Triveni Journal

1927 | 11,233,916 words

Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....

W. B. Yeats and Anglo-Phobia

S. R. Mokashi


Ireland, like India, is a country which suffered From Britishcolonialism. However, her sufferings cut her more severely, and on several planes. The British left India a country very much changed: and, in a few things, changed for the better. When Ireland won her independence, she was not merely divided like India; she was torn and bruised within the major body of her society. Yeats has described his land as “a blind and bitter land”. When the British left India, they left her much less bitter than the Ireland they set free. The Irish Ascendency, which was the cultural centre of Irish art and patriotism, had to suffer heavily because racially it had its origin in Britain. How harrowing was this internecine bitterness can be gauged by the following lines from Yeats’s post-Independence poem, ‘The Curse of Cromwell’:

You ask for what I have found, and far and wide I go,
Nothing but Cromwell’s house and Cromwell’s murderous crew...

The name of Cromwell is as hateful in Ireland as the name of Clive or Warren Hastings or General Dyer is in India. Since, like most Western countries, Ireland too had a highly opinionated urban population, this bitterness continued to eat Ireland from within for several decades, and cannot be said to have ended even till this day. India’s suffering and self-division had a great refuge in Gandhiji’s personality and later in Gandhian elders.

Yeats was an intimate witness of many Irish nationalist movements. He was as violent in his dislike of the British as most of his countrymen were. As a school-boy in an English public school, he suffered several indignities from English children. However, it would be wrong to picture him as a popular poet merely denouncing the British and rising on the crest of a popular anti-British feeling.

Yeats’s Anglo-phobia needs several qualifications. It is very unusual, and unlike the Anglo-phobia of the Irish nationalists of his time. On the contrary, several misunderstandings and estrangements arose out of it, including the one with his famous love, Maud Gonne, a fiery petrel of Irish nationalism. What was most embarrassing to the nationalists was that while Yeats denounced the British, he also turned round and denounced the hatred of the British cherished by the Irish nationalists. Not only did he do it in talk and prose. His verses are full of pleadings to Maud Gonne that she renounce her hatred, because hatred would spoil her beauty: to put it rather crudely. Such were the verses he wrote to Countess Markiewiecz and Eva Gore-Booth. On the other hand, Maud Gonne chid him openly for not agreeing to write patriotic verses of the popular brand. The estrangement continued for several years, to the great suffering of the poet, who, however, pursued his verse appeals unabashed and more bitterly. It is to be noted that Anglo-phobia is a quality shared by most Irish writers, including the great Irish intellectuals. It was bitter in the lower ranks. But even Bernard Shaw and James Joyce had a moderate share of it. Shaw’s “John Bull’s Other Island” is a satire on the cool hard-cutting profiteerism of the British mind. For James Joyce’s, witness the “Tundish” passage in ‘The Portrait of an Artist’.

Where then is the difference of Yeats’s brand of Anglo-phobia, which, violent and vocal as it was, still estranged him from several of his patriotic friends?

He frequently refers to the English as shop-keepers. He refers to their superficial politeness and their secretiveness as “the counting house silences and timidity.” In one of his essays he says, “In London, the first man you meet puts any high dream out of your head…..” (‘At Stratford-on-Avon’). He refers, in the same essay, to “the evil influence and prestige of London” and adds: “Surely a bitter hatred of London is becoming a mark of those that love the arts, and all that have this hatred should help…..a beginning of a centre of art elsewhere...” His Irish Dramatic Movement was a direct rebellion against the British dramatic tradition which he hated with all his heart: Its char-women Portias and shopkeeper Corlalanuses. He hated the British accent, British acting, and British delivery of verse. He hated the British audiences with their hypocritical and unhealthy taste for more rectitude and propriety. On the contrary, the Ireland of his heart was a living country to him; her fishermen, hunters and hard-riding men true ‘gentlemen’. He even said Irish patriotism should be based on hatred of all that is English.

The preference for a bullied, exploited, self-divided Ireland, with its mad visionary intensity, compared to England with its superficial ‘culture’ and its prudent timidity, is as much a trait with Bernard Shaw as with Yeats. The lack of imaginative life in England is what Yeats dislikes most in England. In England even the greatest poet is no more than a poet. Yeats sneers at the British mind which could not create a single legend about Shakespeare. In Ireland, even a blind, ignorant, uncouth poet like Raftery had his own legends. People fabled that when he died, the sidhi (the Irish fairy folk) came to weep over him. Raftery celebrated the beauty of a village girl in some verses. Certain young men in a drinking bout at an inn were so maddened by the verses that they walked to her village that very night, in the dim moon-light, and one got drowned in the bog at Cloone. That is the Ireland that Yeats loved, the Ireland in which poets are objects of ‘mighty legend’ and poetry turns people’s heads. That Ireland, that blind poet, those song-mad men, and that country beauty, Yeats celebrates in at least three of his poems. England had a poet like Shakespeare, but the dry rationalistic British mind could see in him no more than a poacher of some talent!

In Ireland every hill and river has its legend and association, which is evidence of the fact that imagination is alive among its people. On the contrary, England is a country peculiarly denuded not merely of national mythology, but also of the ability to create and enjoy a mythology. It was for this reason, as Yeats suggests in his essay on Blake, that Blake had to ‘create’ a mythology. England was given grand opportunities to develop a national mythology. In Shakespeare’s ‘Histories’ England, had its imaginative life been alive, would have created a mythology as moving as the Greek legends were to the Greeks. England which missed that easy and obvious opportunity even in the 16th or 17th century, was further denuded during Blake’s days. Blake’s mythology could neither move nor be understood by his age.

On the contrary, in Ireland the ancient Irish myths and legends have common currency among the public. Not only has Christianity not ousted Pagan mythology, but, in various cases, it co-exists with it, In a way, Yeats’s early ambitious work, ‘The Wanderings of Oisin’, which he retained till the end in his Collected Works, is a manifesto of this nationalist trait: Oisin meeting St. Patrick, Paganism reconciled to Christianity, both proceeding towards a vital inward Church of mystic experience and heroic life.

What Yeats stresses, time and again, is that not only are myths current in Ireland, but people are alive to them. He met several men and women in Galway who imagine to have seen those fierce legendary horsemen–“From mountain to mountain ride the fierce horsemen”. “In the grave stand the dead erect”. Baile and Aileen are seen by men, united in the mid-air, their union casting a luminous glow. They are spirits. It is this spiritual Ireland, where both the richest and poorest share a common intellectual life, that Yeats loves and celebrates.

The centre of dark emanations of rationalism, which, according to Yeats, commenced during the 17th century, is England. It is this England that Yeats hates. This compares favourably with Eliot’s theory of the dissociation of sensibility which, according to him, occurred at the same time.

The fact that he had nothing against Englishmen as such, or that he did not deny them their share of humanity, is borne out by a letter he wrote to Miss Hornman, the English patroness of his Abbey Theatre. She had been told tales that Yeats was spreading the hatred of the English through the Abbey Theatre. It was a fact that Yeats had written plays like ‘Cathleen - ni Houlian’, a play about which he remarks in reminiscent penitence:

Did that play of mine send out
Certain men the English shot?

Yeats’s reply to her is a bland disarming but effective piece of sincere casuistry; casuistry: How could he hate the English when William Blake Was an Englishman?

Was he contradicting himself?–Not at all! The prejudices of Dr. Johnson, the irrelevances of Coleridge, and the Contradictions of W. B. Yeats spring from a genuine subtlety of minds which know themselves thoroughly well.

Yeats had nothing against the England of William Law and William Blake, just as Pandit Nehru had nothing against the England of Shakespeare and Shelley. (See his Autobiography.) The pity of it is that it is the England of the uncouth, Philistine, unimaginative kind that rules and exists the louder way. In its noisy utilitarian dogmatic Yahoomanity, (J. B. Yeats, his father, used the phrase), the voice of the thinner England is either lost or banished. Or else, to Blake England was a place where the New Jerusalem would be built. Yeats not only learnt much from Blake among other English poets of mystic f experience with whom he was in perfect agreement. Even with Shelley he finds fault on certain scores. How generous Yeats is tothis thinner voice of England can easily be proved by his essay on Spenser. He mentions Spenser’s hateful report on Ireland, but, without getting angry over it, dismisses it as a usual English lapse! That no-wise diminishes his admiration for Spenser.

Blake, Law, Spenser, Shelley, and Morris belongto the international body of wise men, the lostMagi of the rationalistic age. They do not represent the other England which exists, by and large, as a dangerous destroyer of the imaginative life of several Countries. Because it is this England thathas a large measure of success and popularity, it needed rigorous denunciation from Yeats. In fact, Yeats’s grievance is that the Irish patriotism as it was practised by the Sinn Feiners and Terrorists was sentimental and based on hatred. That too was as bad, according to Yeats, because it sprang from an imitation of the British attitudes.

Romantic Ireland is dead and gone,
It is with O’ Leary in the grave.

The present-day Ireland with its love of abstraction was as bad as England, therefore, Yeats had a double enemy: England on the political level, and the dogmatic materialism and the love of abstraction of the English, as they were practiced by the Irish nationalists, on the other.

“It is customary to praise English empirical genius, English sense of reality, and yet, throughout the 18th century, when her Indian empire was founded, England lived for certain great constructions that were true only in relation to the will.” (Preface to ‘Berkeley’) The “great constructions,” as explained later, are the “abstractions,” serviceable for an occasion ora piece of thought, but which never should be worshipped as absolute facts. Locke’s materialism, as Berkeley anticipated, would soon lapse into “the grosser half of that dialectical materialism.” But “it (abstract materialism) worked, and the mechanical inventions of the next age, its symbols that seemed its confirmation, worked even better, and it worked the best of all in England…..”

It is this accidental success of England that has made English materialism so attractive to down-trodden countries like Ireland; and Yeats rebelled against this attraction. If Ireland must be free, it must be an ireland with all her mystical intensity in tact. But Yeats was isolated as probably a clown or a humbug–words used several times by his neighbours, as reported in his biographies.

But Yeats held true to his creed till the end. His later poems have got over the fiery patriotism of ‘Cathleen-ni Houlihan,’ or the mystic nationalism of the ‘Rose’ poems. But they have become more scathing and forthright in the denunciation of Locke and Newton.

Locke sank into a swoon.
The Garden died.
God took the Spinning Jenny
Out of his side.

He sang down the timid Ireland born from English puritanism, and celebrated the Ireland of Galway peasants with their power of vision, their physicality of existence and their love of sport, the Ireland that lived

Before the merchant and the clerk
Breathed on the world with timid breath.

In a poem named ‘The Seven Sages,’ he names four men as the creators of the true Irish mind of his dream: Goldsmith, Burke, Swift and Berkeley.

All hated Whiggery; but what is Whiggery?
A levelling, rancorous, rational sort of mind
That never looked out of the eye of a saint
Orout of drunkard’s eye.

The next line notes with alarm that

All’s Whiggery now.
But we old men are massed against the world.

The hallmark of an aristocratic life is lonely contemplation of the world. The following passage will clarify the concept:

“Born in such community, Berkeley with his belief in perception, that abstract ideas are mere Words, Swift with his love of perfect nature, of Houyhnhnms, his disbelief in Newton’s system and every sort of machine, Goldsmith and his delight in the particulars of the common life that shocked his contemporaries, Burke with his conviction that all States that are not grown slowly like a forest tree are tyrannies, found in England an opposite that stung their own thought into expressions and made it lucid”.

Well, it is this Whiggery of England, which is as much present in her common men as in her aristocrats, that Yeats hated. Yeats’s dream was a sound one. He dreamed of an age when the simple peasantry and the distinguished “clerisy” share the same basis of intellectual thought. Such a life was found in the Galway of his youth. But now, since bitterness had entered the soul of Ireland, Yeats continues to sing of “the other Ireland” with a hope to blossom it by his song.

‘Cast your mind on other days’

was his last important message, because a mere politically free Ireland had not set the true inner Ireland free from the dragon of British abstraction. So,

Cast your mind on other days
That we in Coming days might be
Still the indomitable Irishry.

The concept of British rationalism, as expressed by Yeats in a wide variety of contexts, might be the nexus of such ideas: the feline practicality and comfort-hunt; the showy sentimentality; the Philistine taste: the coarseness of speech and dress; the lowness of appetite and taught; the opinionated headstrong mind; indelicate breeding; unmusical writing; acquisitiveness; dry, unmythical attitude; blind serrvice of the abstraction; puritanical timidity in pleasure; etc....In short, by the word “Rationalism”, he refers to several things floating in the milieu rather than to a concept in philosophy. It is the rationality of the timid sort, which dogmatically refuses to reach out to its metaphysical implication; which is a mere rationality of convenience. So riddled was the English mind by its puritanical conscience on one side and its commercial selfishness on the other that the Victorian expansionism was justified as the spreading of culture and enlightenment to the “dark” countries:

John Bull has gone to India.
And all must pay him heed,
For histories there are to prove
That none of another breed
Has had a like inheritance
Or sucked such milk as he:
And there is no luck about a house
If it lacked honesty.
(The Ghost of Roger Casement)

It is this British demagogue who must be driven out: the one who tries to achieve an intellectual supremacy on the basis of mere mechanical efficiency. In his essay on Spenser, Yeats states that Anglo-Saxon persecution of the Irish was in the service of abstract idea, “till the demagogue had come and turned the old house into the accursed house of Cromwell.”

Yeats stood for the Old House, and wanted the intellectual demagogue to be ousted. Ireland has yet to understand his aspirations. In his own life-time Ireland hugged the English demagogue while sending out the English ruler. Ireland became free, but Yeats was not satisfied. It is only the “other” Ireland which might rid itself of the English demagogue, and lead a life of mystic intensity, that would have satisfied him.

What Yeats calls the 17th century “demagogue” Rationalism is better described by Eliot as the “Dissociation of Sensibility.” Reason and emotion, for some reason, were compartmentalised. The remarkable agreement in Eliot and Yeats over this score (and in several others), in spite of widely different methods of approach, will be celebrated by future historians as the greatest single event in the twentieth century History of Criticism and Thought. How accurately their views coincide can be known by the following quotation from Yeats: “Here and there in Blake, in Keats, in Blunt, in Browning,…....there is a deep masculine resonance that comes. I think, from a perfect accord between intellect and blood, lacking elsewhere since the death of Cowley.” And Eliot accepts Cowley as the last metaphysical.

That is a devastating indictment of the English language as a vehicle of poetry, from two of its greatest practitioners! May readers (who would) learn their lesson: especially in India where dissociation and compartmentalisation is slowly being imported, not by force, here, this time, but by voluntary choice.

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