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  • Transnational Collaboration in Yeats' The Herne's EggThe Swami, the Poet & the Play
  • Abid Vali

I believe that the relationship between William Butler Yeats and Purohit Swami, a Bhakti guru who collaborated with Yeats on multiple projects in the 1930s leading to Kimberly Myers' contention that "Hinduism [was] the philosophy of the single greatest interest to Yeats in the early 1930s" (103), is an excellent example of transnational collaboration. My conception of transnational collaboration provides a prism through which to view transnational modernism as a "dynamic set of relationships, practices … cultural engagements with modernity rather than a static canon of works, a given set of formal devices, or a specific range of beliefs" (Berman 7) and, thereby, respond to Mao and Walkowitz's call to examine how modernists "designed new models of transnational community" (739). However, in many accounts as we will see, Swami is either treated as a sideshow to, or one of a number of passive sources for, Yeats' genius. Elleke Boehmer reminds us about "the extent to which … cultural resistance undercuts the notion of both top-down and of bottom-up discursive impacts that still organize definitions of the colonial relationship" (5). Clearly, it is no easy thing, even for the seasoned scholar, to leave behind pre-determined ideas about 'relationship' in an artistic exchange. I argue that closer study of Swami, the Bhakti tradition and Yeats' play The Herne's Egg offers a rather more "dynamic" view of modernism's transnational entanglements. I will consider the copious writing on Yeats and various Indian references in The Herne's Egg as well as the writing of much of the play during the Majorca vacation of 1933, when Yeats worked on the play and translations of the Upanishads together with Swami, to show a Yeatsian oeuvre with far more flexibility in thought and theme than is often considered by critical understanding—a true hallmark of transnational modernism and the collaboration that led to it.

There has not been, to my knowledge, an in-depth appreciation of a major personal and artistic collaboration of Yeats' final years: that with Purohit Swami. Such a relationship, with many of its letters between the primary players as well as others to and from secondary personages provides an unrivalled opportunity to see transnational ideas at work in the trenches; to see the local reality of a specific 'foreign insertion' that ceases to be foreign and in Yeats' work goes on to signify a desire for [End Page 204] wholeness in a performance where we cannot any longer really tell the dancer from the dance, the other from the center.

Yeats in the 1930s was a poet coming to the fruitful end of a long career. The Tower and The Winding Stair and Other Poems, two of his best collections of poems, were published in 1928 and 1933, followed by Parnell's Funeral and Other Poems (1935), New Poems (1938), and Last Poems (1939). His explicatory book, A Vision, was first published in 1925; a second and more complete edition followed in 1937, after much work with Swami. This was also among the best periods for his dramatic work: written (and often staged) during these years were plays such as The Words upon the Window-Pane (1930), and The King of the Great Clock Tower (1934), The Herne's Egg (1938), and The Death of Cuchulain (1939). In addition to creating his own oeuvre, Yeats was productive in other literary fields as well. Thus from 1935 to 1937 he collaborated with Shri Purohit Swami, on a translation of The Ten Principal Upanishads, edited The Oxford Book of Modern Verse in 1936, and made BBC radio broadcasts on literary themes during the 1930s. Moreover, Yeats was actively involved in Irish public life. He served as a Senator of the Irish Free State from 1922 to 1928 in the aftermath of (partial) Irish independence, founded the Irish Academy of Letters and made his last American tour in 1932.

All this fame and public presence definitely contributed to his escape from the expected position of venerable, but feeble, old poet. If anything, he seemed to become more radical, extravagant, and opposed to the norms of the...


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