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Yeats and Mussolini: How Italy’s Fascist Regime shaped Yeats’s thinking about Ireland

Lauren Arrington11 May 2017 - Dr Lauren Arrington is currently a Visiting Research Fellow at the Trinity Long Room Hub in collaboration with the School of English. A Senior Lecturer in literature at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, she will deliver a lecture at the Trinity Long Room Hub on the 15th of May entitled ‘Fighting Spirits’. Drawing from her current research looking at a network of international writers and artists that gathered in Rapallo, Italy, during the early days of Mussolini’s fascist regime, she will discuss how this influenced their ideas and writing. 

‘I’m looking at W.B Yeats and Ezra Pound and the group of writers and artists that are living in or visiting Rapallo, which is a little less than 20 miles east of Genoa, so the north-west of Italy. I’m thinking about their relationships with one another and their collaborations or their disagreements on artistic issues and also political issues, and how they related individually and as a group to the regime.’

W.B and George Yeats first visited American poet Ezra Pound and his wife Dorothy, who was an artist and cousin to George Yeats, in Italy in 1925 when they went on holiday to Sicily. They later returned due to Yeats’ declining health.

Dr Arrington explains some of the resources she is focusing on during her fellowship, which include Yeats’s papers in the National Library and the Irish poet, Thomas MacGreevy’s papers at Trinity: ‘MacGreevy corresponded with Ezra Pound and George Yeats, George more than W.B, but also he was friends with a classicist called Richard Aldington, who also writes an important experimental novel about the First World War called Death of a Hero. MacGreevy visits Aldington, Yeats, and Pound not long after W.B. and George arrive, and he tours around Roman ruins with Richard Aldington and Aldington’s partner Brigit Patmore.’

RapalloThese interactions and this significant literary network is helping Dr Arrington to explain what she describes as a ‘turn in Yeats’s work’ that happens with his volume The Winding Stair, which includes several poems that he wrote at Rapallo. In what she describes as an evolving field of literature studies, ‘late modernism’ marks a change in modernist writing, after important works such as Ulysses or The Waste Land, where ‘modernist writing becomes more open in the types of forms that it uses and it responds more directly to contemporary politics or social change.’ Dr Arrington thinks this change in Yeats can’t be removed from the political context of his time in Italy. ‘I’m going to be thinking about the way the change in form relates to what he observes of fascist Italy and the way that he thinks the importance of discipline, of public art, and the idea of a governing elite is important for Ireland.’

Ezra Pound envisioned himself becoming the literary advisor to Mussolini’s regime, but Yeats was not at all interested in engaging with the regime.  However, ‘Yeats is interested in what this new order in Italy is offering in a more abstract sense, the ideals of civilisation, the recovery of a past – for Mussolini’s regime that’s the Roman past.’

Dr Arrington argues that Yeats is very attracted to the idea of reconstructing and creating an Italy that will recreate the power of Rome, an idea of reconstruction which is also at the heart of the revival in Ireland. ‘In a broader sense this research may tell us more about the conservative aspects of the Revival...In a way it’s a modern, new and liberating idea, but it has strongly conservative politics.’

Examining these literary networks are key, Dr Arrington argues, to seeing how ‘trends manifest themselves in different ways when you look at writers’ specific work but we can see important turns when we look at writers collectively. We can see how these very different writers are responding to the same kinds of political and social pressures.’

In her recent book Revolutionary Lives: Constance and Casimir Markievicz, Dr Arrington argues that Constance Markievicz is not, as we would believe, a heroic, unique individual, but that she’s very much of the product of the kinds of networks that she moved in. ‘In looking at the Markieviczes’ relationship and their different networks in Paris, London and Dublin, I show how they take different political paths but that those paths are rooted in the same kinds of associations and collaborations early on. This Rapallo project is more literary than my last book, but I think that it’s looking, in the same way, at these networks and the kind of social and political pressures which led people to respond very differently to similar circumstances.’

Dr Arrington’s talk ‘Fighting Spirits’ will take place at the Trinity Long Room Hub on Monday, 15th May at 6pm in the Neill Lecture Theatre.

Contact: Aoife King, Communications Officer | Trinity Long Room Hub | | 01 896 3895