Aestheticizing The Countrymen: Yeats as a Literary Revivalist

As my research for the paper has expanded and sprawled out in front of and beyond, research for any literary work tends to do, I’ve come across critics and authors who have looked at Yeats and other irish revivalists as contributors to a “debilitating, parasitic Irish cultural discourse.” In order to revive Irish nationalism and ultimately Irish art, the revivalists needs to create an Irish authentic, a quintessential center for  the irish identity. The building up of such a center would spill over and expand into nationalist politics,  the active use of the gaelic language, and irish art: all things that, we could argue, strengthen an Irish identity in the face of English oppression, and the preservation of Irish culture. In what way, then could this process of creating an irish authentic be perceived as “debilitating and parasitic?”

The buiIding of a cultural center requires raw materials, and Yeats, along with Gregory, Hyde, Synge, and many others,  looked to  the irish peasantry for a return to “true ireland.” As discussed in class, nationalism seeking a “true anything” can never exist in the present, but draws heavily on the past in order to create symbols and meaning from prior experience. For their newfound nationalism and literary revival, Yeats and his contemporaries drew upon the countryfolk for Irish symbols and customs that could operate as a kind of cultural synecdoche. Within his article on “The Imaginary Irish Peasant,” Edward Hirsch addresses the process by which the revivalists aestheticized the Irish peasantry so as to turn them into literary objects. This reductive centering of the Irish country people simultaneously homogenized various economic gradients and glorified poverty: as Hirsch notes, the revivalists didn’t seem to care so much about what peasants were, but rather what they represent. Regardless of economic clime, the revivalists sought to create a unified, undifferentiated entity of peasantry: Yeats drew on the peasantry as literary art Cathleen ni Houlihan, while Synge manifested the wandering tramp. Irish country folk, as it turns out, were the hosts of what many critics call “the parasitic Irish cultural discourse.”

2 Replies to “Aestheticizing The Countrymen: Yeats as a Literary Revivalist”

  1. I came across Hirsch’s article as well in my research, and I thought it particularly interesting how he discussed the idea of the peasant’s “otherness” in the eyes of the Anglo-Irish Protestant revivalists – writers like Yeats and Synge. Essentially, because they belonged to a different history and lineage, the revivalists could view the Irish peasantry as others – as Hirsch said, “as pagan and primitive … a romantic emblem of a deep, cultural, pastoral … Irish life.” I agree that the “reductive centering” of the peasantry is problematic – it’s harmful to a people to homogenize and reduce them to an image – but I always have trouble reconciling criticism and critical theory with the nature of art, which often, especially in Yeats creates meaning out of ordinary messy life .

    1. That’s a really interesting reading of the role of the peasantry in Irish Revivalist Literature. I particularly, like Hirsch’s idea of “otherness” as being essential to the romanticization of the Irish country folk. In my essay I did not exactly address Yeats’ fetishization of pastoral life, but I did come across other places where he relies on “otherness,” namely in setting Innisfree and Byzantium as romantic places or states of mind or life.
      In order to romanticize an object, or life style, or memory, etc. a person requires a degree of distance from that object (in my paper this was Innisfree and Byzantium), but I think this applies to pastoral life as well because if Yeats really got close to the people living that life style he would have realized that they are simply people going about their days doing back-breaking, very unromantic work to survive. I don’t think constantly trying to evade starvation is all that romantic. However, by viewing these people as “others” Yeats can create the distance needed to romanticize them. To call this “parasitic” sounds harsh, but it does distract from actual societal issues. But, that said, I can’t imagine that too many people were getting their politics solely from Yeats’ poetry, so maybe “parasitic” is a bit harsh.

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