Exploring the Postmodern Poetics of William Butler Yeats

Mousumi Mullick, Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata

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The literary world considers W.B. Yeats as a modernist in his inclination towards Irish myth, folklore, the Irish Literary Movement, Irish history and historicity, and above all the sordid values of human life and existence. Embedded in an environment of modernism, Yeats’ writings- his poems, plays and prose-writings- bring back the elements of historicity. It is interestingly surprising to discern elements of postmodernism in his poems and other writings. Despite scant critical analyses, Yeats nowadays enjoys some noticeable ingredients of postmodernism and may be ranked as a postmodernist in the same way as Henry James, James Joyce and Ezra Pound. But it is a difficult enterprise to postmodernize W.B. Yeats. As Naomi Schor sees: “Postmodernism … is not the name of a belated movement that follows modernism…rather, it is a moment in and of modernism”(x-xi). Ihab Hassam has recently joined with Karl, Calinesch and Habermas to define postmodernism by using the vocabulary of Derrida and Foucault in order to differentiate postmodernism from modernism. Jean Francois Lyotard’s “The Postmodern Condition” writes: “A postmodern artist or writer is in the position of a philosopher; the text he writes, the work he produces are not in principle governed by pre-established rules… The artist and writer … are working without rules in order to formulate the rules of what will have been done”(81). Lyotard further notes “Postmodern would have to be understood according to the paradox of the future (post) anterior (modo) “(81). However, O’ Hara does not hesitate to assert that the “major critical movements from the 1940s to the 1970s – New Criticism, archetypal and phenomenological criticism, and a variety of post Structuralist discourses (revisionary psychoanalytic criticism, dialectical hermeneutics, and deconstruction) all owe a considerable debt to Yeats (349-68). As a “Sublime master of the concrete universal, demonic adversary of genuine Romantic visionaries, or seductive forerunner of the vertiginous interplay of self-subverting tropes” (Hara 349-68), Yeats has frequently made his appearance as a representative in each case.

Linguistic and Structuralist analyses have concentrated mainly upon “Leda and the Swan”, “Among School Children”, and “Sorrow of Love “. Some remarkable attempts have been made in the sphere of Feministic Criticism. However, Daniel O’ Hara contemplates in applying hermeneutics to Yeats in his “Tragic Knowledge: Yeats’s Autobiography and Hermeneutics.” O’ Hara and Bove find in Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” an ironical and subversive modern text in which Yeats has constructed a dualistic strategy which at once reveals the ironic consciousness of the poet. The persona has been caught in the temporal world which prompts the desired fiction of “Byzantium”; while the stance of the poet is “deconstructed”(Bove 121 -22), “the metaphysical interest of the persona appears as the motive for his comforting projection of a lost, but recoverable, artificial paradise” (Bove 129-30) . Beckett, Ionesco, Sartre and the later Yeats along with numerous postmodern poets have employed Kierkegaard’s technique of mastered irony in order to destroy the sterilizing pervasive irony of modernism. Recent American deconstructive critics like Harold Bloom in his “Yeats”, Geoffrey Hartman in “Criticism in the Wilderness”, Paul de Man in “Allegories of Reading” and J.Hillis Miller in “The Linguistic Movement” have rendered valuable criticisms on some Yeatsian works.

Both Geoffrey Hartman and Paul de Man demonstrate the indecidable and indeterminable nature of poetry in “Among School Children” and “Leda and the Swan”. De Man expects that the last line of “Among School Children” be read literally rather than figuratively as the literal reading leads to ‘greater complication of theme and statement’(11). Again Hartman finds that “Leda and the Swan” cannot be explained away by the ‘co-ordinates of ordinary perception, by stable space time categories’ (24-25). Furthermore, Yeats’ “The Second Coming” may be read as a poem ‘to keep it there, not to resolve it into available meanings’ (245-25). J.Hillis Miller concentrates on emblematic strategies; he has perhaps been influenced by Derrida , Man, Freud and Walter Benjamin in his critical examination of Yeats’ “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen”. Miller demonstrates that the meaning of the Yeatsian emblem can be identified not in relation to what the emblem signifies, in a sign-thing structure but in relation to other emblems, whether in the same poem or in other texts, in a sign-sign relation. This relationship has been characterized by the temporal gap between the two emblems and to some archetypes. The critical analyst must cross the gulf with a leap. Miller’s study on Yeats seems to be a marked significance in discerning postmodernistic /poststructuralist elements in Yeatsian thoughts and ideas in his assertion “Each is destroyed and renewed by being made into a sign that stands for that which there is no standing and no standing for”(342-43). In spite of all these recent researches and discoveries, little has been done in respect of variety, quantity and polysemantic nature of Yeats’ work.

The disorienting stress which Yeats has inflicted his narrators to experience in a poem like “Easter, 1916” is a destructively intensified dimension of the opposition he faces whenever he recounts his own disentangled definitions of existence, life exists through willing and joyous or unwilling and mournful sacrifice of life. “Easter, 1916” , ” Meditations in Time of Civil War” and “1919” offer us the promise of a specific detail which is instantly betrayed. In the latter two poems some sort of structural clarity and rigidity exists which ultimately determine the development of the narrator’s utterances. Yeats’ device of a first person narrator may be misleading as he speaks “talk to me of originality and I will turn on you with rage … I am a lonely man I am nothing”.

Sexual politics in Yeats gains prominence in his “Leda and the Swan”. Yeats recognizes a textual sexual politics in his own poem which becomes a metaphor for the iron law of a new political order overcoming an older one. Yeats has been contemplative upon the violent rape of Leda by Zeus. The poetic description of Yeats has been unbearably beautiful and despicable as well: “The feathered glory from her loosening thighs! / All the stretched body’s laid on the white rush /And feels the strange heart beating where it lies. / Her thighs caressed / By the dark webs” focuses Zeus’ attention to the details of amorous conquest. This simply demonstrates Zeus’ power at Leda’s expense. Yeats’ poem merely serves as a link in the iron chain of association which calls up the sexual textual politics of “ the broken wall, the burning roof and tower / And Agamemnon dead” whenever Leda has been mentioned yet Yeats’ commentary in “A Vision” does not turn out to be an unrelieved deconstruction, theory rendering natural the text’s necessary self blindness. Yeats has admitted that he cannot answer the questions raised by his own poetic thinking. Leda and Zeus might belong to history yet they are symbolic of refutations of history along with culture, habits and systems.

In “A Vision” further critical assessments have been made; the rejection has been attributed to Zeus and not to Leda and this demonstrates the change from one age to another as an issue of power rather than knowledge. In this case “Leda” links itself with a poem of historical transformation, “The Second Coming”. “When a vast image of Spirituous Mundi / Troubles my sight …/ And what rough beast, its hour came round at last, / Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born!” Yeats has been contemplative in putting “The Second Coming” and “Leda and the Swan” to work within the orbit of his system. The postmodern readers have been well aware of Yeats metaphor for Bethlehem. The nightmarish condition of irreligious system derives its impetus from the violence spread all around. Yeats cannot but recognize in the vast image out of Spirituous Mundi the confusion and lawlessness enswallowing the current existence and directions of life. Yet the metaphors used by Yeats engender a hypothetical potential equal in seriousness but superior to the iron law of antithesis and the “poetics of hate” (Joseph M. Hassett). Yeats has ignored Leda’s culture or that of the rough beast but these images ultimately raise the question of power and politics. The poem finally emerges as a feministic text on power politics between the sexes not at the expense of either Leda or the vast humanity which have rejected religion. William Johnsen aptly conceptualizes the imaginings of a Leda who can at the very least refuse consent to Zeus, the positive equalizing of the sexes in a nonviolent society, where religion, if it is to have a future, means that all are ligated to each other through the imitation of love not war without exception.

Freud in his 1919 essay “The Uncanny” has listed some things, persons, impressions, events and situations which are able to arouse in us a feeling of the uncanny in particularly forcible and definite form,… wax work figures ingeniously constructed dolls and automata (226). Yeats’ conception of the doll as icon also brings back Julia Kristeva’s concept of the abject. Freud sees the doll as the significant element of childhood life but Helen Cixous and Naomi Schor have commented on Freud’s failure to explicate thoroughly the uncanny significance of dolls. Yeats has recalled an unusual situation in his “The Dolls,” a poem about a doll maker and the reaction of the dolls while a child is born to the doll maker and his wife. Obviously the poem recalls the awakening uncanny feelings sensed by Freud himself. In “The Dolls” poems dolls serve as icons-not the body made object but the body made subject. Yeats’ dolls seem to be the products of the artist’s symbolic world, their existence. Again to mention Kristeva the dolls reject as signifiers of the baby’s life and his eventual death; this constitutes the requisite fact of existence not at all caring for the human child as symbol. In “The Dolls,” they are the “me miserable treasure of the signifying act” (128), as well as the subject or ego.

Yeats has called “A Vision” “an elaborate classification of humanity, a symbolic system with prophetic possibilities” (Yeats “A Vision”). “A Vision” presents itself not merely as a transhistorical piece of prose but also as a work that demonstrates in abstract terms the evolving pattern of self representation in modern Irish culture. We may comply with Foucault’s positioning of his own historical enquiries. Like Foucault Yeats has also been concerned that each era imposes limitation on thought and action.

Bakthinian influence however has tasked W.B. Yeats which may be seen in some important parallels with Bakhtin’s thought. The poet has stressed upon poetry as an oral form. He further recognizes that the roots of art have been embedded in the people- the folkAgain the central conflict for Yeats reveals itself through his famous doctrine of the Masque in which the self erects an oppositional anti -self against which it stands in tension. For Yeats the spoken word is real, present, the written is insubstantial and abstraction and in this case we may find some symptoms which Derrida has discovered in his search for a meaning of the text. Yeats’ “1919” bespeaks the voice of general human experience-the voice of nothing. Where a Derridean reading finds the self-questioning and splintering of Yeats’ voice(s) an aspect of the poem’s impetus to interrogate the arbitrary nature of signs in a text, a Bakhtinian reading lingers on the interplay of voices.

Debates have mounted upon W.B. Yeats as Marxist feministic explorations on Yeats’ writing seem to have rocked the minds of the postmodern critics. The posterity will be glad to have a handful of critical investigations linking not merely to the tradition of history but also to the continually demanding contemplations of the readers engrossed with the chaos and confusion postmodernity generates. Yeats we may anticipate, would surely be included in the category of writers to whom postmodernity has generously gifted.


Primary Sources:

Yeats, W.B. A Vision. New York: Macmillan, 1959.

Yeats, W.B. Autobiographies. New York: Macmillan, 1959.

Yeats, W.B. Mythologies. New York: Macmillan, 1959.

Yeats, W.B. The Oxford Book of Modern Verse 1892-1935. London: OUP, 1936.

Secondary Sources:

Bove, Paul. Destructive Poetics: Hiedeggar and Modern American Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1980.

Culler, Jonathan. “Apostrophe,” The Pursuit of Science. Ithaca: Cornell Univ.Press, 1981.

Eagleton, Terry. Criticism and Ideology. London:Verso, 1978.

Eliot, T.S. “Ulysses, Order and Myth,” Selected Essays. Ed. Frank Kermode. New York: Harcourt, 1957.

Freud, Sigmund. “The ‘Uncanny,’” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works. Trans. and ed. James Strachey. 17-226. London: Hoggarth Press, 1953-74.

Hara, Daniel O. “Yeats in Theory,” Post-Structuralist Resdings of English Poetry. Ed.Richard Machin and Christopher Norris. Cambridge: Cambrigde Univ. Press, 1987.

Hartman, Geoffrey. Criticism in the Wilderness: The Study of Literature Today. New Haven: Yale   Univ. Press, 1980.

Hassett, Joseph M. Yeats and the Poetics of Hate. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1986.

Kermode, Frank. Romantic Image. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1957.

Kristeva, Julia. Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach in Literature and Art. Trans. Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine and Leon S. Roudiez. Ed. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1980.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Trans. Geoffrey   Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Man, Paul de. Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke and Proust. New   Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1979.

Miller, J. Hillis. The Linguistic Moment: From Wordsworth to Stevens. Princeton: Princeton Univ.   Press, 1985.

Schor, Naomi. “Introduction,” Flaubert and Postmodernism. Ed. Naomi Schor and Henry   F. Majewski. Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1984.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakroborty. “Finding Feminist Reading: Dante-Yeats,” American Criticism in the Post-Structuralist Age. Ed. Ira Konigsberg. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1981.

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