W. B. Yeats’s Rebellion against British English and its Lesson to India




It is wrong to suggest a clear division between the earlier ‘bad’ Yeats and the later ‘good’ Yeats; he himself perceived no such division: “I do not remember any development with that precision”.1 If divisions are to be made, the whole of Yeats’s career would be filled with criss-cross lines; he was perpetually learning and renewing himself. The grand fact is the self-consistency both in ‘error’ and ‘choice.’ The whole of Yeats’s earlier achievement needs a reassessment, although Eliot’s compliment, ‘by no means the least of the pre-Raphaelites’ has done much to encourage a respectful attitude. But both the compliment and the attitude have not done sufficient justice to the world-view that motivated Yeats’s poetry. Eliot’s compliment on Yeats’s success in the Poetic Drama has a topical literary context whereas Yeats’s motives were derived from a wider life-context. To recreate that unified sensibility in which arts and professions become one, feeling and thought become one, and literature becomes at once distinguished and ‘popular’–such was his aim. He believed that to recreate that Ireland in which Raftery’s song could provoke a young man to die in the bog of Cloone was his artistic aim. The word ‘Art’ today suffers from a heuristic limitation,–art as the exclusive creation of the artist, and therefore that wider situation, which fascinated Yeats, in which the aristocracy is Magian and peasantry imaginative, and both partake a set of beliefs out of which the artist, the craftsman, and the play-wright, shape the mighty anonymous artefacts which do not belong to them alone; which become religion and fairy-tale under their very nose, strengthened by the collective imagination thus, as poetry there would be nothing original but everything passionate; this was a new approach both to art and nationhood. In order to get rid of narrow grooves of present day critical jargon we will have to indicate Yeats’s position, with reservations, thus: Yeats stood for arts’ autonomy, but not individualist art; he believed in a human purpose of art, but not a socialist purpose. He believed in popular art which did not mean ‘common man’s art’; he believed in obscurity which both peasants and learned men could understand. This becomes necessary because at the bottom Yeats demanded a milieu which popular education and newspapers have destroyed. He condemned the semi-educated; among them he included professors. These apparent contradictions should be recognised against the background of the yearning for a new milieu. Scholars knew that in ancient Greece it was so. So much the worse for them that they never thought that any one could ever have made an attempt to revive this view of life in the modern context. Even such a perceptive critic as Peter Ure tries to create an invidious distinction between Yeats’s ideals by suggesting that Yeats was not averse to popular objective drama, but for himself, he wanted drama to be unpopular, a secret society, the Theatre’s antiself. 2 In Yeatsian parlance both “popular” and “unpopular” are words of the same semantic content, the first word used in the days of his optimism, the second word in his “tragic” days. Yeats’s artistic practice was an attempt on life–and if we have to use two words ‘art’ and ‘life’ in this sentence, that is because we live in a climate in which the word ‘art’ has a cooked-up abstractionist meaning about it. Unless we transcend this heuristic limitation, we will not succeed in assessing the world context of Yeats’s effort. It is interesting to note that according to Yeatsian statistics the number of people who understand poetry in illiterate Ireland is about ten thousand; in all the other English-speaking nations of the world put together, there could just be about the same number of people who read poetry! And dare anyone refute this?


The literary critic, strictly speaking the historian, stops, short at the assessment of the situation without engagement. Thanks to the ‘Critic as judge’ theory, a barren period of a fertile period gets an equally disinterested praise or blame from him, since that is the utmost he can do. So too does, a mediocre ‘good’ poet. But a poet who would create a new way of life, thought and art, needs respectful attention beyond the scholarly caution and moderation when he makes an assessment of his time. It is likely that he knows it better because he has seen it as a personal problem affecting his creativity in a day-to-day experience. Especially so when he writes in an alien tongue, which though he has spoken since his birth, has a certain normative pressure emanating from an alien society, which leads a different kind of life. In such a case, the engagement becomes two-fold; he has to assert his loyalty to his national culture,–since his mainspring of inspiration is from that,–and yet has a hypercritical audience outside the nation; and within the nation too, because the scholarly readership with its traditions of conservatism usually has accepted the normative pressure from outside and thereby strait-jacketed its criteria of judgment. This slavish readership is the most vocal and unless the poet has set convictions,–‘fanaticism’ as Yeats himself described it, he is likely to succumb to these alien norms. If he does, possibly he may succeed as a poet, but he is doomed as a national poet. With alien norms the nation can not voice itself.


It is a great problem. It is significant that so few English-speaking countries (with the exception of America, for many reasons, and Ireland, thanks to Yeats) have contributed authors to English literature important enough to be part of its central tradition. It is absurd to suggest lack of talent in these countries. On the contrary, normative pressure in the form of Good English texts and British Councils have done enough harm by imposing ever-shifting contemporary norms on people for whom English is only an acquired tongue, result of which fact has been dismemberment of talent, wrong evaluation (India is known outside by some of its worst writers only because of their ‘Good English’) and inferiority complex. The strange spectacle of Indian writers studying British slang (for whose edification no one knows) and making a career by it; Stephen Deduaulus (James Joyce) feeling inferior for having used a word like ‘Tundish’ used by his own forefathers, only because an Englishman smiles at it; and a perceptive stylist like Conrad being branded a foreigner for ever.


Now it could be said that English as a respectability is subjected to normative pressure even inside Britain;–witness the Good English classes there!–It is also possible to say that some kind of normative pressure becomes necessary to hold a language together from disintegration, and a chaos of dialects. But even admitting this, one must insist, as Yeats did, that when the norms themselves are wrong, or incapable of voicing a national culture and varied sensibility, or incapable of withholding the flowering of genius, or exercising an inhibitive influence over certain valuable emotional receptivities, or more, curtailing the possibilities of the language as a whole by alienating it from its previous cultivation, etc., the only way out is to protest and to recreate. Yeats fought the battle of the whole English-speaking world (including Britain): but won a victory for his own nation. The other victories,–(in the form, for instance, of India saying that Tagore is its best English poet; of England admitting it); are yet to be won. Some time ago, a British professor wrote an article in a magazine meant for teachers in English-teaching countries like India, the title of which was “English as a Behaviour Pattern.” God forbid that English language–whose destiny, it seems, is to become a medium of International communication–should dig its own grave by the parochial advocacy of such Legislators of the Oxford Hump!


Yeats’s estimate was that these norms were wrong; these norms were the illegitimate children of the Renaissance and the Reformation. The Renaissance, although it threw up a Merry England at its best, reached a gyrative extreme of subjectivism only to vanish in the dust and smoke of a Puritanical sensibility. Renaissance had its own murderer accompanying it,–the alien Italianate influence. Even before that, Chaucer’s mediaeval architectural design had no mediaeval imagination about it,–being under the Neo-French influence; because his pilgrims to Canterbury remain pilgrims to the end, not mythical figures. The day of Roland was over. First came a mixing of cultures. Then came Puritanism which created the Middle Classes. Their cautious, obsequious, polite business ways brought in a new timid, ‘correct’ impassive style. The dying Merry England sang its swansong of exuberant wealth, delight in language, delight in similis and metaphors, for their own sake, a language that could receive the rant of exuberant personalities like Lear and Richard the Second; it could receive the extravagant fancy of Donne, the aristocratic laziness of Spenser’s verse. No such rant or exuberance could stand without ridicule in the new generation. (Yeats’s estimate is correct because, though he does not mention Dryden, it is clear that for the same reason, all Dryden’s rant persistently suffers from anticlimax). In other words, the Dissociation of Sensibility had been complete. Locke and Newton set the final seal on this divergence of Emotion and Intellect.


The remarkable agreement of Yeats’s estimate with that of Eliot is evidenced in the following passage: “Here and there, in Blake, in Keats, in Blunt, in Browning,…there is a deep masculine resonance that comes, I think, from a perfect accord between intellect and blood lacking elsewhere since the death of Cowley”. And Eliot accepts Cowley as the last metaphysical. Yeats traces it to Chaucer himself, interested as he was in Mind, and engaged in the pain of the defeat of Celticism. Cromwell appears to him not as a tyrant invader, but much worse, the Puritan Demagogue. The second generation of puritanical middle classes embraced Locke and Hobbes and bred the generation that embraced Mill’s Utilitarianism. As this dry unmythical timid religio-rational mind grew, things began to exist less for themselves, than for their uses; and commercial competence, unambiguity, brevity, lack of embellishment, lack of eloquence, lack of music, these began to become the ideals.


Such an English certainly can not be a language of self-expression, if one’s self has some value of its own, apart from its utility to others. A delight and a value in oneself, a delight in one’s tools, a delight in the audience that meets the poet halfway by its responsiveness, a delight in the myth, belief and thought that unifies the poet to his audience, these were some ideals Yeats had in mind. Only in such a milieu, Homeric song becomes possible. If Maud Gonne was less than Helen, Ireland less than Troy (or Greece, it does not matter), Yeats too had to be less than Homer, and chose to write fragments only. 3


It was a stroke of genius to have rejected so many heuristic restrictions. But probably the inherited Anglophobia helped him. To have declared at the outset that his ambition was to be counted among Davis and Mangan 4 and not among Tennyson and Browning was not merely an act of patriotism. It was the declaration of preferance for a species of poetry,–or more strictly, a species of poetic sensibility in which both the creator and the audience meet. Whether Davis and Mangan were good practitioners of poetry is another question. Yeats would prefer bad practitioners in his own genre than practitioners found good by merely English standards. It is not an accident that his “Oxford Book of Modern Verse” is considered an eccentric collection.5 The generous praise of some of his poet-friends appears bewildering. This does not mean that Yeats was insensitive to the achievement of modern poets. He even hopes to have anticipated this kind of poetry in the “Eighties”.6 His evaluation of T. S. Eliot or Ezra Pound appears wildly contradictory for exactly the same reason. In some of his letters, he denounces some modern poets as clever journalists. In his public pronouncements, not only is he tolerant but complimentary. This can not be dismissed as hypocrisy. The praise of Ezra Pound in his prefatory remarks to his “A Vision” is remarkable. It is a challenge to Pound’s subconscious mind which dictated to him a poem like “The Return”7 which clearly is the announcement of the return of sages in God’s holy fire!–Could there be anything more obstinate than that?–So too, after praising poets like T. S. Eliot,–for whose suffering he showed full sympathy, and after praising them for their return to philosophy, Yeats declares his preference for Oliver Gogarty. 8 And there is a meaning in this preference. It is perfectly legitimate to appreciate the excellence of poets within a certain genre yet decry the whole genre. In the genre of one’s own preference, it is possible, there are at present not very able practitioners. Nevertheless they deserve praise,–not for being as meritorious as poets of the other genre, but for representing a rare species. Gogarty certainly is a good poet. Yet the special place he has in Yeats’s preferential scheme is because while trying to escape the assassins he jumped into a river and promised the river two swans if he could escape! “That story shows the man,–scholar, wit, poet, gay adventurer”. 9 To separate the man from the poetry, to separate his voice, his gesture, his person from his poetry, has been the very basis of morphological objective ideals in criticism. Yeats questions those ideals themselves. For all we know, he may be right and the practice of four centuries may be wrong. If this is not wrong, it certainly is wrong to believe that the poetic practice in Great Britain for three centuries of history has laid down principles to judge poetry of all kinds in all climes, merely because it is written in English. Far from that; it has yet to set its own house in order; it has alienated itself from sensibilities created in its own cultivation.


Thus, the language of prose used by Yeats is English certainly, but with a different emphasis. It is not the tight competent stiff formal impersonal English of Good English classes. It is an English that derives from the whole cultivation to which English was subjected. It is interesting to see what Yeats felt he saw in English spoken by Irish peasants. He says, Synge heard in the Aran island, “the beautiful English which has grown up in Irish-speaking districts, and takes its vocabulary from the time of Malory, and of the translators of the Bible, but its idioms and its vivid metaphor from Irish”.10 The English linguists, till now, have posed the phenomenon of the wearing-out of words (which become cliches and die out) as a sign of health; it is possible that such easy wearing-out is a sign of Anaemia, of both language and life. George Eliot, in her Silas Marner, refers to the habit of preferring the word ‘handle’ to ‘haft’, a much more poetic word. Mary Ann in Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge learns to prefer the phrase “to have indigestion” to the one she knew earlier “to be hag-ridden”. Words do not always die because of their wearing-out. They die because attitudes change. Since Yeats’s attitudes were different, he preferred a vocabulary known to the translators of the Bible; more than that, as a result of what Yeats called the growth of Abstraction and what T. S. Eliot called the Dissociation of Sensibility, that wealth of simile, metaphor, gesture, rhyme, pun, alliteration, which used to delight the Elizabethan audience died out,–because they could not evoke any response. They appeared superfluous to the earnest Puritan, the moneyminded merchant, the thrifty middle-class. Even life was utilitarian, and Yeats laughs at the besetting utilitarianism that made men fall in love so that they may get children.


Thus the language Yeats used was not any special English. It is futile to search for his Irishisms. It is worse to question whether they truly represent the English spoken by Irish people. English, though in contemporaneous use, tends to dismember itself and to impose a partial cultivation, has immense latent possibilities. It needs only a courageous genius to use the language or vocabulary of the Bible or Burton or Shakespeare, and to withstand the normative pressure.


The price one has to pay for such convictions is to speak “a barbarous tongue”.11 Yeats’s barbarous tongue includes apart from a language of parable, words of strange semantic content, strange syntax. Whether one calls these Irishisms or not, they have to be contended with, because apart from the value of the thought, they are an experiment in the use of English itself.


1 Wade. Letters, p. 592

2 Ure. T. M., p. 98-99.

3 Autos, p. 165.

4 C. P., p.57. To Ireland in the Coming Times.

5 The Contemporary reaction to this book was one of shock and he anticipated it.

6 Wade-Letter’s, p. 593.

7 A Vision, P.29

8 Read “Modern Poetry”. Essays & Intros., p. 491-508

9 Essays & Intros., p. 597

10 Essays, pp. 370-71.

11 C. P., p. 137. Two Years Later.