Skewering the stupid and the vain but also looking with a cold eye on himself
Too often, anniversary celebrations are a platform for cranks, ideologues and bores but we should celebrate the independent-minded inspiration that is Yeats
Published 17/05/2015 | 02:30
I take a train to Liverpool to celebrate Yeats. The fine people at the Institute for Irish Studies in the city have organised an evening of poetry and talk in his honour. Being neither a Yeats scholar nor a poet, I am naturally highly qualified to offer my opinions. However, I am a 54-year-old smiling public man. And I have a deep love for the work of our greatest poet.
As a boy, Yeats passed frequently through Liverpool on his way to London. In his autobiography he remembered:
"When I was a little boy, an old woman who had come to Liverpool with crates of fowl made me miserable by throwing her arms around me the moment I alighted from the cab and telling the sailor who carried my luggage that she held me in her arms when I was a baby."
It is not hard to imagine Yeats, formal and intense, freezing at such an emotional display. His family was intimately involved with the story of Irish migration to Liverpool. The boat on which he travelled was the SS Liverpool, a ship owned by his grandfather, which was sunk by a U-boat in 1916.
Heading north through the rain-sodden countryside, my mind goes back to my first encounter with Yeats. It was nearly 50 years ago in a Kerry kitchen. I was at an age when specific detail begins to embed itself in memory: the particularities of place, people, smell and sound were becoming part of my inner landscape. It must have been Christmas or New Year, a time of celebration when people gather and sing. The voice that brought me to Yeats was that of my grandmother, Hannie Keane. In her youth, she had been a revolutionary, smuggling messages and weapons in a country under martial law. Now a widow, she had taken her place as matriarch of an expanding tribe whose membership stretched from Cahirciveen to Staten Island.
Her voice quavered as she sang:
Down by the Salley Gardens my love and I did stand,
And on my leaning shoulder,
She placed her snow white hand.
She bid me take love easy
As the leaves fall from the tree.
Ah but I was young and foolish
And with her I did not agree.
Many years later, I learned that Yeats had written his song out of a ballad he heard being sung by an old woman in Ballisodare, in County Sligo. The song was You Rambling Boys of Pleasure, which my dear friend Andy Irvine performs in a way that would induce a Trappist monk to sing along.
We are about to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Yeats's birth. I am suspicious of the current fetish for anniversary celebrations. Too often, they are a platform for cranks, ideologues, bores and ignoramuses pontificating on a history they do not understand or abuse for narrow purposes.
But with Yeats, we cannot celebrate enough. The poetry reveals its own gifts. It travels with me wherever I am. The lines he wrote of Ireland in times of conflict, of love for women and for art, are a constant inspiration.
Yeats could skewer the stupid and the vain but also had the inestimable gift of looking with a cold eye upon himself. His description of his encounter with James Joyce before the latter's departure for exile in Europe is a gently self-mocking piece of prose.
"Presently he got up to go, and, as he was going out, he said, 'I am twenty. How old are you?' I told him, but I am afraid I said I was a year younger than I am. He said with a sigh, 'I thought as much. I have met you too late. You are too old.'"
Yeats had the largeness of spirit to tell this story against himself and he supported Joyce long into the future, securing him a Civil List Pension and introducing him to publishers and editors. In our nation beset with the ululations of chancers in public life let us cheer this independent-minded man.
I am now back in Ukraine. The war is a few days away. We are due to go to the front to observe the non-existent ceasefire. But first I have some work to do in Kiev. The city is in its spring bloom. The horse chestnuts for which it is famous are displaying their white candles on the streets near parliament. Passing by a little park, I see old women kneeling in front of a makeshift shrine. They are exhausted-looking, careworn, faces framed by headscarves, the inheritors of post-Soviet decline and disillusionment. "What are you praying for?" I ask. "For peace," one replies.
In another part of the city I meet volunteer fighters preparing to go east and, as one puts it to me, to "kill every invader." Sitting with a coffee on my own outside the hotel that night, I scrolled through the news coming in from Burundi, Syria and eastern Ukraine. In such times, it is easy to feel the world is coming apart. But was it not always this way, and is it only the immediacy of our information supply that makes our world seem as if it is lurching towards some cataclysm? I console myself that if Twitter had existed in the 1960s or 70s, the age of Vietnam and Arab-Israeli wars, the international order would have seemed even more precarious. I hope I am right. I hope no blood-dimmed tide is rising on the horizon.