Archive | August, 2014

In Search of Shylock – Shakespeare

11 Aug


Jews in Shakespearean England



Much has been argued regarding the extent of anti-Semitism and the general disdain for Jewry supposedly apparent in the plays of William Shakespeare and in particular, his play “The Merchant of Venice.” Time and again his work is held up as representative of that which we – with our 21st century sensibilities – have been educated to abhor and disavow. The hatred of man because of race, color or creed has, within the collective conscience, been largely rejected thanks to the fostering of a self-regulating society that has engrained contemporary sensibilities through the policy of political correctness: a body politic of public consciousness that wasn’t apparent in 16th century England or anywhere else in the western world for that matter. All were liable to open ridicule via the medium of theatre, be they king or pauper, man or woman, Moore or Jew as evidenced by the writing of the period. Everybody and everything – much to the delight of the paying public and the disdain of the censor – was fair game. The subject – Jew, Moore etc. – is irrelevant, as the subjects themselves are simply the masks upon which the foil of disdain is played. Whether xenophobic, racist, misogynist or anti-Semitic – or any other form of depredation – Shakespeare’s writing, rather than guilty of one, is representative of all. Shakespeare uses the Jew as a representation rather than as an example and therefore, can be forgiven for what we today would class as anti-Semitism. The dearth of Jewry at this particular period of history in England supports this and acquits Shakespeare of that which we consider most heinous.

               Shakespeare’s plays mirrored Elizabethan society, reflecting that which would’ve been familiar to a theatre audience. This suggests that his characters were symbolic of those traits, particular to 16th century awareness. This can be understood by the pervasive notion during the period, that being English was a matter of divine anointment, culminating in a very real sense of national superiority that was apparent in the writings of the time. One book in particular that was explicit is this view was, “The Misery of Flanders, the Calamity of France, Misfortune of Portugal, Unquietness of Ireland, the Troubles of Scotland and the Blessed state of England. (Chute.p.61) The sense of superiority – as its text suggests – was such that an Englishman, “didn’t have to be rude to a foreigner or denigrate him as there was simply no need,” (Chute.p.61) being English as they were. As one Englishman put it, “the English contrary to all, to the custom of all nations, give the higher place to women…gives honor and support to weakness … and strangers” (Chute.p.62) Visitors to the country during the period complained bitterly that the highest compliment that could be paid to a foreigner by the “smug… islanders,” (Chute.p.62) who truly believed their country to be the center of the known world was that, “it was pity they weren’t English. (Chute.p.62) Given this level of nationalistic hubris – something which modern society is equally familiar with – it’s hardly surprising that although flagrant, when viewed through a modern lens, was nothing less than justifiable by the Elizabethans.

               This chauvinism – based both on their Roman affiliation and memorable defeats at the hands of the English at Agincourt and Crecy – is exemplified in particular, in the unbounded hatred for the Catholic French. Despite this glaring xenophobia we don’t despise the Elizabethans, nor question their morality, for disliking their Gallic neighbors: a persistent stereotype that modern America still chooses to ignore regarding their questionable moral fortitude, cuisine and supposed awkward social graces! In stark contrast to this and predominantly due to the reported atrocities and body count of the Second World War, it’s become an understandable trend to protect one specific people and one specific religion. Despite the fact that modern audiences are over faced with the dogmatism of anti-Islamic rhetoric, Judaism goes unadulterated and free of any stain. Protected as they are by august political bodies, the Jew in modern society is immune from criticism and beyond reproach. This juxtaposes the Elizabethan approach to Jewry and the universal condemnation of the Jew, so overwhelmingly apparent in the theatre of the period. Therefore, one might assume, given the precedence in 16th Century England for the theatrical Jew, that anti-Semitism was rife. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth!

               It’s unlikely that Shakespeare ever came into contact with a practicing Jew during his lifetime and yet his portrayal of them seems to be – as with most things he described – gleaned from some vestige of personal experience. The Christ killing, knife wielding, zealots of biblical refute simply didn’t exist in England during this period and so the imagery from which he created them wasn’t from quotidian contact but from contemporary imagination. Just as there were few Blacks in England during the 1500’s – a fact that remained true until the late 1940’s – so there were even less people of the chosen tribe. It’s recorded that Catherine of Aragon had a trumpet ensemble in 1501 consisting of six Black musicians ( – such was their peculiarity – and that a few lascars were seen occasionally around the docks, but the Black man really didn’t arrive in England until the seventeenth century with the onset of the salve trade. Other races were also uncommon in the extreme and it wasn’t until Sir Walter Raleigh returned with a few disconsolate Indians from the Americas (Encyclopedia Britannica) that the public began to realize that there was more between heaven and earth than just the white Christian faces that surrounded them on a daily basis. This interest seized the imagination to the point that people would pay a penny to see Raleigh’s American natives alive or dead, paraded as they were either in rude health or propped up in coffins. (Encyclopedia Britannica) Likewise the children of Abraham didn’t run through the streets of London nor did they ply Shylock’s trade in the allotted quarters – the ghettos – of the city. Shakespeare was writing from an imaginary perception rather than personal conscience. Although the Jew was a desperate figure in the plays of the period – especially in their stereotypical representation – they as a people didn’t exist in England at the time of the Shakespeare’s authorship. The only Jews present in England at this time would’ve been those few who’d converted to Christianity: forbidden as it was to practice Judaism under national law.

               The Jews were initially invited to England by William the Conqueror after his successful invasion in 1066. Due to their financial success in France the Jews were appreciated as being adept in commercial enterprise and prized for their innate intelligence. Although this made them attractive as courtly advisors, it was their aptitude to usury – as is showcased in “The Merchant of Venice” – that was of greatest benefit to the newly installed monarchy. (Encyclopedia Britannica) Usury, or the making of money from money, was forbidden by the Christian church, although in Shakespeare’s time it was undoubtedly practiced among Christians. Without this financial maneuvering, business could simply not have taken place and both Shakespeare and his father – as proven by contemporary documentation – lent money for profit and therefore, not dissimilar to the Jewish stereotype portrayed on the Elizabethan stage, were usurers themselves. There wouldn’t have been a person in the Elizabethan audience that wasn’t either aware of, or who didn’t participate in the practice of usury and so, the allusion, pertaining to the breeding of base metal in “The Merchant of Venice” being a uniquely Jewish sin, would’ve been regarded as ridiculous.

               Although the Jews had lived among the English Christians for centuries the relationship wasn’t always cordial. The religion of the Jew was anathema to Christian doctrine and consequently heinous crimes where perpetrated against them. Pogroms were not unusual in Europe or England, especially during the periods of the crusades and in 1190 five hundred Jews were murdered in the city of York for allegedly causing an outbreak of the plague. (Fordham) Pre-Shakespearian hatred wasn’t just based on the religious conflicts of the period but also on the apparent crimes – of which there are many accounts – perpetrated by Jews on Gentiles and in particular the ritualistic murder of Christian children. The most infamous of these was that of “Hugh of Lincoln.” In 1255, he was kidnapped by Jews and crucified and tortured in apparent hatred of Jesus Christ. The boy’s mother found his body in a well – similar to Chaucer’s “Story of the Prioress” – on the premises of a Jew. The Jew was later executed for the crime along with eighteen of his supposed confederates. King Henry III personally ordered the investigation of the case and ultimately refused to allow mercy to be shown to the Jew, who was executed for his crime.”(Fordham) This and other so-called Jewish atrocities persisted, creating an endemic loathing for the Jews and their faith.

               Upon Edward 1st return from the crusades, England was found to be in a state of corruption and neglect thanks to the ineptitude of the royal representatives who’d remained behind. The blame for the economic and social disaster eventually fell on the head of the Jewish administrators who in the edict of 1290 were banished in their totality from English shores and their religion outlawed upon pain of death. Only allowed to carry what they could on their backs, the Jews were repulsed back to the continent and out of England until their eventual return in the 1620’s. (Fordham) Jewish contempt persisted as evidenced in the 14th century in “The Prioress Tale” in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” where a song of Christian martyrdom is related. The story is of a young boy who walked through the Jewish quarter praising the Mother Mary and who was eventually murdered by the Jews for his blasphemy. Tales like this were not uncommon and featured regularly in the Christian psyche of the period. One only has to study the character of Barabbas in Marlowe’s “The Jew of Malta” – from which “The Merchant of Venice” is heavily lifted – to understand the abhorrence for the Jew.

               Given the prevalence of stories and rhymes associated with the hatred for Jewry, it’s small wonder that the Jew became a stock figure on the Elizabethan stage as a molester of children, a malevolent pagan and a foul handler of money. The unavoidable paradox of this practice was that the Jew simply didn’t exist in England during Shakespeare’s lifetime. Greenblatt is his book “Will in the World” uses the analogy of the wolf as similarly representative of the Jewish question. For centuries English children have been ushered to bed with tales of wolves. Bed time tales such as “Peter and the Wolf”, “Little Red Riding Hood” and “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” are hoary staples that generations of parents have scared their children witless with in order to press them into conformity. Darkened forests where a salivating beast is hidden behind every shadow, where little girls on their way to visit itinerant grandmas start at every sound. Wolves haven’t existed on the British mainland since prehistoric times, when the land mass of Europe was connected via what is now the English Channel, when wild animals were free to roam at leisure. Not only have they not existed, but they have not been hunted, eaten or otherwise seen and so the vision of the wolf is very much a figment of the imagination. Therefore, just as the wolf hasn’t existed on the British mainland neither had the Shakespearian Jew. The analogy speaks to the fact that the Jew is a representation rather than a figure of hatred. The Jew is the wolf and the wolf is the Jew. The stories are circulated In order to prevent children from disappearing with strangers or roaming too far from home. Therefore, the Jew of Shakespearian experience is pure imagery, just as the Moore is, just as the drab is, just as the ubiquitous brainless Welshman is. Shakespeare was concerned with portrayal, not with facts, and this is why his characters are so contentious.

               The scandal of the Jew turned Christian – one Rodrigo Lopez, a former physician to Elizabeth 1st – who was tried and hanged for treason, would’ve busied the pamphleteers and excited the readers of Elizabethan London. (Harvard) The popularity of Marlowe’s play “The Jew of Malta” would similarly have reignited the latent anti-Semitism towards the non-existent Jew in the same way McCarthy scared the world with his allusion to, “a red under every bed.” Shakespeare as a business man would’ve reacted eagerly to a trending, money-making venture and bent his pen accordingly to the disparagement of the Jew. At the very least, Shakespeare held Jewry up to his audience to compare and contrast what little differences really exist between cultural archetypes. Shakespeare used the Jew as a representation rather than as an example and therefore, can be forgiven for what we today would class as anti-Semitism. The dearth of Jewry in England at this particular point in history supports this and acquits Shakespeare of that which we consider most heinous.

A GRIMM TALE – Short Story

5 Aug




“Good writing should be like looking through clear glass.”  George Orwell

Once upon a time…

               George sat at the breakfast table surrounded by the detritus left by two boiled eggs, a round of burnt, buttered toast and several cups of coffee. The ashtray was full: the bills lay unmolested beside the empty cigarette packet. Days had turned to years, hours to weeks and minutes to days, an eternity of unvanquished time had elapsed since he’d been laid off from the steel plant. Einstein – whoever he was – had been right! Twenty two years he’d worked at that damn place, man and boy and for what?

               His was not a life of dotage, fulfilled hobbies and a cozy game of darts every Wednesday night with fellow generational survivors, but a purgatory of redundant sloth. The Chinese merger had meant that the old were out and the computers in. No point trying to fight it. With the dissolution of the union by an overzealous caring government, who’d cashed out and buggered off, there’d been nobody left to fend for the workers. Instead, something called human resources had taken the place of the “brotherhood.” An oxymoron, given that the lady in the steel rimmed glasses was anything but and the resources…well you get the picture.

               George wasn’t old, but he was tired. Not of life, but of trying to live it at fifty five. There was still so much left to do and not having completed the requisite four score and twenty, George felt that he still had something to offer. But with what?

               His fortunes had melted like icebergs under the sustained assault of global warming, his stocks and shares, shared and scrapped, his house worth less than he’d paid for it and the car outside in the driveway desperately in need of a universal cure for rust. He was on the edge, the brink, his rope, the tether and therefore, because too much of anything isn’t necessarily a good thing, the outlook was less than peachy. If bad luck was bankable then even now he would drowning his sorrows in the Cayman Islands. In the Anglo Saxon sense of the vernacular George was well and truly fucked, shafted, screwed, roggered, buggered, raped and, to add insult to injury, had probably been fiddled with as well. Even God wasn’t on his side, as being a lapsed Catholic only added to the burgeoning sexual innuendo he was feeling.

               But what to do, how to make the money he needed to pay the bills he couldn’t? The bills were emboldened in blood red and without speedy remuneration he’d lose the water, the electric and the three piece suite. If things could possibly be any worse he’d be surrounded by Zulus with nothing but a Martini-Henry rifle and six shots between himself and oblivion. George quickly rethought this and concluded that the Zulus would be better than a life without electric. Payments had to be made no later than Thursday week, seven days to acquire what he didn’t have, to furnish those he didn’t know, with what he couldn’t provide for those whom he loved. He was flat broke with nothing in his pockets but holes. Even the moths had left the house for lack of a sustainable lifestyle, closely followed by the mice that’d starved on fresh air and gone to eat some other poor sod out of house and home. He was a zero; worse than that he was a negative zero. George was bereft, had nothing left of any value: but wait perhaps he did.

               “What about a garage sale,” suggested Constance, his wife of twenty years? George stopped toying with his egg shells and considered what she’d just said. He looked at his wife through the serving hatch that linked the dining room to the kitchen. She stood with her back to him, a good looking woman who’d been with him through a little of the thick and a lot of the thin and yet there she still stood. George just assumed that she had nowhere better to go. There again, a woman who went to Yoga five times a week, watched what she ate, and ran what was left of the budget with a clenched iron fist could do a lot better, or at least he thought so.

               She walked through to the dining room and tossled his hair. “Put some of those old tools you don’t use anymore out on the drive way. You might just make some money.”

               Old car tools, that he’d use to maintain the family jalopy and even help some of the friends, who’d long since moved away to some of those new nicer neighborhoods they were building where the green belt used to be. He should have moved with them when he had the chance. Recriminations were one thing he wasn’t short of. But who’d want that old rusted pile of crap. Who’d want to buy his old reliable tools when they could by brand new shiny foreign imports from the big box store in the high-street? He shook his head. His wife shrugged and kissed him before walking out the door. She blew him a final kiss, “Don’t be so hard on yourself George. Something will turn, up you’ll see.”

               George grinned his yellowing smile and watched as the door closed behind her. What was the point, there wasn’t a single thing of value in his house that anybody could possibly want? He stirred himself, went into the kitchen and plugged in the kettle. Life was always better with a cuppa and a fag. He looked in the tea caddy and noticed his diminishing supply of Darjeeling. Things had to turn around soon or there wouldn’t be any of that left either. What would’ve been the point of empire, if an Englishman went without tea? All the energy that’d gone into blood and genocide for the pointless inking of red nations in countless geography books wasted. The kettle boiled. George poured his tea and went back to the table, picked up the newspaper and began to read from where he’d left off.

               The front door crashed open and in came his daughter. A girl of twenty one who’d just started at the local college. Bright girl, who played the trumpet and got straight b’s. Always dressed nice and always with a smile on her face. His mates, or rather former colleagues, had told him he was a lucky man but he’d always figured it was them who were trying to get lucky.

               “Hi dad. What you up today,” she asked?

               “Same old same old,” he said taking in the boobs of the lass on page three.

               “I just saw mum in the yard. She says you’re going to have a garage sale. That’s a great idea isn’t it?”

               George nodded ambivalence in the general direction of the ray of sunshine attempting to illuminate his shadowy part of the world. “What about those old medals of yours and those old military prints you used to collect? Surely somebody would want those?”

               George had never served, but had a penchant for anything in a red jacket carrying a musket and had collected cigarette cards and old military prints since he’d been a lad. There were some old tarnished medals as well somewhere, probably in the loft along with the prints covered in dust, spider webs and asbestos fibers. But who’d want that old stuff? These days everything was bright and shiny and made of plastic fantastic. Why would he waste his time going into the attic just to retrieve something that somebody would probably only give a pittance for. George shrugged noncommittally as his daughter came across the room. She knelt down, hugged him from behind and kissed his ear.

               “Love you dad,” she said. “Things will pick up, you just see if they don’t.” She smelt of soap and perfume. “Anyway, got to go. See you later dad.”

               George muttered something under his breath. He was derelict, had nothing and the outlook wasn’t any brighter than the B.B.C shipping forecast. Even now fisherman were staring out of salt-streaked wheel houses watching the clouds gather above George’s house, thanking God they were in safer waters. He was a financial shipwreck and worse than that he owed money, which ironically meant he had less than nothing. It was a Shakespearian tragedy so tragic, that the Bard himself would’ve ruled out writing it for fear of perpetually suspending disbelief in his audience.

               Even though he hadn’t bought a ticket, George turned to the back of the paper to check the football results and peruse the lottery numbers he would’ve chosen. With the desperation of a drowning man clinging to a punctured inner-tube, George prayed that divine providence would, as the catechism said it would, eventually intervene and very soon, he hoped to inherit the earth. The local team had lost and the numbers on the pools weren’t the right ones. He always chose birthdays when he played. Always the same ones and of course always the number sixty six, as although he wasn’t exactly winning himself, it’d been a long time since the England football team had won either.

               “What’s up dad?” A young man walked into the kitchen via the back door. “Barbara tells me you’re having a garage sale. Sounds like a plan.”

               His son was a good kid who’d recently left the Army and joined one of the new accounting companies in the city. The boy had a good head on his shoulders and never been any trouble. Always good to his old mum and dad and helped our where he could. A son who respected both his upbringing and those who’d raised him. Every one George met down the pub told him what a fine young man he was, how fortunate he was to have such an ambitious, handsome, son.

              “What about those old paintings you used to have. They’ve got to be worth something? Haven’t seen them for a while. You used to be right proud of those.”

               George had always had a talent for painting and used to disappear up to the moors or to the coast on the weekends. He’d a way of capturing the light on the fells and a knack of incorporating the bustle in the crowd with his horse-hair bristles. His oceans had churned and his sails puffed. There was a talent in his old hands that his school masters had recognized in his youth but which, through lack of practice, he’d undoubtedly lost. His artwork had featured at an exhibition once and he’d even won a couple of prizes. There’d been a piece about him in the Press which he’d cut out and stuck in a drawer somewhere for safe-keeping. Where it was now, God only knew! The paintings though were at the back of the shed, behind the creosote and half used paint cans that had accumulated as they hardened and became useless. The damp had crept through the untreated wood of the shed walls and destroyed some of the canvasses. Occasionally, when he was down the bottom of the garden potting plants, some of the old familiars would catch his eye and remind of the love he’d troweled into them.

               “Got to go. Big meeting at work today. Could mean a promotion.” His son smiled and slapped him on the back. “Cheer up Dad. It’ll work out, it always does.”

               George grimaced, waved and watched his son walk out the front door.

               “Bleeding garage sale!” How was he going to swing that?

               George had nothing.

               George was a bloody idiot!





4 Aug




Unterecker, John. “The Tower” A Reader’s Guide to William Butler Yeats. Irish Literature Series. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1996


               Published in 1928 “The Tower” contains some of the most powerful work produced during Yeats’ life time. The conspicuous title of the book – taken from “Thoor Ballylee Castle” the sometimes home of Yeats and his family – is representative of the blasted, impotent, isolationism incorporated throughout the work. Encompassing much of his poetry from the early 1920’s there are prevailing allusions to the Irish struggle, the repudiation of civil conflict and the First World War. Artistic maturity and the influence of Ezra Pound’s modernist approach detract from his earlier romantic influences and represent a new invigorated style. Given that Ireland was in turmoil and his own theosophical crisis, it’s understandable that outside forces helped to shape this later work. Although extremely bitter in context, it represents a poetical deviation in both pace and style, exhibiting as it does a defined shift in subjectivity. Rather than continuing in the vein of Irish cultural nationalism, Yeats instead concentrates on the existentialist nature of growing old and everything that represents. Aware of his own mortality, Yeats confronts the paradox of creative abundance and physical decrepitude in the poems “Sailing to Byzantium” and “A man Young and Old.” Like much of the poetry contained within the volume, they provide a framework that allowed Yeats to express a new personal vision in “an architectonic response to human life.” Unterecker cites the “Winding Stair” – Yeats next collection of poems – as a natural balance to “The Tower”: a body of work espousing an opposing view. In referring to the “Winding Stair,” Yeats informs his readership that he will, “ put off the bitterness of Irish quarrels and write my most amiable verse,” which intuitively presents the reader of this chapter with the defined imagery of a scaffold on which the crumbling tower was built and its obvious allusions to sterility and decay. Although not the easiest of chapters to comprehend, given Unterecker’s pathological desire to dissect each mote of minutia, “The Tower” is an important mile stone in Yeats poetical development. No longer symbolic of a nation wrapped in the mists of mythology and draped in Celtic connotation but instead of a fledgling Ireland immerging from the brick dust of communal struggle, clothed in the garb of the poet’s own mortality.


The associations to the “The Winding Stair” are useful as they at least demonstrate the duality of Yeats in this later period of his life.


Unterecker is verbose to the point of incoherence, presenting the new reader with a litany of formulaic hieroglyphics. If the reader is unfamiliar with Yeats then delving into the subjectivity of the poet neither enhances of imbues the work to the would-be scholar. Rather than reflect on the minutia of Yeats, the author should perhaps broaden his scope in order to widen audience appreciation, instead of offering claustrophobic prose that do little to endear the reader to the poet. 

Interesting quotes

1. “I was astonished at its bitterness, and long to live out Ireland that I may find some new vintage.” (p.170)

2. “Perhaps if I was in better health I could be content to be bitter” (P.170)

3. [My poems] “are not philosophical but simple and passionate, a lamentation over lost peace and lost hope.” (p.177)


2 Aug







In earlier poetry Yeats used the concept of the mask to both identify with and promote an essence of something beyond the scope of political wrangling. His vision of a tangible Ireland circumvented land boundaries and harkened back to an age, that with a little poetical persuasion, “could be realized in the hearts of an awakening people” (Unterecker p.17). The knowledge of a much older Ireland contained within the stories of the uneducated classes was something he’d recognized and utilized to create a patriotic foundation, by asserting a national provenance based on myth. Every nation could trace it roots back to a period of time more shrouded in superstition than reality and Yeats utilized this pretext on which to found an Irish identity. The mask was simply a framework on which to drape the fabric of nationhood. In later life, Yeats used his own experience and maturity to color his writing, lending it a discernable tincture than can be found in “Unterecker’s” allusions to poetical division in the subgenres of “survivor,” “defeated lover” and “scholar.” Rather than a mask or a pretense of origin, Yeats incorporated life experience to frame his later poetry.

               In 1919 when “The Wild Swans at Coole” was published, much had changed, not only in Yeats’ life, but with the world in general. The First World War had been fought and won by the allied powers, the Easter Rising, although crushed, had reawakened Irish nationalism and his long standing romantic entanglement had been resolved (although not necessarily for the better.) Yeats was now a married man in middle age with an invigorated interest in the occult. The automatic-writings of his wife had led to new inspiration and an insider view of what it was to be alive in a world that most people couldn’t begin to perceive. Armed with what he believed to be the truth, he set about applying fresh visages to old subjects. Imbued with the sentiment of loss – hardly surprising given the perception of life in the early years of the 20th Century after the debacle of the trenches – his work was more retrospective than contemporary.

               Although an older man, Yeats was now a poet with perspective, one who’d experienced life and who’d used his own maturity to embellish his work. The objectivity of hindsight created an awareness of mortality: a consciousness of diminishing time, rather than the optimism of burgeoning youth, that allowed the poet pause for reflection. Rather than masks – as “Unterecker” suggests – Yeats applies perceptible veneers to his writing. There’s no longer any reason to mask his work as being in the most stable position – financially and socially – of his life, he’s able to view the world around him in with an objectivity never before expressed. “The Wild Swans at Coole” was a milestone in Yeats’ career. He no longer had to be illusive, but could wholeheartedly express the hopes and fears of a mortal man aware of the juxtaposition of both regret and fulfillment.

               There’s undoubtedly a sense of survival in his work. Ensconced within the philanthropy of Lady Gregory’s estate, Yeats reflects on both the death of her son and the realization of the temporality of life. On the one hand, a young man has been destroyed by political forces beyond his understanding and on the other Mother Nature, who’s simply exacting that which is hers. Confronted with death, Yeats recognizes the inevitability of his own. In the poem “Wild Swans” Yeats expresses these viewpoints succinctly. Caught up in the carnage of romantic rejection, advancing age, mortality and the ever present Irish Question, Yeats outdoes himself in what is probably one of his greater poetical endeavors.

               Yeats counts the swans upon the water, “Upon the brimming water among the stones, are nine-and-fifty swans,” an experience he’s enjoyed during each of the nineteen summers he’s spent on the estate. Nothing is more constant than the birds that swim – an allusion to the monogamous love in swans but not in people – “lover by lover,” than the swans that greet his annual arrival. Except this time, there’s something unusual. There’s a deliberate recognition of their number. Rather than a round, poetical sixty, they total only fifty nine. The swans are missing one of their numbers, a creature of the air, just like themselves, who’s failed to return to the Arcadia of Coole. Lady Gregory’s son was that “swan.” A pilot lost to the Great War: an inevitable absenteeism of which Yeats is profoundly aware. The concept of the swans as a constant summer feature strikes a note with Yeats, as although they’re seemingly immune to change, he and the world about him are not. They swim, whilst he treads with a heavier footstep: an allusion to the progress of old age and the burden of experience. What Yeats really questions, is what will happen when he’s no longer there and the swans are still swimming? Although a survivor himself, it’s the swans, or at least their progeny, that will outlive him as they “Delight men’s eyes when I awake someday, to find they have flown away?” The swans are forever, rather like – although unbeknownst to him at the time – his verse which continues to fly from ear to ear despite the demise of its creator. The estate at Coole is both a memory and an Elysium, the association of all its facets forever captured in rhyme. Yeats survives, despite his mortality, just as the swans continue to reappear.

               Choosing “neither King nor Keiser” Yeats did not fight or support the factions of the war. Instead he chose the dubious neutrality of Ireland which aligned itself philosophically against the morality of a rogue nation invading a lesser nation and yet endured the political contradiction that understood the jackboot of colonialism. “Unterecker” refers to the mask of the scholar but perhaps it’s more a taint of political savvy that pervades Yeats poetry instead of the brilliance of the man himself. Yeats was asked during the progress of the First World War to add his voice in poetical support of the war which he cannily didn’t do. Despite the fact that thousands of Irishmen fought for Britain, Yeats refused to involve himself. Instead of adding to the diatribe on the political misadventure of trench warfare, something that was all too common in the broadsheets, he instead penned a remittance which now can be seen as self-serving. The poem’s original title, “To a friend who has asked me to sign his manifesto to the neutral nations,” suggests a “toysome evasiveness regarding the politics surrounding the war.”(Haughey p.162) Unlike any other period in his life Yeats, as a poet, chose to be silent. This was entirely new, something he’d never done before, guilty as he was of having penned pedantic poetry to disparage an organization that wouldn’t hang the paintings of a friend. Yeats had always been political and yet in this one instance chose to remain silent. “On being asked for a War Poem” is a jibe at the political class suggesting that poets have, “no gift to set a statesman right.” This tongue-in-cheek statement is quickly followed with the mocking, “Who can please a young girl in the indolence of her youth,” which expresses in its comparison, Yeats’ true position. In later years Yeats refused to include the poetry of “Wilfred Owen” in a compilation of British poetry, something which rather than political can only be seen, at the extent of charity, as “simply wrong-headed and churlish in his evaluation.”(qtd. web #2) Yeats was a political animal and yet with the scent of rebellion and Irish independence in the air, was coy enough to keep his own counsel.

               “Unterecker’s” third suggested mask is that of the defeated lover. Yeats rejected in love by Maud Gonne and disturbingly by her daughter as well, settles to an unfaithful marriage. Rather than a man looking for the peace of matrimonial partnership, he can never relinquish the emotions of a love lost. “Broken Dreams” is such a poem of unrequited longing and the encroaching, inevitability of death. Not dissimilar to “When you are old,” Yeats nods by a fire and peruses the book of memory, in which he finds his old love Maud Gone. Described as an old lady “for whom young men no longer suddenly catch their breath when [she is] passing.” He can’t help but reflect on the woman she once was, and of her, “beauty deep.” A quintessential emotion of human regret, that Yeats profoundly captures. Although slightly disparaging, it freezes – “When age might well have chilled his blood” – a moment in time. When the poet is asked by the young man to, “Tell [him] of that lady, the poet stubborn with his passion sang us,” Yeats surprisingly reflects on eternity and a supernatural reconciliation. Given that Yeats was a fervent occultist, this may reflect more on inspiration gained from his mystical-meddling than mature religious reaffirmation. In either context it does reveal that despite her loss and the years in between, nothing really changed in the way he felt about her.

               “Unterecker” although alluding to differences in the poetry styles contained within the book is incorrect in his immediate associations with masks. Yeats’ poems are clearly themed: a lucid presentation of maturity and a profound recollection, that help to frame his work. Not choosing to dissemble with romantic association, Irish nationalism, or Celtic mysticism, Yeats instead is forthright in his representations, exhibiting both an honest and a recognizable sensibility. Rather than a mask or a pretense of origin, Yeats incorporates his own life experience to frame his poetry.

Works Cited

  1. Haughey, Jim. The First World War in Irish Poetry Bucknell University Press (2002) p.162. Print
  2. Web
  3. A Reader’s Guide to William Butler Yeats, Unterecker, John; Syracuse University press; New York, 1959. Print