restricted access A Commentary (July 1935)
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258 ] A Commentary The Criterion: A Literary Review, 14 (July 1935) 610-13 As the appearance of this number will almost coincide with the seventieth birthday of Mr. William Butler Yeats, the occasion appears suitable for a few retrospective observations upon Mr. Yeats’s contributions to English poetry in the past, as well as his importance in the present.1 This is not the place for a critical discussion of his work, which would require close analysis , but for an appreciation of his services and an expression of gratitude. The poets of the group in which Mr. Yeats, as a junior member, first appeared, had several virtues which were not so conspicuous in the following poetic generation in England. They were men whose classical scholarship was of importance to them; and they tended to be cosmopolitan in culture. Yeats did not have the scholarship of Lionel Johnson – a brilliant scholar and a man of learning – or even that of Dowson; nor the saturation in French culture of Arthur Symons. But besides being an Irishman, he had a lively curiosity about possible influences. Whatever may be said of the poetry of the nineties, it cannot be accused of in-breeding. Johnson, for example, wholly English by family and thoroughly English in his poetic style, chose to associate himself with the Irish revival, so that he has even been supposed by some to have been of Irish origin. It is much to be regretted that several of the finest poets died young, and others failed to continue their development; but it is more important that Mr. Yeats survived to maintain, so far as one man can do, their tradition and to develop his own work. With the disappearance of this group, and perhaps even before it, Mr. Yeats appeared to withdraw from metropolitan life in his pre-occupation with the Irish Theatre. Yet Mr. Yeats in Dublin performed as great a service to English literature, and belonged as much to it, as Mr. Yeats in London. There are two aspects in which this statement is true. For one thing, the Abbey Theatre kept poetry in the theatre; and maintained literary standards which had long since disappeared from the English stage.2 If there is ever a dramatic revival in England in our time, it will owe a great deal to what was done in Dublin, however different may be the material, the ideas and the style. As I have said, I am not here writing criticism, and am not [ 259 A Commentary (july) concerned with praising or analysing Mr. Yeats’s dramatic work; the insistence is upon its historical importance, and the importance of a movement in which Mr. Yeats played the chief part. And secondly, I believe that the future vitality of English literature will depend very much upon the vitality of its parts, and their influence upon each other. This point deserves a little elaboration. It is not a matter of indifference that poetry written by an Irishman, a Welshman, a Scot, an American or a Jew should be undistinguishable from that written by an Englishman: it is undesirable. The poetry of Isaac Rosenberg, for instance, does not only owe its distinction to its being Hebraic: but because it is Hebraic it is a contribution to English literature. For a Jewish poet to be able to write like a Jew, in western Europe and in a western European language, is almost a miracle; and for different reasons and in different degrees it is also difficult for the other people I have mentioned.3 It is not a petty question of employing one’s native Doric, which is merely a nuisance, except for an occasional word or phrase which may enrich the English language; it is not a question of being sentimental about the old homestead and the landscapes of childhood . What is essentially Scottish about Dunbar is not his vocabulary; and what is essentially American about Walt Whitman is not his admiration for New York or for the vast size of his country. What is essential is impossible fully to define, but it is most effectually expressed through rhythm. It is something which can best be expressed, and most successfully maintained , through poetry. And poetry of this kind may have a fertilizing effect upon English: and fertilization, either from its own relations or from foreign languages, is what it perpetually needs. In his literary Nationalism therefore, Mr. Yeats has performed a great service to the English language. His poetry, in...


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