Yeats and Orwell: Imperialism and Order

In both William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming” and George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant” the topic of imperialism and what is required to sustain such a cruel system seem to be the main topics for both writers. Context is important here. Yeats’ native Ireland has been under the dominion of England for centuries and was in the middle of fighting for “Home Rule” when he wrote “The Second Coming”. Orwell on the other hand was an Englishman born in India, and later served in a police force in Burma. With these two varying perspectives on imperialism, both arrive at similar conclusions. Orwell describes, during his recounting of an incident involving a mad elephant, the “the futility of white man’s dominion in the East”(2569). His disillusionment with the British Empire may not have been held by many of his contemporaries in Burma, but by acknowledging the worthlessness of the empire and some of its wrongs he already exhibits the kind of foresight we associate him with after writing 1984.

Yeats seems to also foretell the end of Imperial dominion when he writes that “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,” (l. 4-5). This sense of anarchy would have characterized the situation in post-war Ireland perfectly. Some were agitating for political separation, some remained undecided, and others were ready for bloody revolution. Yeats mentions this when he later writes that “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity” (l.7-8) This kind of chaos could also describe Orwell’s time in Burma. Both writers foretell the fall of anarchy and both seem to suggest that it will not fall by peaceful and calm means, but by turbulent and violent ones.

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One thought on “Yeats and Orwell: Imperialism and Order

  1. I think your highlighting of the chaotic aspects of both works is very insightful. Though the English Empire has not much benefited Burma nor Ireland during their respective colonizations, the Empire has acted as a linchpin for keeping the colonies under English control. As centuries pass, habits and systems form around that central linchpin, regardless of the necessity of the linchpin in the first place. Releasing that arguably futile linchpin will still unravel the affected societies as they resettle themselves into new habits and systems. It seems like “things fall[ing] apart” as described by Yeats is do to this resettling. Orwell’s own realization of futility in the whole system is due to his becoming disillusioned by that central linchpin around which colonial institutions and aggressions have been based.

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