Saturday 24 March 2018

Poetry... Happy birthday Yeats: one of the greatest, ever

One of the greatest: WB Yeats
One of the greatest: WB Yeats

Ulick O'Connor

This year is the 150th anniversary of the birth of WB Yeats. We should be immensely proud of him. He is clearly the greatest poet in English of the 20th century. There is, in fact, a case to be made for holding him as the greatest ever with the exception of the Bard of Avon, William Shakespeare.

When I was on the board of Yeats and Lady Gregory's theatre, the Abbey, I came across someone who had actually a poem written to her by Yeats. Her name was Anne Gregory, and she was the granddaughter of Lady Gregory. She was only 10 when he read it to her. She wasn't greatly impressed and shrugged her shoulders.

"Not as romantic as I would have liked," she said sniffily.

Anne Gregory was in her twenties when she heard the poem on the BBC and recognised that she had been commemorated in a masterpiece. Read the poem out loud and you will find that it is its very simplicity that gives it its powerful effect.

Yellow, for instance, is not exactly the most endearing of colours. But under the magic of poetry, it can glow like gold. Using a phrase like 'hair-dye' is hardly romantic, but under Yeats' touch, it becomes a marvellous hue.

When you've finished it, a perfect picture of a young girl with shimmering hair has come before you.


For Anne Gregory

'Never shall a young man,

Thrown into despair

By those great honey-coloured

Ramparts at your ear,

Love you for yourself alone

And not your yellow hair'

'But I can get a hair-dye

And set such colour there,

Brown, or black, or carrot,

That young men in despair

May love me for myself alone

And not my yellow hair.'

'I heard an old religious man

But yesternight declare

That he had found a text to prove

That only God, my dear,

Could love you for yourself alone

And not your yellow hair.'

WB Yeats 1865-1939

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