Julian Breandán Dean
York College/CUNY

Creative Commons 4.0 by Julian Breandán Dean. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.

Lauren Arrington and Matthew Campbell, eds.

Oxford University Press, 2023. 752 pages.

ISBN: 9780198834670

When I tell people that I work on Yeats, I am often met with snide smiles. The Sally Rooney reading of Yeats as a far-right reactionary with mediocre poetry whose work in the Senate was just as insidious as his drama is somehow the most common reading of Yeats these days. Recently, while planning a conference on the centenary of his Nobel Prize, a colleague asked if we would include a “talking ill of the dead” panel. People would enjoy it, he said, because Yeats was “a bit of a shit”. Indeed, whenever I am discussing the poet with non-Yeatsians, the only positive thing anyone seems to say is that he managed to stop a lot of cocaine from being smuggled into Ireland. Of course, that is referring to the naval ship not the poet.

The thing about Rooney and my colleague, both of whom are brilliant people with more than just passing knowledge of Yeats and his oeuvre, is that they are correct. Yeats was, in my colleague’s words, a bit of a shit. But what bothers me about these readings of him is that they tend to totalize the poet using only certain periods of his life and work. Yes, Yeats did indeed view fascism as a legitimate political alternative to democracy. But as most Yeats scholars will tell you, this flirtation did not last, and so treating Yeats as a fascist ignores most of his life and work to focus on him at a singular point in time. And again, that is fair to critique and to even bring to the forefront in conversation, but it severely limits our view of a very complex person who, like all of us, changed and grew and changed again over the course of his life. He held contradictory viewpoints at any one point in time, let alone over his entire lifespan as a writer. And it is this complex, paradoxical Yeats who still has something to offer.

The Oxford Handbook of W.B. Yeats presents Yeats in all of his complexity. Yes, there are indeed essays on his fascism. And there are essays on his earlier radical phase. There are essays that highlight the bigheadedness of the man and those that demonstrate his capacity to work with and for others. In short, this collection of essays edited by Lauren Arrington and Matthew Campbell is neither hagiography nor slam piece. It is a well-rounded view of the complexities in life and literature of Ireland’s first Nobel Laureate.

The volume is divided into six parts with a brief Preface from Arrington and Campbell and a brilliant Postscript by Vona Groarke, in which Yeats is exposed to contemporary criticism and forced to face his detractors and students (and I must say the “computer programme that swoops down on and gobbles Yeats phrases from politicians’ speeches” deserves to be copyrighted immediately).

Part I: “Such Friends: Predecessors and Collaborators” consists of eight essays looking at friends both intimate and social who helped form Yeats and his works. Seán Hewitt’s essay, “Fairy and Folk Tales of Bedford Park”, is a well-timed reassessment of Yeats’s first book and the cultural milieu in which it was produced. The small group of occultists interested in folklore, a group Yeats was in dialogue with when writing Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, are certainly an understudied group. This focus on peripheral figures is complimented with essays by Nicholas Grene and Margaret Mills Harper on Lady Gregory and George Yeats, respectively. Both Grene and Harper manage to say things fresh and new about figures much more familiar to Yeats studies.

Part II: “In and Through History” comprises eleven essays exploring Yeats’s place in and use of history. The very names of contributors in this section (indeed as in the whole volume) are nothing less than intimidating, with Arrington herself in this section providing yet another example of her field-shaping scholarship. While new essays by Roy Foster and Edna Longley are alone worth the price of the volume, there are also some gems from (slightly) less renowned scholars. Geraldine Higgins, for instance, provides a critical reinterpretation of Yeats’s unstable histories in “September 1913” and “Easter, 1916” that forces us to grapple afresh with the dialectic between history and art in Yeats’s work.

Part III: “From the Global to the Interplanetary” comprises six essays looking at reception, collaboration, and vision (and, yes, A Vision). This section follows a broader trend in Irish Studies to move away from a narrow focus on the island to a broader scope that interrogates how world (or planetary) politics inform our readings of art and history. Jahan Ramazani’s chapter on “Asias” is representative of this trend and builds on the superb work he has been doing in this field since The Hybrid Muse. Coupled with this broadened scope, this section also provides three readings of Yeats’s view of the world and cosmos. Katherine Ebury’s “The Scientific Revolution” and Cóilín Parsons’ “Planets” both provide critical insights into how Yeats understood the material world through his acceptance and rejection of modern science.

Part IV: “Genres and Media” is perhaps the most diverse section of the volume. Charles Armstrong and Tom Walker provide historicized accounts of the influence and reception of Romanticism and Aestheticism and Modernism, respectively, in and on Yeats’s poetics. In the same section, Claire Nally introduces us to new ways of conceptualizing Yeats’s obsession with the ghostly, while Jack Quin, Elizabeth Bergmann Loizeaux, and Emilie Moran each provides critical accounts of Yeats’s collaborations in various mediums.

Part V: “Playing Yeats” has five essays which focus on the theatre. The first three essays cover his early, middle, and late period with Susan Cannon Harris’s chapter shedding light on some very understudied early plays. Patrick Lonergan’s chapter provides a critical account of Yeats’s performance legacy in Ireland. Lonergan challenges the notion that Yeats’s plays are somehow not worthy of staging by demonstrating the vast and rich history of production outside of the Abbey. Finally, this section ends with Susan Jones’s essay that treats dance both as a symbol and a performance question in Yeats’s drama and poetry.

Finally, Part VI: “Reading Yeats” consists of five essays that vary from the very close readings of Stephanie Burt, Matthew Campbell, and Lucy McDiarmid to the more editorial-minded readings of Wayne K. Chapman and Warwick Gould, who focus on the late style of Yeats and the posthumous editing of Yeats, respectively. Ending with these two scholars was a brilliant move by Arrington and Campbell, as I would be hard pressed to identify two scholars more important to the field over the past thirty years. Of course, this is not quite the end. As I mentioned earlier, there is a treat at the end in the form of Groarke’s Postscript.

The Oxford Handbook of W.B. Yeats is, like the man himself, complex and sometimes contradictory. With so many contributors from so many backgrounds, the view of Yeats is hardly unified. And that is why this is such an important volume. We get a kaleidoscopic view of Yeats that, when held in tension, gives us a near total view of the man and his works. There are, of course, issues with having so many contributors. Some essays break important new ground and were received by this Yeatsian with shock and joy, while others are a bit more introductory and review critical work and approaches more familiar to us in the field. This, of course, makes the book ideal for libraries as it contains something for the neophyte and those in the higher orders (sorry I am afforded one occult joke per review). But perhaps the greatest strength of this collection is the attention paid to collaboration in many of these essays. As has been the trend in Yeats studies over the past decade, this collection subtly expands the spotlight to include the many collaborators who shaped the life and work of W.B. Yeats. By exploring the connections and collaborations that made his art possible, these essays expand our knowledge of Yeats and the world in which he lived. Essays like Susan Harris’s highlight virtually unknown collaborators while contributions from Jack Quin, Nicholas Grene, and Elizabeth Bergmann Loizeaux recentralize known collaborators like Althea Gyles, Lady Gregory, and Lilly and Lolly Yeats, respectively. By highlighting the connective tissue between Yeats, his friends, family, and colleagues in the art of W.B. Yeats, this volume implicitly asks us to reimagine what it means to be an artist and what it means to credit an artist. Yeats did not work alone. In his Nobel Prize speech, he accepts the prize on behalf of his “fellow-workers” in the Irish Dramatic Movement, the “many known and unknown persons”. Thanks to this volume, many of those unknown persons are brought to the forefront while the person most known to a general public is complicated in new and important ways.