Yeats and Modern Poetry by Edna Longley (review)
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Yeats and Modern Poetry.
By Edna Longley. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

The summation of a long academic career, Edna Longley’s book also takes stock of different classifications of Yeats and modern poetry. Different chapters focus on Yeats in Ireland, Yeats and American modernism (that is, Eliot and Pound), Yeats in relation to Edward Thomas and Wallace Stevens, Yeats as a war poet, and Yeats in terms of John Kerrigan’s Archipelagic English, in order to dispute “the value of modernist critical paradigms” and suggest “alternative perspectives for interpreting Yeats” (blurb). With John Harwood, Longley [End Page 264] sees that critics have a habit of personifying “modernism” into “an active agent” when it is “actually a retrospective mode of reading” (37). Her “remedy” is “to revisit the inter-national dynamics that created modern poetry in English” (44).

I am convinced that Yeats would have disagreed with Longley that “international dynamics,” personified like “modernism” into another active agent, created his poetry. Famously this poet acknowledged, “I know now that revelation is from the self, but from that age-long memoried self, that shapes the elaborate shell of the mollusc and the child in the womb, that teaches the birds to make their nest; and that genius is a crisis that joins that buried self for certain moments to our trivial daily mind” (Autobiographies [London: Macmillan, 1955] 272). When Longley substitutes a whole new set of -isms for “modernism,” most notably aestheticism and symbolism, there is a danger that she is concerning herself only with a trivial or mundane aspect of Yeats’s art.

Our “age-long memoried self” cannot be categorized into literary movements—it is not the same force as “inter-national dynamics”—and so Longley’s book proves Kathleen Raine’s sad verdict of our times: “There is a prevailing rejection—or perhaps more truly ignorance—of those ‘deeps of the mind’ which are the true source of poetry” (W. B. Yeats and the Learning of the Imagination [Ipswich: Golgonooza, 1999] 21). Yeats would have seen his genius as a crisis that joins “bright eternal Self” to his trivial daily self (The Ten Principal Upanishads [London: Faber, 1970] 135), so that he is “reborn as an idea, something intended, complete” (Essays and Introductions [London: Macmillan, 1961] 509). For Yeats the true poet is never “the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast” (509), and he would have seen international literary fashion and modern literary theory as well as his personal life as part of that bundle. Longley chooses to see this very attitude of Yeats as merely contingent, dependent on “inter-national dynamics,” and so the basic assumptions of her book are at odds with Yeats’s belief in the spirit of poetry. She would attempt to rebundle that which unbundles.

Not very surprisingly, Raine—a significant modern poet herself as well as a seminal Yeats scholar—is entirely excluded from Yeats and Modern Poetry, and Longley does not seem to have made it past page one of my book on Yeats and Stevens, which also attempts to read poetry in terms of “the learning of the imagination” (cf. Raine 21), rather than merely in terms of its literary-historical contexts. Longley’s love of categories reveals her to be very much an Aristotelian or “analytical” critic rather than an “interpretive” critic who, as Peter T. Struck has said, would see “the text primarily as a repository of hidden wisdom and envisions [his] task as the extraction of these meanings” (Birth of the Symbol [Princeton: Princeton UP] 3), as Raine and I do. In the ancient world, critics could be adept at both modes of criticism, and I believe that most of the poets discussed in Longley’s book call for a new kind of two-folded criticism. Nonetheless, her close readings and attention to generic categories can be locally rewarding if somewhat limited in vision.

I enjoyed reading especially the chapter on Yeats, Thomas, and Stevens. Because poems “ramify” (xiii), she “triangulates” these poets by examining their tree metaphors (68). Yeats’s “The Two Trees” is read in fructifying relation [End Page 265] to Thomas’ “Aspens,” and when one might...