The Yeats Brothers and Modernism's Love of Motion

Calvin Bedient

In The Yeats Brothers, Calvin Bedient delivers a brilliant exploration of modernism through the mutual illumination provided by Ireland’s greatest poet and greatest painter. By examining the poems of the one and the paintings of the other, he recovers an often overlooked quality both artists embraced in their work—that core feature of modernism, a thoroughgoing preoccupation with motion and fluidity, that terrifying encounter with the universe conceptualized as force.

Bedient’s is the first book to treat W. B. Yeats and Jack Yeats as twin geniuses in the detection and representation of chaos. William Butler Yeats’s love and fear of motion pervade every aspect of his poetry, helping to determine his themes, riddle his images, and shape the cadences of his verse. Jack Yeats’s focus on change and motion caused him to engage with the cross-currents of his time, not—as sometimes thought—to remain locked in the past.

Through daring and nuanced readings of the poems and analyses of the paintings, Bedient reveals the two artists to have been complicit with modernism—against homogeneity, alert to divisions, polyphony, and restlessness in things and in ourselves. Adept in close discussion of poetic and painterly style, and magisterial in his grasp of theorists from Adorno through Zizek, Bedient provides us with genuinely new interpretations of the Yeats brothers’ work, and with a more sophisticated understanding of modernism.

Calvin Bedient is professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of He Do the Police in Different Voices: The Waste Land and its Protagonist, among other works.

“There are dozens of books on W. B. Yeats, and some on his brother Jack, but no one has put the two together before. Calvin Bedient does so very adroitly, without conflating their respective achievements. Bedient argues brilliantly that these two very different artists reveal a meaningful shortcoming in our customary understanding of modernism; by showing that both were fascinated by movement, or mobility—the diverse processes of change—Bedient pulls the poet toward the painter to show these two artists in sympathy with the thought of their time. An important revisionary argument about the meaning of modernism, Bedient’s work also exhibits a lively, candid critic explaining the work of the Yeats brothers in readings that constantly repay attention. No one could have a better companion while reading W. B. Yeats’ poems, or viewing Jack Yeats’ paintings.” — Robert von Hallberg, University of Chicago

“This is a captivating and theoretically sophisticated study of what Calvin Bedient identifies as mobility in the Modernist poems and paintings of the two Yeats brothers. Jack Yeats, the painter, has been curiously neglected by the art world outside Ireland; Bedient here reclaims his work as the worthy visual counterpart to the lyric poems of Jack’s famous brother William Butler Yeats, a poet who relentlessly interrogated the regimes of representation as they were given to him at the turn of the twentieth century. Both poet and painter devised art constructs that come to terms with the restlessness, the uncertainty, and the stark divisions of Modernism. Like Bedient’s earlier critical studies, The Yeats Brothers is startlingly original.” — Marjorie Perloff, author of Wittgenstein’s Ladder and Twenty-First Century Modernism

“Welcome to the ‘terrible novelty of light.’ Fearless, virtuosic, turbulence-charged, The Yeats Brothers and Modernism’s Love of Motion is a ravishing triumph. Plunging with nonetheless meticulous yet rippling (and yes, muscled) analytic brilliance and sensuousness through the poems and paintings of W.B. and Jack Yeats, Bedient gives us one of the most profound, emulatively thrilling, stylish, and wide-awake celebrations of poetry, of painting, and of Modernism itself, one could hope to read. No one has better caught—or rather transmitted—so much of the towering and torrential genius of the Yeats brothers, seen here in a rushing storm of cultural, political, aesthetic, and daemonic forces. The unstaunched motive, and emotive, force of Bedient’s book takes us directly into the tragic yet joyful—indeed exultant—leap of poem after poem, canvas after canvas, all of them luminous, endlessly reconstitutive and volatile elements of what remains, in these gorgeous pages, the ‘bursting dawn’ of their Movement, still redolent as it is with the ‘storm-scattered intricacy’ of night.” — Peter Sacks, Harvard University


“Bedient takes a unique approach to two members of one of the most fascinating and artistically accomplished families of the 20th century—the Yeats brothers, William Butler and Jack Butler. Although one can find scores of books on W. B. Yeats and a handful about Jack B. Yeats, no one before Bedient has sought to analyze simultaneously the achievements of each. . . . This book makes a major contribution to contemporary Irish scholarship.” — Choice

“[A] lively new study of the poet and his brother, the painter Jack Yeats. . . It is appropriate . . . that Bedient, with his eye for the visually and characterologically distinctive, should have devoted half of his study to the painter Jack Yeats, the poet’s brother. This pairing is meant to illuminate the relationship of the two artists and brothers and to correct the comparative neglect into which the work of the latter Yeats has fallen . . . Bedient’s thesis of intertwining, coeval, and yet divergent modernisms is handily exemplified . . . by a comparison between the Yeats brothers.” — Boston Review

”. . . In the U.S. Jack Yeats has not yet attained anything like the degree of canonisation he reached in Ireland at least a generation ago, if not two generations. . . . Bedient, however, has an almost messianic urge to place him firmly at the heart of modernism, along with his poet-brother, and he is surely right in this . . . The sheer verve and unorthodoxy this book displays in tackling its highly dualistic subject deserve full respect.” — The Irish Times

“If one is of the mind that W. B. Yeats is a bit overrated as a poet and that his brother, Jack B. Yeats, underrated as a painter, this book is a must. . . . The real value of this book is [Bedient’s] spirited description of Jack’s thickly impastoed oils, depicting rural Irish life in garish colors wherein figuration melts into an expressionist background. These are given very game and energetic paraphrases by Bedient . . . written with a conviction reminiscent of William H. Gass. . . . [A] charming study.” — Publishers Weekly

“Calvin Bedient, in The Yeats Brothers and Modernism’s Love of Motion (a fine book on William Butler and his brother Jack, the Modernist painter), highlights the poet’s ‘taste for chaos, for prodigality, for violence,’ though ‘hotly contested by his love of the courtly.’” — The Nation

“Jack Butler Yeats has been ‘absurdly eclipsed’ by his more famous brother, William Butler . . . . A joint reappraisal of the two brothers’ artistic outputs along more detailed, objective lines promises to rebalance the scales.” — The Oxonian