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  • Symbolism at the Periphery:Yeats, Maeterlinck, and Cultural Nationalism
  • Raphael Ingelbien

Modernism has been one of the most contested categories of English literary history. Over the last two decades, reputations have been challenged, ideologies have been questioned, and the very concept of an "English modernism" has given way to views that stress the importance of national contexts in the relation that modernist texts bear to history. It has become increasingly difficult to speak of "English modernism" as though it were a "British" or "Anglo-Saxon" category that includes names which were usually lumped together: Eliot, Joyce, Pound, Woolf, Yeats, etc.1 Irish literature scholars in particular have been keen to reclaim Yeats and Joyce as part of a distinctively Irish version of modernism, sometimes analyzing their works through postcolonial theory.2 The postcolonial challenge and the devolutionary process that affect the canon of English-speaking modernism strike at the very root of what was originally meant by the term: indeed, cosmopolitanism and internationalism were long supposed to be hallmarks of modernism. Those qualities have not been completely discarded, but their nature and scope have been re-examined in the light of modernist writers' involvement in the cultural politics of specific nations.

One aspect of modernist internationalism, however, clearly continues to operate unchanged in most readings. The impact of French symbolism has featured in most definitions of English-speaking modernism—in discussions of modern poetry in English, the terms "symbolism" and "modernism" are often virtually synonymous.3 Edmund Wilson's ground-breaking study, Axël's Castle, set the tone as early as 1931, even before the term 'modernist' was applied to the writers Wilson discusses. According to him, it was only possible to make sense of Yeats, Eliot, Joyce or Stein by considering their debts to the symbolist school that developed around Stéphane [End Page 183] Mallarmé.4 Wilson's insights have been refined, adapted or challenged in various ways over the years, but even recent attempts at contextualizing English-speaking modernists still see the influence of French symbolism as a confirmation of modernism's ability to transcend national boundaries. In other words, French symbolism goes on functioning as shorthand for a residual cosmopolitanism which defines at once the limits of contextualizations of modernist texts. Thus, in the recent Locations of Literary Modernism, editors Alex Davis and Lee M. Jenkins set out to explore the tensions between modernist internationalism and modernists' engagement with the politics of place, region and nation. Yeats is mentioned as a writer who tried to fuse nationalism with symbolist poetics, but Davis and Jenkins also argue that one side of Yeats's symbolism inevitably exceeds cultural politics. Yeats may have been a consciously Irish symbolist, but his "gravitation over the 1890s to the example of Villiers de L'Isle-Adam's Axël, and other manifestations of French and Belgian symbolism, illustrates his contrary adherence to fin-de-siècle aestheticism, and the symbolic artist's alienation from socio-political determinants."5 It looks as though the votaries of pure art across the Channel retain a forbidding mystical aura for English-speaking critics. Almost by definition, a debt to French symbolism confers on modernists a degree of immunity from contextualizations, even when these are explicitly encouraged. This attitude largely springs from a neglect of the critical work that has recontextualized French symbolism itself; in this particular instance, Davis and Jenkins seem to be unaware that their casual distinction between "French and Belgian symbolism" may carry more weight than is usually recognized by critics of English-speaking modernism.

That "French symbolism" is not a homogeneous category is acknowledged in commentary on its English-speaking followers, but the distinction between French and Belgian contexts is scarcely ever considered. Wilson himself pointed out that the poetics of Yeats and Eliot stemmed from different strains of French symbolism (80). Both Eliot and Yeats may have been profoundly indebted to Arthur Symons and his seminal survey The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899, 1908), but whereas Yeats relied on Symons as a guide to Mallarmé, Verlaine, Villiers and Maeterlinck, Eliot was mostly interested in Laforgue and went on to (re)discover Baudelaire and Corbière. Yeats looked to symbolism for visionary...


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