W. B. Yeats Was a Conservative Opponent of Democracy, Not the Bard of Liberal Centrism

Political centrists love to quote Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming” as they face a world where “things fall apart” and “the center cannot hold.” But the great Irish poet was a radical conservative whose hostility to democracy led him to sympathize with fascism.

Irish poet W. B. Yeats. (Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)

First published in 1920, “The Second Coming” may not be the most popular work of W. B. Yeats or even the Irish poet’s finest achievement. It has nevertheless managed to infiltrate the Western political imagination in such a way as to render its influence almost inconspicuous.

From writers like Joan Didion and Chinua Achebe to a plethora of politicians on the center left and center right alike, Yeats’s ominous augury of a world where “things fall apart” and “the centre cannot hold” as “mere anarchy is loosed” and “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity” carried a clear resonance.

Since the UK’s Brexit referendum in 2016 and the election of Donald Trump in the United States that same year, the ambiguous allegories, symbols, and indeterminate political stance of “The Second Coming” have all been put to good use, especially in the United States.

One analysis found that in the first six months of 2016 — before Trump’s chances of winning the presidency were even taken seriously by most observers — the poem had been referenced more times than in the past thirty years combined.

Yet Yeats himself was anything but a champion of political moderation. In fact, his idiosyncratic worldview led him to sympathize with right-wing authoritarianism during the interwar period.

Rough Beasts

One could be forgiven for finding in Yeats’s poem a prophetic diagnosis of our own troubled times. We could go further and say that he offers a clairvoyant warning of things to come, should we maintain our present course and fail to grasp the magnitude of the problems that we face:

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

In “The Second Coming,” Yeats peers into a darkened, collapsing world shorn of beauty, truth, and order. He sees monsters, the nature of which are never specified — the power of the poem derives from its sublime ambiguities. Edmund Burke, one of Yeats’s later intellectual idols, lavished eloquent vitriol upon the agents of abstract philosophy and direct democracy for having consigned the “age of chivalry” to eternity. Yeats, on the other hand, moves in the realm of poetic mythos, making it difficult to situate his work without a grasp of context.

The great irony for those who would invoke his poem in defense of liberal democracy is that by 1920, Yeats would not have subscribed to the tenets of democratic liberalism. Despite his middle-class, cosmopolitan upbringing and youthful flirtations with radical Irish nationalism in the 1890s, Yeats’s own version of nationalism was aristocratic in form and traditionalist in content.

While he may have been the inheritor of the cultural nationalist tradition developed by the democratic Young Irelanders in the first half of the nineteenth century, Yeats himself was no democrat. Nor, for that matter, was he a mere conservative. The poet advanced a savage politics that is not always taken into proper account when his work is valorized or appropriated in service to political causes that he would have sharply denounced with senatorial hauteur.

Swallowing Them Hot

This point is worth remembering as we approach the centenary of the date when Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in December 1923. This occasion will no doubt be commemorated warmly in Ireland, given his status as the de facto national poet.

A short biography on the Nobel Prize website makes the following claim about his political outlook: “Although a convinced patriot, Yeats deplored the hatred and the bigotry of the [Irish] Nationalist movement, and his poetry is full of moving protests against it.” This is true prima facie, but otherwise highly deceptive. It implies that Yeats was a defender of sovereign individualism, democratic representation, and creative self-expression for all rather than a privileged elite, and that he was an agent of enlightened reason over the dark currents of unreason and anti-rationalism that were implicit to some variants of European romanticism.

Yeats was none of these things, and it reveals much about contemporary Ireland that it should continue to embrace such an antidemocratic figure so wholeheartedly, for all his poetic achievements. These achievements do not stand, in Burke’s words, “stripped of every relation, in all the nakedness and solitude of metaphysical abstraction.” They are rooted in a particular time and place.

In the case of Yeats especially, his art flows in counterpoint to the ruptures of Irish history between the years 1889 and 1939 and the no-less dissonant rhythms of European history over the same period. He was not a political poet, and considered political poetry a vulgar desecration of the form. But his poems are nevertheless saturated in politics.

Works from the same period as “The Second Coming,” like “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” “Leda and the Swan,” “Meditations in Time of Civil War,” and the great “Easter 1916” were all composed as European civilization teetered on the brink of dissolution in the wake of World War I and as Ireland was convulsed by its national revolution and subsequent civil war between 1916 and 1923. They are not reflective poems, removed from the crisis at hand. They seek, rather, to infiltrate and register those crises at an intimate, personal level.

As the Irish critic Joe Cleary has perceptively commented:

Though some would have it otherwise, great art cannot always have the luxury of coming reflectively after crisis and catastrophe; sometimes it must swallow them hot. The best art neither chases nor broods on historical event[s] but aspires itself to be the event.

Few artists proved so capably disposed or self-assured as Yeats to meet the challenges of this tumultuous era.

Muck in the Yard

“Easter 1916,” for instance, with its famous refrain that in the wake of the Irish insurrection, all was “changed, changed utterly” as “a terrible beauty is born,” succeeds in paralleling the drama of the national event while simultaneously identifying a moment of grand metaphysical transition at a European historical level.

This theme is echoed in “The Second Coming” and “Leda and the Swan,” as Yeats grapples with the disenchantment of Christian or spiritual Europe upon the advent of technological modernity, heralded by the mechanical carnage of the Somme in 1916 and the Bolshevik revolution of 1917.

The suggestion that the Easter rising brought forth a “terrible beauty” into the world is partly indicative of Yeats’s optimism in its aftermath, but it mostly attests to his apprehension. He feared that the rising’s heroic spirit could be captured and overtaken by the anarchic tendencies of the democratic “mob.”

Were a new Irish state to emerge from this configuration, it would mark not only a sundering of Yeats’s ideal of Ireland. In bringing forth the “Catholic nation,” it would also relegate the propertied and cultured Anglo-Irish Protestant community from which he emerged to the margins of Irish life and political influence. For Yeats, this would vanquish Ireland’s cultural spirit and ensure its submergence into what he termed the “filthy modern tide” of capitalistic commercialism and majoritarian culture.

Yeats may have been convinced “that art is tribeless, nationless, a blossom gathered in No Man’s Land,” and he may have regarded the task of the artist as being to “make his work a part of his own journey toward beauty and truth.” But how might we situate the following, troubling passage taken from a marching song Yeats composed in 1933 for the quasi-fascist Blueshirt movement of Eoin O’Duffy — Ireland’s answer to Adolf Hitler’s Stormtroopers and Benito Mussolini’s Blackshirts: “What’s equality?” Yeats asked. “Muck in the yard!”

Yeats wrote to Olivia Shakespear in 1933, at the height of his infatuation with the Blueshirts, and gave the following summary of his outlook: “I find myself constantly urging the despotic rule of the educated classes as the only end to our troubles.” As O’Duffy’s movement embraced the popular Irish “rabble” through appeals to Catholic zealotry, antisemitism, nationalist exclusiveness, and rural antagonism, Yeats came to realize that the Blueshirts would not provide the revolutionary vehicle to an anti-modern, neofeudal society he envisioned. He withdrew from the movement, just as its own popularity began to subside.

His disillusionment with the Blueshirts arose not from their adoption of a more virulent fascism but rather because they had embraced a “vulgar” form of fascism that detracted from what Yeats saw as its greater historical and metaphysical purpose as a source of spiritual rejuvenation. In the words of Roy Foster, the poet’s biographer: “Their commitment to fascism, as he understood it, did not go far enough.”

Amid the Ruins

Many have defended Yeats — and many still do — by stating that his interest in fascism only represented an ill-advised foray by a clumsy poet who quickly came to see that he had no business in politics, despite his tenure in Ireland’s upper house, the Senate. Similar defenses have been put forward of other radical conservative intellectuals of the interwar years known to have “flirted” with organized fascism, such as Martin Heidegger, who joined the Nazi Party in 1933.

Heidegger’s champions presented him as a philosopher who was more adept at the intricacies of ontological hermeneutics than the realities of politics. They insisted that he nonetheless recognized the malignancy of the Nazi agenda and withdrew before it was too late, thereby leaving his philosophy untainted.

It would be difficult if not impossible to mount such a defense of Heidegger’s philosophy today, in light of Richard Wolin’s revelatory Heidegger in Ruins: Between Philosophy and Ideology (2023). In a contextualized reinterpretation of Heidegger’s oeuvre that makes use of previously suppressed and doctored manuscripts to reveal the full extent of Heidegger’s sympathies with National Socialism, Wolin demonstrates the imbricated nature of Heidegger’s Existenz-Philosophie and his politics, making it untenable to isolate the former from the latter.

Heidegger in Ruins also shows how vile the philosopher’s politics truly were. He was the advocate of a profoundly antisemitic German nationalism who venerated Hitler and aspired to become the philosopher of the Volksgemeinschaft, on the conviction that his philosophy of Being [Sein] was uniquely suited to the German historical mission. This was a mission that supposedly justified the Holocaust and German territorial expansion.

Wolin shows that whatever misgivings Heidegger may have had concerning particular National Socialist policies, he maintained his commitment to the movement’s “inner truth and greatness” until his death in 1976. He did so not as a matter of convenience, but “on philosophical grounds.” These revelations should seriously alter our approach to Heidegger’s philosophy, just as an appreciation of Yeats’s radical conservatism should determine our approach to his work.

Against the Tide

As Seamus Deane once noted: “Yeats began his career by inventing an Ireland amenable to his imagination. He ended by finding an Ireland recalcitrant to it.” We can probably trace the point of divergence to his 1914 poem “September 1913,” with its proclamation that “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,” having been supplanted by bourgeois Ireland and desiccated by its soulless materialism.

By the 1930s, with the world he had known in his youth degenerating at the same pace as his own body, Yeats’s discontent with prevailing Irish and European dispensations was all absorbing. But he would find no release, beyond the consolations provided by his art.

In Yeats’s mind, Ireland was the final cultural battleground of a European conflict between romanticism and utilitarianism. Echoing Heidegger’s apotheosis of the German peasantry, Yeats saw in Ireland’s technological and economic backwardness, along with the cultural homogeneity of its peasantry and the Anglo-Irish ascendency tradition, a residual, premodern spiritualism which had faded from the rest of Europe.

Ireland was for him a holy land, like ancient Greece, where the spirits of the dead were interred in every holy well and sacred grove, directly accessible via the mediums of folk belief and art. He conjured up a fabricated tradition of primitive, anti-empiricist philosophy in Ireland, typified by the philosopher George Berkeley, which further served to isolate and elevate Ireland as an oasis of spiritualism caught in a sea of decadent materialism.

For Yeats, as the Nietzschean thinker that he was, this made Ireland the starting point for any spiritual reincarnation of Europe. Transmuted into politics, however, this would lead to tyranny — ironically making Yeats himself less a hostile prophet of the Rough Beast’s coming than an emblem of that arrival.

This was all directed toward the end of buttressing Ireland and the Irish against the modern tide, even if in the end he knew himself to be swimming against that tide and doing so alone — not unlike Edmund Burke on his deathbed in 1797, as the light of the French Revolution emanated across Europe.

The purpose of this article has not been to censure Yeats. He will remain the most important Irish poet and one of few truly revolutionary poets of the twentieth century. It has been, rather, to foreground the importance of engaging with his work in a contextualist fashion attuned as much to the vagaries of history as Yeats himself was.

The poet often spelled the word fascism as “Fashism,” and one could say that his interpretation of its doctrines were as eclectic as his spelling of it. But this would be to miss the central point: despite his idiosyncratic approach, the object of that approach was unmistakable. Despite objecting, like Heidegger, to the actual political manifestation of organized fascism, Yeats nevertheless maintained faith in its spiritual import. We should bear this in mind when we approach his sublime verse.