Theories of Post-Coloniality: Edward W. Said and W.B. Yeats

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Theories of Post-Coloniality: Edward W. Said and W.B. Yeats

(Citations from Said’s essay “Yeats and Decolonization” as published by Bay Press, not the Field Day pamphlet)

Post-colonial theory, a mode of thought which accepts European Imperialism as a historical fact and attempts to address nations touched by colonial enterprises, has as yet failed to adequately consider Ireland as a post-colonial nation. Undoubtedly, Ireland is a post-colonial nation (where ‘post-’colonial refers to any consequence of colonial contact) with a body of literary work that may be read productively as post-colonial.

Although colonialism, as a subject for Irish criticism and theory, has been tentatively broached (for example, see Celtic Revivals (1985) by Seamus Deane) Edward Said’s lecture “Yeats and Decolonization”, published as a pamphlet by Field Day in 1988, was an important catalyst for post-colonial study of Irish literature and culture. The premise of this now seminal study is that Yeats was a poet of decolonisation, a muse expressing the Irish experience of the dominant colonial power of Britain. Rather than reading Yeats’s poetry from the conventional perspective of high European modernism Said explains that “he appears to me, and I am sure many others in the Third World, to belong naturally to the other cultural domain” (3).

Using this as his point of departure, Said enters into a line of argument which claims that Yeats was a central figure in debating and asserting an overt drive towards the construction of a national Irish identity as a vital act of decolonisation. Further, Said places Yeats within a global framework of anti-Imperialism, drawing parallels between the Irish poet and Third world writers and theorists such as Fanon, Neruda and Achebe. Though an incredibly influential essay, the reverberations of which may still be felt in Inventing Ireland and other texts, it is also a work that demands close analysis and is replete with short-sighted and ill-informed ideas.

Said locates Ireland among territories like India, South America, Africa and Malaysia as a site of colonial contention. In doing so he emphasises Ireland’s role, and thus Irish literature, in colonial history as a member of the peripheral (from a Eurocentric viewpoint) Third World. According to this “bog dwellers” are paralleled as the Irish counterpart to “innumerable niggers, .... babus and wogs” (6). Yet, this argument, in retrospect, does not hold.

Denis Donoghue (“Confusion in Irish Studies”) has explicitly condemned post-colonial theory for adopting a global paradigm of colonial experience as a discourse which treats all Empires as homogenous.
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