This page last revised 21 May 1998
(Citations from Saids essay Yeats and Decolonization as published by Bay Press, not the Field Day pamphlet)
Post-colonial theory, a mode of thought which accepts European Imperialism as a historical fact and attempts to address nations touched by colonial enterprises, has as yet failed to adequately consider Ireland as a post-colonial nation. Undoubtedly, Ireland is a post-colonial nation (where post-colonial refers to any consequence of colonial contact) with a body of literary work that may be read productively as post-colonial.
Although colonialism, as a subject for Irish criticism and theory, has been tentatively broached (for example, see Celtic Revivals (1985) by Seamus Deane) Edward Saids lecture Yeats and Decolonization, published as a pamphlet by Field Day in 1988, was an important catalyst for post-colonial study of Irish literature and culture. The premise of this now seminal study is that Yeats was a poet of decolonisation, a muse expressing the Irish experience of the dominant colonial power of Britain. Rather than reading Yeatss poetry from the conventional perspective of high European modernism Said explains that he appears to me, and I am sure many others in the Third World, to belong naturally to the other cultural domain (3).
Using this as his point of departure, Said enters into a line of argument which claims that Yeats was a central figure in debating and asserting an overt drive towards the construction of a national Irish identity as a vital act of decolonisation. Further, Said places Yeats within a global framework of anti-Imperialism, drawing parallels between the Irish poet and Third world writers and theorists such as Fanon, Neruda and Achebe. Though an incredibly influential essay, the reverberations of which may still be felt in Inventing Ireland and other texts, it is also a work that demands close analysis and is replete with short-sighted and ill-informed ideas.
Said locates Ireland among territories like India, South America, Africa and Malaysia as a site of colonial contention. In doing so he emphasises Irelands role, and thus Irish literature, in colonial history as a member of the peripheral (from a Eurocentric viewpoint) Third World. According to this bog dwellers are paralleled as the Irish counterpart to innumerable niggers, .... babus and wogs (6). Yet, this argument, in retrospect, does not hold.
Denis Donoghue (Confusion in Irish Studies) has explicitly condemned post-colonial theory for adopting a global paradigm of colonial experience as a discourse which treats all Empires as homogenous. Saids essay, displaying many of the pitfalls critiqued by Donoghue, does indeed offer a simplistic formulation of colonial experience. A formulation convenient for both the nationalist politician and for the scholar searching for an uncomplicated post-colonial framework to elicit meaning in Irish literature. But this is centrally flawed, heedless to the individual national and regional encounter with Imperial powers in Ireland, or any colonial country. Despite acknowledging the complex relationship between Ireland and Britain, it is true the connections are closer between England and Ireland than between England and India (15), and the complexity of Yeatss own position, he belongs .... to the Protestant Ascendancy whose Irish loyalties .... were confused (13), this is apparently only in order to gloss over such glaring disparities.
Said also wishes to present Ireland as a Third World nation, both Englands poor other and belonging to the cultural domain of the developing world in opposition to the First World of European modernism. It is not unfair to describe such sentiments as verging on the ahistorical. To discuss Irelands backwardness (14) and Third World status is to blatantly ignore the historical and economic fact that Ireland was, and is, a relatively wealthy member of the First World. As Liam Kennedy (Modern Ireland 107-121) clearly explains, even if Ireland has been a nation less wealthy than Britain or France, to consider Ireland as an underdeveloped peripheral nation is farcical:
The conclusion is inescapable: average incomes in Ireland, even half a century earlier in time than in the case of African and Asian countries, belonged to a different economic league. That league was a West European one, with Ireland enjoying much the same average living standards as countries like Spain, Norway, Finland, Italy (110).
What makes the Irish example so interesting and difficult for the post-colonial theorist is the fact that Ireland was victim, accomplice and beneficiary to British and European Imperialism. The sense of hybridity in post-colonial culture, that cultures are never unitary in themselves, nor simply dualistic in relation of Self to Other (Bhabha 207) is essential to an understanding of Irish identity. Eight centuries of fluid movement between Ireland and Britain has produced some of the most complex cultural identities possible, and can be seen to manifest themselves today in the North as enigmatically as they ever have in Irish-British relations.
Irrespective of these problems (and there are others) one cannot ignore the fact that an imperial relationship is there in all cases (Said 15). Yeats and Decolonization is significant for the dual effect it had of bringing post-colonial theory into Irish cultural criticism and for moving Ireland closer to the post-colonial arena. And this is not to forget the most positive element of Saids essay; his placing of Yeats as an important artist within the Irish context of nationalist aspirations and decolonising enterprises.
Though perhaps not as satisfyingly as the reader would hope, Said depicts Yeatss insistence on a new narrative for Irish people as central to the emergence of Irish nationalism. The reclaiming of Ireland, of the geographical space and the imagining of a community in his poetry, acts as a resistance to colonialism. For Said Leda and the Swan (Yeatss Poems 322) represents Yeats at his most powerful where he imagines and renders (24) the results of the colonial relationship between Ireland and Britain. The poem has been further discussed in this vain by Declan Kiberd (Inventing Ireland 312-315) who interprets the swan as the invading occupier and the girl as a ravished Ireland (315). This reading, to Donoghues mind, exemplifies the confusion of his lecture Confusion in Irish Studies, yet there is something profitable to a post-colonial reading of Leda.
The poem was to have originally been written for publication in the Irish Statesman on the subject of the Russian Revolution but, as Donoghue notes, Yeats claimed that as bird and lady took such possession of the scene that all politics went out of it (Yeatss Poems 587). However, Leda was composed in September 1923, a fact Kiberd finds persuasive in pointing to a return to politics with the subject and imagery of the Civil War. The final question:
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop? (322)
suggests various meanings for the poem grounded in ambiguity. If one takes the Swan to be colonial Britain and Leda a feminised and dominated Ireland it would appear Yeats was offering a deep and prophetic commentary on the consequences of colonialism. According to Greek mythology, following the rape of Leda, Clytemnestra was born who would later kill Agamemnon. Here Yeats indicates that the birth of the new nation of Ireland after the withdrawal of England, the dropping from the indifferent beak, was destined to a chaotic and violent life. Anti-colonial nationalism, in effect based on a colonial model of state, searching for a return to a pre-colonial Ireland without acknowledging the hybridity of a new Irish culture, would inevitably lead to civil war. Unfortunately Yeats does not offer a solution to the problems of reasserting an Irish nation after colonialism, but his commentary does offer an insight to the complexities a post-colonial nation may encounter.
That Yeats and Decolonlization was published in 1988, merely a decade ago, bears witness to the fact that post-colonial discourse has only begun to contribute to both Irish culture and an understanding of that culture. As this process continues, with the publication of works by scholars like Lloyd and Kiberd, the example of Ireland should (hopefully) warp and twist the shape of current models of post-colonial thought. Certainly Ireland shall add to post-colonial discourse while post-colonialism will open up new critical spaces for the study of Irish literature and culture.
This project was completed under the direction of Dr. Leon Litvack as a requirement for the MA degree in Modern Literary Studies in the School of English at the Queen's University of Belfast. The site is evolving and will include contributions from future generations of MA students on other writers and themes.
This page was written by Andy Morrison. E-mail me with your suggestions.
The Imperial Archive Project is supervised by Leon Litvack. E-mail me with your suggestions.
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