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Yeats’s Asias: Modernism, Orientalism, Anti-orientalism

Yeats’s Asias: Modernism, Orientalism, Anti-orientalism

(p.133) Chapter 6 Yeats’s Asias: Modernism, Orientalism, Anti-orientalism
Poetry in a Global Age
Jahan Ramazani
University of Chicago Press

This chapter argues that Yeats, whose poetry engages West, South, and East Asian cultures, should be rethought as both orientalist and anti-orientalist. On the one hand, some poems, such as “The Statues,” are complicit in imperialist stereotypes that represent the non-Western other as inferior, in this case the ancient Persians. On the other hand, his poetry demonstrates that he was not only interested in but profoundly shaped by a variety of Asian cultures—Indian, Japanese, Arab, and, perhaps surprisingly (via Byzantium), Iranian. Various parts of Asia provide strong formal vocabularies that figure in Yeats’s work: the Persian nonmimetic line, vine, patterning, color, and nonnaturalistic beasts in his Byzantium poems (via the Austrian art historian Josef Strzygowski); the Arab interest in measurement, mathematics, and geometry that are a recurrent theme in his Arabian poems; the South Asian structures of multifacetedness and plurality that are presupposed in some of Yeats’s earliest poems; the East Asian compression and alternations that he loosely adapts from haiku and related forms. Yeats’s work can also help us reexamine Edward Said’s telling but homogenizing model of orientalist critique, allowing for a more dialogic and nuanced understanding that recognizes engagement even across imbalances of power.

Keywords:   Yeats, orientalism, Byzantium, Persian, Indian, Japanese, Arab, haiku, Edward Said, Joseph Strzygowski

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