W.B. Yeats and the modern political poem

Stanford, Michael Kent, Department of English, University of Virginia
Hirsch, Eric, Cu-Curr Instr & Sp Ed, University of Virginia

This dissertation studies the political poetry of Yeats, and then considers it in relation to the work of two later poets, W. H. Auden and Robert Lowell.

Yeats was a deeply political writer, who felt himself frequently pulled in the direction of polemical statement. Yet his Romantic theory of literature distinguished sharply between poetry and "rhetoric" in the sense of persuasive speech. Much of the drama of a poem like "Easter 1916" arises from the struggle between Yeats's rhetorical and aesthetic impulses.

On the level of ideology, too, Yeats's political poetry is the scene of considerable conflict. In certain moods the poet was deeply attracted to the conservative vision of Edmund Burke; in others he was drawn toward the radical thought of Nietzsche. His stridently Nietzschean poems of the late thirties deliberately set out to subvert or refute the testimony of his earlier Burkean poems.

Personal and political concerns get tortuously tangled in Yeats's work. Thus, for instance, a number of his poems work out an implicit analogy between his frustrated love for Maud Gonne and Ireland's frustrated desire for freedom. Similarly, Yeats's late writings on eugenics are haunted by his failure to found a family with Maud.

W. H. Auden detested Yeats's politics and mistrusted the grandiosity of his poetic voice. Yet he envied Yeats's ability to assume the role of laureate, speaking for a community and helping construct its ideals. Auden's own impulses to laureateship were frustrated by his unsleeping sense of irony.

Robert Lowell shares Yeats's preference for aristocratic over bourgeois values, though he recasts this preference in distinctly American terms. "For the Union Dead" is Lowell's "September 1913,” a poem about the moral nullity of middle-class life. Lowell also shares with Yeats a worry over his own propensity to "rhetoric." Many of his poems meditate the likeness of poets and tyrants, and attempt to tally up the human cost of art.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Yeats, W. B. -- (William Butler) -- 1865-1939 -- Political and social views, Yeats, W. B. -- (William Butler) -- 1865-1939 --Influence -- Auden, Yeats, W. B. -- (William Butler) -- 1865-1939 --Influence -- Lowell, Auden, W. H. -- (Wystan Hugh) -- 1907-1973, Lowell, Robert - 1917-1977
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