On a Train with Yeats

It was not the discussion surrounding William Butler Yeats on the anniversary of his birth a few weeks ago that prompted me to pick up this book about him. Over a year ago I hurriedly pushed it into my bag before setting out for a train journey with my daughter. It was small and light but not too short that I would be left with nothing to read before the train shuffled into its destination. But even the best laid plans are said not to survive first contact with the enemy. The enemy on this occasion was a malfunctioning rail system causing a delay of three to four hours before the train even pulled away from the station. Anticipating arrival in Belfast Central by around 8 or 9 we got there, I recall, shortly after midnight. I was glad it was a power failure of some signalling system up the line rather than a bomb scare. That way I could complain about it. Giving out about delays resulting from bomb scares would sound a bit rich giving the amount of them I had caused in my teenage days. Yet I had to grumble about something, having brought a book too short; just to keep my mind occupied with something else.

The copy of Yeats I had with me was an old one I had picked up in a second hand book shop. It was first written many years ago by professor of literature, Denis Donoghue as part of the Fontana Modern Masters series. Any time I found myself browsing in the dusty shops of Belfast back streets whose shade seems to draw used book sellers - although unlike their counterparts the car dealers they seem not be shady – and one of the series appeared on the shelf, I would quickly bag it if it were not already at home. There were occasions when I reached up to place the new acquisition on one of my own book shelves only to find a copy already there. No great loss. That only occurs when a book is borrowed by someone and not returned. I am one of those types who remember who still have my books from 1993.

Although I prefer biography the Masters series is thematic rather than biographical. Still, there is always something to be learned from any book. So with a little patience, perseverance and probing even the dullest and densest will eventually yield something that make the journey through its pages a little less onerous.

Like many others, I know William Butler Yeats through phrases: a terrible beauty is born; the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity; too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart. Yet limitations on my own knowledge do not preclude awareness that Yeats’s contribution to literary life has been immense. Said to be perhaps not as great a poet as a playwright his legacy has run for longer than his mortal coil. Jonathan Powell borrowed from him for the title of his peace process memoirs Great Hatred Little Room. Donoghue probable annoyed the nationalistic purist through his claim that Yeats ‘invented a country, calling it Ireland.’ His contribution to founding the Abbey Theatre, which he hoped would promote the flourishing of national life, helped establish his ‘greatness’ in the world of culture.

Described by Donoghue as a ‘Tory nationalist’ – in this sense not all that different from the Tory nationalists who strut the political stage north and south today – this was less grating than the fact that Yeats had a strong liking for the fascisms that were sweeping the Europe of his day. Although Donoghue defends him against the charge of secretly harbouring an ambition to become the ‘Mussolini of Ireland’ there is no disputing his penchant for the generic dictator. Donoghue refers to his ‘cordiality to the Blueshirts.’ His preference for the land over the city, his revering of ‘the people’ in a volkish sense and his detestation of the ‘many headed-foam at Salamis’ – the emergence of modern democracy with its lack of order - all combined with his call to ‘limit the families of the unintelligent classes’ to mould a man of deeply reactionary views.

Donoghue stressed the centrality of Nietzsche to the thinking of Yeats. Being tardy in his responses to the letters of Lady Gregory, in his defence Yeats offered:

The truth is you have a rival in Nietzsche, that strong enchanter. I have read him so much that I have made my eyes bad again … I have not read anything with so much excitement since I got to love Morris’s stories which have the same curious astringent joy.

Yeats identified with the Nietzschean disdain for the herd and the elevation of the superman. Cuchulain became Yeats’s own superman. But Nietzsche is a much maligned character in the history of philosophy, having positions ascribed to him that he in fact never held. Much of this was down to his sister who took charge of his voluminous literary output after his illness and death and invented a Nietzsche the authentic one would not have recognised. She superimposed her own racist and anti-Semitic perspective onto her brother, at one point writing a lie riddled biography. Most damning of all she published the book Will to Power from a scattering of her brother’s unpublished notes and claimed that it represented his final testimony. So extensive had been her repackaging of his image that when Gerard Hodgins first introduced me to Nietzsche in prison my domineering thoughts were, ‘Was he not a fascist?’ He of course predated the emergence of fascism and while German by birth saw the dangers in the rise of Germanic nationalism. It is said to the extent that Nietzsche was racist it was only against the Germans whose nationalism he despised, and whom he castigated for not being ‘good Europeans.’

Curiously for an intellectual, Yeats was not a lover of ideas distrusting them for their philosophical grounding in concepts. ‘Descartes, Locke and Newton took away the world and gave us its excrement instead.’ No concession here that he viewed such as the fertiliser needed to replenish the earth he so worshiped. He loved to quote Goethe by saying that people never learn to know themselves by thought, just by action. As he expressed it, ‘do not wait to strike till the iron is hot; but make it hot by striking.’ This ‘action’ focus would appear to have nourished the fetish for strong men, power and heroes.

I disembarked at Belfast Central not quite thinking I had discovered my own hero.

Denis Donoghue, Yeats. Fontana. Modern Masters Series. 1982.


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  2. Kate, an interesting take on Nietzsche. I don't hold to the view that he was as reactionary as he was made out to be. He strongly influenced Foucault who unlike Yeats was not a reactionary.

    That African experience you refer to sounds like Rwanda and I think that's sadly true it can happen anywhere. But Rwanda was probably the most religious society in Africa. Many men of God were up to their necks in the genocide.

    Any idea can be used by another for a different purpose. God rather than god is dead is viewed by many as a bad idea.

    I think many people do not need a god to have a deep sense of right and wrong. I don't do religion and don't think I am less a moral person because of that. The notion that morality can be reduced to religion is essentially a religious argument. If, as I believe, religion is human made then the morality that flows from it is likewise; it amounts to nothing more than a morality not dependent on god but just on a belief in god.

    I don't believe the Swedes are an immoral people yet their rate of humanism is higher than anywhere else in Europe. I would feel that people are treated better in Sweden than they are in religious Iran.

    I think the final part of your comment is more about nihilism than it is about the rejection of god. I don't subscribe to the view that rejection of religion is to embrace nihilism.

    Still, lots to think about there.

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  4. There was a problem earlier in the day with the server. A few sites were affected as a result. Seems to have cleared itself up

  5. Kate, Anthony,

    On that final paragraph, and this phrase:

    "were searching for something meaningful to life, and looking for its purpose. They didn't find it"

    I'd say Nietzsche did find it and that he expressed it most clearly in Thus Spake Zarathustra. It's perhaps the beginning of existentialism as an alternative to religion, the realisation of the individual without recourse to the ideology or doctrine of others.

    Nietzsche was scathing when discussing hs philosophical predecessors, and religions generally. When you say "without 'God', where is right and wrong?", he would, I imagine, have replied that the ubermesch is beyond good and evil. That morality is an empty word. In that sense, he is not so far from the Socratic idea of 'knowing yourself', which through Plato influenced religion, in particular Christianity, immensely.

    It doesn't mean there is no right and wrong; it means no single doctrine can be applied to all men and women. Nietzsche didn't suggest a political system to facilitate this in the way Plato did, but you can be reasonably sure that the effacing of the individual in totalitarianism would have disgusted him. The American dream might appear closer, and Nietzsche does excuse violence in pursuit of self-realisation. What is significant is that everyone will have a chance to do so. Perhaps anarchy would be the closest model.

    Where you say "everything is ok", I think it's more a case of 'everything may be ok for someone, somewhere'. It precludes the right to judge on their behalf. You are right that no-one has replaced God, but I would suggest that 20th century Italian history is a good place to see how such attempts operate.

    Nietzsche was amoral, not immoral. That is the crux, and to devise a series of morality=based laws based on that would be anachronistic. That does not preclude laws though.

    I know less, little about Yeats, but would imagine that the appeal may be related to that quest for the self without subservience to the will/doctrine of others.

  6. "Yeats, Ireland & Fascism" by Elizabeth Butler Cullingford, a pioneering work by a noted literary critic, came out in 1981. It may be a title you and your readers may benefit from; of course, R.F. Foster's massive two volumes of biography may also illuminate, and Terence Brown's rather overlooked shorter life that places WBY well within his contexts.

    Thanks, Anthony and commentators, for the welcome sidestep into literary criticism that intersects messily with ideology. I'm glad that little Modern Masters paid off; I think of Terry Eagleton's 1999 pocket Marx study in a similar series by Routledge on "The Great Philosophers" that did an amazing job in 57 pp. of text!

    My vague understanding of Nietzsche was recently piqued by an article that attributed much of the interpretation of his work, or misreading of such, to the efforts of his sister Elisabeth, I believe, posthumously to repackage his thought in the way we've been conditioned to receive it. Mazzino Montanari, an editor of his "Nachlass," called her version of "The Will to Power" a forgery. I always take any philosopher in translation more cautiously; same with scriptures!

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  8. belfasttobrussels, I think the anarchism in Nietzsche's thought may have been what drew Foucault to him. I am not so sure that Yeats's liking for him was as benign as you imply - more a need for the strong man than the superman.

    'the effacing of the individual in totalitarianism would have disgusted him'

    I think that is a fairly apt way to put it.

  9. Slight point the word Mensch is gender neutral means human being not man.
    Nietzsche argues that god is dead though does not kill god.
    That is accomplished by the church and a corrupt belief system. Nietzsche started out his academic career studying theology.

    The strange thing about belief systems being they accept god exists without concrete evidence or even a morsel of proof. Then we have a problem if one argues god does not exist as one needs substantial proof to prove why.

    Reading Nietzsche is simple compared to reading the Bible as it is vague and open to many interpretations.
    Unfortunately Nietzsche is remembered as the man who killed god, which is also a mistranslation from the original German.

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  11. It is a matter of how one looks at argument.
    You have a personal involvement as you clearly vilify Nietzsche and admit you have no understanding of his works, relying on scarps of opinions from others.
    Bertrand Russell would have a good time explaining his treatment of women. I think he was married 4 times really interesting gossip in Victorian England.
    His philosophy of mathematics is excellent.
    His Idealism philosophy is open to opinion.
    Interesting character but not one I would take seriously if he did contradict Nietzsche.
    This is the short version of a reply as I am unsure how my first draft would read.

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  13. The bible is a handbook on oppressing women. I don't hear you mentioning that as you point out the church on ethics and morals.

    I think you answered your own question.
    No one can change your mind on the matter, that would take reading the writings without bias then forming your own opinion.

    If you like I will post a longer version.

    In a nutshell Nietzsche is critical of human-kind man more so than woman.

    You mentioned Russell without reading his works? The " Idealism" branch of the philosophy family.

    Do you believe opinion of woman has changed much, or is the greatest oppression of time better covered up today.
    Women are still much second class citizens of the world.
    Some small changes though nothing on the caliber of equality to man.

    Nietzsche made the point of wiping the slate clean and beginning again.

    His writings need no defense.
    How one looks at argument is either with a personal involvement or an objective view.

    How can you vilify without knowledge or proof to make your points? Would that not clearly state you have no argument only hearsay?

    I have been reading philosophy for longer than I care to remember and I still know little as I am a student for life.

    If the article had been about Yeats and say a feminist writer.
    Would my comment make sense if I said "Oh she is just an angry woman who hates men and is a borderline lunatic?"
    If I made that comment based on little or no knowledge of her writings...would that be a point or just a personal dislike?

    I have no bother in talking about philosophy and I am sure others would contradict me if they see a translation different.

    I steer clear of many subjects as I would be lost.

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  15. Kate... I rarely understand your comments as they often stray from the article.
    I will post a reply and then end the subject as you clearly have one view and one only "Yours" again you say you have no knowledge of his writings yet demand that your comment be taken seriously.
    I could argue with my cat and listen to the same meow reply as that is what it sounds like reading your very personal view.

    I will try and make sense of your comment later though I am sure you are just commenting for that sake.

    I notice you are repeating a former comment by " Belfasttobrussels" it is again using scarps of others words to make what point I do not know.

    I don't read a subject and then decide oh 2 pages in, I have the internet I will look up what others have to say on it, then copy their words and rearrange them to post a point.

    As for the bible men authored the bible the rules are clear woman must obey man...have you even read the bible?

    I am bot here to change your opinion on men Nietzsche morals or ethics.
    Clearly you have no interest in the subject only to keep adding others opinions to defend your post.
    It seems you are just arguing with yourself.

    This is a very poor justification for self ignorance!
    "I don't need to read it for myself to know it happened. The fact that more than one writer read it, is proof...."

    So if one than one person says so it is definitive truth in writing?
    Delusional thinking a dangerous follower concept.

    I am unsure how much you read as again you claim someone else said so?
    Is there a point to be found in that line of thought.

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  18. At first glance of the article I found it strange to read Yeats and Nietzsche on a train. First thought that would be worth the ticket if both writers actually exchanged literary views.
    Second reading after a few minutes thinking about the styles of both writers to balance my own thoughts out I placed “Thus Spake Zarathustra” and “ The second coming” looking for that junction where both writers would cross in my mind.

    Thus Spake Zarathustra as it styling mimics the bible and places mans evolving squarely on mans shoulders at the same time cleverly attacking western Judeo-Christianity and its decadence. Nietzsche the son of a Lutheran Minister and his own attempt at studying theology is clearly writing with knowledge of the subject.
    Fictionalizing Zarathustra allows him to take certain liberties as he removes mans excuse that everything is the will of God, meaning man cannot evolve without a higher authority. The fact that he dispatched the need of a god is of course very disconcerting as it shatters belief or the teachings instilled in the western psyche.
    If god is dead then what is the point of man people prefer the security of mysticism as it allows for afterlife or the undying soul that one day will be allowed into heaven if it meets the requirements.
    If Nietzsche was amongst us today his work would be more acceptable with the highly publicized abuse and scandals of the church and its obsession with total power built upon total corruption.
    We overlook the corruption in a state of denial as that may reduce ones chances of an afterlife.
    The problem with reading philosophy is one gets no reward only the prospect of the next level or continuation of the thoughts being expanded or completely negated by the next writer or translator.
    Unlike many books that the reader becomes involved with and gets to enjoy following the highs and lows with human emotion as being a part of or identifying with that particular situation as familiar there for safe.
    Philosophy does not allow one that freedom or luxury as it forces the reader to set aside ones instilled beliefs and asks one to think beyond the need of reward.
    Reading an enjoyable book is much like looking at the ocean and its blue or green colours pleasing the senses. Then if one scooped a handful of the ocean the water is clear much like philosophy and leaves one wondering how deceptive the world really is.

    The second coming one of Yeats more notable poems based in his mystic beliefs which heavily influences his works especially in his book “A Vision.” Although Nietzsche went insane later in life one would seriously wonder why Yeats believed a spirit told him what to write in the book? Sounds a little insane or on that path though excused as his works are full of Christian beliefs.
    Yeats being part of the Irish literary renaissance describes a terrible force that of a great darkness that is looming and could or may eventually devour Christianity.
    Though subject to interpretation it could be reduced to a more earthly fear as the rise of communism was underway, the Great War was over and the world probably looked very different so reaching into the end days of revelation would make sense to justify both fear and change. Today if alive it could be a fear of Islam that would replace western values that is just a stretch of my own interpretation.
    I still enjoy a visit with Yeats and his writing although over the years his fascination with mysticism and other religious influences is not much interest to me.
    Would make for a great conversation Nietzsche and his belief than man must rise above himself and Yeats with his man must always rely on mystical powers to ensure man never strays to far from belief.
    Without doubt both scholarly worlds would have a differing translation more elaborate better argued and defined I am just content enough we live in a time when non academic like myself have access to these great worlds in our time of on demand life reading a book allows for a freedom lost.

  19. Tain Bo, a fitting conclusion by you to a discussion you contributed so much to. Thanks for taking the time to construct such expansive comments. There is much to be learned from your thoughts on the topic.

  20. Thanks Anthony enjoyed the article and even picked up a few used books by Yeats.
    Will hopefully make a comment on the Ardoyne riot...when I get rid of this cold.
    Trying to catch up on the latest articles.
    Enjoy the varied subject matter would have commented on the Left but stopped reading the left wing view years ago.