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Yeats as a Reader of Italian Literature:
Some Considerations


Pedro Garcez Ghirardi
Universidade de São Paulo


The presence of Italian culture in Yeats's life may be said to go back to his youth. As a painting student he soon must have come across the names of great Italian artists, whose names are mentioned both in his prose writings and in his poetry. The most influential of them, from the point of view of Yeats's works, was certainly Michelangelo, whose magnificent statues were to him a source of inspiration (1), but whose poetry, too, caught Yeats's attention.

Before entering this question it is perhaps useful to point that, as regards his contacts with Italy, three moments may be distinguished in Yeats's life. These moments are roughly parallel to the changes in his poetry, which is said to go from a world of dreams through a realistic period to a final synthesis. So, during a first period, which goes from the late 1890s to 1907, his contacts with Italian literature are due to his presence in pre-raphaelite groups. From 1907, the year of his first visit to Italy, up to the years immediately following World War I a second moment takes place, which will lead him to the discovery of Vico, in the 1920s. From then on, a final phase of contacts with Italian literature takes place in Yeats's life. But these moments require closer observation.

As a young poet, Yeats's approach to Italian authors was in general the same as prevailed in the tradition of Rossetti and other pre-raphaelites. Rossetti's translation of Dante's Vita Nuova was published in 1851 (2). Clearly, as the name Pre-Raphaelism suggests, Rossetti's concern was mainly, if not solely, Italian literature preceding the Renaissance. He was particularly concerned with the chief Italian literary movement of the Trecento: the stilnovo, of which Dante's Vita Nuova is an outstanding example. Now, some aspects of Vita Nuova (such as symbolism based on numbers and the idea of recurring cycles in human life) were certainly attractive to Yeats. But other themes from stilnovo are found in pre-raphaelite poetry: e. g., the image of an angel-like woman (donna angelicata) whose love, like Beatrice's and the Blessed Damozel's, ennobled her lover, or the use of religious symbols to praise the beloved woman. This technique is present in Yeats's early poetry ( "Bow down archangels", says the poet, in The Rose of the World). But the title itself of one of Yeats's books, The Rose (1893) seems linked to an image much used by Italian and other medieval writers: Roman de la Rose and the anonymous work which some attribute to Dante, Il Fiore, not the mention  the "the great Yellow Rose of the Paradiso", later remembered by Yeats himself (3). 

The echoes of Pre-raphaelism, however, while presenting to Yeats the great masters of early Italian poetry seem to have been instrumental in making him suspicious of Italian Renaissance poets and their great forerunner, Petrarch. By pre-raphaelite, and, in general, by romantic standards, their classical, balanced form and their lack of evident political passions (an assumption, of course, quite untrue at least in the case of Petrarch) seemed not spontaneous and uninteresting. The very absence of a Renaissance tradition in Ireland was seen as positive by Irish nationalists (4). So, when Yeats discovers Michelangelo's poetry (probably through Pater) his distate for classics is paradoxically reinforced. In fact, as a poet, Michelangelo revels a roughness in his expression that caused him to be judged a secondary poet, by classical standards, and an one of the best in the Renaissance, by romantic standards.

It this at this point that Yeats visits Italy, in company with Lady Gregory and her son. He was then a mature man, in his forties. The importance of his Italian experience is well-known: Byzantine Ravenna, for instance, deeply impressed him and became a reservoir of images for his poetry. But as to literature, there is also an important change to be registered. In fact, during his visit to Italy, Yeats is said to have discovered Renaissance art and literature. In the words of one of his biographers

"Yeats enjoyed himself in leisurely fashion, making his peace with the Renaissance, which hitherto he had distrusted as a period when unity gave way to multiplication. Lady Gregory directed his readings and he found in Castiglione's The Courtier 'one of the great books of our civilization' " (5).

What other Renaissance authors did he read while travelling? That is no easy question. The Italian novelist and playwright Giraldi Cintio may have been one of them. In fact, in A Vision Yeats pretends that a book was found whose author, a certain Giraldus, is not clearly identified (6).  Now, Giraldi, who as a novelist might perhaps be described as "gothick" avant la lettre, was well-known in elizabethan England, where some of his novels were translated. Lady Gregory, who directed Yeats's readings, may have mentioned him as an interesting name. Another Italian presence in A Vision, Savonarola, is remembered for his personality rather than for his writings (7). On the other hand, Yeats mentions the name of Aretino, an irreverent, unorthodox Renaissance writer, but his allusion is rather conventional and does not indicate a personal reading of Aretino's work.

So, after all, Yeats's reconciliation with the Renaissance was apparent rather than real, at least from the literary point of view. There is of course Castiglione, whose prose was indeed classical. The Courtier, however, is praised by Yeats not because of stylistic values, but because of its ideological message, seen as a defence of aristocracy. And the fact remains that the great poets of the Italian Renaissance do not seem to have left any important signs in the works of Yeats.

After 1907, a period begins when Yeats's familiarity with modern Italian literature apparently increases. At least two great Italian writers of the XX century attract his attention: D'Annunzio and Pirandello.

D'Annunzio's personality - which A Vision tries to analyze (8) - had many aspects that might appeal to the Irish poet. Like Yeats, he was an anti-bourgeois aesthete. Some critics believe that D'Annunzio's right-wing tendencies were influential on Yeats (9). Besides, as a director of a literary magazine, Cronaca Bizantina, D'Annunzio can be associated with those who empasized the cultural relationship between Rome and Byzantium, a relationship revealed to Yeats by the art of Ravenna. It is also noteworthy that in 1914 D'Annunzio wrote a novel whose central parallel could hardly fail to attract Yeats's attention: its title, Leda senza cigno (Leda without a swan), is in itself meaningful.

As to Yeats's contacts with Pirandello, they do not seem to have extended to his novels and short-stories: Pirandello's plays were the focus of his attention. According to what he wrote to P. Wyndham Lewis in 1930, he considered Pirandello an author "who alone of living dramatists has unexhausted, important material" and whose work "portrays thye transformation from individualism to universal plasticity", for its theme is "plasticity itself" (10).

These considerations lead us to the last phase of Yeats's readings of Italian literature, for one of the aspects of Pirandello's dramas which is often insisted upon by some critics is its intellectual, almost philosophical approach. And around 1920, Yeats's literary interests seem more and more conditioned by his own philosophical investigations. By 1924 he had already "read and annotated Croce's Philosophy of Vico" (11). His discovery of Italian philosophy was apparently due to "lectures given in London by Douglas Ainslie on Croce's Estetica" (12), while his interest for Gentile's work is said to be due to Hone himself, who asserts that "now some phrase used by me about Gentile caught his ear" (13).

As we see, Yeats's interest for Italian authors was then concentrating on those who were also connected with philosophy, like Pirandello. Another instance of this trend is Yeats's renewed attention for Guido Cavalcanti, a stilnovo poet whose love poetry is often philosophically structured. According to Yeats, Guido was present in his talks with Ezra Pound: "we often discuss Guido Cavalcanti and only quarrel a little" (14). Dante, on the other hand, was by then seen as a mystic - "Europe belongs to Dante and the witches' sabbath not to Newton" - but also a philosopher - "go to Dante into exile: Cannot I everywhere look upon the stars and think the sweet thoughts of philosophy?" (15).

Yeats's study of Italian philosophers, however, was no easy task. He had to avail himself of summaries prepared by his wife because "he could not read Italian" (16). This is an extremely important observation. It helps to understand why, despite his attracton for Italy, his contacts with Italian literature seem rather poor when his knowledge of French literature, for instance, is considered. Being confined, in the case of Italian, to the use of translations and summaries, Yeats could not but miss the finer shades of original artistic works, while their intellectual meaning was easier to be transmitted. This may explain why Castiglione's ideas are important to Yeats, not Castiglione's literary achievments. Even when literary aspects of Yeats poetry are somehow derived from Italian sources - as in the case of the gyres in "The Second Coming", which are linked to Dante's Inferno - these aspects seem also partly due to extra-literary influences. We know that Yeats "was extremely fond of the Dante illustrated by Doré [...]. This editon contains a picture of Geryon emerging from the Abyss, with his body shaped like the path of gyre upon a cone" (l7). On the other hand, the influence of Michelangelo's Leda on his "Leda and the Swan" is notorious and the Sixtine Chapel is evoked in "Michael Roberts and the Dancer". The same applies to his reference to Quattrocento painters in "Among Schoolchildren" or to Giorgione in "Upon a Dying Lady".

All that reinforces the impression tha plastic arts and philosophy were by far the most visible aspects of Yeats's connexions with Italy. This is not to say that literary contacts with Italian authors are irrelevant, but the linguistic barrier was a difficulty never quite overcome. Such a barrier seems, in conclusion, to have made these literary contacts less fruitful than Yeats's enthusiasm for Italian culture might lead his readers to expect.


(1) cf. T. R. Henn, The Lonely Tower - Studies in the Poetry of W. B. Yeats. London, Methuen and Co. Ltd., 1950.

(2) Dante Gabriele Rossetti, Early Italian Poets, later reprinted as Dante and his circle.

(3) W. B. Yeats, A Vision. London, Macmillan, 1962, p. 141.

(4) Louis MacNeice, The Poetry of W. B. Yeats. London/Boston, Faber & Faber, 1967, p. 83.

(5) Joseph Hone, W. B. Yeats: 1865-1939. London, MacMillan, 1967, p. 219.

(6) op. cit., p. 38.

(7) op. cit., p. 125.

(8) op. cit., p. 148

(9) cf. Stephen Spender, quoted by Norman A. Jeffares, W. B. Yeats, the Critical Heritage. London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977, p.403.

(10) W. B. Yeats, The Letters,  ed. by Alan Wade. London, Rupert Hart-Davis, 1954 , p. 776.

(11) cf. Hone, op. cit., p. 368.

(12) ibid.

(13) ibid.

(14) A Vision, op. cit., p. 16.

(15) The Letters, op. cit., pp. 807 and 882.

(16) Hone, op. cit., pg. 368.

(17) Norman A. Jeffares, W. B. Yeats: Man and Poet. London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1949, p. 202.