Yeats and Modern Poetry is the product of a lifetime of scholarship on modern poetry and its cultural and political contexts. Throughout her career, Longley’s criticism has been characterized by forthright argument. Though this has often been situated within an Irish context, her work is grounded in a wide-ranging textual and cultural understanding, and as such it is not just the depth but the scope and duration of Longley’s critical engagement that makes it especially valuable. She seeks here to alter Yeats’s relation to Irish poetry, placing him in a series of European and American contexts that trace his “presence” in the field of modern poetry. She avoids the limitations inherent in exploring direct influence, preferring looser associations, with the result that this reads more like a series of discrete essays than a unified critical argument. Yeats is central, but his writing and thought are not preeminent; instead they offer a particular perspective on larger currents of poetic reassessment and change.
Though Longley has an enduring interest in the politics of Irish poetry, she has long been resistant to the simplifications inherent in certain forms of cultural nationalism. In keeping with this position, her critical practice is oppositional rather than assimilative. This dialogic impulse is reflected in the form of Yeats and Modern Poetry, where each chapter is in implicit conversation with the one preceding it, drawing attention to the impact of the shifting critical framework on our understanding of the poet. Though Longley seeks to detach Yeats from an over-determined Irishness, the study in fact begins in Ireland, thinking about Yeats’s time at the Abbey Theatre and its role in the construction of certain cultural and critical debates. Yeats’s preoccupation with the finding and shaping of audience sits uneasily with his often hostile attitude to popular taste, and that prompts us to think further about the reception of Yeats’s work during his lifetime and afterwards. Yeats’s critical legacy emerges at various points in the book: Longley is dismissive of a reading of neo-modernist poetry in Ireland as a reaction against Yeats as “ancestor figure.” To Longley this makes Yeats “too Irish”; in all cases she privileges concepts of retrospective critical accuracy over those of contemporary perception, positioning her work as a corrective of earlier assessments rather than an addition to them.
Yet in spite of her combative style of argument, there are more subtle ways in which Long-ley validates this particular model of criticism. Her exploration of the tensions in Yeats’s time between literary criticism inside and outside the academy has resonance today, but here it is focused through the opposition between Edward Dowden and Yeats himself: while Dowden found Irish poetry to have had “an undue tendency to rhetoric, sentimentality, and a deficiency of technique” (14), Yeats suggested that such a young literature could learn more from painstaking critical refinement than from Dowden’s “vague generalities.” This awareness of the power of ideological and aesthetic disagreement to shape critical futures has played an important role in Longley’s intellectual stance over the course of her career. [End Page 869]
Moving to America in Chapter 2, Longley reinforces the dialectical nature of the project while seeking a less familiar frame for Yeats criticism. Her choice of American modernism marks not so much a geographical as a critical shift; she uses this to draw attention to the problematic nature of the alliance of national and modernist positions. Yet she also resists a capacious version of modernism: “as a rule, the more modernism expands to encompass the Zeitgeist, culture and all the arts, the less visible Yeats becomes” (37). This observation signals the spatial and temporal significance of critical definition, and the ways in which this needs to be renewed through careful re-examination of both text and context. Longley’s development of the Yeats-Eliot relationship against the more established dynamic between Yeats and Pound seeks to offer a new reading of tradition and form. Suggesting that Yeats’s “perfection of personality, the perfection of its...