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Yeats, Bealtaine, and the Aesthetics of Cultural Idealism: "In the Hidden Places of Temples"

From: New Hibernia Review
Volume 17, Number 2, Samhreadh/Summer 2013
pp. 136-151 | 10.1353/nhr.2013.0025

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The 1899 issue of Beltaine, a "little magazine" published in conjunction with the Irish Literary Theatre's inaugural productions, puts forward principles of a cultural idealism that represent a transitional ideology for its editor, William Butler Yeats. This fin de siècle publication marks an intermediate stage between the malleable national ideologies Yeats espoused in the 1880s and early 1890s, and his paradigm of cultural nationalism that would emerge in the early years of the twentieth century. In the years preceding the formation of the Irish Literary Theatre and the publication of Beltaine, Yeats embraced a flexible ideology, owing at least in part to his financial concerns. As Yuh Mohit Chaudry notes,

As a young man with neither an income nor a professional training, and a family living in impoverished conditions, his overriding concern during the 1880s and '90s was publishing his work in periodicals and thereby securing a regular income. . . . Compromises were ineluctable. Despite their pretense at objectivity, most editors had their own agenda, and their magazines served definite interests. These had to be catered to if Yeats wished to survive and be successful.

But—having established both a degree of financial security and a strong critical reputation by the close of the nineteenth century—Yeats began to focus his editorial energies on culture and nationalism. Yeats's aesthetic, as it would evolve, was rooted in a creative expression that could both defend the nascent national movement but also be a harbinger a new age that allowed for cooperation between the Anglo-Irish and the Irish peasant. As Yeats saw things, the Anglo-Irish would lead the movement, but be grounded by peasant spirituality. Together, they would defeat Ireland's enemies—notably, anti-Irish stereotypes and bourgeois capitalism—and restore the artist to a position of honor within the community. In the late 1890s, though, Yeats had yet to articulate those values.

The Irish Literary Theatre and Beltaine became a forum for his emerging aesthetic, which at that point might be considered less a form of cultural nationalism than an expression of a cultural idealism. Fundamental components of the new movement include both the rejection of values external to Ireland (particularly those that he saw as imported English values) and the recognition of an ancient Irish spiritual vitality that could stand as an alternative to the present day's errors. As Yeats wrote in the 1900 number of the journal, "Ireland's choice" lay "between English materialism and her own idealism." Edward Martyn, also writing in the 1900 number, observed that, "One of the most hopeful signs of the intellectual life of Modern Ireland is a steadily growing belief that England, despite her parade of wealth and commerce, is after all little better than a half-civilised country." In Ireland, Martyn adds, instead "of a vast cosmopolitanism and vulgarity, there is an idealism founded upon the ancient genius of the land." In the 1899 number, Yeats discussed other aspects of Irish components of that movement in an essay titled "The Theatre":

Art is the labour to bring again the Golden Age, and all culture is certainly a labour to bring again the simplicity of the first ages, with knowledge of good and evil added to it. . . . It has one day when the emotions of cities still remember the emotions of sailors and husbandmen and shepherds and users of the spear and the bow; . . . and it has another day, now beginning, when thought and scholarship discover their desire. In the first day, it is the Art of the people; and in the second day, . . . in the hidden places of temples it is the preparation of a priesthood. It may be, . . . that this Priesthood will spread their Religion everywhere, and make their Art the Art of the people.

Yeats stresses the "simplicity" of earlier times, prior to Ireland's occupation, when "the emotions" took precedence over materialism. He values those who must live in close association with the environment—for instance, sailors, shepherds, and husbandmen—and suggests that a natural spirituality follows as a consequence of that intimacy. The practitioners of that spirituality, sequestered from the world "in the hidden places of temples," were in Yeats's mind prepared to assume...



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