Is Yeats too English?

The Arthurian language in “The Fisherman” threw me off a little. Medieval chivalry, Arthurian legend, and the dueling tradition of calling someone out as “knave” and “craven” is about as English as it gets. When W.B. Yeats uses English mythology to write poems about his ideal image for Ireland, we can’t help but think that he must be joking. “The craven man in his seat, / the insolent unreproved, / and no knave brought to book” he writes, in mockery of the Irish middle class. Knowing his attitude toward the bourgeois, we can only read the mockery as sincere. But it is the usage of Arthurian language in the first place that is ironic. I realized that medieval language is only highly suggestive of medieval Anglo traditions, not necessarily Arthurian England in particular. However, the language still suggests the chivalry and dueling tradition within Anglicized Europe. In using words that sound Arthurian as the most Irish of Irish figures, he underscores a core paradox of Irish cultural nationalism, that all of the poems, plays and songs, in order to be digestible by a gentrified audience, must be in English. The whole project of resurrecting and preserving an Irish national spirit with English tools is fundamentally paradoxical.

One Reply to “Is Yeats too English?”

  1. There is a quote by Chinua Achebe, which I cannot currently find, but that paraphrased is: “It is because of my oppressors that I must write stories about my home in their language, and not that of my home.” He goes on to make the argument that it is the content of the story, not the trappings of language and style that make the story what it is. Yeats may have been influenced -heavily- by British writers he’d been exposed to as a child (as was Achebe) but it did not necessarily diminish his motive or his message.

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