Yeats, Violence, and Aesthetic Distance

Miller, Eric, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Luftig, Victor, English (ENGL), University of Virginia

In this thesis, I explore W. B. Yeats’s approach to violence through aesthetic distance by examining several of his poems that address violence while keeping direct depictions of suffering at a distance. These poems situate individuals within broad philosophical, mythological, and historical contexts, creating an appearance of distance from the violence of war and revolution in which these individuals are involved. Poems such as “Easter, 1916” and “The Rose Tree” imagine violence as sacrifice, rejecting immediate suffering, and “On being asked for a War Poem” overtly distances the poet from wartime politics. However, “An Irish Airman foresees his Death” places the speaker inside the cockpit with an Irish pilot, much closer to violence, while still foregrounding the issue of distance through the pilot’s physical altitude and emotional detachment. For Yeats, aesthetic distance provides unique challenges and opportunities. There is a risk that his poems will dismiss some cases of individual suffering as passive. On the other hand, distance produces opportunities to redeem suffering and create meaning for individuals’ actions. The way Yeats values detachment and aesthetic distance from violence in his poems ultimately highlights the importance of individual action in harmony with fate when violence threatens to obscure the individual's significance.

MA (Master of Arts)
W. B. Yeats, violence, poetry, Irish literature
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