Nostalgic Teleology: Arnoldian Culture & Yeats’ Byzantium, Peter Tuite
Following publication of Matthew Arnold’s On the Study of Celtic Literature (1866), W.B. Yeats responded to Arnold’s ideas in his essay Celtic Element in Literature (1897). Yeats’ central contention was that the Irish imagination was not in any way incomplete, as Arnold attested, but could instead provide a gateway to a fuller, richer form of human imagination that was lost as a consequence of modernisation and the Industrial
Revolution. His late poem ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ further developed this concept of an ideal culture by subtly linking his aspirations for Irish culture to a mythic Byzantium. The poem provides a work rich in contrasts with Arnold’s polemic whilst retaining similarities to its idealism. Using these two works as windows into their contrasting weltanschauungs this paper will consider the strengths and weaknesses of their respective ideas on culture. It will also reflect on their contrasting attitudes to Ireland and Irish identity.