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William Butler Yeats as Edwardian Poet Pt. 1

William Butler Yeats as Edwardian Poet Pt. 1

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Published by Adam Fieled
The first part of a discourse regarding a new critical ethos around Irish poet William Butler Yeats by Adam Fieled.
The first part of a discourse regarding a new critical ethos around Irish poet William Butler Yeats by Adam Fieled.

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Published by: Adam Fieled on Sep 25, 2013
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10/14/2013

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William Butler Yeats as Edwardian Poet Pt.

1

To make an intelligent argument for William Butler Yeats as what might be called an “Edwardian” poet, several foundational questions must first be addressed. First, what the central aesthetic tenets of “Edwardianism” are, and how they dovetail with Yeats’ own aesthetic; as a supplement to those questions, the issue of literary value in Yeats, and what in his oeuvre is most valuable; lastly, why a theoretical shift around Yeats’ work may be necessary in 2013. As I have defined Edwardianism, as applied to the major Edwardian novelists (Maugham, Lawrence, Forster, Waugh, etc), Edwardian works of literary art are marked by an emphasis, first, on theme over form, as an expression of humanistic interest and preoccupation. Specifically, this manifests as a textual obsession with the loss of the nineteenth century’s original innocence, expressed in faith in moral order and regard for socio-affective thoughtfulness, in the face of the twentieth century’s technologically advanced barbarism, as manifest in World War I and then-nascent American power. The second characteristic Edwardian insignia is a preference for linear narrative, rather than collage, palimpsest, or other genres of formal-aesthetic experimentation/innovation. This complicates the issue of Yeats-as-Edwardian instantly— though Yeats’ strongest poems do tend towards conventional formality, his abstruse mythological systems, their manner of appearing as reference points, and the sense of elliptical non-linearity they build into his texts, complicate Yeats’ relationship with linear narrativity. Yet, it remains the case that linear narrativity usually serves as Yeats’ primary formal-syntactic mode, even for his abstruse mythological tangents. I would like, also, to posit the argument that what is least aesthetically valuable in Yeats are, specifically, his abstruse Irish mythological systems and schema, and the naïve Romanticism with which they are expressed, employed, and fetishized. What aligns Yeats, in his most forceful and memorable work, with Edwardianism, is his hard-nosed,

dignified practicality regarding the degradation and dissolution, in the new century, of thoughtfulness and moral order into chaos and barbarism. In the broad sense, and not the pejorative, Yeats is conservative— and what he writes to conserve is a sense of human dignity in the twentieth century’s burgeoning aesthetic-intellectual entropy. In this interest, he stands with Maugham and the others, rather than as a precursor to the inchoate nihilism of Eliot and Pound, or a continuation of the self-satisfied decadence and aestheticism of the 1890s. If there is one figure in the illustrious past of English literature whose work served as a template for Yeats’ thematic gist, and also strengthened, in his influence on Yeats, the bond between Yeats and the Edwardians, it is Wordsworth. It is worth recalling that Wordsworth created his most durable work in the midst of the fallout from the eighteenth century’s own moral entropy; and France’s botched attempt at libertarianism marked his perceptions of the potentialities, social, political, and creative, of the human race. Yet Wordsworth’s “Prelude” insists, as do Yeats’ strongest poems which followed a century later, on mankind as, if not perfectible, at least amenable to improvement. Also, mankind manifests as maintained and perpetuated by an essential intellectual and creative dignity. In short, Wordsworth’s humanism is commensurate with Yeats’; even as authentic humanism leaves room for expressions of dissatisfaction. It would be reductive to characterize the Modernists as strictly anti-humanistic; the telos of their formalism and avant-gardism, for them, was the release of English language verse from the shackles of a debunked and dishonest Romanticism which infected, not only the English Romantics themselves, but most of the preeminent nineteenth century English-language poets who followed them, right through to Yeats. The Modernists’ implicit conclusions about the human race leaned towards not just pessimism but nihilism. The dignity inherent in Modernistic formalism is involved in the classicism of the aesthetic, rather than the streak of valued populism which animates Wordsworth and his assumed protégé. Humanism and populism are also, in this context, commensurate. With the preponderant weight of the Western academy’s central attention being given to Modernism and post-modernism, and Edwardianism being granted subaltern status, humanism is precisely what has been lost as a concern over the duration of the twentieth century. Adam Fieled, 9-25-13

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