To examine features of a poet’s work that may be deemed romantic or fascistic may seem to be an odd undertaking; to compare or contrast romanticism and fascism appears not to be comparing like with like. Romanticism is a literary term used to describe a particular period of creativity with a multitude of artists whom, although they may share a common aesthetic bond, have varying attitudes towards religion, everyday life and politics from individual to individual and generation to generation. The term is also one applied by critics in retrospect, not carried contemporarily on the calling cards of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats et al. On the other hand fascism is a self-determined and coherent, albeit oftentimes vague and opportunistic, political doctrine, one that only began to form and come to the forefront of the world’s consciousness towards the latter part of Yeats’ poetic career. Yet even if one ignores the traceable progression from the romantic influence on Nietzsche to the bastardisation of his philosophy in national socialist attitudes, the common features of the two are at least superficially apparent. Blake’s anti-intellectualism, summarised by Yeats’ himself in quotation form in the introduction to Blake’s poems as “The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction” (xiii), is ironically encased in deeply thoughtful and complex works of poetry. A parallel of simultaneous attraction and rejection is echoed in the strong desire for technological and scientific progress the Third Reich despite Hitler’s mistrust of the intelligentsia in favour of stereotypical masculinity and pseudoscience such as eugenics. Furthermore the sexist attitudes of some romantics, in part influenced by Kant’s aesthetics, which denies women access to the sublime or attempts to force gender onto poetry, could be compared to fascist attitudes towards the role of women, and romantic pantheism could be linked to the metaphysical aspects of fascism in searching for a common will, but these may be tenuous and incidental links. It is not my purpose to show that fascism is like romanticism or vice versa, nor to assert that Yeats himself is definably either a romantic or a fascist poet or human being; the influence of romanticism, particularly Blake and Shelley, is an obvious and self-admitted feature of Yeats’ work, whilst similarly Yeats himself had the chance to allow his opinions of contemporary fascist regimes be known, withdrawing from initial enthusiasm having recognised the cost. Instead I wish to look at how the negative elements of fascism, namely its reactionary nature, excessive authority demanded through violence, celebration of inequality, and obsession with symbols. Such phenomena have in my view, whether consciously or coincidentally, combined with Yeats’ romantic attitude to imply a deep sense of pessimism in his poetry and “rather sinister vision of life” (Orwell, 233).
As the “self-styled last Romantic” (O’Neill, 149) living outside of the historical confines of Romanticism, Yeats inhabits a state of mind not far from the sense of loss and yearning for identity found in the very consciously post-Romantic tone of Victorian poetry. Having had the misfortune of not being alive and working in the romantic era he finds himself in “The predicament of a post-Romantic culture that has grown entirely sceptical of any transcendent “radiance of eternity”” (146). For this reason perhaps it is not surprising that, despite being more consciously associated with Blake and Shelley, some of Yeats’ work has more of the fixation on loss and death present with Tennyson and Browning. “He Wishes His Beloved Were Dead”, for example, exhibits the same uncomfortably necrophilia-tinged theme as Browning’s dramatic monologues, and while we imagine “his Beloved” with her hair “bound and wound / About the stars and moon and sun” (9/10) it is difficult not to think of Porphyria’s lover strangling his own beloved with her own locks. The fairly archaic fashioning of the conditional in “Were you but” (1) and “O would…that” (11) also points towards what Orwell refers to as Yeats’ “wayward, even tortured style of writing” (233), comprised of overtly poetic vocabulary, artificiality and affectation, which is, for Orwell, a symptom of Yeats’ tendency towards the fascistic. The shared theme here is a search for something, be it an identity, common will of the people, transcendence or knowledge in general. Yeats, however, forks away from the Ulysses-like searching and striving without yielding with the realisation, perhaps only subconsciously, that it is all in vain.
If one takes “Leda and the Swan” as an example of a Yeats poem which exhibits Blakean contraries (albeit in a threefold fashion between human, divine, and animal rather than the typical dialectic of Blake’s oppositions), apparently leading to progression, it at first appears that nothing is amiss here. Leda’s eggs hatch to found Greece, and by extension most of known human history is created in a positive and energetic fashion. Yet amid the mythological and historical significance of the poem it is easy to pass over the truth that what is being represented is not only a bestial raping, but the imposition of divine power on a mortal girl, “her helpless breast upon his breast” (4). Albright suggests that the “vague fingers” (5) of Leda may not only represent their blurred speed as represented in Renaissance painting, but also a sense of resignation unto the forces of divinity and history, “her hesitancy of resistance against and irresistible force” (Albright, 665). Leda, as representative of humanity in general, is a victim to the forces of history, a subordinate to the process of time and battle of wills.
Comparing the swan of “Leda and the Swan” to the soul “like a sleeping swan” of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, in that both are concerned “with the inauguration of a fresh cycle”(147), O’Neill asserts that whereas with Shelley there is a “creed of redemption through love and forgiveness”, ““Leda and the Swan” tramples utopian dreams into the dust” (149) with the violence of its “brute blood” (13) and “indifferent beak” (15) simply not caring for the future. The image of the “solitary soul” compared “to a swan” appears again in Part III of “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen”, here Yeats is satisfied with that image only with the disclaimer that some “troubled mirror show it” (4). In this image the wings are only “half spread for flight” (7), seemingly on the cusp of some movement yet lost in the crucially Hamlet-like decision of “whether to play, or to ride / Those winds that clamour of the approaching night.” (9/10). In this way the ideal “image of its state” (6) becomes a still image rather than that of actual reflection; the hopes of our soul are in fact the image of a swan lying in state, attempting to fly but forever rebounded.
Linked to this is Yeats’ hatred of old age, and by extension time itself; the “beauties that I loved” (15) remain in the speaker’s memory in “The Lamentation of the Old Pensioner”, in a romanticisation of the past as well as echo of the soothing memories of Coleridge’s “This Lime Tree Bower My Prison”. The poem also serves to expose Yeats’ nonchalance toward the subject of “human tyranny” (10), yet overriding hatred for time: “The broken tree…is now a pure metaphor for the speaker himself – time-stricken and in his own imagination repulsive to the beauties he once loved. Their memory torments him into spitting at his true enemy: not tyranny but time” (Kirschner, 5). Byzantium is Yeats’ ideal vision, the “synthesis of a religiously ascetic feeling with the worldly splendour of gold and silver and mosaic” (Rudd, 167) and we are immediately told in “Sailing to Byzantium” that “That is no country for old men” (I, 1), followed by “An aged man is but a paltry thing” (II, 1) . Yet even the young are “- Those dying generations - ” (3) and the atemporal nature of art is exposed as the “artifice of eternity” (III, 8) as we can never quite escape the feeling that “Whatever is begotten, born, and dies” (I, 6), a sentiment excessively condensed into one line with that parenthesised “born”, as if to show us that in the grand scheme of history this process for individuals is but a moment in the eternal cycle. Yeats’ solution for escaping this feeling is to escape existence and nature altogether, transfigured into the mechanical bird “set upon a golden bough to sing” (IV, 6) “Of what is past, or passing, or to come” (8), and while this image of the eternal songwriter may be a romantic one, recalling Blake’s bard “Who Present, Past and Future sees;” (“Introduction”, 2), as well as a very Schopenhauerean method of escaping the pressure of competing will though music, it is also again essentially passive.
“Byzantium’s appeal lies in the fact that the supernatural can descend close to it, yet the enchanter could wish for no more sensuous scenes of beauty” (Rudd, 167). In “Sailing to Byzantium” the supernatural and its earthly symbol are practically elided; the mechanical bird of the final stanza is at once man made, of natural form and supernaturally possessed of vision. Indeed Yeats’ wayward writing style in general often combines with his esoteric mythology and excessive use of symbols to “hover among vagueness and frustrate the referentiality of language” (Albright, 717). The endless fasces, swastikas, SS runes and imperial eagles of Mussolini and Hitler are also symbols referring to vague and guarded secrets, and while this may be a fairly superficial rather than directly causal link, Yeats more than flirted with occultism, the very concept of which “carries with it the idea that knowledge must be a secret thing, limited to a small circle of initiates…the same concept is integral to fascism” (Orwell, 237). Furthermore the transcendent being triumphing over age and temporal nature described here resonates with the Nazi ideal of the superman, while several years later the language in “Byzantium” of “I hail the superhuman” (15) almost becomes uncomfortable in its associations with genetic hierarchy. The yearning here appears to be for the “nontemporal, nonspatial superreality of which Yeats seems often, albeit ever so tentatively, to speak” (Adams, ix), apparently reached in theory through art. Comparing Blake, who does not conceive of such a superreality, Adams conveniently supports my interpretation of Yeats’ inertia in saying that “Blake conceives of ultimate reality as ultimate creativity, activity rather than stasis” (ix). For Blake if art is to be transcendent it must be in its creation rather than the simple appreciation of “the gold mosaic of a wall” (“Sailing to Byzantium”, III, 2) or merely mechanically produced singing. Reading Blake in light of Kant, Adams asserts that for Blake:
“Everything that exists is knowable, vision can be total. Yeats’ position is not the same: The Kantian “things-in-themselves” are apparently not knowable, but Yeats seems to insist that man nevertheless strives to know or formulate them imaginatively, and he fails.” (X)
Such uncertainty intensifies the passivity usually present in Yeats, rendering his symbols even more occult, and dramatizing the fact of “man having to accept contrariety in a universe not quite of his making” (X)
“In Jerusalem we are to stand at what Blake calls a “vortex” so that we may see things all at once, from within and without, so to speak. Each Orc strives for this vortex; but, unable to hold to it once he arrives, he gyres back into Urizenic old age” (106), but here at least Orc is trying, with Yeats the uncertainty of human endeavour means we are turned passively in the “widening gyre” (“The Second Coming”, 1), and the whole of experience becomes Urizenic in the sense of inert attempts at dull coherence. However, with the constant gyration and violence, even an Urizenic standpoint is unable to gel such fragmentation. Whereas Blake’s ideal of the imagination is a “unified plane flowing endlessly behind the eyes” (Adams, 107), Yeats’ “centre cannot hold” (“The Second Coming”, 3), the world of imagination becomes more limited, built of un-unified concepts. Yeats may present himself as the visionary able to stand at this centre observing all of time and space, but in reality he and the rest of the world are doomed to fall again and again without real progression. The double use of “surely” at the beginning of lines nine and ten of “The Second Coming” thus read more as an attempt at self-persuasion that something is actually going to happen, and “Hardly are those words out” (11) before Yeats descends from vague yet concrete-feeling reflection on the current state of the world into a miscellany of mythology, jumping between the sphinx with “lion body and the head of a man” (14) to the obviously Christian reference to “Bethlehem” (22). “The Egyptian Sphinx is a kind of demonic parody of one of the Cherubim of Ezekiel’s vision, the Cherub taken by Blake as the archetype of his Urizen” (Bloom, 319) yet even with contraries is no progression, only violence. The “twenty centuries of stony sleep” (19) representative of the Christian era appear to only be roused for a moment, the “hour come round at last” (21) of the beast is literally no more than an hour, dozing off again as soon as the excessive violence is over. Yeats appears to be simultaneously weary of “stony sleep” (19), wary of violence, yet with fervour for tumultuous Orc or beast-driven times.
Stepping back from Yeats’ mythologies for a moment back to the world inspiring him to write a poem with such “clairvoyant quality” (Griffin, 7), there is a certain irony in the position Yeats takes in regards to recognising who “the best” and “the worst” (7) are. “His mind is on the Russian revolution and its menace, particularly to aristocrats, to antithetical men” (Bloom, 318). He is “simultaneously drawn to and repelled by the apocalyptic yearnings for a ‘new dawn’” (Griffin, 7), attracted by the possibility of turbulence, but recognising the same “red scare” of Bolshevism that was so useful in Hitler’s campaign for the support of big business. Here we see how an “inescapable war of contraries” (O’Neill, 149) and contradictions, not only within Yeats’ mythologies, view of history and romantic attitude, but also against his political leanings, lead almost inextricably towards uselessness and inertia. “Unlike his Romantic precursors, Yeats is on the side of the counter-revolutionaries” (Bloom, 318), Shelley’s insight (quoted in Bloom, 320) of “And all best things are confused to ill” has been “appropriate[d] for the Right”. Even at his most dejected Shelley’s work retains some sense of hope, but with Yeats this becomes something to mock as “The ceremony of innocence is drowned” (6), hope becomes synonymous with naivety.
O’Neill also points towards Yeats “using the Romantic poem for his own ends” (150), showing us that not only is he apparently pessimistic about the future and ambivalent about the past, but in stealing a phrase from Shelley out of context for “Blood and the Moon”, creates “a vision that is powerfully if dangerously contemptuous of the present” (150). Indeed O’Neill quotes Bloom to remark on the “quasi-inevitable decline” of post-enlightenment poetry “murdered by its own past strength” (150), comparable to the more parallel with Victorian poetry specifically, and its anxiety over Romantic strength, raised here earlier. While O’Neill is positive about the sustaining “supply of imaginative oxygen” (150) the Romantics give to later poems, it appears that Yeats has the tendency to accept this oxygen as a terminally ill patient would. Yeats’ mutation of Shelley’s sentiments into the complete inverse may merely represent a differing interpretation of cyclical history, rather than my belief that Yeats’ cycles are in fact a disguised expression of the desire for oblivion. However, the fact that a poet so prominent among Yeats’ influences would draw such opposing conclusions about the merits of historical events surely acts in some way to displace the suppositions of truth and destiny from poetry altogether, informing the nihilist tone of Yeats’ implications.
Bloom goes on to discuss the Christian aspect of “The Second Coming” in light of Jeffares’s comment that the “falcon represents man becoming out of touch with Christ” (Bloom, 321), an assumption which quickly renders the following lines not “wholly coherent” (321). Bloom thus concludes that the Christian reference is mostly arbitrary and cannot sustain the inferences that readers will inevitably take from it. While I am unwilling to believe entirely that Yeats is so careless as to tack Christ on for pure rhetoric and dramatic effect without giving thought to how it may mislead the reader, such an interpretation is useful in that it throws up not only antitheses, but confused antitheses and symbols detached from any real or definite meaning of their referents. Yeats’ contraries cannot offer progression since they may not even be contraries at all, any truth is buried so far beneath slanted symbols and appropriated messages that the modernist “commitment to vagueness” (Quigley, 102) renders the movement of the visionary poet through history into a mystified sleepwalk around the destruction of the beast rather than a purposeful quest to something that may come after.
This is not to say I am mounting a devastating personal attack on Yeats, his outlook or ability as a visionary poet. While Orwell’s criticism of Yeats’ snobbishness is certainly valid, one must be careful not to relegate fascism to the status of ““floating signifier”…the empty term, the lack, onto which we project all unpleasant realities from which we want to distance ourselves” (Chow, 17), or to find distaste in every fascistic feature of his work. If of a giving disposition one may even feel sympathy and sorrow for the sorrow and inertia of Yeats’ vision, since he appears unaware of it. Furthermore, the idealizing force of fascism, combined with Yeats’ romantic searching and Platonic philosophizing may imply that Yeats’ poetry is so violent and contemptuous towards earthly things because they are of no interest or use. The refrain of “‘What then?’. Sang Plato’s ghost, ‘what then?’” (5), as the speaker of the poem recounts his activities and successes is an example of Yeats’ being at least inquisitive about progress and the future without descending into violent imagery and turbulence. While the final line “But louder sang the ghost ‘What then?’” (20) definitely has an unsatisfied tone, the invocation of Plato as a manifestation of idealism may point toward the uselessness of earthly phenomena, and to some extent excuses Yeats for his fervour for obliteration, since the things experiencing violence and destruction are merely the earthly avatars of a higher meaning. Speaking of Japanese atrocities Chow states that “like the Nazis their loyalty to their ideology was so absolute that it freed them from all other restraints” (16), similarly, in context, Yeats’ vision may only be bleak to the outsider, Plato’s refrain is may be mocking, but mocking the “vanity of earthly endeavours” (Albright, 783).
It is only when viewed non-idealistically that Yeats seems to have a nihilist tendency, one that he may not even recognise in himself. Yeats may use the romantic lyric for his own ends, beauty and romanticism becoming the sustaining air for something more sinister, sublimated and distorted into nothing, but it would be a stretch to accuse him of a deliberate exploitative effort. His violent visionary poems only give half the picture, just as Hitler’s concentration on healthy body relegates the importance of a healthy mind, presenting turbulence in a beautiful form, but I would not suggest that this is any lifelong conscious effort of Yeats to spread an agendum. Yeats is as much a victim of the failings of fascist ideals as he is a proponent.
“The most important sentiment involved in fascism is not a negative one but a positive one: rather than hatefulness and destructiveness, fascism is about love and idealism. Most of all it is a search for an idealized self-image through a heartfelt surrender to something higher and more beautiful.” (Chow, 16)
Thus Yeats can be viewed as a victim of circumstance and over-idealization; the fact that gyres are not politically moving images may be evident to everyone but Yeats himself. Hence Yeats is not maliciously tying the ugliness of fascism to the beauty of romanticism to fool others, but has been led down that route because “what sustains the aesthetics of monstrosity is something eminently positive and decent. (17). In this way his descent into inertia and oblivion is more tragic than sinister.
“There would be all kinds of ways of representing cyclical history without the appetite for violence that becomes the dominant mood of this poem. The Magi are not looking for a change, which may perhaps be turbulent, as historical changes often are. They are looking for turbulence” (Wood, 21)
Wood identifies in “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen”, our “frozen thoughts, our cold and continuing appetite for the disruption of human appetite.” (21). I have emphasised the “frozen thoughts” here as it is precisely the belief that our thoughts will always be frozen into place which I believe turns the appetite for disruption into an appetite for destruction. Part V of “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” thus acts as an inverted call to arms, encouraging only cynicism and apathy. With its triadic affirmation of “Come let us mock” placed at the beginning of the first three stanzas, and concluding in “Mock mockers after that / That would not lift a hand maybe / To help good…” the cyclical nature of history is represented microcosmically among the eternal “Traffic in mockery” (20), implying that we should also be mocking those who did “lift a hand” (17) to help those mocked in the previous three stanzas, since we are all doomed to sit and repeat. If the tone were less sinister I would almost be tempted to infer that the comedy manifested in mockery here acts as reprieve from the cycles of history and struggle of will: Yeats’ laughter replacing Schopenhauer’s music. Yet even with this interpretation the image of an old cynic cackling at the exploits of everyone is hardly comforting. Indeed, as if to crush this search for hope as soon as possible, the very next poem of The Tower (“The Wheel”) expresses something like the wisdom of Silenus almost unequivocally with our blood “longing for the tomb” (8), having been so tossed about by the cycle of seasons which lead to “nothing good” (5), no ideal “spring-time” (6) comes, only the endless recurrence of time that we are apt to gnash our teeth at and curse as we await the “apocalypse always postponed” (Wood, 21).
Yet this apocalypse, or revelation, postponed is apparently “at hand” (“The Second Coming”, 9); “At hand: not occurring, not occurred, and not in any remote future” (Wood). Wood takes this “at hand” to mean the moment “just before”, which is logically defensible in terms of those moments he has ruled out, yet the invocation of hands implies the need for agency. The revelation is in one’s hand, ready to occur, yet being a constant mocker the visionary subject of history “lack[s] all conviction” (7) to actualise any such change, leaving only “the worst” (“The Second Coming”, 7 and “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen”, 16) to loose “mere anarchy” (“The Second Coming”, 4), mere by its very impotence to cause difference, leaving not change but simply, to borrow Wood’s word, turbulence.
When Yeats criticises the “law indifferent to blame and praise, / To bribe or threat” in Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen (10) it is tempting to agree with Wood in his analysis that it is because it is “a dream of a law, an imaginary untested law, a law for a world without rogues and rascals” (21), which leads in itself to the anger and violence of the poem, but this can be pushed further. Put into a broad political context this is an anti-liberal gripe, a contemptuous dismissal of those ideologies which believe the word is at heart free of rogues and rascals, inevitably leading to the conclusion that excessive authority through violence, the hallmark of a Fascist state, is entirely necessary. Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen builds a series of these apparent errors in judgement: the mistake of the philosopher attempting “to bring the world under a rule” (31) when “we are but weasels fighting in a hole” (32), or the implied belief in the eternity of love in the delicate with the phrasing of “Man is in love and loves what vanishes / What more is there to say?” (41/42). Wood posits that violence therefore becomes the way to knowledge to replace the illusions and mistakes of life, and it is interesting to note that “it would be desperate and in a horrible way romantic to believe that there is no other way in which we can ever get the knowledge we need” (Wood, 22), when my personal answer to the question “In what way is fascism romantic?” would certainly be “in a horrible way”: a way that seeks for higher necessary truths but ultimately does so with violent irrational fervour.
When “evil gathers head” (VI, 5) we are tempted to envisage this as a Blakean evil-as-energy ready to break through to some new revelation, but this cannot be the case as the mode remains passive and random “with amorous cries, or angry cries, / According to the wind” (11/12). The “tumult of images” (8) cannot be synthesised into any meaning or conclusion “for all are blind” (12). Wood puts the word “insolence” next to the image of this evil without direction or energy, and Yeats certainly gives the impression that he is living in insolent times of unfocused weasels forming, at best, a bestial mob: “Can the bestial be born again as demonic? Can the mob be born again as people, as a nation? That would truly be a second coming. It became known as Fascism.” (Seamus Dean, in Wood).
Thus, while features of Yeats’ poetry that exhibit a fascist tendency may be simple coincidence or “mere snobbishness” (Orwell, 238) rather than a definite affiliation with the political doctrine, it is unavoidable that Yeats’ attitude and tendencies will beg comparisons. These comparisons take on an even more disturbing tone when combined with his romantic influences and the conclusions that he appears to arrive at, consciously or unconsciously, from this melding. The fascist common will, be it allegedly manifest in a “racial nation” (Neocleous, 23) or otherwise, is necessarily an attitude to certain circumstances at a certain period of time, an opportunistic method of gaining popular support through obvious common anxieties. It is a debatable point to how far such anxieties are imposed on the spirit of the age or simply recognised and exploited by those self-styled elites wishing to gain and retain power. Similarly one may question how far Yeats’ pessimism is a symptom of early twentieth century decline coming to light in his poetry or if early twentieth century decline is a myth in itself perpetrated by the diseased minds of Yeats and his arguably fascistic contemporaries, most notably Eliot and Pound. The debate of influence is of course as complicated and circular as any involving the influence of art on life and vice versa, though if one dispenses with notions of occultism, common will and teleological mythologies it becomes difficult not to feel that “The so-called spirit of the age, you’ll find, / In truth is but the gentleman’s own mind / In which the ages are reflected. / And there you’re apt to face a scene of gloom!” (Goethe, 17), and that, ironically given his hatred of growing old, Yeats has always been little more than a grumpy old man lamenting and romanticising a past glory to which he wishes to return. The tragedy is therefore that Yeats may never sail to Byzantium; “Fascism does not offer any real return to the past” (Orwell, 238) and the romantic attitude only serves to intensify impossible desires. In this way the political realities of fascism’s “destructive tendencies” (Neocleous, 94) come to light in Yeats’ poetry before the man himself is able to recognise them; fascism and romanticism may be kindred concepts in many ways, but they are also a deeply flawed combination whose contradictions lead only to inertia, powerlessness, and oblivion.
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 "The folkish state must not adjust its entire educational work primarily to the inoculation of mere knowledge, but to the breeding of absolutely healthy bodies. The training of mental abilities is only secondary. And here again, first place must be taken by the development of character, especially the promotion of will-power and determination, combined with the training of joy in responsibility, and only in last place comes scientific schooling”. (Hitler, 408)
 Common to almost all vaguely ‘leftist’ political ideologies is the belief that mankind is essentially good. While liberals, communists and anarchists may argue amongst themselves as to what causes basically good men to commit bad deeds, this optimism in regards to human nature is either necessitated by commitment to individualist freedoms and trust, or the basis for all possible policy in the first place.