Ethics matter

It was his unwavering devotion to his craft that won Yeats a place in literary immortality. As a man, however, his legacy is far less unequivocal.

Published : Feb 06, 2013 00:00 IST

W.B. Yeats. Photographed on July 15, 1911.

W.B. Yeats. Photographed on July 15, 1911.

MOST Indians come to W.B. Yeats through Tagore. Even before they know “The Second Coming” or “Sailing to Byzantium” or any other of his famous poems, they learn about the enthusiastic endorsement he wrote by way of an introduction to the English translation of Gitanjali . I, on the other hand, came to Tagore through Yeats. It was Yeats whom I first read as an undergraduate in the United States in the 1990s, and it was while learning about him that Tagore ceased to be a mere name for me.

Such was the impact of Yeats’s poetry that I kept my first copy of his Selected Poems for years, treasuring it as the devout might a favourite holy book. After a couple of years, its pages began to fall out and a friend suggested I get another copy. For me the very notion was unthinkable. That book was much more than just another crumbling tome. It was the living manifestation of the first time any letters blew my mind.

What is it that attracted me to a poet from such a different time and culture? What is it that reaches across the years and continents to conjoin us to the other? It can only be something that we share with it, in spite of the difference. There are, of course, the obvious historic similarities between India and Ireland. Ireland, like India, was a British colony that was partitioned at the time of independence, leading to a bloody civil war. Yeats’s lines, depicting the tragedy of those tumultuous years, can easily be transposed to India in the same period. When, for instance in “Easter 1916”, a poem eulogising the Irish revolutionaries killed during the Easter 1916 uprising against British rule, he writes “a terrible beauty is born”, he could be talking about Bhagat Singh and his comrades whose violent death was just as terrible and yet, at the same time, beautiful because of the selflessness with which they made the ultimate sacrifice for a cause they held dear.

As a twenty-something, however, I devoured Yeats’s romantic poetry that was written in the 1890s, a part of his canon that came to be known as the Celtic Twilight. As the British critic Terry Eagleton has said, this was a time when all of Ireland had not “leapt at a bound from tradition to modernity”. Hence, there was an uneasy, even antagonistic, relationship between the archaic and the modern. The situation was no different in the India where I grew up in the 1980s. Certainly there was a marked similarity in the way both societies approached love.

As an Anglo-Irish Protestant, Yeats, of course, was only touched tangentially by the staunch Catholicism of most of his fellow Irish people. But he could not escape the repressive Victorian mores of the times. When you read his poetry from the Celtic Twilight years, you are immediately struck by how dreamlike it is in its depiction of love. Some of that, undoubtedly, emanates from the state of his love life. This was a time when he was most obsessed with the love of his life, Maud Gonne, and tortured by her resolute refusal to return his feelings. (She never accepted him as a suitor.) Yet the poetry also mirrors the way love exists for most people in a repressed society, which is what India was in the 1980s, and, for most Indians anyway, remains to this day. Given our multiple taboos, the vast majority of us can only dream about love in the same way people did in the Ireland of Yeats’s youth. Hence, love exists merely in the realm of fantasy. How snugly would the sentiment manifest in these lines from Yeats’s poem “He Wishes For The Cloths Of Heaven” fit in a dreamy Bollywood song.

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,

Enwrought with golden and silver light,

The blue and the dim and the dark cloths

Of night and light and the half-light,

I would spread the cloths under your feet:

But I, being poor, have only my dreams;

I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

The seeds for the nature of Yeats’s fascination with Indian culture were also laid during this early romantic period. He met Mohini Chatterjee when the theosophist visited Dublin in 1885 and was deeply affected by the meeting. In 1929, he would speak of the impact Mohini Chatterjee made on him in a poem of the same name. I believe, however, that the fact that India represented the exotic and the spiritual for Yeats had as much to do with the romantic tradition in which most of his early work lies.

The romantics tend to be critical of the industrial revolution. They abhor the desire to exploit the earth and its resources for material gain, while upholding a simpler, pre-industrial state where humans exist in greater harmony with nature. Consequently, their attraction to non-Western cultures such as India, all of which were pre-industrial in the nineteenth century, is predicated by the fact that their ways of life predate the industrial age. The more strikingly different the way of life from the materialism imposed by the industrial revolution, the greater its appeal. As Yeats himself once said, he was most drawn to India when it was removed from the West. For us in India today, that might appear an archaic, if not demeaning, position. In the Victorian age, however, it was the most humane a Western view of India was going to get. Especially when you consider that its popular counterpoint was the racist, imperialist stance articulated by Rudyard Kipling in his poem “The White Man’s Burden”.

Therefore, it is not surprising that Yeats was taken with Tagore when he met him in 1912. With his flowing beard and robes, Tagore looked every inch a mystic. Then there was Gitanjali with its intrinsic spirituality and veneration of nature. Given that Tagore was an unknown in London publishing circles, it is inconceivable that it would have been published without Yeats’s intervention. Furthermore, Yeats’s pre-eminence as the leading poet writing in English at the time ensured that it received the necessary attention after it came out. The rest is history.

The first writer from a culture to achieve global fame is doubly influential. Not only does this writer place that culture on the literary map, but he or she, inadvertently, establishes the way that culture is viewed by the rest of the world’s reading public. Thanks to Tagore, India became exotic and spiritual for the world’s readers, and remained that way right through the twentieth century. A good part of that incarnation persists to this day. As an Indian writer, I often feel hamstrung by it. Surely we have much more to offer the world than the exotic. I once aired this frustration to a Latin American writer I met in Britain. He laughed and said, “We feel the same way about Marquez. After him everyone wants us to write magical realism.”

Since he was instrumental in helping Tagore gain worldwide fame, Yeats probably felt some kind of proprietary right over him. That is the only way I can explain his later disillusionment with Tagore when the latter took his literary career in directions Yeats found disagreeable. His entreaty to Tagore to cast off English sounds disingenuous. If it were not for the English translations of his poems, Tagore would be unknown outside Bengal. Furthermore, the very act smacks of hypocrisy, given that Yeats dissuaded those intent on making Gaelic the literary language of Ireland, arguing, instead, for a national literature in English. It is obvious to me that the argument was self-serving, stemming from the fact that Yeats himself wrote in English.

He exhibited a similar hypocrisy while accepting a Civil List pension from the British government in 1913, despite casting himself as an Irish nationalist. He did refuse a knighthood in 1915, but not before seriously considering taking it up. Such revelations led me to question Yeats as a person. That process was accelerated once I considered the nature of the elitism manifest in his later poems.

In an essay entitled “The Public v the Late Mr William Butler Yeats”, published a few months after Yeats died on January 28, 1939, the British poet W.H. Auden uses the form of a trial transcript to accuse Yeats of being feudal: “He was prepared to admire the poor just as long as they remained poor and deferential, accepting without protest the burden of maintaining a little Athenian band of literary landowners, who without their toil could not have lasted for five minutes.” This accusation of Auden’s is hard to refute when you consider Yeats’s damning view of Ireland’s rising social classes in a poem like “September 1913”:

What need you, being come to sense,

But fumble in a greasy till

And add the halfpence to the pence

And prayer to shivering prayer, until

You have dried the marrow from the bone:

For men were born to pray and save:

Romantic Ireland is dead and gone…

Lines such as these mirror how pained, if not outraged, Yeats was by the rise of these classes in Ireland and the loosening hold of the Protestant Ascendancy, from which he came, on Irish life. In one of his last poems, “Under Ben Bulben”, he sounds downright bitter when he extols Irish poets:

…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.

Sing the peasantry, and then

Hard-riding country gentlemen…

Even more disturbing is his flirtation with the Irish Blueshirts, a fascist organisation built on the lines of Hitler’s Brownshirts and Mussolini’s Blackshirts, in the 1930s. It is no secret that, spurred by the declining power of the Protestant Ascendancy in his native Ireland, he became an avowed conservative in later life. Like others of his ilk, he would have seen the rise of socialism in Europe after the First World War as a dangerous threat to the old, established order whose ways he championed in his later works. That would have made fascism, with its hatred of socialism, appear extremely attractive. Although his association with the Blueshirts was short-lived, he did compose three marching songs for them. In his influential 1965 essay “Passion and Cunning: An Essay on the Politics of W.B. Yeats”, the Irish politician, writer and academic Conor Cruise O’Brien presents compelling evidence, drawn from Yeats’s poems, letters and speeches as an Irish senator, to suggest that Yeats turned away from fascism because he felt it could not prevail in Ireland, rather than from any change of heart.

Learning about this side of Yeats alerted me to the fallacy of placing writers on a pedestal. There are no heroes in literature, just men and women with a keen imagination and a deep sense of what constitutes the human condition. Beyond that, they can be as paradoxical as anyone.

Yet, despite all that, Yeats remains the consummate writer’s writer. He is iconic for his poetry, though he also wrote a considerable amount of prose, drama and autobiography. Through the arc of his career he disproves two widely held misconceptions about art. That we are most creative when we are young, and that writing is all about spontaneity and inspiration.

If Yeats had died at forty in 1905, he would have remained a mere footnote in literary history, known only for a handful of poems. Much of his iconic work appeared in his fifties and sixties. He wrote his most famous line—“Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold”—in “The Second Coming”, which came out in 1921 when he was 56. His most influential volume of poetry, The Tower , was first published in 1928 when he was 63. His imagination retained its vitality right until his death in 1939. In some of his most compelling poems, he portrays the absurd dichotomy between a heart that preserves its youthful vigour and a body slipping into decay.

Furthermore, in his creative process, Yeats embodies Thomas Edison’s maxim “Genius is one per cent inspiration, ninety-nine per cent perspiration”. The great poems did not pour out of him but were arrived at after much labour. To that end, his dedication to his craft was unparalleled. He wrote countless drafts before he was satisfied and continued to revise poems even after they were published. He kept voluminous notebooks, conserving thoughts and images, sometimes for years, before actually using them. His span of reading was formidable, encompassing the arcane as much as the fashionable. He was composing poetry even on his deathbed. In one of his last poems, “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”, he is a frustrated poet unable to find a theme to write about. While agonising over the lack of a theme, he realises the ladder to creative heaven begins not in the mind but the heart. The poem ends with the lines “I must lie down where all the ladders start/In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart”. Far from sounding a note of resignation, these lines embody unswerving intent. And remember such a declaration emanates from a man staring death in the face. If there ever was a writer that died with his boots on, it is he.

It is this unwavering devotion to his craft that won Yeats a place in literary immortality. I use the word craft deliberately. For Yeats was one of literature’s craftsmen, someone who toiled long and hard to hammer his verse into forms and shapes that could live outside time. In terms of his discipline and commitment, he is a great example for anyone to follow in the world of letters. As a man, however, his legacy is far less unequivocal. Was he more cunning than passionate, as O’Brien implies in his essay, the kind of man who would do anything to end on the winning side? Or was it the passionate side that came to the fore? I cannot really say. If his cunning is in evidence in how he dealt with the fascists, then his initial advocacy of Tagore can only be seen as an act of passion. Does the man even matter, some might ask. After all, Yeats is remembered today because of his work. So why should we not concentrate solely on that and forget about the man?

When the American director Elia Kazan was awarded the Oscar for Lifetime Achievement in 1999, only half the auditorium rose and applauded. The other half sat in silence, believing, notwithstanding his work, Kazan did not deserve the award because he cooperated with the anti-communist Senator Joseph McCarthy and his minions in the 1950s, selling out his comrades from his days as a communist in order to save his career. The man does matter.

What would I do if I were in attendance to a similar honour being bestowed on W.B. Yeats? Would I rise? Probably. Would I applaud? Probably not.

Vikram Kapur is an award-winning novelist and short story writer. His website is


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