The “intimate enemies”: Edward Dowden, W. B. Yeats and the Formation of Character

Charles I. Armstrong


Stung by Edward Dowden’s reluctance to endorse the Irish Literary Revival, W. B. Yeats distanced himself publicly from the TCD Professor. This act of distancing has largely been accepted by subsequent scholarship as a reflection of Dowden’s lack of influence on Yeats. Despite obvious disagreements on some key points, this essay will argue that Yeats is close to Dowden on a number of issues, by tracing their intimate dialogue about the writings of George Eliot, Shakespeare and Goethe. The concept of formation of character—an English translation of the German Bildung—will prove central to their related responses to the question of what sort of life is best suited to further the development of literary gifts. These findings are framed by a discussion of Yeats’s profound, and often underestimated, indebtedness to Victorian culture and ideas, and the essay also traces the biographical background to these two writers’ changing relationship.


W. B. Yeats; Edward Dowden; Bildung; Unity of Being; Irish Literary Revival; Victorianism; Modernism; Shakespeare; George Eliot; Goethe

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