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The influence of decadence on the works of William Butler Yeats

By Peter Michael Carriere


Yeats is often mentioned in connection with the Decadent Movement in English literature that occurred mainly between 1880 and 1900. His participation has remained largely undefined, however, and has generated varied and sometimes contradictory scholarly assessments of his involvement. In fact, his participation was peripheral, partial, and even contradictory. While he shared some of the attitudes and beliefs of the movement, and while his interests and artistic subjects coincided with those of Decadent art, there nevertheless remained fundamental differences between Yeats\u27s art and the art of the Decadent Movement. Yeats generally agreed with the attitudes of the movement toward European civilization. He accepted the idea of European cultural decline that was one of the movement\u27s key concepts. He accepted the general Decadent understanding that the products of middle class culture, seen by the majority of Europeans as progress, were in fact manifestations of cultural decay. These products included political egalitarianism, artistic realism and naturalism, scientific advances resulting from the focus on materialism, and the rise of industrialism, scientific advances resulting from the focus on materialism, and the rise of industrialism. On the other hand, Yeats came from a middle-class background himself, and he could not escape the moralist, rationalist, principled conditions of that background. These orientations conflicted with the pessimistic aloofness and repudiation of bourgeois culture that dominated Decadent art. Attracted to the rejection of life portrayed in Villiers de L\u27Isle Adam\u27s Axel, for example, he nevertheless found himself heavily involved in Irish politics and the Irish theater. He felt compelled to rationalize the decadence of European civilization through such works as A Vision, which is an elaborate explication of the cyclical origins of the rise and decline of European culture. Generally speaking, however, the subjects Yeats chose for his life\u27s work were the subjects and devices of Decadent art. These included mythology and folk literature, the occult and spiritualism, investigations of the subconscious and the self, the transformation of life into art, and, to some degree, the preference for art and artifice over life

Topics: British and Irish literature
Publisher: DigitalCommons@University of Nebraska - Lincoln
Year: 1995
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Provided by: UNL | Libraries
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