©Deirdre Nansen McCloskey | COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL

Irish [and Dutch and Other] Poets, Learn Your Trade: The Political Economy of European Poetry

by Deirdre Nansen McCloskey
Friday, 28 December 2007, Modern Language Association, Irish Literature Section, 3:30-4:45 p.m.
Columbus Hall H, Hyatt Regency
Filed under ---

william butler yeats
William Butler Yeats
Perhaps the worst place for finding economics in a literature would be in its poetry. I want you to see how odd this is.

I once was talking to a friend in art history at the University of Iowa who specialized in Mesopotamian arts---2000 B.C.E. and all that. I noted, as myself an economic historian, what I had learned from former colleagues at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, that because Mesopotamian civilization wrote on perdurable clay we know in many ways much, much more about it than about Egypt or Greece. To which my art-historian friend replied, "Yes, but 99 percent of what we know is merely about the economy. We have sooooo little poetry." He didn't sympathize with my professional delight in literally tons of contracts for land sales and labor hiring and business correspondence from 4000 years ago. He wanted the poetry, and what is to the point here thought of it as sharply opposed to the economy. "What need you, being come to sense," wrote Yeats in "September 1913," "But fumble in a greasy till/ And add the halfpence to the pence/. . . . For men were born to pray and save:/ Romantic Ireland's dead and gone,/ It's with O'Leary in the grave."

And indeed why would one expect to "find economics in a literature"? What would be the point?

The point is to lean against a premise in Irish poetry, or indeed in Mesopotamian poetry, Chinese poetry, English poetry, Italian poetry, and it seems in every poetic tradition---I seek exceptions to the rule---that the economy is not a poetic subject. The premise comes in part, I think, out of poetry's origin in magic spells, which are precisely attempts to get beyond a reality principle such as an economics would recommend, whether Marxist or bourgeois. Magic carpet violate the laws of economics as much as the laws of physics. Cheap transport, available through mere words "I command thee, Genie," violate the scarcity that is the reality principle. "Deer's Cry," c. 440 C.E., attributed probably falsely to St. Patrick, turns to magic towards its end: "I summon today all these powers," among them "spells of women and smiths and wizards." Poetry, of course, as Thomas Greene points out, while adopting the form of magic realizes its inefficacy, so in that sense the reality principle of adults prevails. 1 Poetry doesn't make anything happen, it has been said, and Yeats career is a case in point. As senator in the Irish Free State his main project was to get good design on the stamps.

Poetry in Ireland especially comes also, of course, from bards and their aristocratic patronage and therefore from the aristocratic, or patriarchal, notion that work in the economy is for slaves and women. You see this in Greek and Roman poetry, too, and in all cultures before the outbreak of bourgeois virtues in northwestern Europe around 1700. 2 Free men don't work. They fight, or make verse, or smoke. In Shakespearean England, for instance, the only honor-giving activities were attending the Cadiz Raid or writing sonnet cycles. None of Shakespeare's admired heroes are bourgeois, or for that matter proletarian. Antonio and Shylock, the sole bourgeois protagonists in Shakespeare, speak in noble blank verse, unlike the comic characters in Elizabethan drama, but one is a bit of a lovelorn fool and the other a villain. Even a putatively bourgeois play like Thomas Dekker's comedy The Shoemaker's Holiday (1599) has its hero, Simon Eyre, speaking in prose: he becomes Lord Mayor of London, but never literally Sir Simon, and after all is an ignoble shoemaker, though he keeps saying "Prince am I none, yet am nobly born." No he isn't: his name means in Dutch---the play is full of Dutch jokes---"noble," but blank verse gets he none. Ha, ha.

But look: we are in a post-magical, post-bardic, post-aristocratic, and thoroughly bourgeois age. Why then does not economic poetry of the sort that Frost produced in bulk characterize our post-aristocratic age? Why is the Frost of "Apple Picking" or "Men work together, I said it from the heart/ Whether they work together or apart" so unusual? That is the puzzle I present to you.

For one thing, the aristocratic (or indeed the Christian) tradition weighs heavy, and spurns work and trade.

And after aristocracy and Christianity the old rhetoric was in the 19th century reinvented as socialism or conservatism. Both left and right in the these latter days, Auden and Eliot, for example, join in spurning the economy. So it is possible to find an Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse or a Penguin Book of First World War Poetry but not a Norton Anthology of Economic Poems. There are a few anthologies of work poems, but they are overwhelmed by anthologies of nature poems. And the few anthologies of work seldom extend to the rest of economic life, and certainly never praise the bourgeoisie. A recent anthology of British socialist poetry from Blake to the present is of course "about" the economy. 3 Burns, who does talk about work and the economy from time to time, is absent. The selection, though interesting, exhibits the thinness of economic concerns in poetry.

As an economist I find this odd, even objectionable. Why does earning a living by the sweat of ones brow, or by the sweetness of ones words, on which we all spend so very much time---I'm doing it now, for example---deserve so much less literary attention than an adolescent love affair or a flower in a crannied wall? Observe that even in the modern European novel, the natural home of a bourgeois attention to earning a living, we hear mostly about the vulgarity of merchants in Middlemarch and about Rabbit Angstrom's sexuality. Eager attention to the economic side of life appears early in Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, but not much in later European novels, with rare exceptions likeMoby Dick or Buddenbrooks or The Grapes of Wrath. Auden in 1940 complained that there had emerged:

. . . a new Anthropos, an Empiric, Economic Man,
The urban, prudent, and inventive,
Profit his rational incentive
And Work his whole exercitus,
The individual let loose
To guard himself, at liberty
To starve or be forgotten, free
To feel in splendid isolation
Or drive himself about creation
In the closed cab of Occupation.
W. H. Auden, "New Year Letter (January 1, 1940)," Part Three, p. 184

He had dear Ben Franklin in mind, which is not a very sensible way of looking at Franklin, who came out early from the closed cab. What's this drumbeat of disdain for the economy and its agents?

It's undemocratic. Nowadays we all work, and in fact it is deemed shameful not to. By contrast, as Stephen Greenblatt notes, in Shakespearean England "there was virtually no respect for labor; on the contrary, it was idleness that was prized and honored." 4 But not it's 1600 any more. We live in a democracy of work, not in an aristocracy of leisure.

Of course one would expect disdain for any work but Art from Yeats, son of a painter, friend of gentry and aristocrats. His ideology was Romantic in admiring "the imitation of Christ or of some classic hero," especially the classic heroes of pagan Ireland. 5 Setting Christ aside, Yeats articulated the clerisy's theory of itself as a new aristocracy, "of merit," as it is modestly put. "Every day I notice some new analogy," wrote Yeats in 1909, "between the long-established life of the well-born and the artist's life. We come from the permanent things and create them, and instead of old blood we have old emotions and we carry in our heads always that form of society aristocracies create now and again for some brief moment at Urbino or Versailles." 6 First to last, from the "Wanderings of Oisin" (1889) to "Last Poems"(1939) Yeats downplayed commerce, as for instance that of his own merchant ancestors: "Toil and grow rich/ What's that but to lie/ With a foul witch?" 7 The stanza of "Under Ben Bulben" (1938) that begins "Irish poets, learn your trade" recommends celebrating a non-bourgeois Ireland:

Sing the peasantry, and then
Hard-riding country gentlemen,
The holiness of monks, and after
Porter-drinker's randy laughter;
Sing the lords and ladies gay
That were beaten into the clay
Through seven heroic centuries.
Albright, ed., p. 375.

But maybe that's merely Celtic Revival stuff. Consider then Seamus Heaney. He has, he said in Nobel lecture, a "temperamental disposition towards an art that was earnest and devoted to things as they are." 8 Well, "things as they are" include a lot of getting and spending. How about it, Seamus? In his volume Station Island (1984) the "Old Smoothing Iron" and "The Scribes" and "An Artist" are all about work. But they are the domestic work of a woman, the ancient work of a scribe, the modern work of an artist, "his hatred of his own embrace/ of working as the only thing that worked." 9 A promising title from a collection of 1979, "Field Work," proves to be a love, or lust, poem. 10 And so it goes. "Things as they are" involve the economy, yet Heaney has nothing to say about it.

Now of course I realize that what a poem is "about" is often its least interesting feature. Much good poetry, maybe all of it, has as one of its subjects the very work of making the poem in question, the word poí&emacron;ma meaning "a thing made, a piece of workmanship." The occupation that, say, Yeats is willing to discuss in detail is only that of making Art. But even such honored work brings economics in. Heaney's "Hailstones"(1987) is about, well, hailstones. But at the end of the first of three tight stanzas, having just made out of the hail on the road "a small hard ball/ of burning water" he notes that it is "just as I make this now/ out of the melt of the real thing/ smarting into its essence." 11 What economists call scarcity, the lamentable limit of time and money since Eden, always figures in the economy of a poem, especially a short one, most particularly the well-wrought forms that Heaney and Yeats favor. A short lyric may have as its nominal subject the sea or love or whatever. But it enacts scarcity, and therefore in an extended sense is economic.

Oddly the novel, again so notably bourgeois, denies economic scarcity in its enactment, with its feeling of limitless extent, page after page after page up to the Victorian novel and War and Peace. In form it celebrate copia, not caritas. By contrast a lyric poem of 22 lines on an Irish airman foreseeing his death enacts scarcity while denying every bourgeois reason for the expenditure. A fate, an impulse of delight outweighs years of breath---soldier, scholar, horseman he. Outside the epic---and even inside the epic, taken line by line---saying one thing, considering the limits of a sonnet form or a heroic couplet, disables the saying of another:

There was a young poet named Dan,
Whose poetry never would scan.
When told this was so,
He said, "Yes, I know.
It's because I try to put every possible syllable into that ultimate line that I can."

The poetic prejudice against the economy is anti-bourgeois and anti-capitalist, and it has been since Horace and before. 12 Thus skillful poem by Arthur Hugh Clough (he was the son of a cotton manufacturer), "The Latest Decalogue," in 1862 when the literary socialists were beginning to win the war against capitalism: "Thou shalt have one God only; who/ Would be at the expense of two?/ No graven images may be/ Worshipped except the currency," and so forth and so on, down to, "Thou shalt not covet, but tradition/ Approves all forms of competition." Ogden Nash wrote "Man must labor./ Man must work./The executive is/ A dynamic jerk." I've have tried in recent years to lean against such unreflective disdain for managers and globalization in my literary colleagues.

The vulgarities of work and technology and science are supposed to have nothing to do with their own meaning, supplied from the outside by religion and poetry and music.

The matter/mind split dates from the Greeks, and especially from Plato, exemplified for him in the split of slave from master, and the mere citizen from the aristocrat. In the seventeenth century, when one might think the ever-rising middle class would be finding some way around it, the dichotomy was revived as science versus practice. One sees the result today in the sneers that theoretical physicists reserve for engineers (and for everybody else). The mathematicians and theorists come mostly from the upper middle class or the aristocracy itself; from the rest, disproportionately, come the engineers and entrepreneurs.

The dichotomy is nutty and hurtful, and it is about time we got rid of it. Anyone who has proven in school a mathematical theorem and also written a rock lyric knows that the two have similarities. Anyone who has raked hot-top for the Highway Department and made a pot on a wheel at the community college knows that the pleasures of plasticity are one. Anyone who has sold a car secondhand and read Lincoln's Second Inaugural knows that the joys of exercising the language for persuasion are the same.

It is hurtful for the nine out of ten adults who work in home, office, or factory to be told their main occupation is beyond the reach of poetry and fiction. No wonder they turn to other sources of lyric and myth, to rock music and country music, the TV soaps and the National Football League. The literary people keep telling them that what they do is "alienating" and that the only real living happens in leisure time and in libraries, under a plane tree with stylus and waxed board.

Eric Hoffer, the San Francisco dock worker and sage, spoke often to the contrary, as someone in a position to know. Thus in The Ordeal of Change (1963): "it is mainly by work that the majority of individuals prove their worth and regain their balance... No one will claim that the majority of people in the Western world, be they workers or managers, find fulfillment in their work. But they do find in it a justification for their existence. The ability to do a day's work and get paid for it gives one a sense of usefulness and worth." 13 Or in The Temper of Our Time

There is a considerable literature on the barbarizing and dehumanizing effects of the machine; how it turns us into robots and slaves, stifles our individuality, and dwarfs our lives. Most of the indictments of the machine come of course from writers, poets, philosophers, and scholars -- men of words -- who have no first-hand experience of working and living with machines. . . . The proficient mechanic is an alert and intuitive human being. On the waterfront one can see how the ability to make a fork lift or a winch do one's bidding with precision and finesse generates a peculiar exhilaration. 14

* * * *

But perhaps the anti-economic line in Irish poetry is merely a natural reaction to, say, economic and literal imperialism, or, say, the natural yield from a nation with little in the way of business until recently. Oh, yes, they spun flax and built ocean liners in Ulster, at any rate around Belfast, and there were shopkeepers in Galway as in Guildford. But Ireland was notoriously anti-economic in a modern sense, a non-economy whose chief exports were potato-fed people and grass-fed cattle.

Dutch poetry is a test case for the notion that what people do should be a subject for their poetry. 15

New historicism would suggest that we can't properly read poetry in Ireland or the Netherland without knowing the nations, and a nation is an economy, too. I'm not a great fan of new historicism, which I regard as tending to economic and historical naïveté unless in the hands of masters like Walter Benn Michaels. In literary matters I am a student of old-fashioned people like Wayne Booth or Stanley Fish, we of rhetorical criticism and reader-response, delighted by unstable irony or surprised by sin.

And yet there must be something in it.

Now what have we here in the new-historicist experiment? Two little countries beside the comparative giants of Britain, France, and at length a unified Germany. Both little countries with out-of-proportion presence in the sensibilities of modern languages, the one through the lucky chance of having been forced to learn English ("'The English language/ belongs to us,'" says a character in Heaney), the other confined to a "minor" language, though withal the language of 20 million people fluent in it, though this against hundreds of millions worldwide fluent English speakers. The one looking back Romantically, towards the end, to the Irish language. The other looking outward, commercially, practically, fluent in French, German, and English. Synge learning Irish by staying a couple of summers on Aran. Van Gogh not much earlier learning in the practical Dutch way with commercial languages English (preaching his first sermon in it), French (the language of painting), and German (for reading in business and philosophy).

Two models of nationalism, one conservative, at least after the 17th century, the other radical, at least again after the 17th century. Both taken worldwide as models for anti-imperial struggle. One nationalism successful after an 80-year struggle, 1568-1648, against the imperial power of Spain at its height. Then itself subsequently an empire, with guilt in the late 20th century about its behavior. The other unsuccessful after an 120-year struggle date 1798-1916 against the imperial power of Britain at its height. Ireland itself had of course so subsequent empire, except that of the mind, and that one large, penetrating down to the present in British, Australian, Canadian, American literature and politics.

Both riven by religious wars, the one lasting down to sad Ulster a few years ago, the other settled by the 1690s. Both dominated by religious coloring of political life down to the 1960s, and then secularized in later decades, quite suddenly. I remember my first, brief trip to Dublin in the summer of 1967, and how struck I was, though from Catholic Boston, by the number of priests and nuns on O'Connell Street, nowadays so multicultural and non-religious and even non-nationalist, open for business.

Both very late industrializers by the standard of even the little countries around them, Ireland as against lowland Scotland, the Netherlands as against southern Belgium. The one an agricultural backwater, the other an agricultural pioneer. The one held in prejudice as lazy and drunken, the other held in prejudice as diligent and sober. The old anti-Irish joke is, "Would it be a good idea if God arranged to suddenly switch the populations of Ireland and Holland? Yes. The Dutch would turn Ireland into a garden. And the Irish would all drown, from not maintaining the dikes."

Both in the sea, the one an island, the other a swamp and river delta, but one turning its back on the sea, the other embracing it. Both heavily emigrating, Ireland with the highest intercontinental rate aside from Norway, the Netherlands higher than many, such as Belgium or France.

The one with a full complement of peasants, a conquest-origin aristocracy, Normans and then Anglo-Irish Ascendancy, and a tiny, town bourgeoisie. The other without peasants, with a town proletariat from the 15th century and a tiny, inconsequential commercial-origin aristocracy, the rest self-consciously bourgeois. One until recently among the most rural countries in Europe, the other from the 16th century the most urban.

The past in Irish poetry is figured as aristocratic, Cuchulain dying like Roland in the defense of the North. After the English had well and truly won, in the Battle of Kinsale in 1601, the aristocratic bards had to speak to the streets rather than to the courts. The wild geese took flight. The bards who remained were themselves aristocrats. One of them ends a lament with the boast, "I shall go after the heroes, ay, unto the clay;/ My fathers followed theirs before Christ was crucified." 16 The Catholic bourgeoisie of 18th-century Ireland, on the other hand, disdained the Irish language.

Holland is different. It has always been modern. "We [Dutch] are essentially unheroic," wrote the doyen of Dutch historians in 1935. "Our character lacks the wildness and fierceness that we usually associate with Spain from Cervantes to Calderòn, with the France of the Three Musketeers and the England of Cavaliers and Roundheads. . . . A state formed by prosperous burgers living in fairly large cities and by fairly satisfied farmers and peasants is not the soil in which flourishes what goes by the name of heroism. . . . Whether we fly high or low, we Dutchmen are all bourgeois-lawyer and poet, baron and laborer alike." 17 The Dutch since the 16th century have had nothing but a bourgeoisie to celebrate. So they make a point of contrast, a test.

The most famous modern poem in Dutch is "Herinnering aan Holland," by Hendrik Marsman in 1936, "remembering Holland," by which he means the watery west of the country, the most commercial part:

Denkend aan Holland Thinking of Holland
zie ik breede rivieren I see broad rivers
traag door oneindig slowly through unending
laagland gaan, lowlands meandering,
rijen ondenkbaar rows of inconceivably
ijle populieren thin poplars
als hooge pluimen like tall feathers
aan den einder staan; on the horizon stand;
en in de geweldige and in the enormous
ruimte verzonken sunken space
de boerderijen the farmhouses
verspreid door het land, spread through the land,
boomgroepen, dorpen, tree clumps, villages,
geknotte torens, stumpy towers,
kerken en olmen churches and elms
in een grootsch verband. in a great unity.
de lucht hangt er lag The sky hangs there low
en de zon wordt er langzaam and the sun becomes there slowly
in grijze veelkleurige in hoary multicolor
dampen gesmoord, steam smothered,
en in alle gewesten and in every region
wordt de stem van het water is the voice of the water
met zijn eeuwige rampen with its age-old disasters
gevreesd en gehoord. feared and heard.

Those of you who know Dutch will see that I am tyro in it. But anyway the economics here is on the very surface. It is not "nature" as an autonomous and Romantic force that is feared and heard, but the land cultivated by commerce against the water.

And yet in the second most famous poem in Dutch, written on a slow news day in the 1930s by Jan Gresshof---he was fired for printing the poem in the newspaper he edited-speaks of the conservative wing of his colleagues of the clerisy, "de dominee, de dokter, de notaris, " the minister, the doctor, the lawyer-notary, who together strolled complacently on Arnhem's town square of an evening. "There is nothing left on earth for them to learn,/ They are perfect and complete,/ Old liberals, distrustful and healthy." 18

It is no surprise of course to find anti-bourgeois feelings expressed during the 1930s anywhere in Europe. But if one takes the whole of modern Dutch poetry, the economic theme is faint at best. I take as my text an amazing project, Turning Tides: Modern Dutch and Flemish Verse in English Versions by Irish Poets, 1994, edited by Peter van de Kamp, who teaches at University College Dublin and at the University Leiden, too. I'd better: my Dutch is vreselijk. But I highly recommend the book.

In its 150 or so poems, there's not one like Frost, not one directly taking on work and economic relations---"The Death of the Hired Man," for example. I'll do more on this in a later version, taking more care, and perhaps will come up with one or two examples of bourgeois poetry. But not many I am now sure.

I leave you, then, with the puzzle. Some very few writers, again like Frost, could fill a Norton Anthology of Economic Poetry themselves, so often did they reflect on work and trade, as in "New Hampshire," published in 1923 (and in Lathem, p. 164): "Do you know,/ Considering the market, there are more/ Poems produced than any other thing?/ No wonder poets sometimes have to seem/ So much more businesslike than businessmen." But most poets and novelists, even in this bourgeois age, deal rarely with the economy. T. S. Eliot does just once, when casting a traveler to Christ's birth as making a business report, complaining of the assignment, the prices, and the accommodations , "Journey of the Magi." Yet Eliot was a banker and publisher. Like most moderns he strictly separated his art from his business. The successor to Eliot as the most studied American poet, Wallace Stevens, might have written economic poetry in abundance, as a surety bond lawyer for Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company from 1916 until his death. But he wrote in fact none, not one. Auden, though socially conscious in a way that neither Eliot nor Stevens was, produced only a handful of economic poems.

Of course one could be reductive and stick everything into the economy, thereby harvesting every poem as "basically" economic. After all, the host of golden daffodils that Wordsworth saw in never-ending line along the margin of a bay were some farmer's field infected with weeds, or else a venture in the cut flower trade. Various other reductions are possible. Literature can be "basically" psychological or personal or sexual or social. "Easter 1916" can then be cast into the category of economic because it is political and, after all, politics is basically economic.

But without such reductions the poetic world is strangely non-secular, non-bourgeois, certainly in Holy Ireland, but even in businesslike Holland. Northrop Frye would "The fundamental job of the imagination in ordinary life . . . is to produce, out of the society we have to live in, a vision of the society we want to live in." 19

What's going on here? Why is the vision so relentless careless of our livings?


  1. Cf. McCloskey, "Voodoo Economics," 1991.
  2. McCloskey, The Bourgeois Virtues, 2006; and Bourgeois Towns, forthcoming.
  3. Red Flag at Night, 2001.
  4. Greenblatt, Will in the World, 2004, p. 76.
  5. Mythologies, quoted in Daniel Albright, ed., W. B. Yeats: Poems (1991), p. 586n12, referring to "Ego Dominus Sum" (1918).
  6. Estrangement (1909), number 25, in The Autobiography (1924 [1965], pp. 320-321. Yeats was an admirer of the early 16th-century Book of the Courtier, which is set in the court of Urbino.
  7. "The Witch,"1912, Albright, ed., p. 172.
  8. "Crediting Poetry." Nobel Lecture, 1995, in Opened Ground: Selected Poems, 1966-1996, p. 418.
  9. Opened Ground, pp. 206, 257, 259.
  10. Opened Ground, p. 170.
  11. Opened Ground, p. 278.
  12. "Odi profanum vulgus et arceo, I hate the uncouth mob and fend it off," sang Horace (Odes 3.1) in the language of religion, concluding with an anti- economic query in the language of the marketplace: "cur valle permutem Sabina/ divitias operosiores? Why should I exchange my Sabine valley for the great trouble of riches?"
  13. New York: Harper and Row, 1963, p. 34.
  14. New York: Harper and Row, 1967, p. 13).
  15. Cheryl Herr suggests to me that the poetry firmly of Celtic Tiger would be another.
  16. The poet is Aogán Ó Rathaille, Frank O'Connor's trans., quoted in Declan Kiberd, "Irish Literature and Irish History," pp. 230-281 in R. F. Foster, ed., The Oxford History of Ireland. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989, p. 245. The learning in this paragraph is derived also from Kiberd.
  17. Huizinga 1935, pp. 110-112.

Works Cited

  1. Albright, Daniel, ed. 1991. W. B. Yeats: The Poems. London: Dent Everyman.
  2. Frye, Northrup. 1964. The Educated Imagination. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  3. McCloskey, Deirdre N. 1991. "Voodoo Economics." Poetics Today 12 (2, Summer): 287-300, reprinted as Chp. 7 in McCloskey. If You're So Smart: The Narrative of Economic Expertise (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1900).
  4. Mitchell, Adrian, and Andy Croft, eds. 2003. Red Sky At Night: Socialist Poetry. Nottingham: Five Leaves.
  5. Yeats, William Butler. 1924. The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats. New York: Macmillan, 1965.