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Celtic Twilight's Immortal Hour in British History, Literature, Music, and Culture


The Celtic Twilight is an aesthetic movement in British culture that developed out of the more commonly known Irish Literary Revival. This dissertation traces the historical and literary origins of the movement and its transference into British music, culture, and discourse. It begins by considering the movement’s origins and postulates that the aesthetic developed as a response to the popularity of James Macpherson’s Ossian epics during the nineteenth century. These epics had popularized a brand of Celticism that was politically compromised in regards to the agenda of the literary Irish nationalists who guided the Revival. After a brief flirtation with heroic Ossianism in his poem The Wanderings of Oisin, W.B. Yeats, after becoming deeply involved in folklore editing and collecting, created his singular volume, The Celtic Twilight. This volume was as far from an ‘authentic’ collection of folktales as one might imagine, and yet it gave rise to an aesthetic that blended influences from folklore, symbolism, Wagnerism, the occult, and spiritualism, and it begged readers to seek out the liminal boundary between reality and the supernatural. It also brought the phrase ‘Celtic Twilight’ into popular discourse. While the Twilight aesthetic became an important touchstone for poets of the 1890s and beyond, British composers engaged with it somewhat later, and with uneven success. There were outright failures, but some excellent works emerged by Arnold Bax, Rutland Boughton, and Edward Elgar. Rutland Boughton’s The Immortal Hour, based on a play by Twilight poet Fiona Macleod, blends all the essential elements of Celtic Twilight, and still holds the record for the most consecutive performances of an English opera. This dissertation seeks to illuminate a connection between the opera's Twilight character and the profound impression it made upon British post-war audiences. Finally, though Celtic Twilight inspired many artists, it was quickly appropriated into popular, non-artistic culture for the purpose of articulating racial discourses that are, by today’s standards, unpleasant and unfortunate. This study hopes to revive the phrase ‘Celtic Twilight,’ not by denying its chequered history, but by offering it to readers in a scholarly light that, until the present time, has been unavailable.

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