Pop culture heavyweight packs a punch
WB Yeats has featured in scores of movies and TV shows including Million Dollar Baby and The Sopranos, and starred in modern music, writes John Meagher
Published 09/05/2015 | 00:00
Seattle is a long way from Lough Gill, which sits on the Sligo-Leitrim border, but for one of the Washington city's finest bands, the lake's most celebrated island is summoned up to represent a halcyon escape from the pressures of modern life. "One day at Innisfree," sings Fleet Foxes' Robin Pecknold on their most recent album, Helplessness Blues. "One day that's mine."
Ever since WB Yeats wrote 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree' back in 1888, the tiny, uninhabited island has been celebrated in popular culture as a veritable antidote to stress and strain of daily life.
Pecknold was so taken with Yeats's description of its restorative powers that he mentions it in two separate songs on the album. That he can't quite deliver the Hiberno-English pronounciation of 'Innisfree' can be forgiven.
The opening stanzas were also recited by Clint Eastwood's character in his Oscar-winning film, Million Dollar Baby. Eastwood, playing a boxing coach, uses Yeats's lines to soothe his fighter (Hilary Swank) as she recuperates in hospital after a particularly tough bout. It's one of several references to the poet in the film and a reminder that Yeats can turn up in the most unexpected places.
Lines from his poetry have given several books their titles: Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men (also a much-admired film) is taken from 'Sailing to Byzantium'; Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart - widely considered to be the greatest African novel ever - is from 'The Second Coming' and its author often talked of his love of Yeats ("that mad Irishman - I really loved his love of language, his flow"; sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury named his short story collection The Golden Apples of the Sun after the final line of 'The Song of Wandering Aengus' and quotes Yeats in the title story; and Joan Didion's famed collection of essays documenting 1960s America, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, also borrows from 'The Second Coming'.
If "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" sounds familiar, that might be because you're thinking of the Joni Mitchell song of the same name. Yeats's poems have provided the titles for numerous songs, albums and band names. 'Sailing to Byzantium' is also the title of a song from the New York hipster band Liars. One of his best known lines - "A terrible beauty is born" - provides the title of an album from Swedish prog-rock group Ur Keos (and has become such a part of the vernacular that many don't know its origin). And the alternative rock band, Silver Apples, have said they took their name from 'The Song of Wandering Aengus'.
Dissertations have been written about Yeats's influence on the music of Van Morrison, and on his 1985 album, A Sense of Wonder, the Belfast man takes one of the poet's less well-known works, 'Crazy Jane on God' and puts it to music. Yeats has had an even greater influence on Mike Scott of The Waterboys and he acknowledged his debt on the 2011 album, An Appointment with Mr Yeats, which saw 14 of his poems given The Waterboys treatment.
Yeats's standing as one of the greatest ever poets was acknowledged in The Smiths song 'Cemetery Gates' when Morrissey mentions him alongside a giant of English verse: "Keats and Yeats are on your side." Homegrown band Bell X1 also had Yeats in mind when they wrote 'Alphabet Soup'. "You're not Maude Gonne, but then neither was she," sings Paul Noonan, in reference to the unrequited love that Yeats felt for the English-born, Irish revolutionary.
Few musicians have been lifelong devotees of Yeats like Leonard Cohen has been.
It felt like the stars were in alignment when this most poetic of songwriters found himself playing at Lissadell in July 2010.
Devotees of the hugely popular 80s sitcom, Cheers, might remember a funny Yeats reference, when Diane's paramour, an English Lit professor, tells the barman (played by Ted Danson) about the moment they clicked.
Drama of a more cerebral nature - 84 Charing Cross Road - saw a pre-Hannibal Lector Anthony Hopkins read from perhaps Yeats's most quoted poem, 'He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven', and the same poem (bizarrely) appears in the sci-fi film, Equilibrium, when Sean Bean's character quotes from it and then attempts to shield himself from a bullet with a volume of Yeats poetry.
Yeats even surfaced in Oliver Stone's satire on the venality of money, Wall Street, when the Gordon Gekko character (memorably played by Michael Douglas) pinches a line from 'The Second Coming': "So the falcon's heard the falconer, huh?"
The man who famously wrote about greed in 'September 1913' - "fumble in a greasy till" - might have chuckled at the irony of being quoted by a fictional figure who has since become a byword for money-grabbing and corruption.
From ‘A.I.’ to AJ: WB on screen
1 In Steven Spielberg’s AI: Artificial Intelligence, a computer – voiced by Robin Williams – creepily intones lines from ‘The Stolen Child’ to the character played by Haley Joel Osment.
2 Yeats shows up in The Sopranos when two lines from ‘The Second Coming’ are quoted: “the falcon cannot hear the falconer” and “the centre cannot hold”.
3 Richard Harris and Robert Mitchum starred in a little-remembered 1960 film called A Terrible Beauty.