W.B. Yeats, Byron, and Idealism

Philosophical idealism has a complex history with many variations.  Most versions of idealism make univocal claims about the mind’s relationship to the world.  Specifically, idealism maintains that objects of human knowledge are mind-dependent.  Thus, reality is immaterial.

The Irish poet W.B. Yeats was among others things an idealist.  Although Matthew Gibson maintains that the poet was committed to Berkeleyian idealism, I tend to disagree.  Yeats was in agreement with Berkeley on many points, but he fell short of entirely adopting his views.  In fact, Yeats was much closer to Kant’s transcendental idealism, Giovanni Gentile’s ‘Actual Idealism,’ and to contemporary British Idealism (McTaggart, Bradley, Green).  The analytic philosophers G.E. Moore and Bertrand Russell famously attacked the latter version.

Without delving into the details of this argument, I’d like to ponder a statement Yeats made in an essay on Berkeley (1931).  He makes an interesting, if peculiar, connection between Idealism and Romanticism–namely, Byron’s Manfred and Shelley’s Prometheus.  Why?  Food for thought.

In this blog entry, I’ll cite a few lines from the opening of Byron’s Manfred:

The lamp must be replenish’d, but even then

It will not burn so long as I must watch:

My slumbers–if I slumber–are not sleep,

But a continuance of enduring thought,

Which then I can resist not: in my heart

There is a vigil, and these eyes but close

To look within; and yet I live, and bear

The aspect and the form of breathing men.

Are these the lines Yeats considered in making the connection between Byron and idealism?  If so, then why?

  • We take our cue from M.H. Abrams–the lamp is a source of creative energy–sacred inspiration.  Compare lamplight to Plato’s sunlight as an ideal, a form of the Good and Beauty.
  • Inspiration brings the persona ideas–and those ideas will not be replenished by means of direct sense experience, watching the flame.  Rather, he must fan the flame of inspiration within himself by not fleeing reality, or passively engaging it, but by means of active creation–the mind fashions enduring thoughts, not fleeting, flickering images as if illusory projections in Plato’s cave.
  • The heart holds a vigil of memories and past experiences–the mind creates reality by sauntering recollection…
  • The persona’s memories are as real as the shape and form of living men… a nice compression of philosophical idealism in a few lines…




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