From Sinead O'Connor's Troy to Wall Street - 10 times William Butler Yeats influenced pop culture
Ahead of Blood and Moon, a 'Provocation on Yeats' at the National Concert Hall on September 13 and 14 Darragh McManus takes a look at how Yeats has influenced pop culture
Some brainiac called James Longenbach once wrote of WB Yeats, “He’s inseparable from what we understand the medium of the English language is capable of producing on the page.”
Now that’s pretty impressive, and Yeats has inspired many writers over the past 75 years: from Chinua Achebe to Joan Didion and Philip Larkin to Ray Bradbury. But our de facto National Poet has also had a surprisingly strong influence on what he might have called “the lower art-forms”: pop music, film, the telly-box.
For proof, look no further than Blood and the Moon, a “Provocation on Yeats” taking place at the National Concert Hall on September 13 and 14. Anna Calvi, Robert Forster, Cathal Coughlan and Adrian Crowley are among the troubadours interpreting the great man’s poetry.
As our little contribution to the Yeats 150 celebrations, here’s ten more times he’s been referenced in popular culture:
Riffing on the poem No Second Troy, this is possibly the greatest song on possibly the greatest Sinead O’Connor album – her first one – a towering tale of torrid, miserable passion. William would have approved.
How Yeatsian is this work of art, on a scale of “One to Ten Wild Swans at Coole”: eight swans
Although predicated on a spectacularly daft premise – in the future, emotions have been made illegal – this is still an enjoyable sci-fi thriller, with some moments of real pathos. One of those is when Sean Bean quotes, movingly, from He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven…right before Christian Bale shoots him in the head. Urk.
Swan rating: three
Actually most of The Smiths’ and Morrissey’s work isn’t altogether un-Yeatsian. But this one, off The Queen is Dead, specifically references the poet: “Keats and Yeats are on your side, while Wilde is on mine.”
Swan rating: seven
Classic 1980s fable of capitalist greed gone feral, starring Michael Douglas in a career-best performance as rapacious lizard-being Gordon Gekko. At one point Gordo says, “So the falcon hears the falconer, huh?”, presumably a reference to The Second Coming and its mood of dread and looming disaster.
Swan rating: four
Joss Whedon is a famously literate and clever writer/director/creator of films and TV. But his primetime Buffy spin-off is still a hell of an unusual place to run across a reference to Yeats. And yet, that’s precisely what happened: Season 4, Episode 4 is titled “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” – another line from The Second Coming.
Swan rating: two
Taken from the third album by the fine American rock group Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, this ballad follows in Sean Bean’s footsteps with some choice words from He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven. Added bonus: none of the band then gets shot in the head by Christian Bale.
Swan rating: six
A Terrible Beauty
This famous phrase from Easter 1916 has inspired both a 1960s IRA drama, starring Richard Harris and Robert Mitchum, and a 2011 docudrama about the Easter Rising. (And, in part, this article.)
Swan rating: Harris one, nine; docudrama, eight
The Bridges of Madison County
This epic weepie from 1995 saw Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep swapping quotes from Song of the Wandering Aengus. Oh, it was all “white moths on the wing” this and “silver apples of the moon” that. (I’m just trying to be cool here – those scenes had me in bits.)
Swan rating: seven
Prissy Diane – brilliantly played by Shelley Long – was the perfect “odd couple” foil for slobbish Sam Malone in the legendary sitcom. But in the pilot, she’s entangled with an English Lit professor who explains the attraction: “I looked up from my Proust, she had her nose in her Yeats, and I said to myself, ‘I would be crazy to let this girl get out of my life.’” Hey, it beats Tinder.
Swan rating: four
The movie where Steven Spielberg’s syrupy sentimentality finally overpowered, then smothered to death, his filmmaking brilliance. That extended epilogue bit, with the aliens and all, God that sucked so horribly… Anyway, moving on. AI was redeemed – a bit – by the inclusion of The Stolen Child, as recited by Robin Williams.
Swan rating: one