model of the humanities division of the modern university. Yeats, however, living in a time when mass culture was triumphant, dreamed of something more radical: a return to a lost world where imaginative vision, religion, and the polis were intimately linked. This world had been lost, in Yeats' own reckoning, "since the middle ages perhaps since ancient Greece" (Ellmann, Identity of Yeats 305). His desire to return to the past isn't the view of a liberal like Arnold, or even of a reformist conservative like Coleridge. Indeed, in hearkening back to an imagined past, in yearning for a unifying mythos, in replacing mass entertainment with something amounting to spiritualized ritual based on the private visionary experience of a few imaginative seers, Yeats is that most paradoxical of creatures, the revolutionary conservative. Fritz Stern, one of the great chroniclers of revolutionary conservatives, defines their movement as one that embodies a paradox, because

…its followers sought to destroy a despised present in order to recapture an idealized past in an imaginary future. They were disinherited conservatives, who had nothing to conserve, because the spiritual values of the past had largely been buried and the material remnants of conservative power did not interest them. They sought a breakthrough to the past, and they longed for a new community in which old ideas and institutions would once again command universal allegiance. The term conservative revolution…denotes the ideological attack on modernity, on the complex of ideas and institutions that characterize our liberal, secular, and industrial civilization. (xvi)

Like many revolutionary conservatives, Yeats had looked for ways to escape from the cultural conditions of modernity, and his aspiration to return Ireland to a druidic tradition was very much the kind of recapturing of an idealized past Stern describes. The new community he had hoped his Order of Celtic Mysteries would establish was to be a breakthrough to the past. But, also like many other revolutionary conservatives, Yeats was disappointed in his hopes: to fight modernity itself with the weapons available to the poet was to take on odds as long as those of Cuchulain in his fight with the sea.

The Restoration of the Maestà

In April of 1961 Duccio's Maestà was carried back to Siena after seven years of painstaking repairs at the Istituto del Restauro in Rome. The return, reported an American journalist, "has been greeted by the local population with the same enthusiasm displayed on June 9, 1311, when the whole citizenry turned out to accompany the newly finished painting from Duccio's shop to the Cathedral." No doubt there was enthusiasm, but we must be dubious about the sameness of the kinds of enthusiasm exhibited by the medieval and modern crowds. The original installation of the altarpiece had unified many social functions—the religious, the civic, the aesthetic, and the economic—and had unified all classes and factions of Siena through participation in a grand procession. The modern return of the Maestà was less a triumph of these kinds of unity than it was a triumph of specialized technology. Duccio's masterpiece was carried in "a specially equipped truck," and "extraordinary measures were taken to protect the painting not only from road hazards but from changes in temperature and humidity." What is more, no crowds walked in procession. Rather, the truck "was followed with bated breath by millions of TV viewers" in atomized isolation, passively receiving the spectacle. Whatever enthusiasms were aroused among these viewers, they were not the enthusiasms of a community coming together as one in the flesh (Wollemborg A9).

Not only was the nature of the procession different: so too was the destination. The Maestà was not placed in the cathedral upon arrival in Siena, but in the Museo dell'Opera Metropolitana del Duomo. In this new context, its function would be far different from what it had been before. It would now serve primarily as an aesthetic object, viewed by art-loving tourists and carefully placed where "mirrors reflect indirect lighting on the brilliant colors and the gold work." For a smaller number of informed visitors and experts, the Maestà would also have an art historical function, for which considerable technological expertise was deployed, with climate controlled "by a complicated machinery hidden in the ceiling" to ensure the painting remains unchanged over time, and with careful restoration made "freeing the original colors from the retouches made to mask the cuts in the wood" (Wollemborg A9). Care, expense, and enthusiasm were lavished on the painting, but with the goals of preservation, art historical understanding, and aesthetic delight—quite a different set of concerns from those of the crowd of 1311.

What Yeats had long hoped for was that his work might have an effect much like that of Duccio's Maestà in 1311, but the actual fate of his work in posterity has been much closer to what happened with the Maestà in 1961. Like Duccio's painting, Yeats' poems are experienced by a large audience, and cared for by a vast number of attentive, careful, meticulous experts—the variorum edition of the poems is a wonder to behold, the archives are kept in good order, the annotations are of the kind that can only be compiled by generations of scholars. But for the vast majority of readers, the poems are objects of aesthetic delight. A smaller number of readers, including the present author and those most likely to read these words, read the poems for reasons of literary history. For neither group are the poems likely to be sources of symbols that lead to mystical religious devotion and civic vision, and no great social community has been forged into unity by Yeats' work. If there is defensiveness and defiance in later poems like "The Peacock" and "Beautiful Lofty Things," it is well to remember that these splendid poems were written by a man who felt his own most dearly cherished project—an escape from aesthetic autonomy into personal and social Unity of Being—had failed.




  • Dowson, Ernest. The Letters of Ernest Dowson, ed. Desmond Flower and Henry Mass. Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1967.
  • Ellmann, Richard. The Identity of Yeats. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964.
  • Flannery, James W. W.B. Yeats and the Idea of a Theatre. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976.
  • Gardner, Joann. Yeats and the Rhymers' Club: A Nineties' Pespective. New York: Peter Lang, 1988.
  • Gwynn , Stephen Lucius, ed. Scattered Branches: Tributes to the Memory of W.B. Yeats. London: Macmillan, 1940.
  • Jeffares, A. Norman. A New Commentary on the Poems of W.B. Yeats. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1984.
  • Kiberd, Declan. Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1995.
  • Moore, Virginia. The Unicorn: William Butler Yeats' Search for Reality. London: MacMillan, 1954.
  • Satkowski, Jane and Hayden B.J. Maginnis. Duccui de Buoninsegna: The Documents and Early Sources. Athens, Georgia: The Georgia Museum of Art, 2000.
  • Stern, Fritz. The Politics of Cultural Despair. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1974.
  • Wollemborg, Leo J. "Duccio's ‘Maesta' Restored, Now on Display in Siena." Boston Globe (April 16, 1961): A9.
  • Yeats, William Butler. "A Bundle of Poets." The Speaker (July 1893): 81-82.
  • —. Autobiographies: The Collected Works of William Butler Yeats, Volume III, ed. William H. O'Donnell and Douglas N. Archibald. New York: Scribner, 1999.
  • —. The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats: A New Edition, ed. Richard J. Finneran. New York: MacMillan, 1989.
  • —. Early Articles and Reviews: The Collected Works of William Butler Yeats Volume IX, ed. John P. Frayne and Madeleine Marchaterre. New York: Scribner, 2004.
  • —. Essays and Introductions. New York: Collier, 1972.
  • —. The Letters of W.B. Yeats, ed. Allan Wade. New York: MacMillan, 1955.
  • —. Uncollected Prose, vol. one, ed. John P. Frayne. London: MacMillan, 1970.

Robert Archambeau's books include the study Laureates and Heretics: Six Careers in American Poetry; the poetry collection Home and Variations; and the soon-to-be released collection of essays The Poet Resigns: Poetry in a Difficult World, as well as several edited collections and chapbooks. He teaches at Lake Forest College and blogs at

Editorial Staff

Publisher and Managing Editor:
U.S. Dhuga (Toronto)
Editor: Ben Mazer (Boston)
Issue Editors: Mario Murgia (Mexico City), Flaminia Ocampo (Buenos Aires)
Associate Editor: Robert Archambeau (Chicago)
Contributing Editors:
Philip Nikolayev (Boston), Todd Swift (London), Peter Behrman de Sinéty (Paris), Ann Fallon (Dublin), Petya Ivanova (Geneva), Marcel Inhoff (Germany), Jeet Thayil (India), Dan Sociu (Romania), Angela D'Ambra (Italy)
Production Manager:
Zachary Bos (Pen & Anvil)

The Current Issue