Creation and Criticism
a literary e-journal
Creation and Criticism
(A Quarterly International Peer-reviewed Refereed e-Journal
Devoted to English Language and Literature)
Issue 02 : July 2016
Rereading W. B. Yeats in the Postcolonial Context
Dr. Gagan B. Purohit
The paper reinforces Yeats’s reckoning in the post colonial context. It argues that although Yeats was born much before the advent of post colonialism he looked forward to giving the movement a much needed boost in the face of impending attack from the colonial regime. Creation of national literature, indigenous idiom, and alternative history are very much in the cards both with Yeats and the post colonial writers which helped them on the course of a national identity, and personal survival free from the imperial hegemony. They preferred to write in English to see that the colonial creative output come a cropper when placed vis-à-vis their native literature. The Indian literary scene has also taken its cue from Yeats to rely on the native thrust of establishing a national literature based on “Indianness” that would end up the prolonged stalemate arising out of the national amnesia in Indian English writing. The paper also argues to show the success story of the Indian writing in English at the hands of its masters in keeping with the postcolonial project put forward by Yeats.
Key words: W.B. Yeats, post-colonialism, indigenous tropes, imperialist regime.
There is a fact: White men consider themselves superior to black men. There is another fact: Black men want to prove White men at all costs, the richness of their thought, the equal value of their intellect. How do we extricate ourselves? ( Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 10)
The eve of this article coincides with 150th birth centenary of W.B. Yeats who had given a definite direction and purpose to postcolonial criticism, although implicitly, by advocating indigenous tropes based on typical Irish experience which could well be regarded as the very basis on which post colonial literature revolves round. In a sense, Yeats could be considered as the worthy precursor of the literary artifact, notwithstanding the stereotype tag of being the butt of mockery and mimicry at the hands of colonial counterparts. He has actively advocated the “stage Irish” tradition to pay back the colonialist writers in their own coin by reinforcing the stereotyping into which they were trapped earlier by the imperialist regime. Chinua Achebe’s contention that English has become his medium of expression not by choice but by compulsion, and he has the master’s language at his disposal “to create an African song” (Innes, 101) holds good for Yeats’ cause of creating a distinctly Irish national literature in English. That Yeats could not speak or write in Irish does not come in the way of representing a national culture to reach out to an international acceptance by turning the onus on to the colonizers that Ireland is not “the home of buffoonery and easy sentiment, as it has been represented, but the home of an ancient idealism”(qtd.in Innes, 100)
W.B. Yeats has outlived a literary tradition which has been emulated by many postcolonial writers. Over the years many writers from the erstwhile colonies have begged prestigious literary awards that speak volumes about Yeats’ literary prowess. Writers like Chinua Achebe, Derek Walcott, Seamus Heaney could be regarded as the direct descendants of Yeats, and the list of writers who bear Yeats stamp implicitly is beyond count. That Yeats recommended the name of Gurudev Rabindra Nath Tagore for Nobel Prize shows his literary acumen and humble humanity. The paper is a modest attempt to analyze Yeats’ staying influence on postcolonial writers. The Indian scene is also taken into consideration where the postcolonial thrust of native culture, religion, place and landscape assumes epistemic significance following the Yeats model. Only writer of Yeats’ stature could afford to enliven an immortal literary tradition for generations past, present and future.
With the advent of Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism, W. B. Yeats often became a cult figure in the analysis of post colonial literature which has been duly authenticated by critics like David Llyod, and Jahan Ramazani’s The Hybrid Muse: Postcolonial Poetry in English(2001). Often considered as the product of an “in-between race” and adhering to the contrasting views propagated by Bhabha, “not quite/not white” and not quite/ not black, Yeats has turned out to be an important post colonial role model for writers like Derek Walcott. Nationalist myth and culture, religion and salvation of the soul were treated with utmost care to prepare the post colonial agenda to fight against the imperialist regime. Yeats believed that one can “build up a national tradition, a national literature which[would] be nonetheless Irish in spirit for being English in language(256). For Yeats, being rooted to the soil is the primary precondition to explore personal as well as national identity of the writer. This kind of thought is well explicated in the poem “Under Ben Bulben”. He believed that both national identity and personal glory are equally important for a writer:
Many Times man lives and dies
between two eternities,
that of race and that of soul
and ancient Ireland knew it all.(214)
What Henry Thoreau and Walt Whitman did for America with their special thrust on typically American themes based on native land and landscape, Yeats had done similar indigenous and patriotic service to Ireland by picking up distinct Irish subjects. Yeats proclaims that “when we remember the majesty of Cuchulain and the beauty of sorrowing Deidre, we should not forget that it is that majesty and that beauty which is immortal, and not the perishing tongue which first told them” (257).
The poem “The Second Coming” has a direct bearing upon Chinua Achebe’s seminal novel Things Fall Apart which deals with the colonial encounter so acutely felt in Nigeria ‘from the inside’. Achebe has put aside the white supremacy with a firm hand and propagated a view point which he strongly proposed in a perceptive essay “The Role of a Writer in a New Nation” in Nigeria Magazine 81(1964): “African peoples did not hear of civilization for the first time from the Europeans”(157). While responding to and contesting upon the facts and fiction about Africa being put forward by Cary and Conrad, Achebe uses the novel as a launching pad to unleash a scathing attack on the colonizers.
Yeats’s poem revolves round the hypothesis of historical regeneration, and a beginning of a new cycle where the old values are being rendered as redundant and out of place. The value system and the old customs crumble down to give way to a new world order which came to a meek end to the historical cycle of Christianity which begun gloriously some two thousand years ago. Yeats gives one time solution to the all the stake holders of Christianity in bringing about disorder and anarchy all around: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, /The blood dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / the ceremony of innocence is drowned”. (294)
A hiatus of hierarchies fell down and the Renaissance Europe was reduced to nothing with the steady descent of European culture. Ironically, Achebe uses the same image to account for the down fall of the African Civilization with the interference of the European culture and Christianity. The indigenous scheme of things were further removed from the native Africans with the needless company of the colonizers.
The image of disintegration is used by Achebe to good effect for projection and imposition of a spurious ideology which is being protested vehemently by one of the principal characters, Obierika of Umuofia village, a close aide of the protagonist, Okonkwo in the novel: “The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has own our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has a put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart”(124-125).
English Novelist Charles Kingsley’s white-apartheid account in a letter to his wife, while travelling in Ireland, is worth noting here:
But I am haunted by the human chimpanzees I saw along that hundred miles of horrible country. I don’t believe that they are our fault. I believe that there are not only more of them than of old, but that they are happier, better, more comfortably fed and lodged under our rule than they ever were. But to see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black, one would not feel it so much, but their skins except where tanned by exposure, are as white as ours.(Innes, 14)
In an apt reply to Anders Qsterling, Permanent Secretary of the Sweedish Academy Nobel prize presentation address, Eliot reveals his mind which also be applied to Yeats with pleasure and profit:
When a poet speaks to his own people, the voices of all the poets of other languages who have influenced him are speaking also. And at the same time he himself is speaking to younger poets of other languages, and these poets will convey of something of his vision of life and something of the spirit of his people, to their own. Partly through his influence on other poets, partly through translation, which must be also a kind of re-creation of his poems by other poets, partly through readers of his language who are not themselves poets, the poet can contribute towards understanding between peoples (The Heritage,1988: 63-64).
Judith Wright’s observation has come as shot in the armor to analyze the postcolonial problem of nativity and identity: ‘Before one’s country can become an accepted background against which the poet’s and novelist’s mind can move unhindered, it must be observed, understood, described and as it were, absorbed. The writer must be at peace with his landscape before he can turn confidently to its human figures’ (Preoccupations of Australian Poetry, xi).
The colonial imposition gives rise to the problem of identity and nationality among the post colonial writers, and Yeats is of no exception. The basic premise with which these writers surged ahead is the existential question “Who am I?”(203) that Fanon’s famous book The Wretched of The Earth so skillfully proposes to describe the inhuman treatment meted out to the writers from the erstwhile colonies. It is not surprising that Yeats both in his poetry and drama and in his Autobiographies (1926) foregrounds a quest for identity which is based on the indigenous experience. In “A Dialogue of the Self and Soul” he proves a point or two by expressing an urgent urge for construction of the self:
How in the name of heaven can he escape
That defiling and disfiguring shape
the mirror of the malicious eyes
casts upon his eyes until at last
he thinks that shape must be his shape? (350)
The poet brings home the message that he is here to purge “that defiling and disfiguring shape” (350) from the evil influence and the “malicious eyes” (350) of his detractors; it may also refer to the Irish stereotype of English inkling which falsely asserts the very survival which Yeats, Lady Gregory and their party wrote back to shed the burden of dependence. The establishment of the Irish Literary Theatre has proved the point that Ireland is not a mere puppet to dance to the tune of the English music. Both a national unity and individual identity become the subject matter of his Autobiographies:
Nations, races, and individual men are unified in an image, or bundle of related images, symbolical or evocative of a state of mind, which is of all state of mind impossible, the most difficult to that man, race or nation; because only the obstacle that can be contemplated without despair rouses the will to full intensity(Innes, 58).
Yeats through his autobiographical poetry and prose shows his commitment to and appraisal of an Ireland that he tries hard to change it completely. Like Yeats, James Joyce also tries to address the physical and mental colonization of his protagonists to represent the cause and plight of Ireland. The post colonial writers have tried to “write back” many key colonial texts like Robinson Crusoe (1719), Jane Eyre (1847) and Heart Of Darkness (1902). The white European male or female narrator is being construed as ‘normative’. The postcolonial project relies more on the reconstruction or reconfiguring of the native speaker’s identity. Protagonists, as in West Indian writer George Lamming’s In the castle of Skin, try to explore the trajectory of the mental colonization by escaping into exile.
“Easter 1916”which can be considered as a political poem or agenda celebrates the birth of a terrible beauty and heroism as a result of the sacrifice made by the martyrs by virtue of which they have been treated as the artifice of eternity. Their sacrifice transforms the ordinary mortals into immortal heroes. Here two contrasting values clash – the living stream and the rhythm of life on the one hand and the apprehension that the sacrifice can be turned into a ‘stone’ of the heart- are very much in keeping with Yeats’ vision. The martyrdom has given rise to a terrible beauty but the impending danger of the heart being reduced to a stone catering to the sole purpose is lurking in the face. The line “A terrible beauty is born” has become the punch line to represent the Irish temperament and ethos in creating a terrible beauty out of the heroism and sacrifice by the martyrs, the grey eighteenth century houses being their dwelling places, Yeats tries to reiterate the national heroes commitment to the cause of Ireland through an artifice of eternity.
In keeping with Yeats vision of past reclamation which is carried forward by Fanon’s firm belief that revival of the past is a necessity to work as a confidence booster for envisioning a future free of colonial hegemony, the Indians tried to launch an indigenous and value based search for roots, culture, and, landscape and place to represent them in the global market. That colonial rule was instrumental in imposing a kind of ideology that the Africans and the Indians were incapable of representing their history independently was opposed tooth and nail by the native writers. To cite an example the Indian historians insisted to rename “The Indian Mutiny” of 1957 as the “First War of Independence” or the “Great Indian Uprising”.
Ramanujan’s view on the status of English in shaping up our sensibility gives a balanced view amidst the claims and counter claims of colonial hegemony. It posits case for a native context in an internationally acclaimed language even though it happens to be the language of the colonisers:
It might be good that English is so widespread as second language. English has distorted our traditions but it has also made us look at our traditions. It’s not enough to say that it is all colonialism and has done nothing but distort. This whole question of colonial distortion has been formulated in English. It requires a dialogue with English. English has been the other through which we have returned to ourselves. English has become a part of us. To say we want to return to a state of pre-English is chimerical. The anti-colonial discourse is all done in English. Nobody is writing this in Kannada. In India, there is a wonderfully group of new historians called the Subalterns, who are looking at all the distortions of the colonial intellectual practices. But all their work is done in English. Isn’t the English in which they are writing distorting what they are writing about? English has made us self-critical and made us critical of English itself (Gentleman, 28).
In his seminal book, After Amnesia, G.N.Devy goes on to elaborate the nature of Amnesia of Indian literary tradition and blames the western literary canon for the inertia of the Indian literary criticism: “The worst part of the colonial impact was that it snatched away India’s living cultural heritage and replaced it with a fantasy of the past. This amnesia, which has affected our awareness of native traditions which are still alive, perhaps is the central factor of the crisis in Indian criticism” (After Amnesia 55).
The claims made by Devy sounds pompous at times because the people who are averse to English as language of colonizers paradoxically use the different “Englishes” (which are translated into English) so that that our regional or “Bhasa literature” (3 ) gets critical attention abroad.
Ramachandra Guha’s award winning book India After Gandhi ( won the SahityaAcademi Award for the year 2011) argues in favour of the relevance of English language in our day to day lives as follows:
In British times the intelligentsia and professional classes communicated with one another in English. So did the nationalist elite, Patel, Bose, Nehru, Gandhi and Ambedkar- all spoke and wrote in their native tongue, and also in English….After Independence, among the most articulate advocates for English was C. Rajgopalchari. The colonial rulers, he wrote, ‘for certain accidental reasons, causes and purposes…left behind [in India] a vast body of English language.’ But now it had come there was no need for it to go away. For English ‘is ours .We need not send it back to Britain along with the English men.’ He humorously added that, according to the Indian tradition it was a Hindu Goddess Saraswati, who had given birth to all the languages of the world. Thus English ’belonged to us by origin, the originator being Swaraswati, and also by acquisition’(762).
A sense of urgency is noticed to rearrange the world in disarray which culminates in some sort of skeptical, compromising, ironic ,ambivalent and inward vision based on indigenous idiom and experiences. Ezekiel, Ramanujan, JayantaMahapatra, Kamala Das, Bhatanagar, Shiv K. Kumar and Parthasarathy have recognized this urge for an Indianness that would stand them in good steeds for their very survival as poets, and they have become successful in creating a critical acclaim both in and outside the country. They pursued every possible avenues to explore the indigenous elements for a global representation. Parthasarthy is hard at it when he says in Rough Passage :
How long can foreign poets
provide the staple of your lines ?
Turn inward, scrape the bottom of your past.(3)
Mahapatra recognizes the “myth of sleep and action“ in him. Ramanujan’s probing mind harps on the origin and scope of his Hindu heritage ,Ezekiel handles the theme of superstition and folk belief in “Night of The Scorpion“ deftly, and Bhatnagar’s firm belief that the Indian Intellectuals, who prefer to stay abroad, deserting their mother land are worse than the migratory birds who return back to their native land at the end of the cold season ,has lot more to do with the theme of search for roots.
To conclude it can be easily said that we, in India stand a great chance if we go back to our roots by adopting alternative ways of reading the texts. The trend set by Yeats seems to have culminated in contemporary cultural critics like Satya P. Mohanty’s argument,trying to justify the canon through the representative texts like Balaram Das’s Odia LaxmiPuran where considerable light has been shed on the marginal and subaltern Shreya Chandluni’s cause. Colonialism and Imperialism have established a class structure with the dominance of higher class society is being radically repudiated by the underlying prominence of the representation of lower strata of society. Indian Poetics has a bright future if we imbibe the western literary theories into our indigenous experience for an interpretation. This line of thought has to be given its due if we want to survive as a literary force in the world.
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Das, Manoj. ed. The Heritage 12. (December 1988) 62-65. Print.
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About the Contributor:
Dr. Gagan Bihari Purohit, a senior lecturer in English in R.N. College, Dura (Ganjam), Odisha has been awarded PhD degree in 2015 by Berhampur University, Odisha, India. His area of research is Indian English Writing, American Writing, Cultural Criticism, Postcolonial Writing, Translation Studies and above all, Creative Writing. He writes poems and stories at frequent intervals. He has published more than ten articles and book reviews in internationally acclaimed peer-reviewed journals. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.