Yeats, Eliot and the Shock of the New, 1913

2013 International Conference on W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, and Modern and Contemporary Poets and Writers

 Opening Remarks, Hanyang University

25 May 2013

 HE Dr Eamonn McKee, Ambassador of Ireland

 Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished academics and visitors, fellow lovers of literature, it is my honour to offer welcoming remarks to the 2013 International Conference on W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, and Modern and Contemporary Poets and Writers.

I want to thank Hanyang University for facilitating this Conference and The Yeats Society of Korea, The T. S. Eliot Society of Korea, and The Modern British and American Poetry Society of Korea for hosting it. 

This Conference is also made possible by the sponsorship of the National Research Foundation of Korea; the Embassy of Ireland to Korea; the Department of English and College of Humanities, Hanyang University; and Dankook University.

I am delighted that we at the Embassy have been able to provide the newly translated travelling exhibition on Yeats which is on display now in the corridor. While much of this information is not new to the scholars of Yeats attending here today, we hope that it will be of interest to the passing student and bring some more information about Yeats into Korean. We hope that it will be able to travel to many universities around Korea and it is available for this purpose.

The topic of this Conference is an ambitious one, set out in its sweeping title. The title embraces two of the titans of modern literature, both Nobel laureates.  One is an Irishman of Anglo-Irish background and sensibility and the other an American born naturalized English citizen.

They and the influence of their work are placed in both the modernist movement and in the contemporary literature of both poets and writers. In focusing on Yeats and Eliot, this Conference explores an ongoing concern of literature: how to make sense of the modern world. 

In literature, Yeats and Eliot were part of an artistic vanguard grappling with the accelerated pace of change that defined the modern age.  The art critic Robert Hughes summed this up as “the shock of the new”.  Culture, knowledge, social structures and mores, ways of life and traditions, all accumulated over centuries, were all affected by the maelstrom of the new. 

In short order, modernity would dramatically close the gap between humans and monkeys, men and women, rich and poor, the urban and the rural, the citizen and the monarch, the imperial and colonized, the sacred and the secular, the divine and the scientific, man and the machine. 

Amidst all this chaos, where lay truth?  Indeed beyond subjective experience, was there any such thing as truth, a definable reality amenable to perception and the pen?  If writers, poets and artists generally have a common purpose, it is to make sense of the world. 

Modernity would provide a rich if profoundly challenging environment for this purpose.

A hundred years ago, in the time of Yeats and Eliot, the shock of the new was changing daily life, reinterpreting our understanding of the world, shaping new ideologies and altering the course of human history.

In 1913, New York’s Grand Central Station opened.  The zipper is patented.  Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is premiered in Paris.  Suffragette Emily Davison dies under the King’s horse at Epsom.  Henry Ford opens his ground-breaking assembly line, producing a new car every three minutes.  A pilot manages the first loop-the-loop.  Einstein edges closer to his general theory of relativity.  Vienna is home simultaneously to Hitler, Stalin, Trotsky and Freud.  It is also the home of Archduke Franz Ferdinand who death a year later would pit the newly modernized armies of Europe into a new kind of mechanized warfare.

In Ireland in 1913, the many strands of Irishness – Catholic and Protestant, Gaelic and Ascendency, nationalist and unionists, home rulers and republicans, British-Irish and Irish-Irish are all held in balance, the future yet to be defined.  Expectations are high and arguments heated when the House of Commons passes the Home Rule Bill. 

T.S. Eliot is at Harvard studying philosophy and Sanskrit.  Yeats is working on his collection, Responsibilities.  As its title suggests, Yeats is beginning to explore the harsh even grubby life around him, lamenting that Romantic Ireland is dead and gone.  Three years later, he would be shocked into a new appraisal of his “motley” surroundings by the Easter Rising and the men and women who “utterly transformed” Ireland through insurrection.

One hundred years later, we are still living with the shock of the new.  Contemporary life is a continuation, even an acceleration of the shock of the new.  Writers and artists are challenged to absorb, adapt and make sense of a world shaped and reshaped by the inventions of the digital age and the internet.

Texts, Tumblr, Twitter; Facebook, Yahoo Google; Wikipedia and Wikileaks;  iphones, ipads and  itunes; drones and remote control warfare;  twenty-four hour news; new mass media, new mass surveillance, new mass transports; genetics and what it tells us of our past and future; globalization and its discontents: writers and poets have been handed enormous new tools but also an enormously complicated and fast-changing world. 

If the shock of the new is over a hundred years old, then what is new is what is now for us traditional.  It is what we expect, the recurrence of pattern, the pattern of change itself.  We expect the new just as in the pre-modern age they expected the same, season by season, year by year.

But this we have in common with all ages since the invention of language: we still rely on our writers and poets to make sense of our world. I commend your discussions and your search for what Yeats and Eliot, and all they have influenced, have to tell us.

Thank you.

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