How darling Micheál brought me to Yeats
Published 24/05/2015 | 02:30
I thought there was nothing glamorous about growing up in prosaic little Sandymount, Dublin - sorry Sandymount! - until I learned, in my teenage years, that it had also been the neighbourhood of the Yeats family. For WB Yeats was born at 5, Sandymount Avenue (then called 1, George's Ville); and Sandymount Castle, that castellated residence by the village green, also had a connection with the Yeats' family and his grandfather died there.
Those details only emerged in recent years, in Roy Foster's magisterial biography: all I knew, aged 17, was that there was a Sandymount link. My real introduction to Yeats was through the magical and fabulous performances of the great Irish actor Micheál MacLiammóir, who recited Yeats' poetry like no one else has ever done, and who had, himself, a profound romance with the Yeats narrative and the way in which it paralleled Ireland's story in the 20th century.
By the way, on the morrow of the referendum just enacted, let it be said that MacLiammóir was not only gay, but quite flamboyant in his style: he walked down Grafton Street in the 1960s with a full application of stage make-up, and everyone in Dublin was aware that - in the delicate phraseology of the time - "he did not share the common nature of men". Yet MacLiammóir was adored by Dubliners, and, as far as I know, encountered no prejudices because of his sexuality. He was accepted for himself, and that is the best that any of us can hope for in life.
MacLiammóir's acting could be exquisitely lush, and that's exactly what I loved about it, as teenagers want everything at high intensity and full throttle. And, gay or not, Micheal recited Yeats' poetry about Maud Gonne with an ardent sense of the smitten troubadour. "Never give all the heart, for love/Will hardly seem worth thinking of/To passionate women if it seem/Certain..." And then, ending with the magnificent diminuendo: "He that made this knows all the cost/For he gave all his heart and lost."
Teenagers love melancholy, and MacLiammóir was particularly evocative in the love poetry that was rueful and sad: "When you are old and grey and full of sleep/And nodding by the fire, take down this book/And slowly read, and dream of the soft look/Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep" (which the French claim was "copied" from Ronsard: no, but it "drew" on Ronsard's Quand vous serez vieillle. All artists steal, when they can). And the great actor could draw tears from a stone on another poem to Maud Gonne, Broken Dreams, when she was just beginning to show the signs of age: "There is grey in your hair/Young men no longer suddenly catch their breath/When you are passing…" From my recollection, MacLiammóir was near to tears himself when he intoned that one.
My first job was as a waitress in a Dublin café, and with my first pay packet, I went to the Eblana Bookshop and purchased Yeats' Collected Poems, which, as far as I remember, cost 21 shillings at the time - when a guinea, as oldsters are wont to say, was a lot of money. But if that hardback book had been a thousand pounds, it would have been worth every cent, for it has repaid the investment a thousand times over. A teenage passion is a great thing, for it leaves a deposit for life, and goes on revealing more to you, throughout your life, both of itself and of yourself.
Later on, I saw the Yeats story in different shades of grey: MacLiammóir had delivered the patriotic poems with appropriately patriotic fervour. He was terrific on The Rose Tree: "There's nothing but our own red blood/Can make a right rose tree." And Easter 1916 was enough to make any adolescent sign up for some latter-day version of Na Fianna. Indeed, Yeats himself wondered later if he had added to the country's bloodshed, during the years of 1919-1922, with his embrace of passionate nationalism.
Later again, Conor Cruise O'Brien, in a masterly essay in Passion and Cunning, suggested that Yeats the poet really contrived both the unrequited love affair with Maud Gonne, and the headlong plunge into Irish nationalism, as a strategy for composing poetry: he deliberately fell in love with a woman who didn't return his love; he deliberately got involved with the national movement (though was careful to avoid personal recklessness) so as to have something to write about. I can believe that is so. In a more flippant analysis of a writer's life, the American comic writer Nora Ephron quipped: "Everything is copy!"
Marking the 150th anniversary of his birth on June 13, it's being suggested that WBY could be a source of attracting more material investment to Ireland by the lustre of his reputation. Maybe so: but how he'd hate that thought - how he despised commercialism of any kind! The investment he'd have in mind is artistic, emotional, patriotic and spiritual.