The Irish Paradigm: Charles Brasch and W. B. Yeats

It is evident that Charles Brasch adored W. B. Yeats. His collection includes eighty-five different volumes written by or dedicated to the great Irish poet.

Recently in class, I had the pleasure of asking Alan Roddick, Brasch’s literary executor, about this impressive Yeats collection.”He rated Yeats extremely highly,” recalled Alan, “and had been buying Yeats as he was published.” Brasch spent a lifetime reading Yeats, so it would seem unfair to ignore its significance to the collection.

W. B. Yeats

W. B. Yeats (1903)

In their own way, Charles Brasch and William Butler Yeats both shared an interest in developing their country’s poetic voice. Today, Yeats is often keenly remembered for setting up the Irish National Theatre, just as Brasch’s Landfall helped set the gold standard for New Zealand literature.

In today’s blog, I examine Pascale Casanova’s treatment of Yeats’ nationalism in “The Irish Paradigm,” a chapter within her book The World Republic of Letters (first published in French, 1999). Her centre-periphery model, when applied to Ireland, highlights the problem of ignoring Yeats’ Anglo-Irish identity. Similarly, Brasch’s time in England and abroad between 1927 and 1946 greatly influenced his reading and writing habits. It would be a mistake to overemphasise his nationalist inclinations.

The Modernism Paradigm: Centres and Peripheries 

In The World Republic of Letters, Pascale Casanova describes the commerce of world literature between competing centre and periphery nations. For Casanova, centre nations cultivate literary prestige and define the terms of literary commerce. Periphery nations struggle against these centres, attempting to create new capital or mimic the centre’s prestige model.

World Repulic of letters

Casanova argues,

Literary “Prestige” … depends on the existence of a more or less extensive professional “milieu,” a restricted and cultivated public, and an interested aristocracy or enlightened bourgeoisie; . . . The capital is therefore embodied by all those who transmit it, gain possession of it, transform it, and update it. (2007, 15)

In simple terms, we may view Casanova’s argument as an exploration of literary boundaries and power imbalances. For example, it is no surprise that smaller nations, like Ireland or New Zealand, struggle for attention and prestige in comparison to the sophisticated cultural machinery of Paris or London.

The Irish Paradigm: Dublin, London, and Paris

In her chapter “The Irish Paradigm,” Casanova describes three literary poles operating within Irish literary history: Dublin, London, and Paris. The tripolar trend, she argues,

had been imagined and created in the space of some thirty or forty years; Yeats staked out the first national literary position in Dublin; in London, Shaw occupied the canonical position of the Irishman adapted to suit English requirements; Joyce, refusing to choose between these cities, succeeded in reconciling contraries by establishing Paris as a new stronghold for the Irish. (318)

Casanova goes on to argue that these literary centres, or poles, constitute the Irish answer to the problem of the periphery. While this is certainly a controversial argument, let me explain why I think it is reductive and unhelpful as a model for understanding Yeats.

Putting Yeats in a Time Lock?

Casanova places Yeats at the core of the Dublin literary scene, contrasting him with authors she identifies with either Paris or London. She describes Yeats as “the founding father of a new Irish literature and at the same time a writer associated with London literary circles” (307). Although Casanova recognises this dual identity, her emphasis on Yeats’ involvement with the Irish Literary Theatre and his publishing of traditional Irish folk tales may give a lopsided impression of his legacy.

IMG_7197

Yeats was very involved in the early stages of the Irish Revival. He produced many influential plays, such as Cathleen ni Hoolihan (1902), which helped to re-popularise traditional Gaelic folk-tales in Ireland.

Casanova quotes Yeats, from around the time he released Cathleen ni Hoolihan, “‘our movement is a return to the people, like the Russian movement of the early seventies’; a decade earlier, in The Celtic Twilight, he had claimed: ‘Folk art is, indeed, the oldest of the aristocracies of thought . . . it is the soil where all great art is rooted'” (306).

While Yeats was passionate about Ireland, Casanova perhaps over-emphasises Yeats’ part in helping Ireland find its artistic voice. There is a great difference between the Yeats of 1902 and 1920.  Just focusing on the period of the Revival (which Casanova argues runs from 1890 to 1930) is the equivalent of freezing Yeats in a time lock.

IMG_7199

Charles Brasch owns what appears to be a first-edition of Yeats and Lady Gregory’s play Cathleen ni Hoolihan (1902).

Yeats was Anglo-Irish, a fact that muddies any straightforward reading of Yeats’ nationalism. For example, Yeats was offered a Knighthood in 1915. He famously declined the honour, saying “I do not wish anyone to say of me, ‘only for a ribbon he left us'” (Roy Foster 2003, 28). Also in 1923, Yeats was awarded the Noble Prize in Literature “for his always inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation” (Nobel Media AB). Yeats was highly regarded in both London and Dublin; a fact Casanova essentially ignores.

Yeats and the 1916 Easter Rising

In his poem The Man and the Echo­–written in 1938, a year before his death–Yeats mused, “Did that play of mine send out / Certain men the English shot?” (in Heaney 1993, 97). After the cultural revolution that followed the 1916 Easter Rising, Yeats tried “to make sense of historical existence within a bloodstained natural world and an indifferent universe” (96), wondering if Cathleen ni Hoolihan’s nationalist message encouraged the wrong kind of nationalism: physical force revolution.

In his later years, while Yeats retained a measure of nationalism, “his was an idea of literary nationalism and spiritual philosophy to be effected through what he repeatedly called . . . an “intellectual movement,” expressed in his arts and in those of the like-minded” (Khan 1998, 43). Yeats also developed an interest in the East, and, according to Richard Ellmann, “he conceived of Asia as having the positive values of simplicity, naturalness, . . . It was as if Asia was part of the human soul and could therefore not be neglected” (1954, 184–85).

IMG_7194

Another book from Brasch’s Yeats collection

Conclusion

Casanova’s categories look good on paper, but the reality is much more complex. Yeats’ nationalism changed dramatically after the 1916 rising, and in his later years he was more of a mystic than a cultural revolutionary. Casanova neglects to consider this development and only barely mentions the tension inherent in Yeats’ Anglo-Irish dual identity.

Likewise, although Brasch was a generous supporter of New Zealand poets and poetry, Max Broadbent reminds us that Brasch paid “the University of Otago Library to collect all of the poetry published in Britain, on a continuing basis” (23). Brasch clearly had a great deal of respect for English poetry. Despite his New Zealand identity, he always held deep ties back to England.

Casanova’s model asks us to imagine Yeats, or Brasch, as part of either the centre or periphery, or just one literary pole, when the reality is closer to a combination of these sites. When studying global modernism, we need to adopt approaches that avoid oversimplifying such complex flows of power and national identity.

 

 

References

Broadbent, Max. 2003. “Charles Brasch: Collector and Patron.” Enduring Legacy: Charles Brasch, Patron, Poet & Collector. ed. Donald Kerr. Dunedin: University of Otago Press.

Casanova, Pascale. 2007. “The Irish Paradigm.” The World Republic of Letters. London: Harvard University Press.

Casanova, Pascale. 2007. The World Republic of Letters. London: Harvard University Press.

Ellmann, Richard. 1954. The Identity of Yeats. London: MacMillan & Co. LTD.

Foster, R. F. 2003. W. B. Yeats: A Life: II The Arch-Poet 1915–39. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Heaney, Seamus. 1993. “On W.B. Yeats’s “The Man and the Echo”.” Harvard Review 4: 96–9. Accessed online July 7, 2016: [http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.otago.ac.nz/stable/27559755].

Khan, Jalal Uddin. 1998. “Yeats’s “Easter 1916″ and Irish Nationalism.” World Literature Written in English 37: 1–2, 42–59. Accessed online July 7, 2016: [http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17449859808589286].

Nobel Media AB. 2014. “William Butler Yeats: Biographical.” Nobelprize.org. Last Modified July 5, 2016. Accessed online July 5, 2016: [http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1923/yeats-bio.html]

 

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3 responses to “The Irish Paradigm: Charles Brasch and W. B. Yeats

  1. Nice to know that Brasch was such an ardent collector of Yeats. Casanova’s paradigm is misleading on a number of accounts: Cathleen ni Houlihan was largely written by Lady Gregory; Yeats spent as much time outside Ireland as he did in it; centre/margin is a trope from post colonial theory that dates at least to The Empire Writes Back (1989) and has since been significantly nuanced; Joyce’s reasons for choosing Paris for his late work had as much to do with the exigencies of earning a living as they did with the restrictions placed on him by the War.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for your wonderful comment, Peter. I (Iain) also find Casanova’s paradigm troubling. I had thought she was just oversimplifying things, but I see she is also factually incorrect on a number of key points.

      I am pleased to hear that the centre/margin trope is not a complete throw away. I will have to do some more research on the arguments that have developed since ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ and ‘The World Republic of Letters’.

      Thank you again for your comment.

      Like

  2. Pingback: Passing on a Living Collection | Unpacking the Brasch Collection·

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