Wednesday 26 October 2016

Television: The supernatural gifts of Yeats

*No Country For Old Men (RTE1)
* Nationwide (RTE1)
* The Sunday Game (RTE1)

Published 15/06/2015 | 02:30

Illustration: Jim Cogan
Illustration: Jim Cogan

I believe that Yeats is the greatest writer to come from this island. He is perhaps not the greatest artist of them all - that would be Van Morrison - but in the business of putting one word after another to make a coherent whole, Yeats is the man.

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I would even suggest that Yeats is the greatest writer who has ever lived, because I am not aware of anyone else whose talent is so supernaturally superior, who had such an acute sense of language as a form of magic, and who could bring that magic in such abundance out of the air, and into being.

With the celebrations of the 150th anniversary of his birth, RTE repeated the documentary No Country For Old Men, and Nationwide went to Sligo. And again we pondered this man who was regarded by some of his contemporaries as so strange, to them it was not so much "the indomitable Irishry" as the indomitable Eejitry.

And while it is not unusual for great men to be laughed at by their inferiors, there are aspects of the Yeats story which remain elusive to the rational mind - Lissadell House, for example, is probably the least inspiring building on the face of the earth.

Sometimes I think it is the ugliest house I have ever seen, such is the aura of utter bleakness which seems to emanate from every inch of its depressing grey exterior. Looking at it, absorbing the heaviness of its spirit, you start to wonder if Yeats and the Gore-Booths were such odd birds, not because of the innate kinkiness of the gentry, but because something in this terrible place drove them to it.

Maud Gonne - the strangest of the strange - used to maintain that the world would thank her for her rejections of Yeats, because it made him unhappy enough to write his greatest poems. Likewise I wonder if the unloveliness of Lissadell got into his bones so deeply, to quote Van, it let his "soul and spirit fly into the mystic".

I suppose I think of Van here too, because there have been many efforts to understand his greatness by reference to his dealings in the real world, but like Yeats, you will probably not find him there.

Such men seem to be impervious to bourgeois analysis. The most "relaxed" image of Van that I have seen was that recent picture of him and Rory McIlroy chatting in front of a fireplace, as if both of them knew intuitively that this was not for today, but for a hundred years time when people will be marvelling at this picture, this meeting of two men of such extreme genius - the way we would enjoy some old picture of Duke Ellington standing with Babe Ruth, for no apparent reason.

So these efforts to connect the work of Yeats to the times in which he lived, to the landscape and to his immediate surroundings and the people in his life, though admirable in many ways, still leave us wondering - can a man with such seriously stupid ideas about politics, about a lot of things, be in any way related to the one who wrote the poems?

In a series of tweets on literary matters, Joyce Carol Oates mused on the personality of VS Naipaul, who in her experience made no effort to be cordial - "nice". She wrote that "it might be speculated that Naipaul's powerful and beautifully written novels were written by that person - but possibly not. A deeper self?"


James Last, I think it is fair to say, did not have a deeper self - or if he did, his music didn't come out of it. Which perhaps explains why he was so happy.

But a thing I never knew until last week, was that The Sunday Game theme tune is by the James Last Orchestra. I saw that Professor Roy Foster speaking very wisely on the Yeats documentary, about Ireland and suchlike, and I feel that we need Foster in on this one - I have a race memory of James Last and his Orchestra eating a massive amount of fine food in the old Mirabeau restaurant, but that alone could not explain his affinity with us, how his music could so perfectly match the heartbeat of the Gael.

Take it away James ...

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