- Primitivism, Science, and the Irish Revival
In his final years, W. B. Yeats defiantly described himself as one of the "last romantics." He claimed that "alone in modern times" he and his fellow Abbey Theatre playwrights J. M. Synge and Lady Gregory had drawn "all that we said or sang" from "contact with the soil" and from their "[d]ream of the noble and the beggar-man."1 While the impact of class, religious affiliation, gender, and proficiency in the Irish language have all been considered as significant factors shaping the ways Irish Revival writers recruited folklore and the figure of the peasant to promote their competing conceptions of "authentic" Irishness, Sinéad Garrigan Mattar's book is the first extended study to attend to the impact of late nineteenth-century developments in comparative anthropology as an influence on major figures of the movement.
Focusing on the work of Yeats, Synge and Lady Gregory to 1909, Mattar argues that their folklore gatherings and representations of Irish peasant culture have consistently been misread as predominantly informed by unreconstructed early-nineteenth century Romantic notions of the primitive. The image of the "noble savage" was indeed alluring to all three writers, and each conceived of an Edenic golden age and its surviving traces in rural Ireland as to some extent a potential antidote to what Yeats termed the "filthy modern tide" of contemporary life.2 But as Mattar emphasizes, Yeats and Synge were by 1900 well read in recent developments in anthropology. They were thus obliged to reassess both their own idealizing impulses, and the core assumptions of Romantic Celticism generally, in the light of scholarship that insisted on rigorous documentation of source materials, comprehensive historical knowledge, and, most of all, an objective and stringently comparative view of individual cultural practices. The work of Lang, Frazer and others prevented them from slipping into an easy reduplication of the idealized views of nationhood and the discourse of crude racial typographies that had marked most prior approaches to Irish folklore. It was thus a key influence on their evolving conceptions of Irish nationality. Their broader efforts to come to terms with comparative science, Mattar suggests, also place them as important transitional figures anticipating the modernist primitivism of Joyce, T. S. Eliot and others. In her reading, Yeats and Synge are positioned as what she wryly terms the "missing link" (1), functioning as "last romantics" obliged by their encounters with comparative anthropology to evolve into the "first modernists" (247).
Mattar begins by tracing the rise of Celticism as a discipline, highlighting the emerging strains in the nineteenth century between the scholarly (or "critical") approach to Irish folklore and legend, and the Romantic (and typically patriotic) mode prevalent amongst Irish writers and artists. Already marked in Matthew Arnold's influential but conflicted 1860s lectures On the Study of Celtic Literature, these strains intensified into open hostility once the Revue celtique began to excoriate the merely "poetic" school of Celticism after 1886. At the very moment the [End Page 832] Irish Revival was stirring into self-consciousness, Mattar argues, time was running out for the "romantically primitivist vision of Ireland" (20).
Yeats is the subject of two of the book's four chapters with a single-author focus. In "Yeats, Celticism, Comparative Science" Mattar shows that Yeats was "acutely aware of the division between 'scientific' and 'literary' versions of folklore" early in his career (44). He zealously claimed in Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (1888) that the Celts of the western seaboard had remained untouched by modernity, and retained visionary forms of knowledge lost to people of the cities. At the same time,though, he was striving to assimilate the work of Alfred Nutt, John Rhys, de Jubainville and others suspicious of, or hostile to, "poetic" racial primitivism. He consequently took care to claim that his gatherings contained nothing that he had merely imagined, even while simultaneously emphasizing that he viewed folklore's primary importance as being a source of imaginative inspiration. From around 1896, however, under the influence of Andrew...