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.”

Subjective Nationalism and the Immaterial: In the Shadow of the Glen

As Irish playwrights attempted to revitalize a sense of Irish nationalism through their pastoral plays, readers come to understand that the “true” Ireland is immaterial, and exists either in an archaic rendering of the past or an ultimately politicized future.  As discussed in class, John Synge’s expression of nationalism is one of lament over a thing dead and gone- his nationalism seems to be one of mourning, echoed in the keening of a mother whose sons were taken by the sea. In the artistic momentum of the cultural revival, nationalism expressed both strength and weakness as an intangible and ultimately subjective sensation.

If we look at Nora within “The Shadow of the Glen,” we see the struggle of her nationalism as it searches for a place to settle and express itself.  Nora’s nationalism doesn’t exist in her domestic sphere, constructed by an economic system that ultimately commodifies her- nor does it exist in the idealized rendering of the land presented by the tramp. Though pastoral tradition was the poster child the nationalist movement, and more specifically an Irish cultural revival, Synge brings darker substance to the construction of  “reconnecting with the land”: as Nora leaves behind her husband and her domestic sphere, she understands that she is going resigning to freeze out in the Glen- or worse, perhaps end up as the pandering, toothless woman. For Nora, what could “giving herself to Ireland” really mean? To be contented in a a domestic sphere that limits and objectifies her? Or to die freezing out in the rolling green hills? For poets and political orators, the immaterial nature of nationalism is a strength, because it is constructed of promises or gestures toward tradition, never having to deliver in the realm of the now. For characters like Nora, there is no space she can adequately occupy that will express her love for Ireland.

Real nationalism, then, can only be expressed in terms of subjective sensation. Nora’s nationalism does not exist within the home or without, but in the moment of her choosing. The moment she chooses to return to the land, and pursue some sort of ancient authentic, she is experiencing the True Ireland. But this experience is entirely individual to her, and vanishes after the idealism of her choice has faded. And so there is no objective space in which nationalism exists- true Ireland lies neither ahead nor behind, but in the choices of an individual. It exists in that moment, and as such can be inspired, but not preserved.