W. B. Yeats

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William Butler Yeats

The following is a chapter on Yeats from the book Thinker's of the Right by Kerry Bolton, reprinted by permission of the author:


The rise of industrialism and capitalism during the 19th century brought with it social dislocation, an urban proletariat on the ruins of rural life, and the rise of commercial interests. Smashed asunder were the traditional organic bonds of family and village, rootedness to the earth through generations of one's offspring and to the cycles of nature. With the ascendancy of materialism, came certain economic doctrines, both Free Trade capitalism and Marxism, and the new belief in rationalism and science over faith, the mysteries of the cosmos and the traditional religions. The forces of money had defeated everything of the Spirit. As the German-philosopher historian, Oswald Spengler explained in his Decline of the West. Western Civilisation had entered its end cycle. Such forces had been let loose as long ago as the English Revolution of Cromwell and again by the French Revolution. However, there was a reaction to this predicament. The old conservatives had not been up to the task. The spiritual and cultural reaction came from the artists, poets and writers who reach beyond the material and draw their inspiration from the well-springs of what the psychologist C. G. Jung identified as the collective unconscious. This reaction included not only the political and the cultural but also a spiritual revival expressed in an interest in the metaphysical.


Among those reacting in what the Italian author and metaphysician Evola called "the revolt against the modern world" was the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, leader of the Irish literary renaissance, and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923. Yeats was born in 1865. Despite his English and Protestant background. He was involved in the Young Ireland movement, much of his poetry celebrating the Irish rebellion and its heroes. Yeats also became an early member of the Dublin Hermetic Society, studied Hindu philosophy under the Theosophist Mohini Chatterjee, and joined the Theosophical Society in 1895. Moving to London in 1897, Yeats joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, one of the primary influences in the revival of interest in metaphysics. For Yeats the mystical was the basis of both his poetry and his political ideas. Yeats was particularly interested in the Irish mystical tradition and folklore. He saw the peasantry and rural values as being necessary to revive against the onslaught of materialism. He aimed to found an Irish Hermetic Order substituting the alien Egyptian deities of Golden Dawn ritual with those of the Irish gods and heroes. Yeats saw the mythic and spiritual as the basis of a culture, providing the underlying unity for all cultural manifestations, a "unity of being," where, writing in reference to the Byzantium culture: "[The] religious, aesthetic and practical life were one... the painter, the mosaic worker, the worker in gold and silver, the illuminator of sacred books were absorbed in the subject matter, and that of the vision of a whole people."

It might seem a paradox to the Left that such men of the Right were instrumental in introducing the West to the wisdom of the East, for all traditional civilisations have a parallel outlook in their period of High Culture. Pound utilised Chinese characters in his poetry, translated Chinese texts and referred to the ideas of Confucius as finding expression in Fascism. Evola brought the ethics of the Samurai and the practices of Tantra to the notice of the West. It was cosmopolitanism that these poets and writers rejected, seeing it as the duty of the culture-bearing stratum to restore the unity of culture to the nation, to repudiate "an international art, picking stones and symbols where it pleased", as Yeats put it: "To deepen the political passion of the nation that all, artist and poet, craftsman and day labourer, would accept as common design."


Pre-dating the psychologist Carl Jung's theory of archetypes, Yeats held that symbols had an autonomous power of their own in the unconscious. It was these symbols, age-long inherited memories, upon which the artist and the poet drew as the source of creativity. To Yeats, "individuality is not as important as our age has imagined". The daimons of the ancient memories acted upon the individual, and one's creativity was an expression of these forces. These symbols and images could be brought to consciousness and expressed artistically via magic and ritual. Yeats's poetry was intended as an expression of these symbols. This resurgence of these age-long memories required a "revolt of soul against intellect now beginning in the world." Yeats was particularly concerned that commercialism would mean the pushing down of cultural values in the pursuit of profit rather than artistic excellence. Hence, he called for a revival of aristocratic values. He lamented that, "the mere multitude is everywhere with its empty photographic eyes. A declaration of war on the masses by higher men is called for. Everywhere the mediocre are coming in order to make themselves master."

His appeal was to the artist and to the individual of taste and culture for, as the philosopher Nietzsche had pointed out, culture is the faculty that distinguishes the human from other organisms. In this spirit, Yeats applauded Nietzsche's philosophy as, "a counteractive to the spread of democratic vulgarity". This suspicion of democratic vulgarity was poetically expressed for example in 1921 in The Leaders of the Crowd: "They must to keep their certainty accuse All that are different of a base intent; Pull down established honour; hawk for news Whatever their loose fantasy invents..."

Yeats's keen sense of historical context is reflected in his The Curse of Cromwell. Here he identifies the English Revolution as what we can see as the inauguration of the cycle of "Money over Blood", in Spenglerian terms; the victory of the merchant class over the traditional order, which was to be re-re-enacted in the French Revolution. The Bolshevik Revolution was of the same spirit of money against blood, of the materialistic against the spirit and culture. All three revolutions were carried out in the name of "the people" against the traditional rulers, only to create a greater tyranny in the service of money. Spengler had written in The Decline of the West; "There is no proletarian, not even a communist movement, that does not serve the interests of money." Cromwell's English revolution has had lasting consequences for the entire West. The cycle of Money over culture and tradition that Cromwell inaugurated has never been overcome. America was founded on the same Puritan money ethics and continues to spread that spirit over the farthest reaches of the world. Cromwell's "murderous crew" have brought forth the "money's rant" on the blood of what is noble. "You ask what I have found, and far and wide I go: Nothing but Cromwell's house and Cromwell's murderous crew The lovers and the dancers are beaten into the clay And the tall men and the swordsmen and the horsemen, where are they? And there is an old beggar wandering in his pride - His fathers served their fathers before Christ was crucified O what of that, O what of that? What is there left to say?" No longer are there left those of noble tradition, those who served as part of a long heritage, "the tall men"; and the old gaiety of the peasant village, the squire's hall and aristocrat's manor have been beaten down. "All neighbourly, content and easy talk are gone, But here's no good complaining, for money's rant is on." The artists, once patronised by the aristocracy, must now prostitute their art for the sake of money on the mass market, as script writers, and 'public entertainers' to sell a product. All individuals are now producers and consumers, including the artist producing for a consumer market.

"And we and all the Muses are things of no account."

Yeats considered himself to be the heir to a tradition and lived in that service.

"That the swordsmen and the ladies can still keep company, Can pay the poet for a verse and hear the fiddle sound, That I am still their servant though all are underground..." Yeats considered himself the remnant of a tradition, and upheld the old values for the return of nobility, high culture and the organic community.


One product of democracy and capitalism that Yeats feared was the proliferation of what he regarded as inferior people. Yeats advocated planned human up-breeding and joined the Eugenics Society. As with his political and cultural views his outlook on eugenics had a mystical basis, relating reincarnation to the race soul. In his 1938 poem Under Ben Bulben Yeats calls in eugenic terms for Irish poets to sing of "whatever is well made", and "scorn the sort now growing up", "all out of shape from toe to top." In this poem, there is a mixture of the mythic, reincarnation, the race soul and eugenics. There is an immortality of the soul that parts one in death only briefly from the world.

"Many times man lives and dies Between his two eternities That of race and that of soul And ancient Ireland knew it all."

The eugenic and the divine combine within the artist:

"Poet and sculptor, do the work, Nor let the modish painter shirk What his great forefathers did, Bring the soul of man to God, Make him fill the cradles right." However, in the modern age "The greater dream had gone. Confusion fell upon our thought." It is the duty of the cultural-bearing stratum to set the culture anew by remembering what had once been:

"Irish poets, learn your trade, Sing whatever is well made, Scorn the sort now growing up All out of shape from toe to top, Their unremembering hearts and heads Base-born products of base beds."

Yeats's antidote to the modem cycle of decline is to return to the traditional order of peasant, squire, monk and aristocrat:

"Sing the peasantry and then Hard-riding country gentlemen, The holiness of monks, and after Porter-drinkers'randy laughter Sing the lords and ladies gay That were beaten into the clay Through seven heroic centuries; Cast your mind on other days That we in coming days may be Still the indomitable Irishry..."

The modern era is compared to the traditional by way of a man in a golden breastplate under the old stone cross, symbols of a noble age. In The Old Stone Cross Yeats writes: "A statesman is an easy man. He tells his lies by rote; A journalist makes up his lies And takes you by the throat; So stay at home and drink your beer And let the neighbours vote Said the man in the golden breastplate Under the old stone Cross Because this age and the next engender in the ditch..."

The democratic farce, with its politicians, newspapermen and voting masses are not worthy of attention. The modern cycle is further dealt with in The Statesman's Holiday, where

"I lived among great houses, Riches drove out rank. Base drove out the better blood. And mind and body shrank..."

The aristocracy of old the noble lineage of blood, has been replaced by new rich, the merchants, our new rulers are those who measure all things by profit.


In 1921 a year prior to Mussolini's assumption to power, Yeats had prophesied in The Second Coming the approach of a figure from out of the democratic chaos, a "rough beast" who would settle matters amidst a world where, when "things fall apart, the centre cannot hold."

The theme is Spenglerian, but no doubt drawn upon Yeats'recognition of the cyclic nature of history which is the way of seeing the world in all traditional civilisations, from Greek to Aztec to Teutonic and Hindu. However, the Spenglerian theme allows for not only a decline and fall of a civilisation but an interim cycle where the 'new Caesar' emerges from the decadent epoch to inaugurate a revitalisation of the civilisation. The poem opens with an allusion to the 'turning' of the historic cycles: "Turning and turning in the widening gyre the falcon cannot hear the falconer: Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned: The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity." One can read in the above what appears to be then the growing tide of Bolshevik revolution amidst the loss of tradition and of the axis around which civilisation is maintained. The answer is the rise of a strong leader who will get civilisation back on course, the 'new Caesar', that Spengler saw in the possibility of Mussolini. "Surely some revelation is at hand; Surely the Second Coming is at hand Yeats saw hope, like Spengler, in Fascist Italy. "The Ireland that reacts from the present disorder is turning its eyes towards individualist Italy." Yeats supported General Eoin O'Duffy and the Irish Blueshirts. O'Duffy, a hero of the Irish revolt and Michael Collins' principal aide, created a mass movement and Eire was almost brought civil war between the "Blueshirts and the IRA. Yeats wrote some marching songs for the movement. These sang of the heroes of Ireland, and of the need for a renewed social order. "When nations are empty up there at the top, When order has weakened and faction is strong, Time for us to pick out a good tune, Take to the roads and go marching along..."

However, Yeats, like Wyndham Lewis and others was suspicious of any movement that appealed to the masses, and of what he saw as the demagoguery of the Fascist leaders in appealing to those masses. This was regardless of the fact that the masses were being won over to national ideals and away from the internationalism of the Communists. Yeats died in 1939.

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