W.B. Yeats and Culture

To a Wealthy Man who Promised a Second Subscription to the Dublin Municipal Gallery if it were Proved the People Wanted Pictures

You gave but will not give again
Until enough of Paudeen's pence
By Biddy's halfpennies have lain
To be 'some sort of evidence,'
Before you'll put your guineas down,
That things it were a pride to give
Are what the blind and ignorant town
Imagines best to make it thrive.
What cared Duke Ercole, that bid
His mummers to the market place,
What th' onion-sellers thought or did
So that his Plautus set the pace
For the Italian comedies?
And Guidobaldo, when he made
That grammar school of courtesies
Where wit and beauty learned their trade
Upon Urbino's windy hill,
Had sent no runners to and fro
That he might learn the shepherds' will.
And when they drove out Cosimo,
Indifferent how the rancour ran,
He gave the hours they had set free
To Michelozzo's latest plan For the San Marco Library,
Whence turbulent Italy should draw
Delight in Art whose end is peace,
In logic and in natural law
By sucking at the dugs of Greece.

Your open hand but shows our loss,
For he knew better how to live.
Let Paudeens play at pitch and toss,
Look up in the sun's eye and give
What the exultant heart calls good
That some new day may breed the best
Because you gave, not what they would
But the right twigs for an eagle's nest!

I'm not sure what 'Paudeen' means, but I'm willing to bet it's not a adulatory epithet. In all, elitist much? Let the ignorant, swinish masses 'play at pitch and toss'. They have no clue where to start when it comes to culture. It has to be imposed from above - a trickle down effect that will eventually ennoble everyone. So hand your friggin' money over, boyo!

Sidetrack: I noticed Yeats's curious way of describing the eventual goal as 'breeding the best' - cultural sophistication is weirdly tied to improving the genetic stock of the race. At the time Yeats was writing, I have learned, such ideas - eugenics, basically - were accepted and stimulated a lot of interest. It's interesting to find a faint echo of this in this poem. But that's beside the point.

How do we feel about Yeats's attitude? Perhaps it's unfair to jump up and down on him all the way from our modern perspective. He was writing a hundred years ago, where literacy was certainly not universal, and cultural awareness/competence could not have been what it is today. Nevertheless, I do feel the poem contains a disappointing lack of regard for low/folk culture, instead aiming to 'look up in the sun's eye' - seek a transcendent inspiration removed from the barren ground around you. Culture is surely more interactive than that. The stuff that bubbles up from underneath can be just as vital as what is produced by educated elites in traditional cultural institutions. Moreover, cultural producers and arbiters cannot be removed from their environment. They are shaped by, and seek to reflect, the hopes and fears of others. Art can only succeed if it targets, or can be interpreted by, a mass of people. The influence from the bottom up is very great. I think it's something that Yeats misses.

I find this idea of cultural interactivity enormously exciting. Personally, I am drawn to cities that have been former capitals of empires (London, Rome, Istanbul). As centres of cultural and religious patronage they would often have an artistic heritage that is greater in quantity and quality. But they would also be places where a huge variety of peoples and cultures clash together, and in the friction between them the chances of getting new ideas and artwork is very great, both in the courts and the taverns.

In the modern world, the internet allows for such cultural interaction on a mass scale. A couple of days ago I was talking to a friend of mine about journalism. Both of us wouldn't mind being paid for wittering on about stuff that interests us. I mentioned how blogging pretty much scratches my writing itch, particularly because there is absolute freedom, it can be informal and your writing doesn't have to be perfect (right..?). But the thing is, I don't get paid for it, as my friend reminded me. On a sudden waft of inspiration, I considered how the future of news could be affected by user-generated content (see current.com and demotix.com). Perhaps paid journalism will get increasingly crowded out by news and comment generated for free by individuals close to the action. Basically, most of modern society becoming active journalists and bloggers. I don't think we should fear information overload - the internet has come up with ways to deal with this (see delicious.com and digg.com).

This may not happen, but I can't help feeling excited about the prospect. It would represent the resurgence of low/folk culture, swallowing up and dismantling traditional formal avenues of cultural exchange - the increased interactivity meaning you get access to more new ideas, information and works of art. We won't be looking up at the sun, but at each other. But this means getting your stuff out there. Confining your thoughts to your own head or circle of friends prevents you from joining a wider discussion with people you don't know who you can learn from. I would encourage you to write, draw, photograph, film, compose, and get it all out there. If it's rubbish it'll fall by the wayside and be forgotten. But if it's something good, then you will find an audience and maybe, hopefully, make them think or change them for the better. The 'right twigs for an eagle's nest' are among us. We just have to pick them up and pass them around.


  1. m gonna follow ur blog.

    nice read.


  2. Hey thanks. Much appreciated.