Yeats, Joyce and Mother Ireland

Essay, 2013

12 Pages, Grade: sans note


James Joyce and William Butler Yeats are two major figures in modern Irish literature. Both are modernist writers who have experienced the transition through revolutions from Ireland as a colony to Ireland as a Free State and finally as a Republic. Their attitude to narrating the nation and the evolution of their style go hand in hand with the societal and political changes. At that time, there was an intense debate on Ireland's subordination, its relationship with England and its mythologies. This study explores the sort of link which exists between the authors' writings, Irish nationality, and nationalism. To what extent can Joyce and Yeats be said to write about the same Ireland while proceeding in a different way? How do they situate themselves in the process of nation-building? Irish nationalism was much debated during the literary revival up until the Post-Free State period. If it is true that it triggered tensions between those who supported it and those who did not, in the case of Joyce who excluded himself from the native tradition by exiling and Yeats who was static in the invention of a tradition, it is more complex. Both share a cultural memory but also possess their own individual memory in which modernism does not mean the same thing. It will be seen that they participate in the culture they criticize while remaining aloof from it and that the material they use to mount this critique is a form of refuge which at the same time is not directed towards the same goal.

After the flight of the earls and the Famine, Irish culture had deteriorated. Consequently, the Irish politics in the Post-Parnell modern culture of the late nineteenth century was transformed in such a way that nationalistic movements associated with folklore, with its origins in Germany, emerged. The need to shake the ancient Gaelic culture out of its lethargy was expressed through the literary revival led by Patrick Pearse and Douglas Hyde. Their aim was to decolonize and de-anglicize the native country. As colonial and post-colonial writers, Yeats and Joyce had in common a national consciousness. For them like for many, there was a type of Irish thinking. As George Berkeley famously wrote: ''We Irish think differently''. Literature came to be a medium to express their Otherness as well as their sense of loss. In fact, their essential similarity lies in their criticism and awareness of the conflict between the overwhelming control of the state and the unlimited freedom of the individual. During the conception of the modern nation, it was believed that these forms of tyranny and anarchy could be alleviated. Certainly, the birth of the Free State was a decisive moment in the development of their artistic freedom. Moreover, the censorship act of 1929, marked by anti-intellectualism, had sparked profound reactions from a large number of Irish writers, including Yeats and Joyce. For instance, works such as “The Countess Cathleeri” and “Dubliners” are similar by essence since they are shaped by Irish literary history and culture. Their literature is a literature of process and renewal. Joyce revised The Sisters and Yeats rewrote A Vision. However, the poet wanted to renew himself in order to be loyal to his art; ''It is myself that I remake'' (1908), but also to his country. At first sight, one may argue that Yeats is more national and that Joyce is more cosmopolitan. In reality, this is not so evident since their position is ambiguous throughout the history of their country. In the post-colonial period, the Catholic Church was seen as too conventional and very influential with its moral and obscurantist teachings. In a sense, it is no surprise that the Irish society which was then protectionist constantly gave them reasons to resort to a social critique. In their rejection of an objective morality, Walter Pater and William Blake had been influential. In 1937, the period during which the Irish constitution was enacted, Yeats wrote: ''I am no Nationalist, except in Ireland for passing reasons''. Similarly, Joyce's view as an exile at Trieste was already ambiguous: ''Ancient Ireland is dead [...] It is well past time for Ireland to have done once and for all with failure.'' (1907, Critical Writings,, pp.173-4) For Ireland to achieve this revitalization she had to become modern, yet later in Ulysses (1922) Joyce did not mean that nationalism was the instrument for such modernization.Instead, his modernity, like Yeats's, was accessible to the universal world afterindependence. In the formation of the modern nation, heteroglossia is an important factor. As Declan Kiberd puts it, ''Irish thinkers turned to Europe [...] for ideas and audiences.'' (161) Indeed, foreign and Irish culture intertwine in the authors' works. Eugene O'Brien notes that Yeats's ''earliest poems in Crossways, are situated in Arcady, ancient Greece'' (118) while James Joyce ''located his narratives of Irish life in the [...] Greek mythology'' (118) The name Stephen Daedalus in Ulysses is an alias indicating a pluralization of the Irish identity which escapes the redundant Ireland/England duality. Fleming writes the following lines on Stephen's geography book:''Stephen Dedalus is my name,Ireland is my nation.

Clongowes is my dwelling place And heaven my expectation.'' (27)

Here, Irishness is asserted but located elsewhere. Stephen is a resident of the universe who is attracted by other cultures. What is shows is that Joyce was wary of the tyranny of uniformity, he desired to redefine Irishness. In Eugene O'Brien's opinion, the writers achieve this by '''transcending Irish issues'' (119) and this is evidenced by their refusal to comply with a narrow vision of nationalism.

An element which links them both as isolated writers is the Irish literary tradition of cyclical history and their experience of violence. Indeed, both sought to appropriate history by rejecting its linear and materialistic view imposed by the imperial state. In "The Second Coming" (1921) which dates back to the War of Independence and the partition, Yeats finds out that in his search for identity the individual is left with disorder because he is lacking a stable centre: ''Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.'' In other words, an Ireland which tolerates only its own nationality and which is too patriotic is in danger of becoming inconsistent.


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Yeats, Joyce and Mother Ireland
University of Rennes 2
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yeats, joyce, ireland, irishliterature
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Kevin Oheix (Author), 2013, Yeats, Joyce and Mother Ireland, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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