The Catholic Bulletin versus William Butler Yeats
Posted by shane
by Helen Hilton,
Irish Political Review; January, 2004
On 27th November 2003 I went to hear Roy Foster speak at the Royal Festival Hall to promote his new book on Yeats. The event took the form of a talk by Mr. Foster and an interview afterwards by Tom Paulin.
I must say that I never heard such trite remarks about Yeats as those made by Mr. Foster. He said that he had attempted what he seemed to think were unique and revolutionary approaches to biography in that he believed life and art were related and he aimed to get behind the other biographies and autobiographies of Yeats. He also sought to clarify his public life, including his para-fascism. Foster was ‘embedding’ Yeats’ poems in their context to show how he renegotiated his relationship with Ireland. Then we were told he was one of the founding fathers of the new State (which would, I believe, come as a big surprise to its actual founders). His political sense was keenly developed, we were told. Moreover, there was great entertainment to be had from ‘the vituperation’ of the Catholic Bulletin concerning Yeats. His stances were responses to the torrent of such vituperation.
Mr. Foster recounted an interview he’d had with Kathleen Raine when researching his book and here one suspected that she considered him an ignoramus about Yeats and ordered him to leave her house—but of course that was not the impression he sought to give in the account he gave of their meeting. I would agree with her after listening to Mr. Foster for a couple of hours. His whole approach was very disappointing and never rose above a gossipy, anecdotal approach that made his subject more and more meaningless and uninteresting.
For example, there was no attempt to put Yeats in the context of the poets and poetry of his era—Eliot, Pound etc.
Mr. Paulin tried to make the subject interesting. He began by asking Mr. Foster to give details of some of the revelations Yeats received from the many mediums he engaged. Mr. Foster was very reticent to reply to the question. He seemed to realise that, if he did so in any detail, Yeats would come across as a eccentric, to say the least. Then Paulin wanted to talk about Yeats’ views of Northern Irish Protestants: these he hated with a vengeance, adopting a total partitionist stance to ensure he never had anything to do with the ‘horrid lot who would spoil our tempers’. Again, Foster would not engage, though Paulin repeatedly attempted to provoke him, for instance by saying that Yeats’s visions often reminded him of Paisley’s sermons. Furthermore, he reckoned some of Yeats work had ‘the swagger of an Orange band’. Foster was non-plussed. Paulin was clearly interested in talking about the varieties of Protestants in Ireland and why they were so varied—and maybe how Catholic some of them were. After all, he reminded Foster, Yeats repeatedly referred to Purgatory and ‘we don’t believe in that, Roy, do we?’ Foster could only explain that it was some pre-Celtic notion that Yeats had and he was not sure of the theology. It was obvious that it was not the theology Paulin was interested in. He wanted to discuss the relationships and beliefs of different Protestant tendencies in Ireland and how they related to each other and to Catholics. This could have been very interesting and a Yeatsian scholar should have jumped at the opportunity. But the subject died a death despite Paulin’s best efforts. I think Mr. Foster’s shallowness was cruelly exposed and he was quickly back to getting a cheap snigger or two from the audience at Yeats’s expense. His sexual foibles seem to be a great old reliable in these circumstances and Foster made full use of them.
The overall impression was that Foster had reduced Yeats—with his mysticism, occultism, sexual fantasia, fascism, eugenics and many more weird and wonderful preoccupations—to a totally bizarre figure who could inspire no respect, either as a public or private figure. It seems to me that such a man would generate vituperation in any democratic society as naturally as he walked.
Yeats could not come to terms with the Democracy of the 20th century. This was vulgar and debasing and he did all he could to save himself from it and escape from it—hence his varied preoccupations.The situation in any country in the Western world of his time would have engendered such attitudes in him, regardless of where he lived. This is the substance of him and to explain him it is necessary for any biographer to make a valid assessment of his attitude to Democracy.
There is a valid critique of Democracy and, even if Yeats did not make it, it behoves a writer who is lauded as his definitive biographer to attempt to make it and so allow Yeats’s behaviour to be properly assessed. It seemed to me that Foster does not try, or even seem to realise that such an approach is necessary. In the absence of this Yeats is a pathetic public figure and Mr. Foster’s big book will only confirm this.
Essentially, Mr. Foster blames the democracy for making Yeats what he was and places the Catholic Bulletin at the cutting edge of this. As this journal therefore seems the most significant context for judging Yeats, according to Foster, I had a look at it. It comes across as a self-confident analytical expression of the new Irish democracy and was, for example, a consistently anti-fascist journal. No wonder there was vituperation between it and Yeats, but this publication was on the right side in this crucial issue of the day.
It seems not in the least surprising that Yeats, the Anglo-Irish and the Free Staters took to fascism. They were fascists before fascism was invented as far as the Bulletin was concerned and whatever political nastiness was about they could be relied on always to take to it like ducks to water.
It seems to me that Mr. Foster is engaged in a totally futile exercise in that he is seeking to have the democracy judged and condemned by the attitudes and norms of someone who lived in it but despised it. To succeed, the democracy would have had to come to hate itself. This is never likely to happen—though not impossible. Yeats certainly did not succeed in doing so with the Irish democracy of his day. Although from what I have come across he might be successful in Ireland today.
Yeats will, and should, be remembered for the poetry that the democracy he detested, liked, and I would suggest that the less said about what else went on in his head the better. As far as I can judge, several more large books could be filled with his nonsense. At the end of the day he will be remembered for nothing else but this poetry. I think this gets completely lost with Mr. Foster. Yeats should be saved from Mr. Foster.
Posted on June 25, 2011, in Catholic Bulletin, Catholic Social Teaching, English Literature, International Ethics, Irish Church-State Relations, Irish History, Media Archives, Poetry, WW2. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.