Yeats’s quest for an idiom


In the minds of Irish-nationalist men of letters, around the end of the nineteenth century and the earlier years of the twentieth, there existed a special affinity between Ireland and Ancient Greece. There might even be a shared mission. According to Patrick Pearse, who headed the Easter Rising in 1916, “what the Greek was to the ancient world the Gael will be to the modern”. Above all, though, the sense of affinity rested on the perceived kinship between traditions of heroic poetry and myth. For the historian Standish O’Grady, the Irish heroic age surpassed even the Homeric. Equations of figures from the two traditions were common. In 1906, W. B. Yeats glossed the characters of his play Deirdre: “Deirdre was the Irish Helen, and Naoise her Paris, and Conchubar her Menelaus”. Yeats’s own understanding of the affinity went wider and deeper; it was also unusually long-lasting. As late as 1939, he saw the world of Phidias and Pythagoras as, ultimately, “ours”: “We Irish, born into that ancient sect” (“The Statues”). For Yeats, the affinity subsumes aristocratic morality, as well as cultural tradition and oral creativity: a shared heritage of “custom” and “ceremony”, “images and memories”, “traditional sanctity and loveliness”; a creative heritage of music and poetry (“story-tellers . . . of Homer’s lineage”) and audiences responsive to “the book of the people”. Yet at bottom, for Yeats too, myth, with its imaginative depths and its heroic actors, is at the heart of the presumed affinity, and he can even talk as if his career were premissed on it: “we Irish poets . . . reject any folk art that does not go back to Olympus”.

more from Michael Silk at the TLS here.