We pieced our thoughts into philosophy,
And tried to bring the world under a rule
Who are but weasels fighting in a hole.
(‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’)
There is surely no major poet less amenable to Darwinism than W. B. Yeats. His poetic philosophy is resolutely opposed to the scientific thinking and the arid materialism that he sees stifling modern thought. All students of Yeats quickly learn that the poet set his teeth against the ‘grey truth’ of science, targeted in the first of his Collected Poems, ‘The Song of the Happy Shepherd’ (l. 4). Across his career, one finds him railing against materialism and its associated artistic forms of realism and naturalism. The ancient, visionary Ireland that Yeats valorises opposes ‘this filthy modern tide’, providing a spiritual and idealistic bulwark against a debased epistemology of surfaces (‘The Statues’, l. 29). Like his favoured Romantics, who saw the empiricism of eighteenth-century philosophy as the enemy of the creative imagination, Yeats opposed the scientism of his day.
There are many other ways in which Darwinism is antipathetic to the Yeatsian project. Yeats's approach to history, apocalyptic and cyclical, opposes the gradual, protracted, incremental change over vast swathes of time on which Darwin based his theory. Historical change in his poetry usually happens with a sudden blow, an incarnatory or transfixing moment, after which all is changed, changed utterly. He hated the rational, gradualist thought of the nineteenth century:
All hated Whiggery; but what is Whiggery?
A levelling, rancorous, rational sort of mind
That never looked out of the eye of a saint
Or out of a drunkard's eye.
(‘The Seven Sages’, ll. 10–13)
Furthermore his attitude to the past tends towards nostalgia. At various moments in his career, he looks back to ancient Irish legend, to fifth-century Byzantium or to eighteenth-century Anglo-Irish Ascendancy as periods of lost grandeur. There has typically been a fall, a paradise that has been lost. And Yeats follows Blake's idea that we regain flashes of that pre-lapsarian existence through intense imaginative creativity. The evolutionary notion of history seems very different. Rather than an idyllic garden that we have fallen from, the past is a primeval swamp from which we have evolved.